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date: 26 September 2017

Filicide in Australian Media and Culture

Summary and Keywords

Filicide is the deliberate act of a parent killing a child. Despite its low occurrence, filicide is one of the most emotive offenses for a public audience. The murder of a child by their own parent challenges many of our fundamental expectations about the role of parenthood, prompting a sense of horror, outrage, and deep distress: It violates the idea of parental instincts as a protection for children. While maternal and paternal filicide is committed in roughly equal numbers, historically, filicide has been regarded as a female crime. However, media coverage of mothers who commit filicide differs from coverage of fathers who commit the same crime. Infanticidal mothers in particular have a long history of being demonized by the media and in popular culture. Research shows that this is partly because such events shatter expected feminine and maternal norms. Despite the considerable body of scholarly work conducted in this area of crime and media culture, there were few studies of filicide in Australia until recently. As a consequence, the media’s portrayal of these tragic cases is to treat them as “inexplicable” while also attempting to find an explanation, most often through stereotyping, simplification, or rationalization.

Keywords: filicide, maternal filicide, paternal filicide, infanticide, media, popular culture

Filicide has been regarded historically as a “female” crime, reported since antiquity in stories about mothers killing their children. Since that mythological “monstrous mother,” Medea, killed her children, the “evil mother” motif has been a recurrent representation in popular culture narratives such as literature, drama, and film. In 1980s Australia, the motif’s cultural purchase crossed spectacularly into news, when journalists portrayed a contemporary “Medea” through highly prejudicial news discourses that framed Lindy Chamberlain as a murderer. Although never officially described as a filicide or even an infanticide, two stories at the heart of this case inform contemporary media cultural representations of filicide. The story of the death of nine-week-old Azaria, killed by a dingo in the Australian outback, and that of her mother, Lindy, wrongly convicted on the basis of prejudicial media coverage and for failing to approximate the norms of femininity historicize a broader ambivalence about how justice is mediated according to identity and its performance.

This historical practice of narrating filicide as a crime committed by “monstrous” mothers (Brown, Tyson, & Fernandez Arias, 2014; Eriksson, Mazerolle, Wortley, & Johnson, 2016; Mouzos & Rushforth, 2003) resonates in contemporary Australian media culture and is in some ways contradictory to data showing that paternal filicide is more common. Even so, there has been a significant recent shift in the media reporting practices around filicides. News coverage of women who kill their own child has been heavily criticized for deploying stock stories, stereotypes, and motifs about “monstrous motherhood” in a research context where examinations of media representations of filicidal fathers is relatively absent. While Australian media representations of fathers who kill their own child have historically drawn on broader cultural understandings of fathers’ responsibilities and roles as breadwinners and protectors within the family, coverage of recent filicide cases reveal (mis)representations of “family violence” as a rational response to the failure of state responses to family breakdown and/or the extraordinary consequence of the mental illness of the perpetrator. This contrast in attempts to explain an inexplicable crime is reflective of gendered social expectations around masculinity inflecting media culture in Australia.

The fact that filicide is a comparatively rare crime internationally (the numbers are small even in highly populated countries) makes these higher Australian instances of men killing their children a concern for researchers in criminology. Compared to other developed countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, more children in Australia die at the hands of a parent or parental figure, and more are killed by their father or stepfather (Hatters Friedman, Hrouda, Holden, Noffsinger, & Resnick, 2005; Pritchard, Davey, & Williams, 2013; Vanamo, Kauppi, Karkola, Merikanto, & Räsänen, 2001). Recent research on the still little understood spike in paternal filicide in Australia corresponds with European and American studies identifying gender-related gaps in knowledge about the crime. These knowledge gaps might arise partially from an emphasis on empirical and statistical data, which quantifies filicide in national settings such as Australia but cannot elucidate the complex and multiple sociocultural factors affecting perpetrators in the lead-up to their crimes.

Filicide in Australia: Review of the Literature

Approximately 20 filicide incidents are recorded in Australia each year (Cussen & Bryant, 2015; Brown et al., 2014). While mothers perpetrate filicide more often than fathers, adding stepfathers into statistics illustrates that more men than women kill children. Despite filicide’s rarity (the numbers are small even in highly populated countries), its rate in Australia is relatively high compared to other developed countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom (Pritchard et al., 2013). Australia also has a comparatively higher rate of paternal filicide (Eriksson et al., 2016; Mouzos & Rushforth, 2003; Brown et al., 2014), suggesting gender as an important local research lens for criminologists. Between 2010–2013, Eriksson and colleagues interviewed 14 Australian men and women convicted of murder or manslaughter after perpetrating filicide. They identify the “almost exclusive focus on maternal filicide” (2016, p. 18) by past Australian researchers as a key limitation. As part of their study of data from the National Homicide Project, Eriksson and colleagues used the primary interviews to address this knowledge gap about what motivates parents to kill their children. Their observation of the lack of research into paternal filicide coheres with other research internationally (e.g., West, Hatters Friedman, & Resnick 2009). Eriksson and colleagues (2016) also note the “disproportionate focus on the psychiatric status of perpetrators” at the expense of social context considerations (p. 18; see also Wilczynski, 1997). This is reiterated in Kirkwood’s study of filicide in Victoria, Australia, which identified “significant difficulties with the way in which mental illness is identified in filicide perpetrators.” She concluded that this may result in “a failure to recognise societal factors that are more important” including gender, masculine role expectations, and a cultural discourse of family violence mobilized around filicide cases (2012, pp. 30–31).

