MICHELLE Stephen was a wonderful mother. Everybody said so. Right up until the moment she killed her five-year-old son Leon and then herself in her home in Sighthill, Edinburgh, last week.
Neighbours and colleagues at St Augustine’s High School, where she worked as a secretary, agree the Michelle they knew was steadfast, caring and bubbly. A photograph taken three months ago on her hen night shows her smiling broadly; in 2009 a mother’s day message from Leon, in a local newspaper, read: “Mum, Thank you for being there and making me such a happy little boy.” Yet, on Tuesday, when the struggle of living became too much for her, she ended both their lives, apparently unwilling to leave this world without her son.
Eighteen months earlier – and just a short distance away – another apparently devoted mother had killed her three children. Theresa Riggi’s twin sons Austin and Luke, eight, and her daughter Cecilia, five, were the centre of her universe. Always impeccably turned out, they came across as cherished and closely bonded – although, as they were home-schooled and encouraged to wear locator tags when out of her sight, some suggested her love bordered on the obsessive.
In the midst of an acrimonious custody battle, Riggi stabbed all three to death before stabbing herself, causing a gas explosion and jumping head first out of the window of their flat. Riggi survived and was jailed for 16 years after being found guilty of culpable homicide on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
And then there was Alison Gorrie. On Christmas morning, 2002, she bludgeoned her son to death with a golf club in their flat in Leith before jumping out of the window. She suffered serious spinal injuries and was later sent to the secure unit of Edinburgh Royal Hospital. Earlier in the year, before the break-up of her marriage, she had posted a message on the Friends Reunited website: “We have a son Brendan, who’s just turned five. He’s the best thing that has ever happened to us,” it said.
Such acts of filicide are very different from killings carried out by young, under-educated and often deprived girls, who kill as a result of prolonged neglect or abuse. They are deliberate (as opposed to inadvertent), often involve the deaths of all the children in the family, and, unusually for women, sometimes involve the use of a weapon.
Those who have investigated them say they are also very different from filicides committed by fathers, who so often seem to kill their own children as an act of revenge, or those by so-called family annihilators who, having in their own eyes financially failed those they were meant to protect, choose to wipe them all out.
So what drives these seemingly good mothers to turn on their own children? Are they motivated by selfishness? Are they, driven by a warped sense of altruism, trying to save them from a cruel world? Or have they become so wrapped up in their identity as mothers they can no longer see the line where their lives end and their children’s begin?
Society has always been fascinated by mothers who kill. Ever since Medea took the lives of her children, Mermeros and Pheres, as an act of revenge against Jason for his sexual betrayal, the crime has been regarded as the embodiment of all that is unnatural.
Yet so common is the phenomenon that in the US it is estimated up to three children a day die at the hands of their mothers, and 11 of the 49 women on death row have been convicted of maternal filicide. Researchers believe between 16 and 29 per cent of killing by mothers involve murder/suicide.
Dr Cheryl Meyer, professor of forensic psychology at Wright State University, in Ohio, and author of the books, Mothers Who Kill Their Children and When Mothers Kill, is one of the few academics to have studied the subject in depth. She divides such women into five broad categories: those who kill within the first 24 hours after birth (who are very often pregnancy deniers); those who kill through neglect; those who kill through abuse; those who kill with a partner; and those who kill suddenly and purposefully (and often attempt suicide afterwards).
“Unlike the women in the other categories, who maybe got pregnant at 16 and had four children by the time they were 20, the women in the purposeful category tend to be older and to have gone to great lengths to get pregnant,” she says.
Like Stephen, whose father Jim Weir died of cancer earlier this year, they are likely to have suffered a recent bereavement or loss. A significant proportion will have had an unsettled childhood, or have been abused.
Interviewing prisoners at Ohio Reformatory for women, Meyer found many mothers who killed their children had felt lonely and isolated. Some had lived a transitory existence even as adults, leaving them short of friends and dependent on their children for their self-esteem.
