Murderously self-pitying fathers

By Inida Knight (THE TIMES, 05/11/06):

Another week, another horrifying story about men’s frequent and calamitous inability to cope with crisis. Gavin Hall, 33, was jailed for life last week after drugging then suffocating his three-year-old daughter Millie as “revenge” for his wife’s infidelity. He informed his wife of his actions by text message. Hall also killed the family cats, laying out their bodies next to his child’s, before attempting, and failing, to kill himself.

The story is reminiscent of John Hogan’s, who last summer hurled himself and his two children off a balcony in Crete after a row with his wife. He and his two-year-old daughter Mia survived. His six-year-old son Liam was killed.

This tragic tale, in turn, brings to mind that of Robert Tamar, a 48-year-old former paratrooper, who last month stabbed his 15-month-old son Nathan to death, and then killed himself, after Nathan’s mother had failed to turn up on time to collect the child. Three years ago, Keith Young, who was separated from his wife Samantha Tolley, gassed his four young sons and then killed himself, as “revenge” for Samantha being pregnant by another man. He made the hysterical children call their mother as the car filled with fumes.

Stories such as these crop up with depressing regularity: I could go back a mere few months and list half a dozen more. What links them, aside from the Grand Guignol aspect, is that the men are almost invariably described by neighbours, friends and relatives, as “devoted” fathers.

The men in question are clearly — surely? — mentally unbalanced when they get it into their heads that killing their children is the best way of teaching their wives a “lesson”. However, the fact that this imbalance should crop up quite so often in apparently “devoted” or “doting” fathers is a source of concern in itself. Research published by the NSPCC last month showed that a father kills a family member every eight weeks in the UK.

When did men develop such a sense of victimhood, whether that victimhood stems from infidelity, a tricksy ex-wife or an unsympathetic divorce judge?

And having decided that they were hapless victims who had the misfortune to hook up, marry and breed with mad, bad women cunningly disguised as wife material (because of course in the new male victim culture nothing is ever the man’s fault, or even half his fault), what happened to turn otherwise decent human beings into people so sodden with a sick kind of self-pitying sentimentality that the only solution open to them is one that involves carnage reminiscent of Greek tragedy?

I’m obviously not suggesting that all men are potential child-killers. But a less dramatic version of the same scenario plays itself out, in a quietly destructive way, every day of the week, and it also obliterates children’s chances of happiness.

A couple divorce; the divorce is ugly; the short-lived marriage produced a child, who is still young. There is bitterness and acrimony on all sides, and the decree absolute, far from drawing a symbolic and liberating line under all of this, has only served to exacerbate it. The father, who has access, turns up to see his child. Oh, says the mother, what are you doing here? It’s not convenient. The father gets back in his car.

The same scenario — with small variations, such as not being at home at the appointed time, not picking up the phone, delivering random tirades of abuse, going away without advance warning, or (most heinous of sins) acquiring a new boyfriend — plays itself out for several months, or even years.

And then the father gives up. Because it’s stressing him out. Because it’s doing his head in, you know? Because of course he loves his child, and not seeing him or her will cause him pain, but dealing with his malevolent ex is more than he can bear. Because he’s a victim — a paragon of parental goodness and virtue, who nevertheless decides never to see his only child again because of her, “that bitch”, “that witch”, “that whore” and worse.

Needless to say, this lose-lose situation benefits nobody, least of all the frightened, bewildered child who has been abandoned — it’s the only word for it — by the only father he or she will ever have. It doesn’t occur to the father that his ex-wife is not honouring the terms of the divorce settlement when it comes to access. It doesn’t occur to him that he has legal recourse; if it does, he’s probably dimly aware of organisations such as the now-defunct Fathers 4 Justice, and somewhere at the back of his mind is the thought that the evil courts are always biased towards the mother. What’s the point? Who has the time? Who has the money? He can’t be doing with any of it — child included.

Think I’m exaggerating? Have a look at the statistics. Some 50% of all British and American marriages will end in divorce. An estimated 60% of fathers will lose touch with their children within a few years of divorcing their mothers — and those figures don’t include cohabiting but unmarried couples with children, of which there are an ever-growing number.

Men — traditionally stiff-upper-lipped, buttoned-up, silently heroic — just can’t cope any more.

Women would crawl over broken glass to see their children, and they’d do it gladly, barely pausing to complain about the blood. A minute number of women walk away from their children, and those that do usually do so because of extraordinary, and extraordinarily complicated, circumstances. Men, on the other hand, do it every day, because the effort of dealing with a difficult ex-spouse is simply too much hassle.

I don’t mean to suggest that all these female ex-spouses are exemplars of good sense and loyalty to their children’s interests — many of them set out to abuse their power and deliberately drive the men mad. But it’s a game, a game that tens of thousands of couples are playing as I type. If you don’t like a game, the smart thing is to refuse to play — not by exiting in a huff, but by calling in people who can win.

Men unfortunately occupy second place in our culture when it comes to being the primary carer for their children, but that doesn’t mean they are powerless, or that the world has it in for them, or that they aren’t needed.

It’s about time they showed some balls, frankly, and fought to express what is best in them, not give in to what is most appalling. Doing the right thing is always more satisfying than imploding with self-pity — and there are no casualties, of any kind.