Like Eriksson and colleagues (2016), Kirkwood (2012) argues that developing an understanding of fathers’ reasons for killing their children matters, because research findings show that mothers have different motivations. Both factors are central to gender dynamics around family violence, with Kirkwood describing a “particular subset of filicides” characterized by revenge as “a form of violence against women” (p. 7). She argues that the media’s depiction of “inexplicable” filicides occurring in parental separation contexts are in fact “the extreme end of a continuum of intimate partner violence” (p. 91; see also Elizabeth, 2016). These Victorian findings are consistent with European research by Putkonen and colleagues (2016). Putkonen and colleagues’ (2016) study of all filicide cases and perpetrators in Austria and Finland (1995–2005) shows “filicidal fathers are statistically more likely than their female counterparts to have a background of marital instability, to be separated or at risk of separation, and to have a history of domestic violence” (p. 199). They group filicidal parents into five sets: homicidal–suicidal fathers; violent, impulsive parents; single, sober parents; prosocial, psychotic parents; and infanticidal mothers (p. 202). Consistent with the limited knowledge of paternal filicide in Australia, the “‘social situation’” of those in the Finland–Austria sample “seems to be worse than that of the filicidal mothers” (p. 199, citing Mugavin, 2008) with relationship breakdown and ensuing jealousy a common factor (p. 204; Wilczynski, 1995b). Putkonen and colleagues found most filicide perpetrators fit the “single, sober parents” group: “mostly not intoxicated at the time of the crime, nor were they impulsive by nature” (p. 205). Wilczynski’s (1997) study of filicide offenders in British courts shows the criminal justice system “respond(ing) very differently to men and women who kill their children” and reinforces wider stereotypical gender assumptions about men as “bad and normal” and women as “mad and abnormal” (p. 419). Wilczynski reviewed 48 case files from 1984 and a sample of 24 fatal and 23 nonfatal cases in London between 1980–1990. She found that women were less likely than men to be prosecuted but more likely than men to “use ‘psychiatric’ pleas [64% compared to 30%] and receive psychiatric or non-custodial sentences.” Men “use(d) ‘normal’ pleas and receive(d) prison sentences” as a reflection of the operation of “informal mechanisms of social control” that impact more heavily on women than men in legal processing (p. 419). According to Jewkes (2015, p. 109) the fact that “violence is viewed as one of the many possible behaviour patterns for men” in a sociocultural context where “masculine violence is articulated, glorified, even fetishized” (p. 133) drives these gendered mechanisms of social control—evident also in family violence and male violence against women cycles (Polk, 1994). Jewkes’s study (2015, p. 109) affirms feminist scholarship that identifies how the “media tap into, and magnify, deep-seated public fears about deviant women” (see also Huckerby, 2003, p. 149). Feminist research observes notions of appropriate male and female roles and behaviors within heteronormative patriarchal cultures’ (e.g., Britain and Australia) sociocultural constructions of parenthood. Cultural studies research shows that homicidal men are depicted as rational and, sometimes, not responsible for their crimes. This was the case with Robert Farquharson in Australian media representations around the court cases that followed his triple filicide (Kirkwood, 2012; Little, 2015; Tyson, 2009). A similar process of oversimplification and polarization has been found to underscore media portrayals of filicidal fathers as “rational” and “premeditated” in the Israeli press (Cavaglion, 2009). With mothers who kill, the media position is that the killing is perceived as inconsistent with her natural biological role (Cavaglion, 2008).

Tyson (2009) observes as an increasing “deployment of user-centred online technologies by family and friends of (an) alleged offender to articulate concerns over miscarriages of justice” (p. 182). The “miscarriage of justice” activism for a guilty paternal filicide perpetrator contrasts with the treatment of women accused of the crime. Naylor (1990, 2001) and Goc (2009, 2013) note that media representations of “mad” mothers tend to preclude their right to a presumption of innocence. Instead, the “evil mother” becomes “Medea in the media” (Barnett, 2006): a stereotype that shaped Australia’s notorious Chamberlain case. Media coverage of the alleged infanticide case brought out what Howe (2005) describes as “the worst in the nation” (p. 299), fueling Lindy Chamberlain’s wrongful conviction (1982) for killing her baby daughter Azaria at Uluru. Lindy Chamberlain, “vilified by most of the media” after the loss of her child, personifies how perceptions of guilt and innocence around filicide are gendered, and determined, by a media cultural milieu in which “national identity is contested and malleable—and may be expressed in hostile ways” (Staines et al., 2009, p. 5).

Filicide in the Australian Media

Australian media representations of filicide have had profound cultural and criminal justice consequences. High profile cases present easily accessible examples of how these consequences play out when media and legal narratives reproduce (or disrupt) ideas about gendered social roles and their significance to filicide as a crime that “transgresses boundaries of what is considered normal and acceptable” (Walklate & Petrie, 2013, p. 266). To illustrate these phenomena, this article situates the case of Lindy Chamberlain, wrongly convicted of the murder of her baby daughter Azaria, as the exemplar story of a misdirected criminal justice process that has held public interest for decades, inspired literary and cinematic interpretations of its dramatic events, and turned its key protagonists—Lindy, the legal system, and the dingo—into some of the most significant in Australian cultural narrative. While not a case of infanticide, the Chamberlain case, as “the most highly publicized trial in Australian history” (Staines et al., 2009) has enduring sense-making value for comprehending how Australian national fictions (Turner, 1993) about identity not only shape public perceptions but also impact on understandings of criminal culpability for filicide.

