Sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking that the most loving fathers are those who slaughter their children in the most horrific way possible. Quiet men, ordinary men, men of whom one would never expected such an act of devotion. One moment they’re just your average dad and the next they’ve taken possession of their offspring in the most deadly way possible, always and forever. How much more devoted can you get?
Darren Sykes was one such dad, luring his sons to his home with a brand new train set before trapping them in the attic while the place went up in flames. His eldest son, Jack, survived long enough to tell police, “my dad did it on purpose.” His younger son, Paul, died at the scene. According to his boss Sykes was a “devoted father” to the point of being “obsessed and boring”. Clearly, it takes some devotion to kill your sons so that no one else can have them; even more to do so in a way that would leave them fully aware of what was going on.
While one might not wish to order different types of male violence into any kind of hierarchy, family annihilation – where a father kills his own children before taking his own life – is surely the cruellest. No one could read of the anguish of Claire Throssel, mother to Jack and Paul, without feeling utterly horrified by the grief she must now endure. And yet it is this form of male violence which also brings out the most tact in newspapers which have no qualms about writing off other forms of behaviour as simply monstrous. A father who rapes his children is an aberration. One who burns them alive or slashes their throats? He gets to be at best a puzzle, at worst a victim himself.
“What makes a father kill his children?” we are asked, before being presented with a mishmash of narratives about divorce, depression, custody battles, jealousy and debt. It seems that we are living in a world where the division between normality and annihilation is paper thin and breaching it merely depends on the wrong thing said, the wrong man spoken to or the wrong divorce settlement proposed. Men are, we are told, on the edge. According to the crime writer Nicci Gerrard, “it is impossible to see the real signs of danger at the time”:
If you ask which of us have felt shame, rage, distress, loss, a burning sense of unfairness, a despair for the future, half the world will put up their hands. These family annihilators are just the ghastly outliers of a culture in which failure batters at the sense of self, and in which shame can trump love.
Best be careful, then. Your children could be next.
When Ceri Fuller killed his three children with a hunting knife before plunging to his death, the Daily Mail was keen to compare “his jealous rages” with his wife Ruth’s “flirty texts”, as though these constituted some form of provocation. In cases such as Sykes’s and that of Michael Pedersen, “a broken man who stabbed his children to death”, the blame is seen to lie with family courts, denying loving fathers the access to their children that is apparently their right.
Writing on Christopher Foster, an indebted business man who shot dead his wife and daughter before burning his house to the ground, Jon Ronson looks at Foster’s neighbours and muses on “how easy it is – when lives start to go wrong, when their manhood and the trappings of their wealth are threatened – for the whole thing just to unravel”. While manhood and fatherhood are mentioned – playing into the common theme of “masculinity in crisis” – questions of male power and its illegitimacy tend to be overlooked. It is as though the sense of grievance is perfectly reasonable, even if the response is extreme.
The messages that emerge from such narratives are double-edged, adding fuel to the fire they seek to douse. A similar problem arises with broader discussions of fathers’ rights and masculinity; no one dares to say “what you have lost was never yours to begin with”. If men grow up expecting to acquire ownership of people in the same way one might acquire wealth – as easy as sticking pink and blue pegs in one’s car in The Game of Life – then they are destined to end up feeling robbed. The “masculinity in crisis” narrative already tells them they are being deprived of something essential, something to which all men who lived before them had access but to which they, inexplicably, do not.
Writing in the Guardian, Max Olesker suggests that “in the far-flung misty past, being a man was a simple thing” whereas now things are much harder:
Young men have given up on the dream of the job-for-life, house, kids, Alsatian and quadruple gold-plated pension, and for older men this once-inevitable set of circumstances appears increasingly shaky.
It is interesting to see “kids” (minus the person who gestated them) dropped in among a list of baby boomer securities withdrawn. If the workplace is no longer reliable, neither are women, who can either choose not to breed for you or may opt to raise your children somewhere else. The casual blending together of what capitalism has destroyed with what feminism has achieved – some semblance of freedom for women, thereby rendering them as unreliable as one’s short-term contract or pension fund – is insidious. The right to control one’s family becomes just another thing added to the list of “male certainties now lost”, with scant attention paid to the fact that this is about other people’s needs and certainties, too.
Masculinity is not some fragile butterfly on a wheel. It depends on reducing other people to objects. The solution is not to recreate an imaginary golden age in which said objects were – so we tell ourselves – more pliable and less likely to disrupt the narrative. A world in which not only jobs were stable and not going anywhere, but neither were women and children. That world dehumanised over half the human raceand we should temper our sympathy for those men who would openly mourn its passing. As the feminist Kathy Miriam argues, “the problem of ‘masculinity’ has displaced a systemic, structural analysis of male power. And has displaced . . . the problem of men possessing women”. Our obsession with masculinity’s supposedly never-ending crises merely bolsters the myth that if women and children are people, men cannot be.
Confronted with violence and cruelty, we need to speak plainly. Family annihilators are not loving fathers. This is not love or despair, nor is it “masculinity in crisis.” It is masculinity at its most raw and extreme; an absolute statement of ownership over bodies and lives. If you can’t have them, no one can. We cannot reduce the acts of men such as Sykes and Fuller to self-harm plus two or three.
These are acts of pure hate and we need to say this again and again. I understand the desire to look away, not least because to speak of what their children suffered is to shed light on the torturous images with which their mothers are left. But we cannot keep on excusing. Love is not ownership. Because these children’s lives mattered – as independent lives, not adjuncts so someone else’s ego – we need to look this horror in the eye and say no.