Matricide: a Psychological Approach
Posted on April 18th, 2015

Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D.

Matricide is the killing of a mother by her biological child. It is one of the rarest of reported murders and has always been considered as one of the most abhorrent crimes (Catanesi et al., 2014). The matricidal theme has its roots in Greek mythology.  According to Greek mythology Prince Orestes avenged the murder of his father, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, by killing his own mother, Clytemnestra. The Roman Emperor Nero, who ruled Rome between AD 55 and AD 68, ordered the murder of his mother Julia Augusta Agrippina.

Over the years a number of matricides have been reported in Sri Lanka.  It has not been discussed in great detail by the mental health professionals. Recently in Kotakethana- Sri Lanka 18 year old son killed his 39 year old mother after a quarrel over Rs 1500. This event shocked the Nation and it was marked as one of the horrible crimes.

Specific psychodynamic and environmental factors can be identified in this murder. Although self-affirmation motive was associated, the son’s criminal act leaves some unanswered questions. He committed his crime when he was having a violent argument with his mother.The evidence suggests that the action was not involuntary or performed while unconscious. However The perpetrator’s mental health condition, his emotional attachment to the mother, socioeconomic status, family stress and parenting style and structure have to be investigated before coming to any specific conclusion. In addition Kotakethana -an area where series of crimes against women occurred in the past few years may have had some impact on the killer

Youth-to-parent physical aggression (YPA) is gradually increasing in Sri Lanka. Several matricides and patricides have been reported during 2012 to 2015. Some of the murders were committed following psychotic factors and some without any serious mental disorder. The main difference between murderers with a major mental disorder and murderers without any mental disorder is the psychopathology of the morbid process which underlies the homicide (Richard-Devantoy et al., 2009). In Kotakethana matricide, the perpetrator’s mental health assessment yet to be done.  Therefore his mental state at the time of the crime is still unknown.

Some view matricide as a crime against nature. Dutton and Yamini (1995) state that case histories of parricide by adolescents frequently reveal a history of abuse on the part of the victim and acute depression and suicidal ideation by the adolescent.

There are a number of theories such as psychoanalytic theory, family systems theory, and cognitive behaviorism explain matricide. According to the psychodynamic interpretations the murderous impulse to kill a parent might have oedipal origins, as a defense against hostility or incestuous desires (Sadoff, 1971).  Sigmund Freud argued that matricide served as a displacement defense against incestuous impulses (West & Feldsher, 2010).

According to the Family Systems theory primary cause of matricide attributes to an abusive and pathological family structure. These families often have conflict-oriented style of problem solving. Offenders have experienced chronic hatred for the parent-victim.

The American Psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham described sons who kill their mothers in terms of the Orestes Complex,” which refers to ambivalent feelings toward the mother that ultimately manifest in homicidal rage (West & Feldsher, 2010). According to Wertham (1941) matricide represent the son’s unconscious hatred for his mother superimposed on sexual desire for her. Wertham’s Orestes complex” described a sexually immature but homosexually orientated son, trapped in a dependent but hostile relationship with a possessive mother.

Silva and colleagues (1989) hypothesized that an unresolved incestuous conflict or a parent-victim who mistreats the child excessively may push the child to the point of explosive violence (Bourget et al., 2007).  O’Connell (1963) stated that a son who kills his mother is usually an unmarried, un-ambitious young man with an intense relationship with his mother, a feeling of social inferiority, and an absent or passive father. Men who commit matricide feel weak, hopeless, and dependent, and are unable to accept a separate, mature male role (Campion et al., 1985).

Empirical analysis of homicides in which children have killed parents has been limited. Matricide occurs in less than 1% of all homicides (Holcomb, 2000). Matricide accounts for 20-30% of homicides committed by psychotic individuals (Marleau et al.2003). The killing of mothers by their biological children, comprising less that 2% of all U.S (Heide & Frei, 2010). Between 1990 and 2005,   27 mothers were killed by their children in the province of Quebec, Canada (Bourget et al., 2007).  The vast majority of people who commit matricide are males (Heide, 1993). Perpetrators often reside with the victim and frequently use painful methods and excessive violence in committing the murder (Clark, 1993). Some mutilate their victims’ bodies.

Most prominent characteristics across matricide types are severe mental illness, a domineering mother, a hostile-dependent relationship with the mother, a passive or withdrawn father, and over kill behavior (Holcomb, 2000). The risk of parricide may increase with the presence of unidentified mental illness (Bourget et al., 2004).

Gilles (1965) viewed   matricide as a schizophrenic crime. Arnfred (1946) reported a case of matricide the perpetrator of which subsequently proved to be suffering from Schizophrenia. Ogunwale and Abayomi (2012) explicate that matricide has been linked to schizophrenia for several decades with an assortment of explanations to explain the connection.  There are complex psychodynamic, phenomenological and contextual factors in the act of matricide by persons with schizophrenia.

Campion and colleagues (1985) studied 15 men who committed matricide. The majority were diagnosed as having chronic schizophrenia and had been living alone with their mothers. Other diagnoses included substance-induced psychosis and impulse disorders. They conclude that the matricidal impulse evolves through successive stages of psychological development; therefore, the motives for matricide are varied and correlate with the level of psychological development or regression.

Singhal and Dutta (1992) studied sixteen men who committed matricide. Fifteen out of sixteen cases had a diagnosis of schizophrenia and the remaining patient had a diagnosis of schizophrenia with personality disorder.  All were single at the time of the matricide. Data indicate an intense conflict-laden and ambivalent relationship between the majority of patients with their mothers.

Dogan and colleagues (2010) present a case of a 57-year-old woman who was decapitated and her right arm and both hands were dismembered. It was determined that the victim was murdered and dismembered by her 33-year-old daughter, who had been receiving treatment for schizophrenia for 15 years.