Other Australian media representations of paternal and maternal filicide provide some insight into the ways that narratives about social roles materialize as criminal behavior, and public responses to these narratives. Expectations around the gendered roles of motherhood and fatherhood are, for example, involved in simplifying, stereotyping, or rationalizing perpetrators and their actions in media culture. However, little is known about the extent to which similar processes might be at work in the individualized, private spaces of the family or intimate relationship leading up to a parent committing filicide. Because of these intersecting complexities of gender, media culture, and criminal justice procedures and ideals, representations of Australian filicide cases tend to draw upon deeply entrenched beliefs about femininity and masculinity to be able to make sense of a crime that seems otherwise inexplicable. These discursive and visual representational processes correlate in fictional, as well as factual, media cultural texts.

To suggest a directional approach to “reading” filicide in popular and media culture as a way of developing understanding of the crime, examples of high profile filicide cases are usually discussed in relation to the contextual social justice issues through which they are mostly reported and researched. Given that rates of paternal filicide are higher in Australia than those of maternal filicide, the focus here is on three of the most highly publicized and culturally significant cases. It is hoped that the succinct discussion of three of the “worst case” examples of paternal filicide signposts future research aimed at improving understanding of the crime.

Defining Filicide

Filicide has been defined as “the murder of a child up to the age of “18 that is committed by the natural parent” or a guardian (West et al., 2009, p. 463). In definitional terms, filicide is now usually distinguished from infanticide, or the parental killing of a child who is less than a year old. More specifically, a child murder is classified as filicide if the victim is aged over 12 months (Debowska, Boduszek, & Dhingra, 2015, p. 114):

The term covers killings by genetic, step and de facto parents and the more specific crimes of neonaticide (the murder of a child within 24 hours of birth) and infanticide (the killing of a child under 1 year of age and defined in some jurisdictions, e.g. the UK, as necessarily involving a mental impairment).

(Carruthers, 2016, p. 31)

Filicide deaths classified according to the number of deaths in an event include single filicide (the death of a single child); multiple filicide (the death of two or more children); filicide-suicide (the death of a child/ren followed by the suicide of the perpetrator); filicide-homicide-suicide also called familicide (the death of a child/ren and intimate partner homicide, which in some cases may be followed by the suicide of the perpetrator) (See, e.g., Johnson, 2005; O’Hagan, 2014).

Resnick’s (1969) review of 131 American cases of filicide distinguished filicide as “the murder of a child after its role in the family has been more firmly established,” and first proposed neonaticide for parental killing of a child within 24 hours of birth (Resnick, 1969, p. 73). Neonaticide and infanticide were the only categories that superseded what Resnick usefully termed motive categories, and remain the only categories used in research to distinguish filicide events according to age.1 While it is widely recognized that filicide events can be classified according to the number of deaths in an event or even according to the number of offenders, Resnick’s review (1969) established five categories, discussed below, which dominated the understanding of filicide for over four decades. More recent research defines filicide as the killing of a child by their parent, guardian, or equivalent; however, research on filicide in Australia remains a relatively recent phenomenon (Brown et al., 2014).

The Research Terrain

Resnick’s mid-century classification model of filicide by apparent motive is supported by much of the international research to date (Knabb, Welsh, & Graham-Howard, 2012, p. 532). His American psychiatric study observes five possible reasons for parents’ homicidal acts (altruistic, acutely psychotic, unwanted child, accidental, and spousal revenge) but Resnick cautions that filicide “may be unconsciously multidetermined”—as is consistent with efforts to look for sociocultural, as well as psychiatric, dimensions of filicide and other forms of family-centered violence. However, 40 years after Resnick’s study, Neil Websdale emphasizes the “invisible and intangible aspects of abuse, those emotionally intense shifts in intimate relationships” as a central research focus for a study of 211 family killings and homicides reported in global newspapers (Websdale, 2010, p. 5). His “emotional continuum” approach assessed how “the range of perpetrators” emotional styles’ affected their “management of anger, rage, hostility and aggression.” Websdale’s (2010) newspaper content analysis did not include coverage of cases where parents killed children without also killing intimate partners and/or themselves. In Australia, as well as elsewhere, there is research showing that none of the emotions Websdale observes on the familicide “continuum” necessarily motivates filicide. Its media representation as either a “cold-blooded” crime of “rational intent” (Cavaglion, 2009, p. 134) or a consequence of “mental abnormality” or “diminished responsibility” (Wilczynski, 1997, p. 422) does not support the notion that the public ever views filicide as an emotional reaction or impulse.

