It’s a disturbing topic; incomprehensible but fascinating to most of us. How could anyone murder, especially a loved one? Mary Papenfuss explores the topic of fathers killing their children in Killer Dads, published by Prometheus Books.
Papenfuss was assigned in 2004 to the Scott Peterson trial when she worked for the New York Daily News. She shares that sitting in the courtroom of the Scott Peterson trial partially inspired the book. Peterson’s case is included in a chapter entitled “Mask,” which explores the senseless murder of Peterson’s wife, Lacie, and their unborn child, Connor, who resided in Modesto, California.
Papenfuss researched extensively for this book project (which is evident in the pages of notes, bibliography and index located in the back of the book) and the result is a thorough, intelligent and moving read that includes many cases that will mystify, baffle and ultimately intrigue.
She writes in a clear style and yet some of the case descriptions are written in a way that compare to a great mystery/crime novel. The case of Josh Powell is a real page-turner. Convicted of killing his wife Susan (the body has never been found) and later axing his two boys before exploding the house he rented with he and his boys inside, the reader learns of how abusive and controlling Josh Powell really was, by reading entries in his deceased wife’s journal.
The reader also learns how “sick and twisted” Josh Powell’s father is and how there were early signs that Josh suffered from mental illness. There are photographs included of the young family that share how beautiful the boys were and how beautiful Susan’s smile was and you can’t help but read with a heavy heart because you know how this case turns out, after the young woman vanished from her home in West Valley City, Utah, in 2009.
Some of the murders are psychological in nature. For example, how can anyone understand why a successful lawyer, doting father and loving husband would massacre his entire family in a hotel room?
Some of these men faced financial hardship that would injure their families or appear to have been ashamed of bad business deals and Papenfuss explains that in their thinking, they are “saving” the family from a world of hurt by taking the family with them when they commit suicide.
Other killings are committed in the disguise of “honor killings” as in the case of Jessica Mohamad Makdad; some are spawned by passion when the wife leaves; and others can only be explained by severe mental disease.
The back of the book includes a section entitled What to Do. In this chapter, Pappenfus ties it all together but admits on page 234 that “I assumed when I got to the end of my book, some solutions to the problem of fathers killing children would be obvious. They weren’t. I set out to gather all the facts I could on the killings, assuming the information would unlock the key to motivations and mechanisms toward murder. They didn’t. In some cases I was convinced I got to “the bottom” of a crime but…I found nothing but emptiness.”
She writes that there is much needed to be done to improve our child welfare system, which was instituted to protect our children, but falls short.
Throughout her writing, she cites the opinions and findings of experts, scientists and researchers and by doing so she teaches, but not in a preachy way. I was surprised by how much I learned while reading a book that was anything but text book, as in the chapter, “Homo Saps“, which covered the study of langur infanticide and scientists findings on the murders and abuse of stepchildren. She writes on the last page of her book, “How far have we come from the langurs…” and shares that when people ask her the best way to keep kids safe she tells them ‘be born to the right parents’. She makes a valid point that we need to belong to a culture that looks out for children in order to save children from abuse.
This is an important book that tries to explain the motives behind the worst of crimes and it explores solutions on ways to prevent these horrific acts on children. The research is superior, the writing is crisp, easy to understand, and the insights made will leave you thinking long after you put the book down on your coffee table. The pages will haunt you.