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“I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag”: why elderly men kill their wives

The UK’s care crisis alone is not enough to explain why older women are dying at the hands of the men they love.

“I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag. I loved her too much for that.” Those are the words of 89-year-old Philip Williamson, who last week  received a suspended two-year prison sentence for the manslaughter of his 83-year-old wife Josephine.

A retired teacher, Josephine was suffering from dementia and becoming increasingly dependent on her husband, who had terminal cancer. Philip claims to have been following his wife downstairs when “something took over me and I pushed her”. Once she had reached the bottom, he also strangled her. The judge presiding over the case, Joanna Cutts QC, accepted that in killing Josephine Philip “felt this was the only way to limit or prevent her suffering”.

Philip Williamson is not the first husband to make such a decision on behalf of an elderly wife suffering from dementia. In December last year Ronald King, 87, shot dead his wife Rita, 81, at the care home where she lived. King told staff that his wife “had suffered enough”. He was found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, in what the investigating police officer described as “a particularly sad and tragic case”. Other cases, such as that of Angus Mayer and his late wife Margaret, who had Alzheimer’s, have yet to come to court.

The combination of an ageing population, government cuts and weakening social support networks mean that the UK is facing a care crisis. People who, like Philip Williamson, are elderly and infirm themselves, are under immense pressure to take care of loved ones, knowing all the while that their situation can only get worse. And yet there is more to this than just the desperate cry of the devoted carer at the end of his tether. We don’t want to think about the care crisis unless we have to. Usually we’d rather look away. But when the alternative is examining each and every social context in which male violence against women occurs, focussing all our attention on saintly husbands who kill out of love can feel like an easy option.

In their study When Men Murder Women, Dobash and Dobash point out that while many murders and murder-suicides amongst elderly couples are described as “mercy killings” and “suicide pacts”, “emerging evidence challenges the terms”. One of the largest studies comes from Florida, comparing 171 cases of homicide-suicide of those over age 55 with those under this age:

“The study revealed that over three-quarters of the homicide-suicides among the elderly involved the killing of a woman by a male partner. In many cases, jealousy, possessiveness, and separation were apparent, but the researchers concluded that an understanding of these deaths required a consideration of a multiplicity of factors such as alcohol, adverse life events, relationship issues, psychosocial and cultural issues, and “environmental” factors such as the availability of guns.”

There is rarely one clear causal factor – she was ill, I wanted to end her suffering – but a mix of factors including “a history of discord, abuse, and sometimes violence; illness of one or both partners; alcohol abuse and suicidal ideation of the perpetrator” (both Philip Williamson and Angus Mayer attempted suicide in the aftermath of their wives’ deaths). While the above example is focused on the US, they argue that “research in this area from Europe and Canada reveals similar patterns”. In Europe, 15 per cent of all victims of murder-suicide are women over 65.

In May last year Edward Perring, 79, killed his wife Gloria,76, and then himself. This is how the Daily Mail reported it:

“A devoted husband murdered his wife then killed himself after becoming stressed about how long it was taking builders to finish renovation works at his home, an inquest heard.

Edward Perring, 79, and wife Gloria, 76, were described as a 'loving normal couple' with no history of violence or illnesses.

But without warning, Edward, known as Ted, brutally slashed his wife's throat before stabbing her several times in the chest and leaving her for dead in their bedroom.”

Gloria Perring was not ill. Unlike Josephine Williamson or Rita King, she is not forced to play the role of the sick animal that the self-sacrificing hero must put out of its misery. Her husband killed her for other reasons – stress about building work, mental illness, anger – whatever the reason, he is not around to tell us and Gloria herself remains dead. The Mail notes that according to the couple’s GP “there was no indication that there had ever been any domestic violence in the marriage” (unless, of course, you count the violent stabbing at the end). Whatever his justifications may have been, just like Philip Williamson and Ronald King, Edward Perring still manages to be seen as “devoted” not just in spite of, but somehow because of the extremes of violence he was prepared to inflict on a woman he loved.

When looking at the violent death of Josephine Williamson, I do not think we need to choose between whether it was an act of male violence or a symptom of inadequate care provision for the elderly. It was both. Moreover, the two are not unrelated. The devaluing of care work – and the belief that society should divide neatly into the carers, who have no needs of their own, and the cared-for – are fundamental to the maintenance of male dominance. Old age pushes men out of the public sphere – “their” space – and confronts them with many of the expectations that women have had to struggle with all their lives. And when traditional marriage and rigid economic structures still treat wives as unpaid, unrecognised domestic resources, we should fear for their safety when they are perceived to be, not only no longer useful, but a burden on those for whom they are expected to care.