Since Resnick’s pioneering work, filicide research has moved away from a focus on motives as explanations to recognizing complexity through identification of perpetrator characteristics and factors associated with the deaths. These include “the family’s social situation and domestic arrangements, the offender’s gender and mental health status, criminal history and substance-abuse history, the age of both the offender and the victim, the method of killing, and the offender’s motives” (Putkonen et al., 2016). Recent Australian research into possible motives for, and conditions contributing to, the commission of filicide by either mothers, fathers, stepparents, or equivalent guardians found that most offenders tend not to express motives (Mouzos, 2000; Mouzos & Rushforth, 2003). Rejecting Resnick’s motive classificatory schema, gender, mental health, and spousal relationship has been found to be potential significant factors in subsequent research. Up to 2012, there had been “no comprehensive Australia-wide research, specifically on filicide, which examines gender differences between perpetrators” and “very little research providing gender comparisons in Australia” (Kirkwood, 2012, p. 34). A 2014 study of 42 filicide cases in Victoria from 2000–2009 notes that Australia “lacks any comprehensive review of filicide cases” (Brown et al., 2014, pp. 79–80) that might be able to make more general observations about the psychosocial circumstances around filicide (Stroud, 2008). For the data confined to Victoria only, the most common factors associated with filicide were mental illness of the offender, most often depression rather than psychosis and most common across all perpetrator groups including mothers, fathers, and stepfathers; separation from the other parent; domestic violence, particularly perpetrated by stepfathers and suffered by mothers; substance abuse, particularly common among stepfathers; and child abuse, particularly common among stepfathers. When the researchers extended their study in 2016 to a national data set covering a decade (2002–2012), the study confirmed factors that had previously been identified in the national and overseas studies; such factors were intimate partner violence, mental illness, parental separation, and substance abuse. While the identified prevalence of these factors varied across each state and territory, the study shed new light on the prominence of stepfathers who were found to have histories of domestic violence, child abuse, and criminal offenses, all of which suggest a propensity for causing the deaths of children when they are in their families (Brown et al., 2014). Despite these developments in the field, the media’s portrayal of these tragic cases tends to treat them as “inexplicable” (Kirkwood, 2012, pp. 5, 91) while also attempting to find an explanation, most often through oversimplification and cultural stereotyping.

“Evil Angels:” Mothers Who Kill

A keener awareness of maternal filicide has developed from the greater familiarity of the public with stories about homicidal mothers compared with news reports of fathers, stepfathers, or parental figures who kill children in their care (West et al., 2009, p. 467). Some of this cultural assumption of filicide as a “female” crime is attributable to production-based media practices; there is enduring news value in stories about children killed by their mothers. It is also attributable to early criminological positivistic theories of deviancy—from Lombroso to Freud—that located the causes in individual pathology and personality: “[f]emale criminality was dichotomised as either ‘mad’ or ‘bad’,” and whether they were treated leniently or more severely “depended upon their conformity to the appropriate stereotype” (Brookman, 2005, p. 178). This is particularly the case for crimes such as infanticide and filicide that disrupt the ideological construction of the family as a private and feminine domain and associated gender roles such as “mother” and “child.” Yet the reproduction of gendered notions of deviance through which filicide cases are often reported occurs through relations between multiple structural and symbolic phenomena that are neither linear, nor transparent. Mainstream media representations of motherhood tend to reflect its stereotypical ideal or perceived transgressions from it: the idealized angel and the monstrous villain (Goc, 2007; Johnson, 2009). These apparently contradictory mother figures arise from a relational order (sociocultural, public, and private) where men have dominated and regulated women through their bodies (Butler, 2006, pp. 52–53), especially through processes of reproduction and childcare. If homicidal new mothers have a long history of being demonized by media and popular culture (Barnett, 2006; Cavaglion, 2009; Spinelli, 2003) it is because childbirth and motherhood are made synonymous with femininity and nurturing within this order. The role of language and discourse in affirming and challenging such “ideologies of motherhood … [as] one of the more contested and confused sites of popular meaning” (Walters & Harrison, 2014, p. 39) is well established by feminist research (Butler, 2006; Carter, Branston, & Allan, 1998; Easteal, Bartels, Nelson, & Holland, 2015). All this explains (to some extent) how en masse hostility and suspicion toward Lindy Chamberlain,2 the woman accused of murdering her baby while on a family camping trip to Uluru in 1980, seemed to flourish from out of nowhere, from what she herself described as the night when she realized “every mother’s nightmare of not being able to protect her young” (Little, 2006, pp. 140–141). The Seventh-Day Adventist pastor’s wife was wrongfully accused of murdering her nine-week-old daughter Azaria and sentenced to life in prison after a spectacular “trial by media” in the spotlight of world media attention. The concept “trial by media” refers to the dynamic, impact-driven, news media-led process by which individuals—who may or may not be publicly known—are tried and sentenced in the “court of public opinion” (Greer & McLaughlin, 2010, p. 27). Moreover, while “[t]he targets and processes of ‘trial by media’ are varied,” what distinguishes “trial by media” from other conceptualizations of news media reaction, such as those associated with moral panic … in each case the news media behave as a proxy for “public opinion” and seek to exercise parallel functions of “justice” to fulfill a role perceived to lie beyond the interests or capabilities of formal institutional authority (Greer & McLaughlin, 2010, p. 27). According to Lindy Chamberlain, “the dingo as the culprit … was far outside the understanding of most people”; and the alternative, that she was guilty of infanticide, shattered expected feminine and maternal norms (Danuta Walters & Harrison, 2014; Kaladelfos, 2013) so decisively that a public perception of her guilt ultimately fused with legal narrative in a horror story for the Chamberlains that became an international cause célèbre. Following her release from prison two years into her life sentence after the discovery of Azaria’s matinee jacket at the base of Uluru, Lindy Chamberlain joined her many supporters in a struggle to restore justice.