Mouridsen and Tolstrup (1988) presented a 9-yr-old boy who intentionally killed his mother. According to the researchers no severe family conflicts or other psychogenic factors which could explain the action were found. Apart from some indications of possible epilepsy in the EEG (not confirmed clinically) no somatic pathology was verified. During one year’s stay in the child psychiatric department after the homicide the boy was psychotic, probably suffering from a schizophrenic disorder which is presumed to have developed in the years preceding the matricide.

Although an association does appear to exist between matricide and schizophrenia, it is not a triggering factor to commit matricide. Individuals suffering from Schizopherenia are not aggressive all the time. Dr Derek Chiswick -Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh indicates that thousands of schizophrenic sons live in peace with their mothers, neither assaulting nor killing them.

Matricide had been reported in cases of Capgras’ delusion, a misidentification syndrome characterized by the false belief that imposters have replaced people familiar to the individual. Capgras’ syndrome could lie at the base of aggressive and homicidal acts directed towards family members during psychotic breakdown (Casu et al., 1994).

Holcomb (2000) hypothesized that matricide is a primal aggression in search of self-affirmation. A “pathologic” mother-son bond could be observed in most of matricide cases. Catanesi and colleagues (2014) indicate that the peculiar dynamics of the mother-son relationship and the unique personalities and life experiences of both subjects are the real key to cases of matricide.

Schlesinger (1999) reported a case of a 16-year-old male who committed a sexual matricide following years of mother-son incest is reported. After murdering his mother by strangulation, which itself was sexually arousing, the youngster engaged in both vaginal and anal necrophilia.

Recent data suggest that personality disorders, especially antisocial and borderline, are strongly related to the manifestation of violent acts. Biological factors seem to constitute a risk factor for violent behavior independently of personality. (Fountoulakis et al., 2008).

It has been argued that, when an intense disturbance exists in the personality of the mother of the child or in their relationship, the struggle of the child for independence can take the form of a violent event, even a murder (Livaditis et al., 2005). According to Campion and team (1985) many people who commit matricide consider their crime as an act of catharsis, liberation, metamorphosis   against a humiliating relationship that threatens their sexual and social identity.

Some individuals had committed matricides while they were on catathymic crisis. In most cases the homicide had taken place while the perpetrator was in a dissociative state and experiencing   a catathymic crisis: the sudden release of emotionally charged psychic conflict and tension, resulting in extreme violence within an interpersonal bond.

The theory of Catathymic Crisis was presented in 1937 by Dr. Frederic Wertham as an explanation for some types violent and seemingly motivationless crimes (Arthur & Garrison, 1996).  Wertham (1937) introduced the inner psychic catathymic crisis which is characterized by an unbearable emotional excitement (fear, rage, and desperation) a sense of being hemmed in an inevitable process and acting like an automaton to explain homicides such as matricides. Catathymic crisis is an unexpected explosive outburst of impulsive often destructive behavior understandable only in terms of unconscious motivation.

There have been reactive matricides, not psychotic and it had occurred as a response to severe family dysfunction.  Hostile-dependent relationship with victim has been identified.

Many cases of matricide are neither predictable nor preventable (Chiswick, 1981) unless there is a history of violent behavior by a particular individual. An ongoing pattern of family violence exists in the home could be one of the risk factors.

Heide (1992) identified three primary types of parricide offenders: the severely abused child, the dangerously antisocial child, and the severely mentally ill child. As described by Heide (1992) Dangerously Antisocial Children (DAC) kill the parent to further their own goals. In these cases, the parent is an obstacle in their path to getting what they want. These individuals, for example, may kill to have more freedom, to continue dating a person to whom the parents object, and to inherit money they believe is eventually coming to them.The Kotakethana perpetrator would fit in to the DAC (Dangerously Antisocial Children) category.

The aetiopathogeny of the Kotakethana matricide act is still unknown. Nonetheless it indicates psychosocial, socio-economical factors associated with the crime. Low income, lack of education, lack of social support, unemployment, degradation of family values had been viewed as aggravated factors. These social maladies demonstrate that there is an immediate need to include spiritual education, psychiatric care and counseling services in the rural areas.

Acknowledgements

  • Kamil Hakan Dogan – Assoc.Prof Department of Forensic Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, Selcuk University, Konya  Turkey
  • A. Ogunwale -Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Abeokuta, Nigeria.

References

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Bourget, D., Gagné, P., Labelle, M.E.(2007). Parricide: a comparative study of matricide versus patricide.J Am Acad Psychiatry Law. 35(3):306-12.

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Livaditis, M.D.,   Esagian,G.S.,    Kakoulidis,C.P.,    Samakouri, M.A.,  Tzavaras, N.A.  (2005). Matricide by Person with Bipolar Disorder and Dependent Overcompliant Personality. J Forensic Sci,   Vol. 50, No. 3.

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Richard-Devantoy, S., Chocard, A.S., Bourdel, M.C., Gohier, B., Duflot, J.P., Lhuillier, J.P., Garré, J.B. (2009).Homicide and major mental disorder: what are the social, clinical, and forensic differences between murderers with a major mental disorder and murderers without any mental disorder?Encephale.  35(4):304-14.

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2 Responses to “Matricide: a Psychological Approach”

  1. AnuD Says:

    what does the Buddhist texts say about this ?

    Past life and this life relations are unbelievable if we know it all.

  2. . Says:

    ānantarika-kamma is a heinous crime that through karmic process brings immediate disaster -Gananath Obeyesekere (1990), The Work of Culture: Symbolic Transformation in Psychoanalysis and Anthropology, University of Chicago. Matricide comes under ānantarika-kamma.

    Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

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