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Bizarre Behavior & Culture-Bound Syndromes: When Parents Kill ...

Apparent murder-suicide in Thousand Oaks puts painful focus on infanticide

Last week’s murder of two Thousand Oaks children — apparently by their father, James Mulvaney — sparked feelings of outrage and bewilderment because it was such an abhorrent act.

Neil Rocklin
Neil Rocklin

Unfortunately, the murder of children is seemingly a part of the human repertoire of behaviors. Infanticide was known in prehistoric times and continued through the Middle Ages to the present day. In ancient Egypt, infanticide was so great a concern that it was forbidden. During the Greco-Roman period, babies were rescued from manure heaps, a not uncommon method of infanticide at the time, and either adopted as foundlings or raised as slaves. Judaism explicitly prohibits infanticide in the Torah (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:30-31, 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3 and 17:17, 30-31 and 21:6 and 23:4, 10; Jeremiah 7:31-32 and 19:5 and 32:35; Ezekiel 16: 20-21, 36; Judges 11:31). Christianity, too, was concerned with infanticide, and forbade it. (Teachings of the apostles or Didache said, “You shall not kill that which is born.”) In India, Hinduism condemns the act.

Throughout history, human cultures have been troubled by the ritual killing of children. The practice appears to have been so widespread that major religions and cultures adopted laws to forbid it. The United States ranks 11th in infanticide of children under 1 year killed and fourth for those killed from 1 through 14 years. In Southern California this month alone, six children have been stabbed by parents, and four have died.

In Ventura County in 1995, Michael Sasse shot and killed two of his children, ages 4 and 3 before committing suicide. In 1999, Cora Caro was convicted and sent to death row for shooting to death three of her four sons as they slept in their beds, and prosecutors purported that she sought revenge against her husband because of their troubled marriage. Narind Virk was convicted in 2002 but found not guilty by reason of insanity of forcing her children into the cold waters of Channel Islands Harbor and then jumping in herself. All three survived.

How are we to understand these horrific acts and how can they be prevented? Many of these murders share common factors. Married adults are fighting and threatening each other. They challenge the rights of each other to remain parents and retain custody. There is impending or real financial hardship resulting in loss of income, employment and a marked decline in their standard of living. Parents are protective of their children and view their impending suffering of parental loss and lifestyle as so devastating as to become intolerable. To these circumstances you can sometimes add spousal mental and physical abuse, a family history of emotional illness, and a litigious conflict-promoting legal system. This can result in the psychological equivalent of the perfect storm in which the end of life is viewed as the only relief to unrelenting suffering.

As reported in the Ventura County Star, Mulvaney’s ex-wife, Julie, had primary custody of their children — James, 12, and Jennifer, 7 — despite his attending a “positive parenting” class.” On Sept. 4, he lost his job as financial center manager for Citibank in Camarillo. He failed “to save the marriage, to improve and better the children’s education,” according to court documents, despite borrowing $200,000 with his former wife to buy a house in which they lived for seven months.

Mulvaney wanted spousal support from his ex-wife because she made more money. Had someone understood the significance of these events, had someone recognized the destructive power of Mulvaney’s feelings, and had someone known that doing something was better than doing nothing, this tragedy might have been prevented.

Marriages will continue to fail and parents will still insist on fighting each other for custody. We are in the midst of the worst economic downturn in our recent history and job loss is expected to exceed 10 percent of our workforce. While this doesn’t explain the tragic deaths of the Mulvaneys, incidents like this seem more prevalent in difficult times, when extreme stress can unlock the inner psychological demons that must be present in someone who commits such an atrocity.

— Licensed clinical psychologist Neil Rocklin is a psychology lecturer at CSU Channel Islands. For the past 30 years, he has treated children, teens and adults with a host of psychological disorders, and currently teaches college students about personality development, abnormal behavior and criminal behavior. He writes the Bizarre Behaviors & Culture-Bound Syndromes blog with CSUCI colleague Kevin Volkan.

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