The importance of narrative and the control of it for developing contemporary understandings of filicide in media culture is commemorated by the Chamberlain’s 32-year struggle to have the word “dingo” reinscribed on the certificate recording Azaria’s cause of death. While much scholarship on the Chamberlain case has blamed media sensationalism and pack mentality for the gross miscarriage of justice, Belinda Middleweek (2016) suggests that such “assumptions of a monolithic and hostile media” overlook the role of sympathetic counterpublics and their “dialogic connection” with media throughout the lengthy innocence campaign. This campaign is articulated in important “popular non-fiction” books about the Chamberlain case, including The Chamberlain Case: The Legal Saga That Transfixed the Nation (2012), by Chamberlain defense barrister and former Judge Ken Crispin. John Bryson’s 1985 book, Evil Angels: The Case of Lindy Chamberlain, was adapted for screen a year later and released (as with Bryson’s novel) to the international audience as A Cry In The Dark (dir. Fred Schepisi), starring Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain and Sam Neill as Michael Chamberlain. Lindy Chamberlain’s own autobiographical account, Through My Eyes, was published in 1990. In 2002, Opera Australia premiered Moya Henderson’s Lindy: An Opera in Three Parts at the Sydney Opera House, with soprano Joanna Cole as Lindy and David Hobson as Michael Chamberlain. A major critical anthology, The Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law, Memory (2009), edited by Deborah Staines, Katherine Biber, and Michelle Arrow, gathered key documents from proceedings around the case as well as analysis of its legal and cultural significance. Critical work focusing on the role of the gender stereotyping of Lindy Chamberlain as the “monstrosity” of the “evil mother” is, along with this cultural material, crucial for approaching not only the Chamberlain case, but cases of filicide where the perpetrator has actually committed the crime, from a perspective that accounts for more than the media in processes of cultural stereotyping and oversimplification. The Lindy Chamberlain media persona (as distinct from the actual woman) brought out what Adrian Howe (2005) describes as “the worst in the nation” (p. 299), but that “worst” was already well entrenched before news reporters arrived at Uluru. Yvonne Jewkes (2015, p. 109) suggestion that the feminist critical contention that the “media tap into, and magnify, deep-seated public fears about deviant women” is enabling for research on filicide that aims to account for the complexities involved in identifying factors of risk and points of early intervention and prevention (see also Huckerby, 2003, p. 149). This is a different argument to one that concludes that the media are solely responsible for derailing justice for the Chamberlains, or for articulating the legal process around filicide beyond the limited “outsider” knowledge that journalists bring to court proceedings and police reports (Johnston & McGovern, 2013, p. 1670). Middleweek’s (2016) observation of a critical propensity to contract the Chamberlain case into trial-by-media frame helps instead to address the gaps in knowledge of filicide (Elizabeth, 2016; Wilczynski, 1991, 1995a, 1995b) for criminology researchers and, by extension, public understanding.

According to Deborah Staines, the Chamberlain case “now functions in Australian culture much like a myth, with its emblems part of a familiar story cycle” (Staines et al., 2009, p. 199). Lindy Chamberlain became a localized construct of that mythological “monstrous mother” Medea, who killed her children and gave rise to the “evil mother” motif that connects historic and contemporary narratives of filicide through continuous patterns of meaning and sense-making. The “evil mother” kills in popular culture (literature, drama, and film) and in real life because “Medea in the media” (Barnett, 2006; Goc, 2009) reproduces more than the myth of a homicidal woman who shatters sacred familial ideals. Paradoxically, Lindy Chamberlain found it disarmingly easy and horrifically tough, as a 1980s “Medea” persona, to fail the feminine performance of grieving, as well as that of motherhood (Douglas & Michaels, 2004). If the gender knowledge gaps in filicide research are to be addressed in ways that take into account these cultural processes around parenthood, a foregrounded question becomes, “How do fathers who do actually kill their children fare, in Australian media representations of paternal filicide?” Are men who kill their children also written off as either mad, or are they just bad (Wilczynski, 1997)?

Mad/Bad Men: Fathers Who Kill

In terms of socialized gender expectations this process of condemning the “evil angel” mother relies on symbolic forms of masculinity, especially those taking shape around fatherhood (Pedersen, 2012, p. 232). The paternal role model materializes in the public sphere as a “responsible citizen” who provides for and protects his family, whatever contradictory experiences might be occurring privately. The “evil angel” mother is interrelated symbolically, just as she is materially, with this father-provider-protector, as is evident in sense-making patterns not only evident in the extensive sociolegal narrative of the wrongful murder conviction of Lindy Chamberlain (Crispen, 2012; Little, 2006; Middleweek, 2016; Wood, 2009) but also in subsequent and relatively recent news media coverage of filicide cases where fathers kill children in the shadows of family breakdown and violence (Fish, McKenzie, & MacDonald, 2009; Jewkes, Flood, & Lang, 2014; Kirkwood, 2012).

While news coverage of women who kill their own children has been heavily criticized, post-Chamberlain, for deploying stock stories, stereotypes, and motifs about “monstrous motherhood,” analysis of Australian media representations of paternal filicide is comparatively scant (Collosso & Buchanan, 2012; Little, 2015). Stories about fathers killing their children have historically drawn on those familiar constructions of fathers’ responsibilities and roles as breadwinners and protectors within the family (Bell, 2013) mentioned above. The socially conventional masculine/paternal role aligns in media culture with complementary feminine/mother gender roles, and with studies of newspapers in developed countries that make a perpetrator and their crime “intelligible by how he is represented through articulations about gender, culture and social class” (Connell, 2005; Reimers, 2007). With paternal filicide in particular, the media’s attempts to “translate” an incomprehensible event to its bewildered, yet highly interested, public have it often reaching for a populist discursive paradigm of mental illness, as Jewkes discussion of honourable fathers vs monstrous mothers and the case of Robert Mochrie illustrates, (2015, pp. 154–159), whether or not such an illness is clinically present. However, oversimplified speculations about “mad” or “bad” men reinforce stereotypical or pejorative assumptions about mental illness as a sort of collateral damage in news reporting that has to at least attempt to identify a reason for a perpetrator’s actions (Kirkwood, 2012; Little, 2015). In this sense, the media’s recourse to “mad men” who kill their children invokes Resnick’s (1969) caution that filicide is a multidetermined crime where causes and motives might not be identifiable. This was a key reason why the 1997 case of missing Moe toddler Jaidyn Leskie turned out to be one of the biggest news stories in Australian history.

