Mothers who kill, or try to, as in this latest Concord case

Another woman in our community has committed the kind of act that provokes particular outrage and disbelief. Self-destructive, and she decided to take her child with her.

Armed with a knife, a 38-year-old Concord woman slashed and wounded her 10-year-old daughter in a sudden attack Tuesday morning. The woman, Xuan Liu, then killed herself in what police are describing as an attempted murder-suicide

Liu had woken her daughter up and attacked her. The girl struggled with her mother and was able to break free. Officers found Liu in a bedroom, and she was pronounced dead at the scene, dead of a self-inflicted knife wound. . The girl was able to call 911, and then was taken to the hospital where she was in serious but stable condition Wednesday. No one else was in the house at the time, and police are still investigating to find out what prompted the attack and the suicide.

I’ve written about this topic before: mothers who kill their own children. It’s not a pleasant thing to write about or to contemplate–especially when you try to imagine what the kids are suffering, and not just during the attack but in all the time leading up to it. Are they living in constant fear of their parent? Do they see their parent act out?

Last summer, there was the killing of Adam Williams, a 16-year-old Walnut Creek boy who was entering his junior year at Las Lomas High. His mother Judith, a professional, seemingly happy woman, told her son she wanted to go on a drive up Mt. Diablo on a Friday evening. At a picnic area near the top of the mountain, Judith Williams, armed with a .357-caliber revolver, opened fire on her own son. She shot him first on the chest. After he fell to his knees, she put the gun to his head and fired again. Then she turned the gun on herself.

Judith Williams’ ex-husband described her as “angry” and suggested she was upset that he had moved back to Northern California and might want to spend more time with Adam.

As an editor for Diablo magazine, I dissected one case in particular, a 2003 murder-suicide in San Ramon, in which Maegan Mundi, a smart, successful tech professional and seemingly devoted mother killed her three year old daughter, Galadriel, then killed herself.

There had been other local cases since, and these sorts of cases cross class, race and geographic boundaries.

Before Judith Williams killed her son Adam, there was Mary Alicia Driscoll. She was a single mother who happened to live in the same Walnut Creek neighborhood as Judith and Adam Williams. In June 2005, Driscoll drove to a remote country road in Sonoma County and fatally shot her five-year-old daughter and herself. Three months later in 20005, a homeless Oakland mother who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia admitted to police that she threw her three little boys into San Francisco Bay.

Yes, there are fathers who kill, fathers who take out their entire families, including their wives, before ending their own lives. As a whole, fathers are a lot deadlier. The thing is, we tend to consider these killings committed by women to be more shocking, and not just because we don’t usually associate women with violent crime. These killings, I wrote “challenge society’s model of nurturing, self-sacrificing motherhood.”

I continued: “We’re tempted to quickly classify the mothers as inherently crazy or cruelly self-centered, but there are often complex factors underlying these crimes, including marital breakdown, financial stress, and under-treated mental illness, including postpartum depression. Experts say it is important to look at these factors in order to try to understand the evolution of these crimes and gain a chance to prevent future tragedies.”

Phillip Resnick, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who testified on behalf of Andrea Yates, was one of a number of experts I interviewed for the story. He says that in many such cases, the mothers are suicidally depressed and view their children as “extensions” of themselves, worrying that the children can’t survive without them.

He said this is one explanation for the San Ramon mom’s decision to murder her daughter. “Once she decided to die,” he told me, “she thought her daughter was better off with her.” Then there are rare instances, Resnick said, of mothers “who, Medea-like, kill their children out of revenge. They want to get even with boyfriends or husbands who they believe have wronged them.”

In Mundi’s case, the only motive police publicly ascribed to the deaths was a custody dispute between Mundi and her ex-husband, Galadriel’s father. Although Mundi’s friends and relatives were well aware of her complaints against her ex-husband, they believe that there more to the loss of Mundi and Galadriel than just a custody dispute.

Their stories provided a picture of a woman who may have suffered from an undiagnosed, untreated mental illness. Her writings and accounts by her loved ones show she was given to mood swings, rigid, obsessive, grandiose, paranoid thinking and a fractured sense of self. At the same time, friends and relatives also remember how she could be “normal,” a good friend, a warm, intelligent companion and a loving mother.

In hindsight, they realized that she offered plenty of warning signs. She even talked about suicide, but like a lot of people in their position, they never imaged that she would ever take things so far. They certainly never imagined she would hurt the daughter she so much wanted and loved.

We don’t know what happened in the Concord case, whether Liu had a mental illness, or whether there were other things going on in her life that made her think her daughter needed to die.

