From Mass Murders to Mania: What’s the family got to do with it?

Murray Bowen, MD draws how people in the family influence one another. Fusion and confusion exist when one does not know how to manage self in the family system

What goes on in a family that produces a mass murder or severe symptoms of any type?  Were the family members cut off, over controlled, over-protected, physically abused, despised or were they kings, queens or just a prince or princess? Were they suffering from an emotional shock wave, a family reaction to death?  What are the dynamics of these families?

In April, I started working on a blog about these families, and then my own family had problems that demanded my attention. Could I put together the interest I had in the Sri Lanka terrorist attacks, (where 350 died and 500 wounded) and my family issues were my brothers had become symptomatic?

 The one thing that all disturbing events have in common is that they create anxiety.  Any threat makes people feel more anxious.  Increasing concern alerts the group – we must adapt. How a family manages, stress occurs due to the level of maturity and reactivity in the individual family members.

There are three points to increase our awareness about families: 1) How can we perceive more clearly how different kinds of families organize themselves to deal with a crisis during the time of distress? 2) How can one informed family leader can make a difference?  3) Lastly, there is the role of society, the laws, and incentives that make it more difficult to understand how people can be useful to each other.  For example, there are many constraints as to family members knowing about the health of a family member.

Can a focus on the individual ever lead to understanding the family as a system? Or does one have to unlearn explanations about what is inside the individual, to see how the individual functions as a part of a network of relationships?

How it is that we humans seem so uninterested in the family and its emotional system? Few consider that the network of relationships can be regulating our behavior in ways we can only slightly comprehend. For example, when nodal events happen, shock waves of threat and upset is communicated to various family members.  The information makes people more fearful and seems to produce a cluster of symptoms in those who are weaker in the system. Bowen called this the emotional shock wave.

Events happen, anxiety spreads, and then we can observe that there are clusters of symptoms following or in anticipation of death. Since few have examined the families of mass murders, we do not know if they are also acting out some family anxiety.  Does the event happen following a death?  Or perhaps there is a history of isolating or criticizing family members that make some vulnerable to acting out the anxiety by wanting to kill self or others. 

The point is that anxiety rises in the family, and one or more people can become symptomatic. We can often see this building up by noting an increase in the four mechanisms that manage anxiety: distance, conflict, reciprocity, and child focus.

Following is the current example of my family managing the anxiety around an emotional shock wave. Symptoms in more family started after Stella Schara died at six weeks old from sudden infant death syndrome. Then, Delia, my 2nd cousin died.  Her mother, Liz, is my closest cousin on my father’s side of the family.  Delia died after an eleven-year fight with cancer. Three days later, the oldest of my two brothers, Butch, could not breathe and was hospitalized for COPD. “Butch” has a history of not doing well on steroid drugs and he began to show signs of mania.  My youngest brother and I went to see him. Drew became depressed. After being involved in his hospitalization for ten days, I felt dizzy for four days. Does it help that I have access to NeurOptimal feedback equipment? Does it help that many family members and friends have been there for the numerous hospitalizations for both brothers? Does it help that I know family systems ideas to get me through these emotional storms? 

Let us look at the family and see what we can learn. After WW II, my father drank as did my mother. Call it what you will, bi polar alcoholism, my parents could not function. Our maternal grandparents raised us from the ages of  9, 7, and almost 2.   My brothers had more pressure applied to them to be “the right kind of men” and were more negatively focused on, criticized, and punished. I was assigned the role of “little mother” to take care of my brothers. And yes, I still have that job, but I can be more flexible and sometimes wily in the role.  As I altered my functioning over time, there has been a significant change in the operation of the entire family, at least since Butch’s initial hospitalization in 1974, when his mother died. Initially, I went to work in a psychiatric hospital to learn what I could, and here I met Dr. Bowen. It was 1976.

Principles used in the effort to be more separate from the influence of the emotional system: The main principles guiding my efforts are

1) defining what I will and will not do, and being clear about what are my important life goals, and

2) lowering my anxiety to be a better observer of the family emotional process,

3) relating in a factual but positive way to people in the family without seeking approval and agreement.

4) getting to know people in my extended family.

The other issue that I am now being forced to learn about is how the mental health system is set up to impede help for the mentally ill who are rebels. Those who cannot see they need help are overprotected and irresponsible individuals.  They cannot earn the right to treatment until the person has regressed into a state of wanting to kill others or self.

Bowen and his theory of how social system work enabled me to develop a principled based way to relate to my family and all my brother’s friends and the mental health people who come in contact with them. The most significant pay off has been the closeness that developed with two of my cousins in my father’s family who have been fantastic in helping me and my bothers though this challenging time. The system changed and is far more supportive and less isolated.  There are fewer hidden agendas. More information is on the table for all to see. And I reminded curious as to how my and other families can produce different kinds of symptoms.  

Are families of bipolar people like those that produce mass murders, or is there some fundamental difference? Are people satisfied to say these mass murders are just mentally ill and that their families had nothing to do with it? Take the mass murders in Sri Lanka; two of the killings were from the same family.  Then just yesterday, May 29th, in my hometown of Virginia Beach, a man killed 12 people.  What was the problem that developed in that relationship system that no one knew what to do about the relationships issues, possibly as they did not think it was necessary? Will people close the book and say this shooter was just mentally ill, case closed?  What goes on that no one wants to know about the family lives of these people?

