A week ago I attended the switching on of the Christmas lights in Coleford. If you have heard of this village during the past year, it’s likely to be because it’s where this family lived. I don’t want to write about this particular story because there’s someone left behind and just trying to imagine her pain is impossible. All the same, it was strange being in that place, for that cheery, festive reason. Perhaps it isn’t so strange if you live there all the time, but to me, because I don’t, there was something unreal about it all. How do these things happen and how do communities go on?
Four years ago Jon Ronson – author of the utterly brilliant Them - tried to make sense of the community Christopher Foster left behind after he killed his wife, daughter, animals and then himself. In an article for the Guardian Weekend magazine, Ronson travels to Maesbrook in Shropshire to talk to Foster’s friends and acquaintances:
I’m here because I want to immerse myself in Foster’s world, meet his friends and peer group, and try to put his unfathomable actions into some kind of context.
I remember this article – and am surprised it dates back as far as 2008 – because for a long time afterwards it haunted me. Here was a writer I really respected, whose views and intelligence I admired, who seemed to be engaged, if not in full-on victim blaming, then in seeking excuses for the brutal murder of a woman and her daughter. And yet there seemed to be something in the article which chimed perfectly with the reporting of this type of incident. When a “respectable” man kills his wife and child it’s not the same as someone presumed to be less admirable – a mere boyfriend, a partner, a man on benefits – killing the women with whom he lives. Male journalists and reporters seem to see themselves reflected in the ‘respectable’ killer, or at least, far from seeking to distance themselves, they try to understand. As a middle-class woman – someone immersed in the middle-class world and more than a little aware of the ways in which middle-class violence is brushed off as “just not a thing we do” – I find this frankly terrifying.
In his piece on Foster Ronson uncovers a world of aggressive sexism and cruelty yet is reluctant to apportion blame. He sees white, wealthy, boorish men hanging out in their club, telling racist and sexist jokes, yet seems to feel only pity:
In the old days, I think, jokes such as these were intended to display superiority, but now they seem to do the opposite. Although this is a lovely, rustic and quite posh shooting club, the men here seem a bit sad and ground down.
In trying to feel for a man who accrues a massive amount of debt and, rather than face the bailiffs, destroys not just his property but his wife and child, I feel Ronson ends up buying into Foster’s worldview. In the eyes of those who report on these cases, these women and children are indeed the possessions of the men who murder them:
It’s startling to hear Foster’s friends talk about how they empathise with his actions. I wouldn’t have guessed how on the edge people in this Shropshire enclave can be, and how easy it is – when lives start to go wrong, when their manhood and the trappings of their wealth are threatened – for the whole thing just to unravel.
And so by “people” we read “men” – those in possession of “manhood” and “the trappings of […] wealth”. As for women, well, perhaps we should consider ourselves forewarned. Killing us is apparently easy.
I’m not a criminologist or a sociologist or an academic feminist. My PhD’s in languages and literature, hence the links I make with these cases are weak and pretentious. I apologise for that. But I will say that when I read of these cases, and look at the way in which they’re reported, it does make me think of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Someone who’s a dreamer, dissatisfied with his/her life, has a few affairs, gets into debt, panics, kills self. The same pattern, only with one or two differences: Emma Bovary’s a woman, a fictional character and considered by many to be a selfish, self-indulgent knob. Your average family annihilator is male, real and taken deadly seriously. Oh, and he doesn’t just kill himself. He takes his whole family with him. Yet what is to blame? Pressure. The pressure of modern life. The pressure to work, the pressure to own. But never sexism. Never the ongoing belief that respectable family men own their families. To make another trite cultural reference, it’s all very Emperor’s New Clothes.
I do think it is worth exploring in greater depth why violence occurs in specific cultural contexts. Saying “it’s sexism” isn’t enough. But describing as a great man someone who murders his family isn’t, either, and nor is alluding to vague cultural pressures without calling them by name. If anything, this type of reporting adds to the feeling of pressure and threat behind closed doors, and to misplaced feelings of victimisation. In essence we are told family annihilation could happen – that it’s possible for “a nice man” to just flip – at any moment. Beyond breeding culture of fear and mistrust, what is this doing? And at what point does respectable reporting flip and turn into something far more sinister?