I have been struggling with the idea of how to write about both Susan T Landry’s choice of Tuesday poem last week (http://landryredux.blogspot.com/2011/03/tuesday-poem-iphigenia-politics.html ), and my feelings about the recent case in Melbourne of ‘filicide’. I don’t think I have actually said what I want to – perhaps that will come in another form in time.
I left a comment on Susan’s blog saying how topical her choice of poem was for me, as I had been reading about the trial and conviction of a man in Melbourne for murder: he had thrown his four year-old daughter off the West Gate Bridge, at the height of the morning peak hour. He’d made threatening phone calls to his ex-wife, along the lines of you will never see your children again. When he killed his daughter, his crime was witnessed by morning commuters and his two young sons, strapped into the back seat.
The Iphigenia of the poem was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon in order to appease Artemis and ensure winds to enable the Greek ships, confined for weeks in harbour, to sail across the Aegean Sea to begin the siege of Troy. Being king and father, Agamemnon clearly felt a fair wind was a fair trade for a fair daughter, his possession to treat as he felt proper and necessary.
Do fathers, outside the rules of Greek tragedy, have the right to treat their children as property or pawns in some strategic conflict? Honour killings in some societies suggest they do. I believe most civilised people would consider such attitudes evil, and yet child killing by otherwise loving parents occurs heartbreakingly often.
There has been much debate in the Australian media surrounding the role of the Family Court, and whether it has ‘failed’ fathers in custody disputes, casting the father, less so than the child, as victim; and further arguments that the safety, happiness and well-being of children should always be the priority.
I read a persuasive essay (http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/mens-murderous-revenge-20110330-1cg80.html ) that suggested the father in this recent crime was motivated by revenge, to punish his ex-wife for leaving him. A further recent incident presented the same argument: child-murder as mother punishment. These are deeply disturbing cases.
I thought about Iphigenia and Agamemnon’s belief that his daughter’s life was his to use for his own ends, which led me to think about other mythic child murderers, especially Medea. She murdered her sons to punish her unfaithful husband, Jason. Agamemnon was frustrated by his ships’ inability to sail and his offense to Artemis; while Medea was possessed by a towering rage which tore apart her very sense of self.
In our culture of ‘find the guilty party and assign blame’, I wondered if for Medea and these men, there was a point where their choices became inevitable, where they were locked into a tragic course, or whether in fact at some moment they could have chosen to act differently – or been helped to behave differently. Perhaps it is inappropriate of me to link real people, real crimes with mythic figures. I can hear you question if life is really like Greek myths and what could they possibly add to our understanding of current events.
The more I thought about Medea, the more I saw the recent child-murderers in her character: rigid, threatened, unable to adapt to new circumstances and apparently believing the only solution to such changes would be the destruction of all that was once dear. The parallels seemed compelling.
I sought some more evidence, in other cases, only to find that these men are unusual filicides. Revenge against wives may be under reported, but it seems to be rare, the more typical picture includes addiction problems (drugs and/or alcohol), a history of violence and child abuse, and significant levels of mental illness. Sons are more often murdered than daughters, and the crime is often followed by the father’s suicide.
I had planned to write a somewhat feminist piece, railing against the continuing objectification of children by fathers, and the commodification of female bodies, linking these to ancient ways of being as seen in the Greek myths. I find I cannot write the piece I envisaged.
I continue to be haunted by the image of a father bearing his daughter’s body towards her death.
Note: I am having enormous problems with Blogger, apologies for formatting clumsiness.