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Rebecca Wait on Toxic Masculinity, Violence and Control

Posted on 1st February 2021 by Mark Skinner

Rebecca Wait's Our Fathers, our Thriller of the Month for February, focuses on the legacy of a horrific family murder on the sole survivor and the inhabitants of the island community where it took place. In this exclusive piece, Rebecca reflects upon both her own experience of toxic masculinity and her researches into violent crimes perpetrated by men on their loved ones. 

When I was in my early teens, a local man murdered his wife and son. Then he killed himself. It was quite a big story at the time; we had a special assembly at school and were instructed not to speak to the press. Many of the details might sound familiar. This kind of crime is, depressingly, not uncommon and they tend to follow a similar pattern. They were, from the outside, a normal family. In fact, their lifestyle appeared enviable: they were affluent, professionally successful, had a lovely house, and so on. Outwardly a perfect family. The crime came seemingly out of the blue. I was shocked at the time to think that an ordinary man – someone mild-mannered like my own father – could suddenly go mad in this way and kill his family. 

I was wrong, of course. About many things, but mainly the part about him going mad. As an adult, I started to research this particular kind of crime – sometimes referred to as ‘family annihilation’ – and discovered that there is rarely any kind of ‘madness’ involved. Quite the contrary. In almost every case, these are cold and calculated acts, often involving a chilling degree of planning. The men who carry out these killings (and they usually are men; examples of female family killers are vanishingly rare) tend to have a long track-record of domestic abuse. They are not loving husbands, nor loving fathers. They are violent, controlling men who seek to exert ultimate power over their victims in their final act.

This reality is not always acknowledged in the way we talk about these crimes: all too often, we will focus on why he might have done it, what his motive might have been, whether he was suffering from some kind of mental collapse at the time. Newspapers reprint self-justifying suicide notes from the killer and write headlines about a devoted family man who suddenly ‘snapped’, who was devastated by his wife’s infidelity, by her attempt to leave him, or who fell apart under financial strain. Neighbours talk about how well-respected he was in the community. The victims themselves become secondary to the age-old story of the good man gone bad. 

I wanted to examine these attitudes in Our Fathers, and how they might contribute to the crimes themselves. Family killings like this, however appalling to most of us, don’t happen in a vacuum. The killer in Our Fathers is not born bad. This kind of violence is driven in part by societal attitudes and the sense of entitlement some men develop – are taught – from a young age with regard to the women they become involved with, and, by extension, their own children. Common to many of these killers is a sense of proprietorship towards their family; in their minds, whether consciously or unconsciously, they believe they own their female partner and children, and therefore have a right to control them. A similar mindset is shared by most domestic abusers, though the level of control they seek to exert varies. This goes a long way to explaining why women, and in some cases their children as well, are at the greatest risk of violence, or even death, when they try to leave the abusive relationship, or have just left it. This was the case with the murderer I referenced at the start of this piece: he killed his wife and son after his wife finally ended their marriage, having endured years of coercive control (not visible, of course, to most people on the outside). 

The problem of violence against women remains endemic in our society, despite a greater awareness of it in recent years. But identifying and deconstructing the attitudes that lie behind this kind of violence is one important way in which we can bring about change; for instance, what makes a man feel entitled to control a woman? How can we challenge the idea that many of our children still grow up with, that our society has an entirely different set of expectations for girls compared to boys, and vice versa? 

But besides looking at the psychology that underpins family annihilations, when writing the novel I was particularly interested in the aftermath of the killings. On the remote Hebridean island on which the story is set, the community’s reactions are complex, ranging from guilt and denial to a defence of the killer and a refusal, in certain characters, to acknowledge their own complicity in the horrific events. Long established community ties start to unravel in the wake of the killings. This kind of murder does not – should not – affect only its victims. It belongs to all of us, and we all have a responsibility to face up to what has happened, and why. 

Finally, alongside this focus on toxic masculinity, I was also interested in examining other forms of masculinity. Much of the novel focuses on Tom, the only survivor of the massacre, and how as an adult he must find a way to live with what his father has done. Is it possible to overcome such appalling early trauma? And with that warped version of masculinity as his model, what kind of man can Tom himself become? Besides writing, I teach in a secondary school, and can see first-hand what must already be obvious to most of us: that it’s as damaging to boys as it is to girls if we regard qualities like emotional warmth and tenderness as exclusively ‘feminine’. I don’t want that for the students I teach. None of us want that for our children. If we don’t provide our boys with a constructive, fluid model of masculinity, we are failing them as much as we are failing our girls. 

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