Filicide “Psychodramas”: Jaidyn Leskie and the Disempowered Man

On June 14, 1997, 14-month-old Jaidyn Leskie disappeared from the Moe home of his mother’s friend Greg Domaszewicz, who was babysitting Jaidyn alone that night. Nine years after Jaidyn’s body was found at a dam outside Moe and Domaszewicz was acquitted of his murder, the Victorian state coroner held a public inquest into the toddler’s death following appeals from Jaidyn’s grieving mother, Bilynda Williams (Murphy) (Moor, 2014). His 2006 report notes that there was enough evidence that Domaszewicz was responsible for Jaidyn’s death, given that it had occurred “on his watch,” that it had been caused by head injuries and a broken arm, and that Domaszewicz had disposed of Jaidyn’s body at the dam before going to pick up Bilynda from a night out at a local hotel. According to Melissa Campbell (2002), “one of the hallmarks of the lost child story is the figure of the culpable adult: a negligent parent or a malevolent attacker.” She writes that

In modern stories, the two roles are often collapsed. This is most notable in the case of Lindy Chamberlain, whose refusal to behave in a passive, submissive way deemed ‘proper’ for a bereaved mother made her seem more likely to have killed her own daughter (Higgins, 1994, p. 140). In the Leskie case, Bilynda Murphy was cast as the absent (perhaps negligent) mother. Every article mentioned that she had been drinking when Jaidyn disappeared … Greg Domaszewicz, meanwhile, was cast as the ‘stepfather’, whose lack of care for a child not his own had perhaps contributed to that child’s disappearance.

(Campbell, 2002, p. 118)

The prosecution of Domaszewicz for Jaidyn’s murder was, Campbell observes, based on the premise that his “‘tragically deficient’ babysitting skills had caused him to kill Jaidyn out of frustration.” In terms of filicide in the public arena, the Jaidyn Leskie murder trial thus marks and illustrates a confluence of legal and cultural narrative constructions of an “evil stepfather” persona who aligns in media culture with the “monstrous mother.” This masculine counterpart to the feminine “evil angel,” mobilized so powerfully in the Chamberlain case, personifies psychosocial “causes” of filicide through recurrent themes of alienation, dysfunction, and paternal inadequacy. To navigate filicide as a crime and a tragedy, both parallel narratives need, and therefore produce, “‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters [over] ambiguity and complexity” (Campbell, 2002, p. 117).3 For example, investigative journalist Robin Bowles’s book-length study of the Leskie case draws from media and police sources to depict Greg Domaszewicz as first inadequately masculine in a social circle based on drug use and aggression and, consequently, criminally “bad” as the last person to see Jaidyn Leskie alive (Bowles, 1999).

In the Leskie case, as well as in subsequent filicides, the stepfather or father figure involved in the murder of a child tends to be portrayed by the media as disempowered through loss of control: of mental health; or through perceived disempowerment in, or alienation from, a relationship with the mother. Current Australian filicide research shows that both circumstances are overriding factors in most paternal filicides or filicide-suicides more than in familicide (Mouzos & Rushforth, 2003, p. 4). The Robert Farquharson triple filicide case remains one of the worst examples of a “disempowered father” turned homicidal, as Farquharson murdered all three of his young sons to take revenge on his ex-wife (DPP v. Farquharson, 2007, at [7]).

Robert Farquharson

Robert Farquharson’s failure on Father’s Day 2005 to save his three sons from drowning in the car he drove into a local dam (Tyson, 2009) was first reported by the Australian media as a tragic accident (Butler & Cunningham, 2005). However, Farquharson was sentenced two years later to three non-parole life imprisonment terms for murdering Jai, 10; Tyler, 7; and Bailey, 2, after their mother, Cindy Gambino, told him their marriage was over and asked him to leave their family home (DPP v. Farquharson, 2007; Kissane, 2007).