But the experts I interviewed for the Diablo story all said that one key to understanding why these crimes happen is to look at the suicidal behavior of the parent. The destructive drive behind most of parent-child murder-suicides is self-destructive. The mother, or the father, wants to die. Unfortunately, they also get into a mindset in which they believe they need to take the best part of them–their children–with them.

9 thoughts on “Mothers who kill, or try to, as in this latest Concord case

  1. I actually don't think any outsiders can understand the inner workings of these very private and very personal and individual tragedies. Whether they're journalists or consulting psychologists or forensic experts or whomever. (The media can do damage; I'm not saying you are.) I get the curiosity. . .


  2. See, that's the kind of good writing you can do. Please keep it up, despite your paying job at that other site.

    A similar recent case was the mother who drowned her children in the bathtub, one after another. (I think it was in Texas). I'm sure these stories are over reported since they are so shocking but they are shocking. I know from personal experience how hard it is to get help for people and for them to accept it. We all need to be aware of signs of trouble brewing, discussing suicide seems to be a big one that is often mentioned. Let's all take care of each other as best we can.


  3. We are all outraged and shocked at stories of parents harming children. It is obvious that the causes of these incidents are varied and very complex. Anyone who would harm their children in this manner definitely has some sort of mental illness. Whether the mental illness was long term and undiagnosed or short term, it is still mental illness.

    These sorts of killings luckily are rare. This is a very big world. There are billions of people, and there are bound to be mentally ill people who appear from time to time.

    For everything there is a cause. Don't just imagine that normal people suddenly go crazy. Mental illness is a progressive illness and over time people often get sicker and sicker until they reach a violent point. If you were to look back at this woman's life history I am sure you would find that she was having trouble dealing with life long before this psychotic break.

    What we need to do is look out for each other. If you see someone who is having trouble dealing with life, kindly suggest that they seek out a counselor or someone else to talk to. Often just asking how they are doing can help them to seek out help.


  4. Why do “we” want to rationalize a mother's act of murder when we rarely do the same for fathers?

    I'm very concerned about the angle of this article.

    You wrote, “As a whole, fathers are a lot deadlier.” Where did you get that “fact”?

    Because if you're talking abut abusing or killing their own children, mothers are more than twice as likely to do that as fathers.

    According to the Administration for Children and Families:

    In 2004 “Mother Only and Mother and Other” was reported as perpetrator for 40.6 percent of child deaths and “Father Only and Father and Other” accounted for only 15.6 percent.


  5. Hi Teri,
    You provided very interesting information. I hope you can supply the source reference.
    I never thought about the demographics of this extreme child abuse before but we did have an instance of a mother in a murder suicide very recently on Mt. Diablo.
    One point, though. I could not find any evidence in the comments from prior posters of a gender bias regarding male vs. female parents. What I did hear from them was that we need to be alert to signs that some parents, for various reasons, are having problems and desperately need help.


  6. 1:35 pm

    Me thinks that this article is all about keeping SM's local fans happy with an entry every so often.

    Sorry SM, the Patch just doesn't have the same following as this site. It is more like a city hall press release and doesn't cover or present the pithy issues you used to tackle here. Hence, the lack of any meaningful dialogue amongst your readers.


  7. Family violence carried out to the final level in either direction (parent-> children->parent) is interwoven with so much personal damage it takes a lot to unwind the motives. The common threads are sure enough a case for a PhD thesis and probably a Nobel Prize if it can be effectively id'ed early and prevented.
    In the meantime, the short chronicles of events are painful enough for me to read.


  8. This has nothing to do with mothers vs fathers or who is more violent. I'm sick of some people, especially pro mens group types who want to cause a division between single mothers and fathers. It doesn't help. Everyone's situation is different and every person is different. It would help if people were more understanding and look past the superficial and gained a deeper understanding of the complexities of parenthood in a stressed-out modern world. It's easy to be self-righteous and judgmental but it doesn't help at all.

    I'm a single mother and I've been considering murder-suicide. It's not something that you think about all of a sudden. I've been trying to be positive and strong for a long time. My child is beautiful and I love him so much but single parenthood is so miserably lonely. The everyday emotional pain is wearying. People don't understand. No one listens. All they do is talk at you and try to fix you. I'm in my late thirties and finding it harder to connect with people. When I was younger I had so much more confidence even though I've battled with a mental illness most of my life. I don't think people who have alot of support understand how hard it is to have no-one you can rely on. I hope to get better I really do. If things don't get better I don't see any other option.


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