The Maternal (Killer) Instinct

"I kissed thee ere I killed thee." —Othello

Posted Sep 10, 2018

Source: Voyagerix/Shutterstock

In my previous article about fathers who kill their children, I focused on revenge and retaliation against the mother as primary motive. There are, of course, other motives. Some fathers kill, because they are psychotic. Others kill, because they view the children as an unacceptable burden. Men from some cultures engage in “honor killings” if a child does something that, in the father’s view, disgraces the family. But what motivates a mother to murder her own flesh and blood?

Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, a psychiatrist and professor at Case Western Reserve University, has, through his research, identified five motives for maternal filicide. Below is a list of these motives, along with an example of a filicidal mother corresponding to each motive.

  • Altruism — In a misguided belief that she is doing her children a favor, a mother may kill to save them from poverty, an abusive father, a life of suffering with a profound disability (e.g., leukemia or cerebral palsy), demon possession, or any other real or imagined threat. Andrea Yates, profoundly mentally ill and deeply religious, drowned her five children in a bathtub to save them from Satan and send them directly to heaven.
  • Acute Psychosis Psychosis is a profound break with reality, often involving delusions, hallucinations, or both. Earlier this year, Mary Jo Trokey, age 32, murdered her 3-month-old baby, her husband, and even the dog. Family and friends were dumbfounded. Trokey had suffered postpartum depression following the birth of her first child, but no one saw this coming. In hindsight, it appears that her postpartum depression had escalated to postpartum psychosis just three months after the baby was born. 
  • Unwanted Child — Susan Smith and Diane Downs both murdered their children so that they could be with a lover who didn’t want children. Smith rolled her car into a lake with her boys inside and blamed it on a carjacker. Downs shot her children and also blamed it on a carjacker. Darlie Routier stabbed her two boys to death and blamed it on an intruder. Her motive is thought to be the burdens of motherhood combined with marital discord and a desire to maintain an upper-class lifestyle amid declining finances.
  • Accident — An accidental death that counts as filicide usually occurs as the unintended result of child abuse or Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP). Lacey Spears built a blog and Facebook following around the ongoing health crises of her preschooler. During the little boy’s last hours of life, medical staff noticed that she spent her time updating her blog and Facebook page with news of her son’s death spiral. An overdose of sodium killed the child, but it’s unlikely that this was Spears’ intention. As is typical with an MSBP mother, she would have wanted the drama to go on and on. 
  • Spousal Revenge — Filicide as revenge is more often committed by men than women. However, mothers sometimes view their children as sacrificial pawns in an act of deadly retaliation against the father. Dr. Deborah Green, a physician, became a stay-at-home mom after her children were born. The marriage soured. Before killing her children, she attempted to murder her husband with ricin. When he threatened to take the children, she set the house on fire with them inside. 

Behind these varying motives can lie a wide range of mood and personality disorders, as well as contributing circumstances, such as unemployment, poverty, infidelity, divorce, abandonment, etc. These underlying factors can help us understand the circumstances leading up to the murder of children, but they do not exonerate the guilty — not as long as the murderer can understand the difference between right and wrong. Even Andrea Yates, who was unquestionably mentally ill, knew that drowning her children was a wrongful act. She just thought sending her children to heaven was worth the punishment. After drowning them, she picked up the phone and called the police.