Monday, April 4, 2011


I have been struggling with the idea of how to write about both Susan T Landry’s choice of Tuesday poem last week ( ), 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 ( )   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.


susan t. landry said...

i did see this but want to reread it carefully--and follow up on some of the background stories; will comment soon.
stupid pile of work today...pooh :(

susan t. landry said...

this is so oddly congruent with events transpiring in my own life that i can't help but respond.
i think that myths are open to interpretation. sometimes they show "man" what he is capable of, but accompany this mirrored revelation with another those images of infinity, where reflections are repeated over & over, smaller & smaller, until they disappear from detection. sometimes myths are stories about character strengths or character weaknesses, comedy and tragedy, lust denied, lust played out; the list is long.
the story of iphigenia seems to me to belong to the first category, where we are meant to see the possible ramifications of behavior that a distraught person might wish to commit, but most will not/can not. the impact of sacrificing one's child for revenge or as appeasement or even as an inducement to feel something--to not be numb-, almost like self-cutting, is like introducing a drop of a vicious toxin to a pure lake. it pollutes everything. The actual events that Janet Malcolm writes about in Iphigenia of Forest Hills are tragic, almost approaching farcical; the wife/mother contracted to kill the ex-husband/father of their daughter over a custody dispute. ultimately, because of the mother's conviction, the child was placed with paternal relatives, and the mother lost all connection with her, even in the long pretrial and presentencing stretches of time, and will never again share her life. in essence, the daughter was tossed to a soul death. when i mentioned that this has connections with my own life, the man i live with has been demonized by his ex-wife to the extent that his children are slowly being turned against him. the children are being manipulated by their mother, who has moved the kids hundreds of miles away, to refuse to see him. instead of doing what the court has ordered, which is to sustain the good, strong relationship the kids had with their father while the family was together, the mother whispers untrue stories in their ears and thus slowly chips away at their instinctual yearning for their father. there are many ways besides actually killing them to sacrifice one's children for one's own narcissistic pathway, to become a hero or heroine in one's own eyes. sadly--although my first reaction, as you noted, is to tease out the feminist interpretation--this willful destruction of one's own flesh and blood seems to have no gender boundary.
i apologize for going on and on about my own experience; i do think this story taps into a lot of what we presume to think love is about, in the parent/child dyad, and also more broadly.

Isabel Doyle said...

Susan, this is such a sad story, told in so many guises all over the world. Your particular situation is dreadful and I am sorry to hear about the family ripped to pieces. To lose one's children piecemeal must be cruel.

I am glad you found the time to read my essay/attempt and to comment on it, painful though it must have been.

I am still uncertain of what I am trying to get to here - perhaps some academic understanding to paper over the horror?

susan t. landry said...

now i am reading (actually rereading; one of the deep pleasures of aging is that i read this book when it first came out, totally forgot everything, and am now enthralled all over again) janet malcolm's book about sylvia plath, primarily about her relationship with ted hughes...and by extension, about biography.
as to how this ties in with your theme, here: of revenge..or...what exactly was in their heads? i offer the examples of plath and hughes' lover, assia weevil.
both women committed suicide; both women had children with hughes. sylvia made sure her children were spared death, and assia took her child with her. so: revenge? sacrifice? some other complicated maternal impulse/ either way, the child(ren) was not spared; they had different fates, obviously. it echoes your inquiry, tho, about whether the parent has the right.....
suicide, i admit, adds another whole level to the discussion...but the matter of the children may be related to the Iphigenia story.

Isabel Doyle said...

I am only vaguely aware of Ted Hughes's biography and those of his tragic women. One wonders did he drive them to it, or was he attracted to 'damaged' souls? I am sure it is more the latter than the former, but it does seem he didn't or couldn't learn from the first catastrophe.

As for children - being able to sacrifice yours in whatever way seems to me to be shouting a lack of imagination and empathy - and a disconnect with your own soul, for whatever reason: rage, illness, despair.

I have begun a companion blog to this one The Private Face, where I am going to play with self-revelation, memoir, autobiography what-you-would. As well as my own personal reticence, I do have problems with censorship and snooping which must constrain me. I wonder if that straitjacket might actually disrobe me further?