On appeal, Farquharson was granted a retrial on all three murder charges but lost the support of Gambino who, up until his second trial three years later, had maintained that her estranged husband did not drown their children deliberately (Farquharson v. The Queen, 2012; Norris, 2013). Gambino changed her mind about supporting Farquharson when a new witness came forward upon reading news of his successful appeal against the murder convictions. Motorist Dawn Waite was driving behind Farquharson’s car on September 4 in Winchelsea, Victoria. She testified at the retrial that she saw the car veer sharply off the Princes Highway toward the dam. Along with police reenactments of Farquharson’s “coughing fit” version of how his car left the road and plunged into a dam, Waite’s evidence indicated that there was no attempt to apply brakes or steer clear of the water. A second trial jury subsequently found Farquharson guilty of three counts of murder. He was sentenced to three life sentences with no minimum term (DPP v. Farquharson, 2007; Tyson, 2009). According to Danielle Tyson, media cultural constructions of the “vengeful father” were constituted by this trial evidence. She notes that witness reports detailed how Farquharson’s “dam side conduct” did not reflect distress or normative expectations of fatherhood (Tyson, 2009, p. 184). In the media and research narrative of Farquharson’s second-time murder convictions he was portrayed not only as a failure at fatherhood but also as a man disempowered by his loss of power in the conventional family unit from which he was disconnected. In relation to this masculine disempowerment paradigm, many of the news stories amplify public reactions to news reports across the five years of the Farquharson prosecution “bring(ing) to the forefront a normalized and usually covert politics of representation that is powered principally by unchallenged assumptions about appropriate gender roles” (Little, 2015, p. 613). For instance, the post-trial portrayal of Farquharson as a “good bloke” who, his supporters maintained, was innocent (Donovan, 2011) repudiated any retaliatory motive and alluded to Cindy Gambino’s new relationship as the cause of his criminal acts. When Cindy Gambino told her own story in a 2013 book (Norris, 2013), details of Farquharson’s emotional immaturity and psychologically abusive behavior toward herself and their three children drew the triple filicide into the family violence context that was, prior to 2012, often omitted from media coverage of the crime. Helen Garner’s (2014) book, This House of Grief, was by contrast received by domestic violence campaigners as a tale of a jilted husband whose wife had “one day, out of the blue … told him that she was no longer in love with him” (Garner, 2014, p. 1). Australian researcher Jay Daniel Thompson criticizes Garner’s account for its silence on broader issues of inequality and male violence (Garner, 2014; Thompson, 2014). Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria research officer Mandy McKenzie argues that the book “reinforces narratives that excuse male violence and does little to further our understanding about why some men kill their partners and children.” She states that “This House of Grief only perpetuates the idea that these men are victims, enabling them to excuse the violence they perpetrate” (2014).

Arthur Freeman

Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria researcher Debbie Kirkwood’s (2012) study of filicide opens with the 2009 death of Darcey Freeman, 4 years old, thrown over Melbourne’s Westgate Bridge by her father, Arthur Freeman. Freeman is now serving a 32-year prison sentence for his daughter’s murder after being convicted of the crime in 2011 (R. v. Arthur Phillip Freeman, 2011). While the news media reported his act as “inexplicable” Kirkwood argues that such deaths are often “linked to violence against the mother” and “the nature of the relationship between the parents” (p. 5). Despite this, neither filicide research nor police reports always document histories of violence, mainly because it is underreported, and are even more likely to omit “the range of other forms of violence including emotional, financial, and controlling behavior” that occur apart from, or along with, physical violence (Kirkwood, 2012, p. 31). According to Kirkwood, retaliatory filicides are often “attributed to mental illness and therefore other motives may not be considered by researchers” (Kirkwood, 2012, p. 28). Media cultural conflation of paternal filicide with mental illness has been particularly problematic in the “worst” high profile Australian cases such as the Freeman case, where the perpetrator raised mental impairment as a defense. The jury in the Freeman case rejected that defense and found him guilty of murder (R. v. Arthur Phillip Freeman, 2011) , or “bad” and not “mad.” However, the media’s association of family roles and mental health “in a discursive matrix … in coverage that details private and personal events or issues leading up to [a] father killing his child” (Little, 2015, p. 607) has historically obscured the more complex circumstances of family violence and separation in which filicide occurs. In the Freeman case, it was found that Arthur Freeman killed Darcey the day after shared custody arrangements with his estranged wife Peta Barnes were altered by a court consent order (R. v. Arthur Phillip Freeman, 2011). Subsequent coverage of this, and other cases, ties state “legislative and ideological mechanisms for dealing with family breakdown (such as custody provisions, parental access and child welfare) … to individual mental health crises when fathers kill their children” (Little, 2015, p. 611), but tends not to invoke the same public policy discussions/concerns when mothers kill their children. Such nationwide community responsibility discussions around women and family violence have focused more recently on women as victims (Little, 2015).

Greg Anderson

Coverage of recent Australian filicide cases sometimes appears to represent family violence as a rational masculine response to the failure of the state to share with individual perpetrators some of the burdens associated with family breakdown. Along with the Freeman and Farquharson cases, this was evident, at least in news coverage of the crime itself, in the horrific murder of Luke Batty, 12 years old, by his father, Greg Anderson, at a Victorian community sporting ground in 2014. Luke’s mother, Rosie Batty, named 2015 Australian of the Year for her family violence advocacy work, helped shift reductive discourses on paternal filicide on from stereotypical and oversimplified assumptions about individual mental ill health. Rosie Batty’s ongoing advocacy work in Australia’s family violence context, including her establishment and management of The Luke Batty Foundation, and her leadership of a new Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council borne out of the Victorian Government’s 2015 Royal Commission into Family Violence, has been enormously transformative of policy and public engagement with preventative measures.4 Her book (written with Bryce Corbett), A Mother’s Story (2015), tells of the multiple intervention and custody orders that had been in place when Anderson killed Luke and was then shot by police. The 2015 findings from Luke Batty’s inquest “highlighted the critical need to improve the way that family violence risk, and the risk of filicide in the context of family violence, is assessed and managed across the service system.” Backed by a federally funded prevention initiative, public awareness campaigns around family and domestic violence centered on the physical assault of women and children in the home. Luke Batty was murdered by his father at an open community space, where the perpetrator then committed suicide-by-cop, with Rosie Batty present a short distance away. The mother’s presence at the scene brought a “private” problem into the public domain as:

In the news stories … the signifying word, ‘family’, is rendered both ‘feminine’ and private—despite Rosie Batty’s comment to journalists after the deaths of her son and estranged partner that ‘family violence happens to everybody’ (Ross, 2014). By comparison, mental illness is described as incumbent upon ‘us’ (i.e., Australian society and those assumed to be included in it) to negotiate and indeed confront.

