There was another tragic murder suicide in Wangaratta on Anzac Day. According to police reports, Greg Floyd chased his partner Ora Holt and their four children from their home into a neighbour’s house. The children and the neighbours escaped, while Greg shot his wife to death and then turned the gun on himself.
The media coverage of this tragedy has followed a sadly predictable format: Police refer to the incident as a ‘domestic dispute’ which implies Ora, the victim, is somehow to blame — a subtle and insidious variation of the ‘it takes two to tango’ line of thinking.
Neighbours offer their impressions of Greg Floyd, the perpetrator. He was ‘quiet’, ‘shy’, ‘enjoyed time with friends’, ‘doted on his children’ and the events of Anzac day were ‘out of character’.
The town mayor wonders what could have made him ‘snap’.
Many who endeavour to shape the national conversation around violence against women, myself included, find this kind of reporting extremely frustrating. I saw this pattern frequently emerge during the two years I worked as National Media Engagement Manager for Our Watch, where I worked closely with the media industry to improve reporting of this sensitive issue.
It is a missed opportunity to contribute to a much-needed discussion about what lies behind these tragedies and how they can be prevented.
During my time at Our Watch, I remember sitting in a meeting with an editor at a major metro newspaper to discuss concerns members of the violence against women sector had in relation to the media’s reporting of two other murder suicides, that of Geoff Hunt and Damien Little.
The usual platitudes from neighbours and members of the perpetrators’ families — that they were ‘good blokes’ — featured prominently in the reporting of both these tragedies.
The editor, to her great credit, recognised the sensitivity and had sympathy for the concerns. But by way of explanation (and in her publication’s defence), she said something I will never forget: ‘our readers want to understand and we will not hold back anything that might help them make sense of these tragedies’.
Well yes, I whole heartedly agree with this editor’s intention to aid her readers’ in understanding. That is the job of a journalist. And I find it hard to criticize members of a community or family who voice their shock and confusion. They are, I believe, only reflecting the fact that we as a society have not yet looked at this issue closely, preferring to turn away and/or minimize and excuse it.
But my point is that relying on these kinds of observations about the perpetrators character, many superficial, don’t help. They contribute to a narrative that these tragedies are surprising, inexplicable, and, therefore, cannot be prevented. In fact, they often the logical extension of the desire for power and control that gives rise to violence against women.
This isn’t just my opinion. Countless peer reviewed studies have looked at intimate partner homicide and familicide (killing partners and children). But we don’t often hear from these experts or about their findings.
While the events in Wangaratta are subject to an ongoing police investigation and we can’t know what exactly happened on the days or months preceding this particular tragedy, we do know a fair bit about murder suicides involving intimate partners and children:
The research tells us:
- most women are killed by their partners in the context of a history of violence against them
- male perpetrators usually use violence as a form of control against their female partners for a considerable period of time before the homicide
- possessiveness and jealously are common characteristics of male perpetrators of intimate partner homicide
- most of the men are extremely jealous and believe their partner is having an affair, even when there is no evidence they are; they constantly monitor their whereabouts
- their disdain for women is strongly evident, as is their distrust and a sense of proprietary ownership which is intertwined with jealousy and anger
- in cases where the perpetrator also murders the children, research has revealed four types of killer: self-righteous, disappointed, anomic, and paranoid. In all cases, masculinity and perceptions of power sets the background for the crimes. The family role of the father is central to their ideas of masculinity and the murders represent a last-ditch attempt to perform a masculine role.
For the academically inclined, I can provide all the citations to peer reviewed journals. There are many. It’s not too hard to ‘find an expert’, because sadly research and expertise in this area has proven very necessary.
Others with tragically obtained insight are the few women who survive. David Adams book, “Why Do They Kill” is largely based on interviews with women who survived shootings, stabbings and strangulation.
In Australia, Dr. Ann O’Neill is, sadly, in the position to offer this kind of perspective. More than twenty years ago Ann was lying in bed sleeping when her estranged husband came and shot their two children, attempted to kill her and then committed suicide in front of her.
Since then, Dr. O’Neill has campaigned tirelessly to prevent domestic violence, with a particularly interest in how the media reports on these cases.
In a moving speech at the inaugural 2015 Our Watch Awards for exemplary reporting to end violence against women she said, “It was the “he was a nice guy”, it was the “he was like everyone else” that made me really want to do more.”
“These myths that led to the perpetration of blame being put everywhere but with him, the man who chose to buy a gun, to wait two months, to plan meticulously the killing of his whole family, while I had to continue on.”
Over the last few years, Australia has turned a corner in its willingness to recognize and address family violence. But this must be matched with improved reporting to aid us as we lead the world in change.
We must explore what lies behind these tragedies in depth, rather than dwell on the sensationalistic and superficial. Or continue to sit in collective befuddlement about how yet another ‘good bloke’ could do this. If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably know the answer to that question and have a pretty good idea what needs to change.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au In an emergency, call 000.