On Jan. 23, Neal Jacobson allegedly shot his wife and twin sons to death in Wellington, Fla., only hours before the boys were scheduled to celebrate their birthday. According to local news accounts, Jacobson had become increasingly despondent in the wake of his father's death and a string of failed business ventures. After killing his family, authorities say, he tried to commit suicide by downing a fistful of prescription pills (he survived, however, and now faces first-degree murder charges). It was a horrifying crime, and the question is, what could possibly drive someone to commit such an appalling act?
"Family annihilators," as criminologists call them, are among the least-understood types of killers. Since the perpetrators usually either kill themselves or immediately confess, such cases tend to be solved quickly and disappear from the headlines. As a result, authorities haven't had to devote a lot of investigative effort to plumbing the killers' minds. But now, new research is shedding light on the psychological makeup of family annihilators. In his book Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers, released Feb. 10, Neil Websdale, a professor at Northern Arizona University, argues that such killers share one common trait: a feeling that they've fallen short of societal ideals of manhood. A separate group of researchers is currently compiling the results of a 10-year study on familicide that has unsettling implications. According to preliminary findings, family killings have risen with the unemployment rate.
In general, causal links between the economy and murder are weak (witness declining murder rates across the country). But family annihilations are in a different class, says Jack Levin, a professor of sociology at Northeastern University and lead author of the soon-to-be-released 10-year study. As part of that upcoming study, he compared the number of such crimes in the first four months of 2008, when the unemployment rate was about 5 percent, to the same period in 2009, when the rate leaped to nearly 9 percent. Examining a narrow set of cases (those involving at least three victims and a suicide), he found that the number of incidents in the U.S. grew from seven to 12 and the number of victims from 29 to 56. (Along with other multicides, such as serial and spree killings, familicides account for less than 0.1 percent of the roughly 18,000 homicides per year in the U.S., says Grant Duwe, supervisor of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections and author of Mass Murder in the United States: A History. Within the category of multiple murders, familicides are the most common, averaging about 41 percent of the total in recent years.)
Annihilators are overwhelmingly male (95 percent, he estimates), and mostly white and middle-aged. They feel inadequate as men and have often suffered childhood abuse. Having felt powerless as kids, many try to exert strict control over their households and seek to create an idealized version of family that they never experienced. When the economy is in decline, jobs are scarce, tensions are high, and the control these men seek becomes harder to maintain.
According to Websdale, these men fall along a continuum between what he calls "livid coercive" killers and "civil reputable" ones. The former are driven by rage: they are controlling and sometimes abusive figures who derive self-worth from the authority they exert at home. But that behavior typically plunges the marriage into crisis, often prompting the wife and children to try to leave. The resulting lack of control triggers feelings of humiliation, eventually leading the father to reassert his power in a final paroxysm of violence.
The "civil reputable" killer, on the other hand, is motivated by a perverse form of altruism. "His entire identity is in his family," says Richard Gelles, dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania and an authority on domestic violence. The father is almost always considering suicide as the only escape from some sort of financial crisis. Murdering his family members, then, becomes a way of rescuing them from the hardship and shame of bankruptcy and suicide. "There is no other solution but the one you find today," wrote Russell Gilman, a Scottsdale attorney who murdered his wife and two kids after the family finances fell apart, in a note he left behind. (Economic duress can also play a role in rage killings, though it's not usually the main trigger.)
This narcissistic sense of chivalry is evident in the way many of these perpetrators execute their victims. The professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son and then hanged himself in 2007, is believed to have sedated the boy before strangling him.
The researchers hope their findings can offer guidance to law enforcement and social workers. The livid-coercive types often have records. One recent case in Louisiana involved a man who was subject to a third restraining order at the time he killed his estranged wife and son, and then himself. As for the civil-reputable ones, Websdale advises counselors dealing with depressed clients to probe their economic circumstances and any thoughts of hurting themselves or family members. "Exploring any feelings of shame around men's perceived failures to live up to the cultural ideals of a good provider would also be helpful," he says. With greater vigilance, perhaps those would-be annihilators out there who have yet to act can be stopped.