Dale Hartley Ph.D., MBA

Machiavellians: Gulling the Rubes

Most Family Annihilators Are White Males—But Not This Time

"That way madness lies." —King Lear

Posted Feb 28, 2019

In a squalid, Bucks County, Pennsylvania apartment occupied by seven people, police this week found five of them murdered.  The dead, all members of the same extended family, ranged in age from 9 to 42.  The survivors were a 45-year-old mother and her 19-year-old daughter who have been charged with the killings.   I will not type their names.  As a Washington newspaper wrote after Lincoln’s assassination conspirators were hanged:  “We wish to know their names no more.”

The 42-year-old victim was a sister of the 45-year-old accused murderer.  Her 9-year-old twins were also killed.  The accused mother and her daughter also allegedly slew two of their immediate family members – sons and brothers of the accused.  One was 13, the other was 25.

So picture this correctly:  Two forty-something matriarchs occupied this cramped apartment with their children, ranging vastly in age: two 9-year-olds in the dead matriarch’s family, and a 13-year-old, a 19-year-old, and a 25-year-old in the accused matriarch’s family.  The 19-year-old was not slain and is charged as an accomplice.

Even though there are as yet more questions than answers in this case, I think this is a rare type of family slaughter as I will discuss below.  Relatives of the accused have blamed a murky religious cult for prompting the murder spree.  I think this will be proven false and will explain why.  Finally, I will address what I believe to be the likely reasons for this tragedy.

About 60% of family annihilators are men.  Within that group, the highest concentration is among white males in their thirties.  Most family annihilators work alone and wipe out the entire household.  In this case, the alleged killers are female, African-American, and one (the 19-year-old) is a member of the family who was not slain but rather participated if the charges are true.  These facts alone make this an intriguing case. 

Very little research has been done specifically on female family annihilators.  The limited information available indicates that childhood abuse, poverty, and addiction are contributing factors.  No, a rough childhood, economic hardship,  and drug use don’t cause intra-family murder.  Here’s what it means:

Think of your life as a box.  The box represents the limits of what is reasonably possible for you to do with your life.  I hope you have a big box.  An abusive childhood, limited education, financial deprivation, early mother- or fatherhood, a criminal record, mental health issues, and substance abuse (to name just a few) are factors that shrink your box down to the point that it not only lacks space but actually begins to crush you. 

Now think of that dank apartment occupied by two families of the same clan, ranging in age from 9 to 45.  Throw in likely financial hardship, possible mental health issues, and who knows what else.  What could go wrong?

Certainly, a person can fight back against life’s obstacles and limit the shrinkage of one’s box.  But that assumes the individual is physically able, has enough time, gets the right support, has average or better intelligence, and doesn’t fall victim to myriad circumstances outside his or her control (e.g., bad neighborhood, crime, accidents, disease).  Given the home situation described above, how much opportunity to escape their “collapsing box” would these women have thought possible? 

So now I will explain why I think a mysterious cult had nothing to do with this tragedy, and why I think a mental health issue did.

In the weeks before the murders, relatives said that some members of the household were seeing demons and talking about the “pearly gates.”  From this, relatives concluded that the household had come under the influence of a cult.  That’s what I call jumping to conclusions on thin evidence.  It’s probably the only explanation they could think of that seemed to make sense of the senseless.

Here’s why I think the cult theory will ultimately be proven false:  Members of that troubled household never mentioned any religious group by name.  They apparently mentioned no other religious ideas or topics aside from demons and death.  And perhaps most important of all, when police questioned them, the mother and daughter told various lies about what happened before reportedly confessing.  At no time did they cite a religious imperative as their motive.

One does not need to be acutely religious and attuned to the divine to see demons.  One only need to be psychotic.  Psychosis comes in many flavors, but for now, suffice to say that they all involve a profound break with reality.  In an insular, high-pressure household such as this one, psychotic delusions can be contagious.

The process by which this is possible is called folie a deux, as I discussed in a previous article.  In short, one person’s delusion can come to be fully believed and accepted by one or more others.  Usually, it’s from the one with a stronger or dominant personality to one or more others who have weaker or subordinate personalities – as, for example, from a mother to her daughter.

I think it likely that this case arises from a psychotic break, probably by the mother.  The folie a deux phenomenon could account for its transmission to the daughter.  (Certainly, it could have been from daughter to mother, depending on which was dominant in the relationship.)  Jointly, they may have come to believe that God or Satan or Elvis wanted their family members to take that non-stop flight to the pearly gates.