Why love really is to die for

By Libby Purves (THE TIMES, 07/11/06):

GAVIN HALL, a responsible health professional of 33, is starting a life sentence after killing his three-year-old daughter, texting his unfaithful wife about it and trying to kill himself. Mohammed Riaz died last week in a fire that he appears to have started in his own home, killing his wife and four children; apparently he thought she was leaving. Last month a former soldier stabbed his baby son and himself to death after his separated wife crossed him. Three years ago another separated man gassed himself and his four sons, cruelly phoning their mother during their last conscious minutes.

Right now John Hogan awaits trial in Greece for jumping off a hotel balcony with his two children, one of whom died. His court statement said that when his wife told him she was leaving with the children, “I was overwhelmed by confusion . . . the desire to self-destruct which exploded within me overwhelmed my instinct for self-preservation and my sense of respect for other human lives. As a result I lost my ability to distinguish between what is right and what is wrong.”

The mind shrinks from the horror of these cases, but every year they happen; when they occur close together it is hard for observers not to draw some conclusions, or even lessons. Most of those conclusions state the obvious about the deranged wickedness of the men (they are nearly always men; women get far more understanding, being assumed to suffer postnatal depression).

One woman columnist wrote that men are “sodden with a sick kind of self-pitying sentimentality”, too weak and feeble-willed to live with life’s little troubles, such as the wife and children walking out. The vicissitudes of love, says this writer sharply, are only “a game, a game that tens of thousands of couples are playing”. Thus there is no excuse for murder-suicides. In another corner, the officer investigating the killing of three-year-old Millie Hall says with equal scorn: “Affairs happen all the time . . . the marriage was doomed. It was in his personality, he didn’t have the wherewithal within himself to move on.” A psychiatrist concurs, saying that people who do terrible, vengeful things when crossed in love simply have not developed appropriate “coping skills”.

All of this is true. No personal misery is an excuse for taking another life, particularly a child’s. Yet the more scornful anger I read, the more a new perspective forms. Perhaps in our liberated, sexually pragmatic society we have gone too far in ignoring the ancient and dangerous power of love. We have drifted into the Sex and the City mood, thinking of sex as a healthy recreational activity. The celebrity gossip-mill reinforces the idea of marriages as disposable, vows as forgettable, the family circle as a shakeable kaleidoscope. We talk lightly about “moving on”, and accept the need to work through many sleeping partners to find one worth keeping. We assume that the blackest betrayal should be brightly forgiven or at least briskly survived, once the perpetrator explains (ideally in a mawkish magazine interview) that he or she was “in a bad place” but that adultery, mayhem, desertion and lying made them “grow”.

In some ways this represents progress. Nobody needs a return to the days when Lord Reith wouldn’t have a divorced woman singing on his airwaves and “sinful” wives never saw their children again. However, in our unnaturally accelerated decades of liberation we may have forgotten the ancient tragedies, from The Oresteia to Othello to Carmen. We have assumed too rapid an evolution in our race and forgotten the wild primitive irrationality, blind misery and obsessive craziness that can be part of sexual love.

In getting physically and emotionally close to another human being it is possible (and rather wonderful) to surrender something vital of ourselves. When you make love and really mean it, you place yourself in a sort of danger. That danger can be beautiful, not a passing pleasure but a trustful consummation. Not for nothing did Elizabethan slang make “die” a synonym for climax. Indeed, one of the reasons we make sex into a joke is to defuse its fearful power, just as Hallowe’en children laugh at ghosts and goblins. Human sexual love is a huge force. When it bears children the bond becomes still stronger; for all the sheepish giggling that new parents do about their atrophied sex life, they have usually, at a primitive level, grown closer.

Yet with our knowing talk about how “affairs happen” we forget that passion can be murderous, and irrationally so. Anna Freud said that crimes of passion are “committed without the benefit of ego activity . . . the passion, the impulse, is of such magnitude that every other consideration is disregarded”. Normal functioning shuts down; even, at the awful extreme, the instinct to protect your children. Those men were crazy when they did it, sure; just as men or women are crazy when they murder an unfaithful partner. But their craziness is not random. It follows an ancient and well-trodden path: the rage, grief, loss and howling emptiness of the betrayed lover.

This primitive fact is no excuse, no reason to be lenient on murderers. Self-control is a duty. But there is a lesson to be learnt here, and taught. Our children grow up in a world where sex is taken lightly. School sex education is nearly all about hygiene and contraception, with occasional nods to “loving relationships”, and a general acceptance that there will be a series of these, some mainly recreational. Maybe we should also tell them — through literature, drama, poetry, history, psychology — that this particular recreation has laid waste to empires and launched a thousand ships, wrecked lives, killed the innocent, opened doors to ruin and madness. Let them know that the power that founds dynasties is strong voodoo.

Fireworks are lovely, but first you have to learn how to handle them, and what malfunctions to watch for. Same with sex, really.