(Little, 2015, p. 609)

Luke Batty’s murder made family violence so public that the social nature of the homicides it so often escalates toward (Polk, 1994, p. 3) was reflected by the Australian media more than had been the case prior to 2014. Disrupting, to an extent, the ideological construction of the family as a private, feminine domain, the role of gender in filicide was more explicitly about masculinity and the social ownership of associated familial roles such as “parent” and “child.” This model of social investment in filicide and its putative causes aligns with cultural analyses of the Jaidyn Leskie case where the child “lost” to parental failure became the face of community responsibility.

Future Directions for Filicide Research

The use of parental failure as an explanatory theme in filicide narratives characterizes the cases discussed above. Its gendered notions of feminine/masculine role performance in the socially conventional family are illustrated in an overlapping family violence discursive paradigm that is deployed in most current public discussion of paternal filicide. While mothers who kill their children are portrayed in media culture as “monstrous” or “mad,” murderous fathers are often viewed through a mental illness lens, or as reacting to state or structural inequities in dealing with family breakdown.

The gendered media framing of homicidal parents extends in Australia from the 1980s demonization of Lindy Chamberlain as an “evil angel” or “Medea in the media” into a contemporary sociolegal narrative that seeks to come to terms with filicide as an inexplicable crime. Since the 1990s coverage of the still unsolved Jaidyn Leskie murder, implicit cultural assumptions around masculine disempowerment have been evident to varying degrees in many more cases of paternal filicide. The more recent “revenge” murders committed by Robert Farquharson and Arthur Freeman, and the filicide-suicide of Luke Batty by his father, Greg Anderson, invite further analysis of how male perpetrator experiences of disempowerment (and loss of control) articulate under the rubric of family violence. Researchers and the media still find it difficult to navigate and translate the crime of filicide to the broader public because it is one that is so outside the conventional understanding of what a normal family is. A focus on the gender and power dimensions of filicide is one avenue for approaching media cultural representations of the crime.

Further Reading

Barnett, B. (2006). Medea in the media: Narrative and myth in newspaper coverage of women who kill their children. Journalism, 7(4), 411–432.Find this resource:

Cavaglion, G. (2008). Bad, mad or sad? Mothers who kill and press coverage in Israel. Crime, Media, Culture, 4(2), 271–278.Find this resource:

Cavaglion, G. (2009). Fathers who kill and press coverage in Israel. Child Abuse Review, 18, 127–143.Find this resource:

Collosso, T., & Buchanan, B. (2012). Media bias in cases of maternal vs. paternal filicide. Metamorphosis. Retrieved from this resource:

Cossins, A. (2015). Female criminality: Infanticide, moral panics and the female body. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Goc, N. (2007). Monstrous mothers and the media. In N. Scott (Ed.), Monsters and the monstrous: Myths and metaphors of enduring evil (pp. 139–164). Amsterdam: Rodopi. Retrieved from this resource:

Goc, N. (2009). Framing the news: “Bad” mothers and the “Medea” news frame. Australian Journalism Review, 31(1), 33–47.Find this resource:

Goc, N. (2013). Women, infanticide and the press, 1822–1922: News narratives in England and Australia. Abingdon, U.K.: Taylor and Francis.Find this resource:

Huckerby, J. (2003). Women who kill their children: Case study and conclusions concerning the difference in the fall from material grace by Khoua Her and Andrea Yates. Duke Law School Journal of Gender, Law and Policy, 10(Summer), 149–172.Find this resource:

Little, J. (2006). “The innocence in her beautiful green eyes”: Speculations on seduction and the “feminine” in the Australian news media. Pacific Journalism Review, 12(1), 131–145.Find this resource:

Little, J. (2015). “Family violence happens to everybody”: Gender, mental health and violence in Australian media representations of filicide 2010–2014. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 29(4), 605–616.Find this resource:

Naylor, B. (2001). The “bad mother” in media and legal texts. Social Semiotics, 11(2), 155–176.Find this resource:

Nikunen, M. (2006). Parenthood in murder-suicide news. Idealized fathers and murderous mothers. Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, 7(2), 164–184.Find this resource:

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Tyson, D. (2009). Questions of guilt and innocence in the Victorian criminal trial of Robert Farquharson and the fact before theory Internet campaign. Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 21(2), 181–204.Find this resource:

Wilczynski, A. (1991). Images of women who kill their infants: The mad and the bad. Women and Criminal Justice, 2, 71–75.Find this resource:

Wilczynski, A. (1995b). Murderous mothers and the Medea myth—A commentary on media perspectives on a multicide. Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences, 27, b6–12.Find this resource:

Wilczynski, A. (1997). Mad or bad? Child-killers, gender and the courts. British Journal of Criminology, 37(3) (Summer), 419–437.Find this resource:


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Cavaglion, G. (2009). Fathers who kill and press coverage in Israel. Child Abuse Review, 18, 127–143.Find this resource:

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(1.) There are no categories to distinguish older children or adult children (children aged over 17 years.

(2.) Lindy Chamberlain Creighton’s website includes case transcripts, a timeline and list of key people involved in the legal battles to clear the names of Lindy, and the late Michael Chamberlain,

(3.) Campbell’s “psychodrama” classification of the Leskie case, based on one of James Hull and Stephen Hinerman’s trio of media scandal types, is a useful contribution to reading filicide in Australian media culture. It emphasises that moral transgression in psychodrama scandal ‘does not really inhere in what someone does, but in who they are.