Murder in the Family: Why Do We Always Think It's the Spouse?

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Last Thursday, Tiffany Hartley reported that her husband David had been shot in the head while Jet Skiing with her on Falcon Lake in Texas, a 60-mile long body of water that straddles the U.S.-Mexican border and draws fishermen, birdwatchers and other tourists. Falcon Lake has been the site of a number of altercations with Mexican pirates who have threatened other Americans at gunpoint and robbed them.

Mexican officials have openly questioned whether Ms. Hartley could be lying, and even responsible for the murder herself—a female Scott Peterson, the Modesto, California man who killed his pregnant wife Laci in 2002 and dumped her body in the San Francisco Bay. Peterson then reported Laci missing and engaged the community and the media in a desperate attempt to find her.

Perhaps one of the highest-profile spouse-as-killer cases was that of Charles Stuart who, back in 1989, shot and killed his pregnant wife Carol in the Mission Hill section of Boston, then shot himself in the abdomen. He then called police and claimed that the two had been victims of an African-American man who tried to rob them.

The public has been exposed to enough murderers in the family masquerading as bereaved survivors that we now tend to automatically cast a wary eye at any spouse—or for that matter—any parent who reports his or her loved one missing and feared dead. Just look at the continuing suspicion that surrounds the Ramsey family, whose little girl JonBenet was murdered during 1996 at the age of 6. The same is true for Kate and Gerry McCann, parents of Madeleine, who went missing in Portugal at the age of 4 and has never been found.

One of the reasons for this is that murder by a relative is common. In over 75 percent of murders, the victim knows the killer. And in that group, nearly 30 percent are family members. The psychological dynamics in families are so powerful that intense love and self-sacrifice is the rule, and intense resentment and jealousy sparking terrible violence is also possible.

Yet, the fact that murder in the family is common doesn’t explain the knee-jerk reaction to always assume that that phenomenon may lurk behind the headlines. One of the reasons we may jump to that idea is that human beings unconsciously prefer to believe that something very grave was amiss in a family in order to explain how someone in that family can be shot dead. After all, if a toxic relationship is to blame, then we need not see the world as dangerous for the rest of us. We need only wonder whether our spouses are killers (and most people don’t wonder), and we are safe. It is much more ominous to think that a 60-mile stretch of lake in Texas is infested with Mexican drug lord-financed pirates and that our government is currently impotent to do anything much about it. Because if that’s the case, none of us are truly safe.

Another reason we may leap to suspect family members in disappearances or murders is that the emotional response on TV of bereaved widows or widowers or parents rarely matches up with what we might expect. We don’t see people weeping uncontrollably or falling to their knees to pray for the return of husbands or wives or sons or daughters. We see studies in self-control. This, I believe, is a function of television reducing the appearance of that emotion that is present (which is why television personalities must act larger than life to appear normal on screen) and is also a function of the profound human capacity to “act” for the cameras.

It is also the case, having sat with many, many bereaved family members who have lost spouses to violence or cancer or accidents, that their reactions often do seem underwhelming. The sheer weight of our mortality being made plain in such situations can settle like a heavy fog over the more dramatic signs of grief.

Finally, there is one more reason why we tend to automatically suspect the spouse in cases of murder. I hesitate to even mention it because so many people will deny it immediately, but I owe my readers the whole truth. It is a reason locked away in our unconscious minds, but I know it is there, because I have journeyed deep into the minds of so many husband and wives. So here goes: Along with the love that husbands and wives feel for one another there is also often an unconscious wish to be single. That unconscious wish even fuels very quiet, very deep fantasies about the untimely death of one’s partner. When we hear of a husband or wife who has been mysteriously killed, this can tap our deep, unspeakable fantasies and lead us to project them onto those living these dramas of violence and loss.

As a forensic psychiatrist, my advice to authorities has always been this: Excluding a spouse because of an unconscious wish that marital bliss should always trump rage would be irrational. But focusing too much on a spouse because of an unconscious wish of any other kind would be equally irrational. Be pulled in no direction. See in every direction. Killers can be in the beds next to us or can appear out of nowhere, on a lake, right off Texas, in a land that should be able to defend itself from any enemy, but is more and more loathe to assert itself to maintain life and liberty.