To describe one’s own wife, as Philip Williamson did, as a “decrepit old hag” in waiting is not love. It is misogyny. It is not impossible for the two to co-exist but for the safety and dignity of older women, we must not buy into narratives which turn violent deaths into loving mercy killings.

Thanks to Karen Ingala Smith and the Counting Dead Women project for data supplied for this piece.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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On civil liberties, David Davis has become a complete hypocrite – and I'm not sure he even knows it

The Brexit minster's stance shows a man not overly burdened with self-awareness.

In 2005, David Davis ran for the Tory leadership. He was widely assumed to be the front-runner and, as frontrunners in Tory leadership campaigns have done so enthusiastically throughout modern history, he lost.

The reason I bring up this ancient history is because it gives me an excuse to remind you of this spectacularly ill-judged photoshoot:

“And you're sure this doesn't make me look a bit sexist?”
Image: Getty

Obviously it’s distressing to learn that, as recently as October 2005, an ostensibly serious politician could have thought that drawing attention to someone else’s boobs was a viable electoral strategy. (Going, one assumes, for that all important teenage boy vote.)

But what really strikes me about that photo is quite how pleased with himself Davis looks. Not only is he not thinking to himself, “Is it possible that this whole thing was a bad idea?” You get the distinct impression that he’s never had that thought in his life.

This impression is not dispelled by the interview he gave to the Telegraph‘s Alice Thompson and Rachel Sylvester three months earlier. (Hat tip to Tom Hamilton for bringing it to my attention.) It’s an amazing piece of work – I’ve read it twice, and I’m still not sure if the interviewers are in on the joke – so worth reading in its entirety. But to give you a flavour, here are some highlights:

He has a climbing wall in his barn and an ice-axe leaning against his desk. Next to a drinks tray in his office there is a picture of him jumping out of a helicopter. Although his nose has been broken five times, he still somehow manages to look debonair. (...)

To an aide, he shouts: “Call X - he’ll be at MI5,” then tells us: “You didn’t hear that. I know lots of spooks.” (...)

At 56, he comes – as he puts it – from “an older generation”. He did not change nappies, opting instead to teach his children to ski and scuba-dive to make them brave. (...)

“I make all the important decisions about World War Three, she makes the unimportant ones about where we’re going to live.”

And my personal favourite:

When he was demoted by IDS, he hit back, saying darkly: “If you’re hunting big game, you must make sure you kill with the first shot.”

All this, I think, tells us two things. One is that David Davis is not a man who is overly burdened with self-doubt. The other is that he probably should be once in a while, because bloody hell, he looks ridiculous, and it’s clear no one around him has the heart to tell him.

Which brings us to this week’s mess. On Monday, we learned that those EU citizens who choose to remain in Britain will need to apply for a listing on a new – this is in no way creepy – “settled status” register. The proposals, as reported the Guardian, “could entail an identity card backed up by entry on a Home Office central database or register”. As Brexit secretary, David Davis is the man tasked with negotiating and delivering this exciting new list of the foreign.

This is odd, because Davis has historically been a resolute opponent of this sort of nonsense. Back in June 2008, he resigned from the Tory front bench and forced a by-election in his Haltemprice & Howden constituency, in protest against the Labour government’s creeping authoritarianism.

Three months later, when Labour was pushing ID cards of its own, he warned that the party was creating a database state. Here’s the killer quote:

“It is typical of this government to kickstart their misguided and intrusive ID scheme with students and foreigners – those who have no choice but to accept the cards – and it marks the start of the introduction of compulsory ID cards for all by stealth.”

The David Davis of 2017 better hope that the David Davis of 2008 doesn’t find out what he’s up to, otherwise he’s really for it.

The Brexit secretary has denied, of course, that the government’s plan this week has anything in common with the Labour version he so despised. “It’s not an ID card,” he told the Commons. “What we are talking about here is documentation to prove you have got a right to a job, a right to residence, the rest of it.” To put it another way, this new scheme involves neither an ID card nor the rise of a database state. It’s simply a card, which proves your identity, as registered on a database. Maintained by the state.

Does he realise what he’s doing? Does the man who once quit the front bench to defend the principle of civil liberties not see that he’s now become what he hates the most? That if he continues with this policy – a seemingly inevitable result of the Brexit for which he so enthusiastically campaigned – then he’ll go down in history not as a campaigner for civil liberties, but as a bloody hypocrite?

I doubt he does, somehow. Remember that photoshoot; remember the interview. With any other politician, I’d assume a certain degree of inner turmoil must be underway. But Davis does not strike me as one who is overly prone to that, either.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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