Murder Followed by Suicide in Australia, 1973-1992: A Research Note
Barnes, Jo, Journal of Sociology
Murder-suicide has been a somewhat neglected topic of study in sociology and has mainly been the domain of mental health and epidemiology studies. As a consequence, the conclusions drawn have concentrated on the occurrence of murder-suicide as a rare event that is perpetrated by a mentally unstable person who has finally lost control. This has meant that the social circumstances that surround the event have been ignored or accepted as a given. This study focuses on intimate and familial murder-suicide and places these types of murder-suicide in a feminist framework in order to add an extra dimension to existing explanations.
A general overview of the literature reveals three distinct approaches to the study of murder followed by suicide. The first approach is the comparison of murder-suicide with the separate acts of murder and suicide (e.g. Wolfgang 1958; West 1965; Mackenzie 1961; Wallace 1986). The second approach is that which accounts for murder-suicide in terms of mental illness (e.g. Berman 1979; Goldney 1977; Rosenbaum 1990). And finally, there have been a number of empirical studies which seek to describe murder-suicide in terms of the profiles of offender and victim, the relationship of the offender to the victim, and the context in which the murder-suicide took place (e.g. Palmer and Humphrey 1980; Allen 1983; Easteal 1994).
The various studies have been useful in identifying the actors involved in murder-suicide and in describing the relationships and circumstances that surround many of the events. Murder-suicide is a gendered activity--in the majority of cases men are the instigators of murder-suicide and women and children are the victims. It is also familial--the victims are predominantly intimately involved with the offender or they are the children of the offender. Expressions of jealousy, frustration and hostility that culminate in violence, which is often an on-going factor within the relationship, are also recognised as important components in the murder-suicide event. Yet previous researchers have taken their existence for granted and have failed to question why men should feel jealous or hostile towards their wives or lovers. Why is it that men, in particular, are so determined not to allow their partner to leave? Why do the male offenders feel jealous and hostile to such an extent that they would rather kill the one they love and die themselves than accept that their partner no longer wishes to be part of their lives? The social context within which notions of ownership and control have developed and the use of violence to enforce them is an important element which needs to be addressed in relation to the murder-suicide event.
There has generally been a lack of gender differentiation in the studies of murder-suicide. The lack of concentration on women as offenders is understandable because of the much smaller incidence of women offenders in the murder-suicide event. However, the omission of a discussion around gender from the descriptions of murder-suicide results in two outcomes. First, an assumption is made that the conditions of women's lives are essentially the same as those of men and therefore an analysis that reflects men's experience is basis enough to describe the role of men and women in the murder-suicide event. Second, although the conditions of women's lives may differ from those of men, these differences are not seen as pertinent to the murder-suicide event.
While some studies acknowledge that children are often the victims in murder-suicides, most researchers have concentrated on the intimate relationship between offender and victim. This has meant that general descriptions of murder-suicide have tended to include male and female offenders as one category with only passing reference to the fact that while male offenders tend to murder adult females and sometimes their own children, female offenders are much more likely to kill only their children. …