The majority of mothers who kill in this way are also suffering from – or have suffered from – a mental illness. “There is often evidence of depression or bipolar syndrome or sometimes psychosis,” Meyer says. “Susan Smith [who famously strapped her children into their car seats and let the car roll into the lake before claiming the vehicle had been carjacked], wasn’t currently under psychiatric care, but she had been sexually and physically abused as a child and had attempted suicide several times in the past. Andrea Yates [a woman from Texas who believed she was possessed by the devil and drowned her five children in the bath] had suffered post-natal depression and was on anti-psychotic drugs.”
In many other cases, however, the mental illness is so well hidden that to the outside world the women seem like ideal mothers. “When you talk to people after the death of a child has occurred they will say, ‘I’m shocked. She was such a good mother’. They will say there was no evidence of attachment disorder.”
Although these women are often involved in custody battles, they rarely kill their children as an act of revenge. In 2003, farm labourer Keith Young drove his four sons to an isolated beauty spot in north Wales after discovering their mother – his ex-partner – was expecting a baby with another man. Once there, he poisoned them with fumes from a lawnmower in the car and forced her to listen to them die, one after the other.
According to Myer, it is virtually unheard of for women to demonstrate this kind of “screw you” mentality. The problem is more likely to be that they have become so enmeshed with their children they start to see them as an extension of themselves. “I really didn’t understand this until I talked to mothers who had killed [and then failed in a suicide attempt] in jail,” she adds.
“They would say ‘These children were such a part of my life, I had to take them with me. I could no more leave them behind than I could leave my arm behind. If I didn’t kill the children I wouldn’t be truly killing myself.”
Professor Kevin Browne, director of the Centre for Forensic Family Psychology at the University of Nottingham, says murder suicides are difficult to predict because so often there is no history of violence. “These killings are associated with a sense of desperation to the extent the women wants to kill herself,” he says. “The children are killed, one, because the woman doesn’t want anyone else to look after them and, two, some of them believe in an afterlife and want to care for their child again on the other side.
“But the one big factor that distinguishes women committing filicide from men is that sometimes women kill their children in the context of self-harm. They see their children as part of themselves, so to harm their children is to harm themselves. Men don’t tend to do that. Indeed self-harm in women is a risk factor for violence towards children, while self-harm in men is not.”
Certainly, many of these factors seem to apply to the Edinburgh cases; all three were older mothers (Riggi was 46) who doted on their children. They all suffered, it would seem, from some form of mental instability and were all experiencing a crisis. None had a history of violence. Riggi, who was American, had moved about, from California to Aberdeen and then to Edinburgh, which could have made her over-dependent on her children. Certainly, the judge said her love for them was “genuine if abnormal and possessive.” After the killings a friend described her as “very together.” But doctors diagnosed her as having paranoid, narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders.
“Any personality disorder is a worry because it means you are preoccupied with your own concerns and don’t understand, necessarily other people’s perspectives,” says Browne.
For those women who survive their suicide attempt, a lifetime of recrimination lies ahead. “They are, as you would imagine, very remorseful,” says Meyer. “One of the most common things they say to us is that there is nothing anyone could do to them that would be worse than what they do to themselves every day.”
In many of these cases, the killing is so out of the blue little could be done to prevent it. Sometimes this is because mothers are unwilling to ask for help. As Meyer’s co-author Michelle Oberman says: “There is a shame inherent in confessing even a minor struggle with motherhood. Women are expected to cope with, and indeed revel in, motherhood.”
So conditioned are we to see mothers as protectors that even when they are obviously a threat, we can’t bring ourselves to believe it. By the time Yates killed her five children, for example, she was on anti-psychotic drugs and had made repeated threats against them. Yet, no-one intervened. “There is a collective denial, even when mothers come right out and say, ‘I shouldn’t be trusted with my kids,’ ” medical anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes has said.
When contemplating such heinous acts, it is easier to write off the perpetrators as mad or bad than to countenance the possibility we might all be capable of committing them. But Meyer says what shocked her most about interviewing these women was the realisation that most of them were just ordinary people under extraordinary pressure. “These mothers are not monsters at all,” she says. “We looked at them and said, ‘This could have been us.’ Had we made one different decision, we could have been them.