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To this day, stories about family murders seep into news media, public debates, film documentaries and semi-fictionalized films, and, of course, psychiatric case histories and criminal case law. As contemporary as it sounds, the concept of family murder dates back to the Bible, when Cain killed his brother Abel. Many Greek myths revolve around family murders. One such myth was immortalized in Francisco Goya's famed Black Paintings (1819-1823), which heralded the Romantic Era. "Saturn Devouring His Son" is Goya's gruesome rendition of the Cronos story. (The mythological Cronos was renamed "Saturn" by the Romans.)
Ironically, parricide--the murder of father by son--occurs more often than the murder of a son by his father, as depicted in Goya's Black Paintings. More often than not, that son is psychotic, as we learn in Dr. Susan Pinals's essay on parricide. To complicate matters more, and to contradict some mythological antecedents, Dr. Susan Hatters Friedman's neonaticide chapter tells us that murders of neonates by their birth mothers are far more common than murder by their fathers, who may not even know of the baby's birth because the pregnancy was successfully concealed.
Such unsettling matters pepper pop culture as much as ancient myth. Should anyone doubt the public's intrigue with the concept of family murder, we can look at the long legacy of books and films about the so-called Amityville Horror, based on the real-life murders of the DeFeo family in the town of Amityville, on New York's Long Island.
Twenty-three years old at the time of the murders, and now nearly 67, Ronald Joseph "Butch" DeFeo Jr. was convicted for the 1974 killings of his father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters.
Like DeFeo himself, who is serving six twenty-five to life sentences, the crime story would resurface for decades upon decades. The case inspired a seemingly endless succession of book and film versions of The Amityville Horror, first written by Jason Anson who presented it as a "true story." While the tales of the multiple family murders conformed to fact, it was the alleged hauntings of the Amityville mansion after the fact that intrigued the public as much as--or possibly even more than--the family murders. An astounding number of film versions followed the novel's publication, beginning with Stuart Rosenberg's wildly successful 1979 Academy Award nominee, The Amityville Horror. The original was remade in 2005 and directed by Andrew Douglas. Between the time of the first film and its remake, no fewer than seven sequels followed. Another twelve versions followed the remake, not counting the documentaries. Then there were updates on Anson's best-selling novel. The latest film arrived in 2018.
Suffice it to say that the concept of family murders convinced many moviegoers that the slayings took place in a house that was indeed haunted--for how else could anything so heinous be explained away? Despite debunkers' diatribes, and earnest ghostbusting efforts, the public's intrigue with Amityville never faded away. Similarly, the public's intrigue with O.J. Simpson's murder trial of his estranged wife entranced television audiences for weeks on end, to the point that the trial overshadowed daytime soap operas and ended a longstanding television tradition.
Other stories, such as the Susan Smith story, with her untreated bipolar disorder, previous failed suicide, and her own father's suicide, along with her estranged husband's opposition to psychiatric treatment, led to more handwringing and second-guessing about what might have happened, had her psychotic symptoms been addressed before she murdered her two children.
Somewhat surprisingly, a different detail brought the case to national attention: Smith claimed that an African-American man carjacked her vehicle and drove away with her sons inside. Although the detectives were skeptical from the start, the public was willing to believe that a black person committed this crime, rather than suspect that a white mother like Susan could destroy her children. The racial tensions ignited by her accusations were as combustive as controversies about Smith's culpability in the murders, given her psychiatric history.
Forensic psychiatrist Susan Hatters Friedman's excellent edited collection of Family Murder: Pathologies of Love and Hate is far afield from the sensationalism that grips TV and movie audiences. True, at times, Dr. Friedman draws readers in through dramatic framing devices, as when she describes the sequence of events that led to the arrest and conviction of teenager Tiona Rodriguez. As Friedman tells it, a Victoria Secret's security guard stopped the 17-year-old on suspicion of shoplifting. While inspecting her bag, he discovered the body of a dead infant concealed alongside the supposedly stolen pants. One thing led to another, and prosecutors came to believe that Tiona had murdered yet another infant, born through a previous pregnancy that was equally well-concealed. From there, Friedman presents the epidemiology of neonaticide.
This book presents well-researched and easy-to-follow clinical, epidemiological and forensic data on many variants of "family murders." Chapters include "Intimate Partner Homicide by Men," "Intimate Partner Homicide by Women," "Feticide," "Neonaticide," "Fatal Maltreatment and Child Abuse Turned to Murder," "Child Murder by Parents," "Siblicide," "Parricide," "Intimate Partner Homicide in Elderly Populations," and "Familicide."
Each author addresses the relevance (or lack of relevance) of mental illness to specific categories of murder. Friedman compares American statistics to statistics from other countries. Gender issues are prominent overall, possibly because of their clear-cut relevance and possibly because Friedman's clinical experience in evaluating and treating incarcerated women sensitizes her to these issues. The parenthetical references to fictional or mythological representations of family murders could easily be expanded into an entire chapter--or perhaps fill a book of its own.
One question that is not answered--and perhaps never will be--is the reason for the public and professional intrigue with these extremely rare occurrences. It's safe to say that psychiatrists or other mental health professionals who practice outside of a forensic setting will never encounter clinical cases like the ones detailed in this collection. It is also safe to say that many, many mental health professionals will find this book fascinating as well as informative.
© 2019 Sharon Packer
Sharon Packer, MD is a psychiatrist who is in private practice in Soho (NYC) and Woodstock, NY. She is an Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her books includeDreams in Myth, Medicine and Movies (Praeger, 2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (Praeger, 2007) and Superheroes and Superegos: The Minds behind the Masks (Praeger/ABC-Clio, 2010). In press or in production are Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema (McFarland, 2012) and Evil in American Pop Culture (ABC-Clio, 2013, co-edited with J. Pennington, PhD.) She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .