The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

"This is Why I Killed Your Kids"

Mothers who murder for revenge

July 2012.  Lisette Bamenga kills her two children (ages 5 and 4 months) by forcing them to drink a combination of juice and windshield wiper fluid. She then sealed off the windows, turned on the gas burners, and superficially slit her wrists. The motive; she believed her husband had cheated on her and gotten his lover pregnant.  A note beside the bodies read, “You got what you wanted.  The kids and I are in a better place.”  

May 2012.  “Hope she was worth it.”  Stacy Smalls posted a Facebook image of this slogan on the side of a car before she suffocated her 18-month-old twins and attempted to poison her 4-year-old daughter.  She apparently killed her children in a jealous rage, believing her husband was having an affair with another family member.

May 2009.  Amanda Jo Stott-Smith throws her 4-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter off the Sellwood Bridge into the icy-cold Wilamette River to get revenge on her estranged husband.  He reportedly had a new girlfriend and had been awarded custody of the children a month before.

The list goes on ... Theresa Riggi, Francis Router, Debra Mike ...

Why Mothers Kill

Men and women are equally capable of killing their own children.  But a new study suggests that the motives for killing are often different.  Some mothers, like Andrea Yates, are so psychotic or depressed that they convince themselves the child/children are better off in the next life; hence, they believe they are perpetrating a “mercy killing.” Others, like South Carolinian Susan Smith, cold-bloodedly kill their children because they are viewed as obstacles to a better life.  Revenge is far down the list of what typically motivates a mom to murder; in fact, it’s much more likely to drive a father to kill his child.

Revenge Can Be Harmful to Your (Kids’) Health

However, it happens.  In fact, it happens more often than you might think. And there are often clues that point to revenge as the motive.

Infidelity and loss of custody are common in revenge-motivated child murders. In some cases, the two co-exist; the husband has been unfaithful (or it is believed that he has), the marriage is over, and now the wife believes she may lose again.  For the bitterly enraged wife, this is unbearable; he is not going to “win.”  In fact, she would rather kill her children than see her husband awarded custody.  “If I can’t have them, neither are you.”

Another common thread is the superficial (or lack of a) suicide attempt.  Many women who kill their children also kill themselves or make a serious attempt to do so.  In contrast, if the goal is to make the spouse suffer, there may be a desire to remain alive to take pleasure in the vengeance.

The Bottom Line

While revenge-motived filicide by mothers is rare, it’s existence has been recognized for centuries.  Think of the Greek myth in which Medea killed her two young sons to get back at her husband for his extramarital affair with a neighboring princess. This story provided a unique insight into the use of the murder of children by one parent to inflict revenge on the other.  What it could never capture, though, is the psychological devastation of those left behind, or the unfulfilled promise of the lives that are lost.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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