Question: What is familicide?
Richard Gelles: Familicide, as we understand it, is when one family member -- and not typically the man, but almost always the man -- kills the spouse, all of the children, and then himself as an act of suicide. It is pretty rare. There seem to be two forms of it. One form is the kind of coercive "I own my wife and my children, and therefore I have a right to take them with me if I no longer want to live."
And there's a second type, which is a little bit more rare, and that's the shame familicide that occurs during economic downturns, when you're no longer able to support your spouse and your children, and you love them so much that you don't want to shame them by exposing them to this failure of yours, so you take them with you. From a social scientific point of view we call it “overenmeshment.” but it's basically an inability to see that your wife and your children have separate existences from your own. Now that's where it begins to -- I'm not going to use the word "bleed over" because it's going to be too metaphorical -- but that's when it becomes -- it looks a lot like the kind of power and control homicides where you're taking everybody with you in an act of anger. These economically driven familicides aren't particularly violent. They don't leave -- they're not brutal. They use poison, they use gas, they use suffocation. The power and control familicides can be pretty brutal and pretty bloody, essentially sending a message: you failed me, and I'm taking you out.
Question: Would you consider this a cultish activity?
Richard Gelles: It's not a bad argument, the cult argument. It's a different kind of cult. It's a cult with the father/husband seeing himself as the head of the family, the king, the Jim Jones, and everybody's going to drink the Kool-Aid because Jim Jones doesn't want to be around any longer. I hadn't really thought of it till you asked the question, but the cult mass killings seem to be also male-driven. I can't think on my own of the last female cult leader who had a mass killing involved with her. They tend to be, again, males who do this.
Recorded on: October 29, 2009