To better understand murder-suicide, look at suicide

Writer Andrew Solomon makes an important point in a op-ed piece in the New York Times Sunday. As we try to understand the motivations of mass killers like Adam Lanza, and the central role of firearms in these killings, we should focus more on why they want to kill themselves than on why they want to commit murder.

When picking apart these crimes, we don’t think much about the killers’ desire for suicide, which Solomon calls “a disaffection with his own life.” After all, someone’s self-destructive urges are far less threatening than his rage to destroy others, and is therefore “less newsworthy,”  writes Solomon, who authored the new book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity.

In understanding why someone like  Lanza first killed his mother and then 20 first-grade students who were probably strangers to him, one has to start with his decision to end his own life, Solomon calls suicide “the engine” of murder-suicides. “Adam Lanza committed an act of hatred, but it seems that the person he hated the most was himself. … Only by understanding why Adam Lanza wished to die can we understand why he killed.”

(Suicide also kills far more people in the United States than homicide.  In 2009, 36,900 people took their own lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fewer than half that number were victims of homicide: 16,800.)

I heard ideas similar to Solomon’s from experts in murder-suicide when I researched a 2006 story, “Unnatural Causes” for Diablo magazine. This story looked at the tragic case of a San Ramon mother who killed her three-year-old daughter and then herself.  In that case, the mother was suicidally depressed and, in her writings, revealed that she saw her daughter as extension of herself, worrying how her daughter would survive without her. The mother also suggested that once she killed her daughter — “with a mortal crime on my hands” — she would have no choice but to end her own life.
Most perpetrators of murder-suicides are not women but men. And, most murder-suicides involve victims known to the perpetrators, usually wives, girlfriends, ex-wives or ex-girlfriends of these men, according to a 2009 article, Murder-Suicide: A Review of the Recent Literature, published in Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry. According to one study, about 70 percent of all murder-suicides involve couples, while 10 percent involve parents killing their children and 6.5 percent involve familicide, a parent (usually the father) killing his entire family.

While Maegan Mundi, the mother I write about chose to asphyxiate her daughter, the overwhelming weapon of choice for murder-suicides, which are mostly committed by men, is a firearm. Guns are used in anywhere from 85 to 92 percent of these cases. Along with poor mental health and substance abuse, access to firearms is a leading risk factor in murder-suicides, according to the National Institute of Justice.

This National Institute of Justice report also notes that: “States with less restrictive gun control laws have as many as eight times the rate of murder-suicides as those with the most restrictive gun control laws.” 

Firearms are certainly the weapon of choice for what forensic psychiatrist James L. Knoll terms the “pseudocommando” mass murderer. This type of mass killing is another sub-type of murder-suicide, Knoll says in his article, The Pseudocommander Mass Murder: Part 1, The Psychology of Revenge and Obliteration, which was published in 2012 in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

The pseudocommando, Knoll writes, “is a type of mass murderer who kills in public during the daytime, plans his offense well in advance, and comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons. He has no escape planned and expects to be killed during the incident. Research suggests that the pseudocommando is driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, flowing from beliefs about being persecuted or grossly mistreated. He views himself as carrying out a highly personal agenda of payback.”

Knolls further says: 
“For the pseudocommando, revenge fantasies are inflexible and persistent because they provide desperately needed sustenance to his self-esteem. He is able to feel better by gaining a sense of (pseudo) power and control by ruminating on, and finally planning out his vengeance. … These fantasies may lead the avenger to experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice. Thus, the revenge fantasy falsely promises a powerful “remedy” to the pseudocommando’s shattered ego. It gives the “illusion of strength,” and a temporary, though false, sense of restored control and self-coherence.
The type of severe narcissistic rage experienced by the pseudocommando “serves the purpose of the preservation of the self” that has exceeded its limit of shame, rejection, and aversive self-awareness. This pain and rage cannot be contained, and he ultimately embarks “on a course of self-destruction that transfers [his] pain to others.”

A necessary tool in these killers’ desire to transfer the pain of self-destruction to others is the arsenal of weapons, as Knolls noted. We’ve seen this time and again in mass killings from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Tuscon, Arizona to Aurora, Colorado. And now in Newtown, Connecticut.

Some have asserted that if Adam Lanza couldn’t have obtained guns to kill his victims and himself, he would have found some other weapon to carry out his deadly plan.

Maybe, but it’s also likely that blasting his way into the school and opening fire on as many innocent victims as possible was part of his fantasy of self-destruction.

That idea that suicidal people fixate on a method of dying has become a central argument in the need to erect a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge.  For decades, opponents of the suicide barrier would offer the false argument: If people want to kill themselves by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, a barrier won’t stop them; they’ll find some other way to kill themselves.

That argument doesn’t withstand the weight of research, according to John Bateson, an East Bay-based expert on suicide. He is the former executive director of the Contra Costa Crisis Center and the author of the new book, The Final Leap, about the bridge’s allure as a top world-wide destination for suicide.

In 1978, U.C. Berkeley psychology professor Richard Seiden published a study that asked, “Will a person who is prevented from suicide in one location inexorably tend to attempt and commit suicide elsewhere?” He and his graduate students tracked down 515 people who had attempted suicide at the bridge. Twenty-five years later, 94 percent were still alive or had died by means other than suicide. Only 6 percent had taken their lives.

Bateson says Seiden’s research shows strong evidence that suicidal people fixate on a method of death, whether that person wants to jump from a landmark like the Golden Gate Bridge or shoot up a room full of relatives before turning the gun on himself.  “They might have a Plan A, but there’s no Plan B,” Seiden told the New York Times Magazine, according to Bateson.

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