The last thing people in the news care about is the family life of mass murderers. Perhaps that’s because it would turn the world of the individual focus of mental health on its head. Maybe it is just too hard to alter bureaucracies, no matter the cost.  Perhaps we lack a leader who can explain to the world how better knowledge leads to better lives. As of now, people are satisfied. We do not need to understand anything about the family.

No one asks what went on in these killer’s brain when they were young or if the family was cut off from the extended family? Did the family criticism them harshly?  We need to know if the mother or the father use distance to escape the challenge of the relationships?  Did someone withdraw their love?  Who was trying to control whom?  Did parents keep their word?  Were they preoccupied? Were they angry and vindictive people, or were they overly indulgent?

How can we ever find out what kinds of interactions are in families that lead people to lose any sense of self or care for others?  What can we do if we discover that families pressure people with too much criticism?

Now Alexa (from Amazon) is already able to tell by listening to your voice if you’re depressed.  Soon she may shout out “Mom, you have criticized your son nine times and only said one positive thing about him in the last two hours. His serotonin is down, and he would be an easy target for groups that will honor him as a soldier, corrupt him, and lead him to believe that killing hundreds of strangers will be rewarded.” 

The incentives for giving in to the group are automatic, and weaker people may be vulnerable to kill for the sake of belonging. (Stanley Milgram (1933 – 1984) was a Social Psychologist who is most well-known for conducting a series of controversial experiments on Obedience to Authority Figures, called the Milgram Experiment. But now headlines that tell us it is not group pressure, “Revenge is blamed for the latest Sri Lanka attack leaving 257 people dead.  It was reported to be ‘retaliation’ for the massacre of Muslims in New Zeland.

No one asks if families are training camps for revenge.  Were the parents afraid of these soon to be killers? Did they give in to them?  Did the parents give them mixed messages, like “why don’t you grow up to be the way I want you to be?” Did they honor revenge and degrade the rights of people to live with different religions or lifestyles?  How can we know what goes on in these families without studying them?

Long ago, Murray Bowen was curious about how the family seems to function as an emotional unit.  He worked with families living in a hospital setting.  By observing only, no “help” from the staff, one individual would become a leader in the family. The first ones to change were the fathers. As the leader emerged with any plan, the family calmed down, and people became more thoughtful. Bowen developed his theory by “observing” the way family members relate to one another.

Bowen notes that in families with a schizophrenic member when anxiety was high, the weaker ones bore the most significant symptoms. Eventually, a self-selected family leader would pull out of the “we-ness” in the group. One person developed a backbone about what their principles were and what they would and would not do and communicated this to others.  Gradually the family members began to rise out of this undifferentiated mass.

Will we revisit having the families of mass murders live at National Institute of Mental Health, where we can observe how they relate to one another?

Currently, people focus on guns as the problem, but maybe it’s the relationship system that is the more fundamental problem. To pass a law requiring families of mass murders to held for some amount of time. This law would be about both holding people responsible and understanding people and the kinds of systems that pressure people into becoming a no self, a radicalized killer.

Perhaps not enough damage has been done by these mass murders. Maybe we do not care that much about families to pass such a law. 

We have researched the way that social pressure promotes people to go along and do things they would not do as individuals. Both revenge and rewards are given to those willing to die or kill as an authority person told them to do it, and now they are not responsible.  Isolated or cut off or overly involved in pleasing others may be vulnerable to dying for the group.

Families produce the seeds of our future.  For better or worse, we should acknowledge how and to what extent they influence us. We know very little about what goes on in family life that encourages individual to act out against society.  How might we go about adding to our knowledge and not pretending that families have nothing to do with the way people are.

Notes from the Media:

A husband and wife. A pair of brothers from a wealthy, upper-class family. A man with a law degree. Another who studied in the United Kingdom and did postgraduate work in Australia, before coming home to settle down in his native Sri Lanka.

Those are the profiles emerging Wednesday, according to Sri Lankan officials and local media, of the suicide bombers who killed more than 350 people in sophisticated, coordinated attacks on churches and hotels there on Easter Sunday. If the Islamic State’s claim of responsibility is valid, it would be the group’s deadliest terror attack.”

Suicide terrorism is the most extreme example of asymmetrical warfare.  It is dramatic, frightening and can be very useful for the terrorist group which employs it.  Suicide bombers can have certain psychological traits, still within normality classifications, which make them more likely to join a terrorist group (7). “Psychological autopsies” reconstruct the psyche of bombers and reveal personality traits different from other terrorists, such as a weak personality, social marginalization, rigid thinking, and low self-esteem.

A possible scenario is that a socially aloof individual joins others at a place of worship.  They share a common faith and similar interests.  They assume increasingly radical values.  Attachment to the group becomes so vital that it distorts perceptions and the individual feels obligated to participate in terrorist activity out of loyalty to the group (8) Suicide attackers frequently claim revenge as a powerful motivator.  This information comes from several sources such as the attackers’ pre-suicide written or video recordings, and the interrogation of failed or arrested suicide attackers. Also, their families will be rewarded for harmful and destructive actions. Saddam Hussein Palestinian suicide bombers $25,000.”