Why do we need histories of parricide and violence against parents?

News media headlines are full of reports of children killing and abusing their parents. Media from all over the world report sons - and to a lesser extent daughters - who have insulted, battered, assaulted, robbed, and killed their parents for money, retaliation, interfering with their lifestyle choices, and have explained these killings as being a result of severe mental illness or an abusive childhood.1 As the media tend to sensationalise these acts of violence, they portray them as rare events that have recently started to occure often due to changes in moral values. History, however, is full of famous parricides. Mythical stories of patricide committed by Oedipus and matricide committed by Orestes created an archetype that is prevalent throughout many religions and cultures in the West and has provided a foundation for contemporary psychiatric and psychoanalytic approaches to understanding of violence against parents and parricide.2 Many royal dynasties have accounts of sons killing their fathers to get to the throne. In Assyria in the thirteenth century BC, Ashur-nadin-apli (1207-1204 BC) killed his father Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243-1207 BC), a prototype of Nimrod, the infamous king of Babylon in the Old Testament.3 In more recent times, emperor Alexander I of Russia (1801-1825), though not directly participating in killing his father Paul I (1796-1801) himself, nevertheless allegedly blessed those who did.4 On a more mundane level, there have been parricides that made the media headlines of the time, starting at least in the seventeenth century with broadsheets.5 Such killings as those perpetrated by Mary Blandy (Great Britain, 1720-1752), Frank Walworth (the US, 1853-1886), Lizzie Borden (the US, 1860-1927), the Menendez brothers (the US, serving life imprisonment), and Jeremy Bamber (the UK, serving life imprisonment), to name but a few, have provided enough sensational material to treat parricide as a rare but horrific deed perpetrated by mentally ill or antisocial children.6

Most of the existing works on parricide and violence against parents have been produced by criminologists and psychiatrists, resulting in an ahistor-ical and incomplete view of parricide and violence against parents. The academic discourse on parricide and violence against parents has been written by two main groups: criminologists, who have linked parricide and abuse of parents to child abuse, and psychiatrists, who have linked these phenomena to mental illness.7 Child abuse and mental illness, as causal factors in the killing of parents, have also been culturally constructed and accepted as the default explanation of the crime, placing it beyond scholarly criticism and challenge.8

In the two discourses that have dominated the research agendas of academics and the cultural understandings of parental killings and violence against parents, parricide as a historical phenomenon has been relatively absent. There are, however, good reasons to approach parricide and violence against parents from a historical and criminological perspective.9 For example, the very definition of the category of parents has cultural and historical relativity despite an implicit agreement about its clarity. The existing literature has defined parricide as the killing of biological parents or stepparents in nuclear families.10 Defining parricide in this way is imbued with modernist assumptions that do not fully consider the nuclear family as an effect of major social and technological transformation, and at the same time ignores its historical, anthropological, and cultural influences. Expanding the definition of parents to include parent-like superordinate elders in the family, such as grandparents, parents-in-law, aunts, and uncles would reflect a variety of historical types of family organisation that survived beyond modern Western approaches to the family as a nuclear unit as we will show in Part III of this book.

From a historical perspective, the ways in which the notion of ‘parricide’ has been used and interpreted in premodern Europe, suggest that cases where servants and apprentices killed their masters could be included in parricide counts, for adolescents left their own abode to serve and live in their masters’ homes.11 The asymmetrical nature of the relationship as well as the difference in age would indeed have mirrored father-son and motherdaughter relations. In an Asian context, parricide included the killing of elders (e.g. uncles, grandparents), who often resided in the multigener-ational home as a result of patrilocal residential patterns.12 The structural patterns of work and family organisation thus affected the definition and incidence of parricide in ways that were very different from the latter part of twentieth-century North America and western Europe. By moving the analytical scrutiny away from child abuse and mental illness as implicative factors in parricide, this book provides an examination of parricide and violence against parents that is historically and culturally sensitive, and in ways that complement the canons of criminology. Teenagers who are abused and mentally ill men who live at home with their mothers are not the only ones who go on to kill their parents.

A historical approach to parricide and violence against parents is able to illuminate the variations in conflicts between parents and their offspring that are shaped by the life stages of the victims and offenders themselves across time. As contemporary criminologists have noted, abuse is an important factor in parricide. However, what is missing in the literature is how the very definition, practice, and meaning of discipline and punishment have evolved throughout history.13 Researchers have shown significant variation in attitudes towards physical discipline and the parameters of acceptability across culture and history.14 What is a legitimate form of punishment and discipline today may very well become a normatively accepted definition of severe abuse tomorrow. Preteens who kill their parents because they have interpreted the revocation of their PlayStation or X-Box privileges as severe abuse, as occasionally happens in the US, Russia, or other places in the world,15 go to illustrate the fact that the boundary between punishment and abuse is culturally and subjectively defined. A historical approach to parricide and violence against parents highlights these types of cultural shifts over time.

Similarly, it is important to note that inheritance customs and laws affect the social organisation of families in significant ways. Historically, ageing parents used their inheritance as leverage and as a social safety net to ensure stability and security in their old age, enticing various family members and complete strangers to serve as caretakers in ways that reconfigured the composition of households.16 Moreover, historical demographers have shown that inheritance practices have tremendous implications for population growth or decline17 as well as the potential to incite conflict between parents and offspring, and between siblings.18 The dominant criminological and psychiatric literature neglects to address how these types of complex social changes within the family have shaped the potential source of conflict across familial relations. It is our contention that diverse inheritance customs and laws throughout history have affected parricide and violence against parents in significant ways.

There are already several books that examine homicides within the family from a historical perspective, such as infanticides,19 intimate partner homicides,20 and fluctuations in homicide due to changes in culture, technology, and politics.21 However, work that examines parricide and violence against parents from a historical and criminological perspective is still thin on the ground. Admittedly, although parricide and violence against parents is a narrow topic, a form of violence that constitutes a small portion of overall violence in general and homicide in particular, our contention is that violence against parents and parricide intersect with other forms of domestic family violence. Thus, our book is a timely one that taps into the rapidly expanding interest in the history of crime and its implications for contemporary criminology and criminal justice. Examining the intersection of history and criminology and criminal justice is what makes our monograph unique.

Other works have purported to examine parricide and attempted to provide their overview from a historical perspective, such as Phillip Shon’s monograph on nineteenth-century American parricides.22 However, its primary focus on parricide predictors, weapons’ usage, and offenders’ crime scene behaviour lacks a specific historical focus; the book’s emphasis is mainly criminological and American-focused. Although the role of changing family dynamics, historical and cultural variations in disciplinary and punishment practices, and inheritance bequests are hinted at, they are not directly examined as a category of analysis. In other books on killing parents, the criminological focus also predominates and overshadows historical and cultural contexts.23 This book emerged as a result of a project started by the authors to consolidate research on histories of violence against parents and derives from extensive research experiences into histories of family violence.24 We aim at examining parricide and violence against parents in its fatal and non-fatal forms as criminological and social events across the life cycle of victims and offenders, and across history and national boundaries.25 Rather than abuse and maltreatment, it could be complex attitudes toward parental authority that provide a more enduring source of conflict between parents and offspring across historical periods and geographical boundaries.

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