Evidence-Based Reviews

Parricide: Characteristics of sons and daughters who kill their parents

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Schizophrenia, difficult relationships are common among adult perpetrators


 

References

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Mr. B, age 37, is single and lives with his elderly mother. Since being diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s, he has been intermittently compliant with antipsychotic therapy. When unmedicated, Mr. B develops paranoid delusions and becomes preoccupied with the idea that his mother is plotting to kill him. He has been hospitalized twice in the last 5 years for physical aggression toward his mother. In the last 10 years, Mr. B has been placed in several group homes, but when he takes his medications, he is able to convince his mother to allow him to live with her.

During his most recent stay in his mother’s home, Mr. B again stops taking his psychotropic medications and decompensates. His mother becomes concerned about her son’s paranoid behavior—such as trying to listen in on her telephone conversations and smelling his food before he eats it—and considers having her son involuntarily committed. One day, after she prepares Mr. B a sandwich, he decides the meat is poisoned. When his mother tries to convince him to eat the sandwich, Mr. B becomes enraged and stabs her 54 times with a kitchen knife.

Mr. B is arrested without resistance. He is adjudicated incompetent to stand trial and is restored to competency within 3 months. Mr. B is found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) and is civilly committed to a state psychiatric facility.

Parricide—killing one’s parents—once was referred to as “the schizophrenic crime,”1 but is now recognized as being more complex.2 In the United States, parricides accounted for 2% of all homicides from 1976 to 1998,3 which is consistent with studies from France4 and the United Kingdom.5 Parricide’s scandalous nature has long attracted the public’s fascination (see this article at CurrentPsychiatry.com).

This article primarily focuses on the interplay of the diagnostic and demographic factors seen in adults who kill their biological parents but briefly notes differences seen in juvenile perpetrators and those who kill their stepparents. Knowledge of these characteristics can help clinicians identify and more safely manage patients who may be at risk of harming their parents.

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The public’s view of parricide: Fascination and horror

The public maintains a morbid curiosity about parricide. In ancient times, the Roman emperor Nero was responsible for the death of his mother, Agrippina. In 1892, Lizzie Borden attracted national attention—and inspired a children’s song about “40 whacks”—when she was suspected, but acquitted, of murdering her father and stepmother. Charles Whitman, infamous for his 1966 killing spree from the University of Texas at Austin tower, killed his mother before his rampage. In 1993, the trial of the Menendez brothers, who were eventually convicted of murdering their parents, was broadcast on Court TV.

Parricide also plays a role in literature and popular culture. Oedipus would have never been able to marry his mother had he not first killed his father. In the movie Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock told the story of Norman Bates, a hotel owner who killed his mother and preserved her body in the basement. In the novel Carrie, Stephen King uses matricide as a means to sever the relationship between the main character and her domineering mother. In 1989, the band Aerosmith released a song, Janie’s Got a Gun, about a girl who kills her father after he sexually abused her.

A limited evidence base

The common themes found in the literature on parricide should be interpreted cautiously because of the limitations of this research. The number of individuals assessed in these studies often is small, which limits the statistical power of the findings. Studies often are conducted in forensic hospitals, which excludes those who are imprisoned or commit suicide following the acts. Finally, most individuals studied were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder after the crime, which makes it difficult to distinguish the primary illness from the crime’s effect on a person’s mental state. Additionally, some individuals may be tempted to exaggerate or feign psychiatric symptoms in an effort to be found NGRI or granted leniency during sentencing. Despite these limitations, several conclusions can be drawn from these investigations.

The sex of the victims and perpetrators needs to be carefully considered when reviewing characteristics of those who commit parricide. Killing a mother is matricide, and killing a father is patricide.

Sons who kill their parents

Men are more likely to kill their parents than women.6-9 In a study of 5,488 cases of parricide in the United States, 4,738 (86%) of perpetrators were male.3 Common characteristics of men who commit parricide are listed in Table 1.5,8,10-14

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