Incidents are reported in the world news almost every day. Then why is murder-suicide not more widely understood?
Well-respected suicide researcher Thomas Joiner published a book this year intended to help us better grasp this issue. It’s called The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide.
He reports that about two percent of suicides in the U.S. fall in this category. That’s 750 to 800 annually. Murder-suicide is perpetrated mainly by males (about 90%), and the victims are mainly female. In almost all cases, firearms are involved. This stands in contrast to murder statistics, which show a much higher rate of male-on-male perpetration and more usage of other weapons in addition to firearms.
Joiner isn’t the first to study murder-suicide. Katherine van Wormer, MSSW, PhD, the author of the 2009 Death by Domestic Violence, cites research by sociologist Neil Webscale (author of Familicidal Hearts) that indicates that economic hardship is a significant contributing factor in incidents of killing one’s entire family as well as oneself.
From her 2010 Psychology Today post, “The pattern that we see…is of a psychologically vulnerable man who is overwhelmed by a sense of personal shame in his failure to provide for his family. Based on his warped and depressed reasoning, he decides they are all better off dead.”
At a forum in 2010 Richard Gelles, then a professor at University of Pennsylvania, posited a similar theory. He said that a dramatic change in one’s economic situation combined with familial “overenmeshment” could lead to familicides. As reported by NIJ.gov:
Overenmeshment is a condition in which perpetrators either view ‘their family members as possessions that they control or [they] don’t see any boundaries between their identity, their wife and their children. And so these are suicides of the entire family, where the anomic, overly enmeshed individual can’t bear to leave the pain behind and so takes his wife and children with him,’ he said.
Joiner’s theory of why murder-suicide occurs, according to his book publisher, is “that murder-suicides always involve the wrongheaded invocation of one of four interpersonal virtues: mercy, justice, duty, and glory. The parent who murders his child and then himself seeks to save his child from a fatherless life of hardship; the wife who murders her husband and then herself seeks to right the wrongs he committed against her, and so on. Murder-suicides involve the gross misperception of when and how these four virtues should be applied.”
Interestingly, the perpetrator’s decision to kill himself comes first, reports Scott McLemee in his review (InsideHigherEd) of Joiner’s book. That others have to die as well comes as a secondary conclusion.
The perpetrator of murder-suicide considers the death of the other(s) as required by at least one, and possibly two, of the four virtues. The act entails ‘a perverted and horribly distorted version of [virtue] to be sure,’ says Joiner, who also indicates that that the decision is always a product of mental illness.
David A. Jobes, psychology professor, offers his book review: “Penned by one of the most innovative and insightful intellectual leaders in contemporary psychology, The Perversion of Virtue is an absolute must-read for anyone remotely interested in this tragic, complex, and fascinating topic.”