A Different Perspective on Murder-Suicide

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Media reports of the recent murder committed by a football hero tended to present him as a victim. We may do well to think more deeply about the epidemic of domestic violence in our society.

Recently, the American media were abuzz for days with the story of an NFL football player who shot and killed his girlfriend and mother of their 3-month-old daughter. The story was tragic enough in itself — another in what seems to be an endless string of murder-suicides that sometimes arise out of domestic disputes. But the manner in which the tragedy was first reported, the characterizations of events offered by many of the talking heads on television, and the perspectives, attitudes, and beliefs those characterizations reflect was perhaps an equal tragedy. Almost absent in the dominant narrative was how a human life was snuffed out because someone with an ax to grind lacked the internal controls to address and work through their grievance without unleashing fatal violence.

I watched over two dozen television programs that featured segments addressing the tragedy. With only one exception, the focus was almost entirely upon the football player, Jovan Belcher, and largely on the loss his team suffered as the result of his suicide. And there was very predictable expression of surprise: “He was a leader;” “Everybody liked him;” “No one saw this coming.” Then there was the equally predictable speculation about “the level of stress he must have been under” that would drive him to such desperate straits. And, of course, there was the inevitable talk about guns, and how if they simply weren’t so available, tragedies like this would never happen (totally disregarding of the fact that domestic violence victims are all too often pummeled to death by fists and stabbed with kitchen knives). Although I listened for it carefully, I never heard the word “murder” mentioned, and there was strikingly little talk about the two victims of that murder, one of whom will now have to grow up with neither her mother nor father. There was also no mention of the troubled history Belcher had with his various relationship partners, including his present relationship, for which several team staff members had “bent over backwards” to provide some counseling. And there was no mention of Belcher’s past history of impulsive violence, including the time he punched his arm through a pane of glass, injuring himself severely, after another argument with a relationship partner. Perhaps most tragically, there was virtually no discussion about the epidemic of domestic violence which persists despite a plethora of well-intended but nonetheless largely ineffective programs to combat it, and tough statutes to punish it.

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The amount of attention given the suicide component of the twin tragedy, in comparison with the murder, is most remarkable. One has to wonder how different the coverage would have been had Belcher only killed his “girlfriend.” Sure, some might have speculated about what “drove him to it” but I would bet that the victim would have garnered a bit more attention had Belcher not decided to end his own life. But the media portrayals of events made it appear that Belcher was an equal victim, and the intense focus given by some to the suicide made it appear he was the primary victim. The amount of attention given the suicide paled in comparison to the other attention given Belcher. The murder victim, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins, was barely a footnote. By week’s end, everyone knew of Belcher and his issues, but virtually no one knew even the name of the woman he killed.

In my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, I discuss the dynamics that often occur in murder-suicides. And some of the perspectives I offer differ from some of the more widely held beliefs about these kinds of tragedies. But these perspectives come from years of work with impaired characters, many of whom were imprisoned as the result of homicides they committed, and several of whom had contemplated taking their own lives after killing their relationship partners. What these individuals taught me is unnerving but worth noting. It’s one thing to believe, as Belcher’s team managers speculated, that anyone who would take his own life “probably couldn’t live with himself” knowing what he’d done. But it’s another thing to think that even after being willing to take someone else’s life for whatever he conceived as an unpardonable action on their part, Belcher was a man still thinking of himself and the consequences and ordeal he would have to face (as well as the burden he would bear for the child he fathered) and selfishly decided the price was too high. In the former scenario, one can still see a victim. In the latter, there’s only the sad but tragically all-too-common story of a self-absorbed, character-impaired individual who never developed the capacity to cultivate and maintain healthy intimate relationships, and who lacked the internal controls to refrain from fatally lashing out when things didn’t go his way.

The great but largely unspoken tragedy exemplified by these events is the character crisis that continues to affect us all in so many ways. There are simply far too many among us who engage in casual, unstable, or unwholesome relationships, make babies in the absence of a solid environment within which to nurture, care for, and guide them, and shirk their familial and civic responsibilities (later reports confirmed that Belcher was actually involved with another “girlfriend” and, despite having been out “partying” with her all night, was incensed that his “baby mamma” was out late herself, leaving the care of their infant child to his mother). And the penchant for such shallow and unstable relationships stems from the lack of personal development.

How I wish that the media gave as much attention to one of the leading causes of our social problems as they do to the occasional sensational and catastrophic results. And I’ve had just about enough of the crazy talk you always hear about the unforeseen or unknown stresses that must have been at play when something like this happens. Bridges don’t just collapse because they’re unexpectedly weighted down with more that it was ever possible for them to carry. Sure, that happens on occasion. But bridges also collapse because the integrity of their construction was lacking in the first place — sometimes so lacking that even moderate stress can lead to catastrophic consequences. And I find it ironic that when bridges collapse people don’t generally blame the heavy vehicles that pass over them or the stresses their passage inflicted. Rather, they look to deficiencies in construction, design flaws, shoddy workmanship, maintenance failures, and all the other factors that might have made them susceptible. And just as the solution to collapsing bridges is not to simply ban all heavy vehicles (as some would like to simply ban all weapons). We’ll solve our social problems only when we decide to focus less attention on the stresses that invite people to abandon control, and more attention on the factors responsible for the fact that far too many among us never develop the integrity of character to shoulder the burdens of life and function in a responsible way.

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