Watching Dad Watch Mom: Childhood Lessons for Men Who Kill Intimate Partners

05/12/2015 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

George: "I was so afraid of my father. But then, I was attracted to his attitude which is to do unto others before they do unto you. Me and him... after that... we couldn't be beat."

What about your mother? Were you still worried for her safety?

"I worried, sure, but then again I figured anyone who lets themselves get beaten deserves to be beaten."

Edwin: "My brother Elroy used to beat me up every single day but I couldn't do anything about it cause he was my father's favorite. Then one day, I beat up Elroy real bad -- and I was my father's favorite after that."

George and Edwin have two things in common. They both grew up with fathers who beat their mothers. As young children, they were feared their fathers. Their second point in common is that as adults, George and Edwin killed their intimate partners.

George and Edwin were two of the 31 inmates I interviewed for my book, Why Do They Kill? Men Who Murder Their Intimate Partners. I found that the murders these men committed were neither random acts of rage nor 'crimes of passion' as commonly portrayed in the media. Rather, they were culminations of longstanding grievances towards women on the part of abusive men. Their violence usually appeared quite suddenly soon after fast courtships with women that averaged two months, and in a few cases were as short as two days. The first act of violence occurred quickly after the beginning of co-habitation and was followed by the abuser's apologies and promises that it would never happen again. However, these 'quick fixes' were quickly followed by new acts of violence. Over time, the men stopped apologizing and started blaming their partners for 'driving me to it', or for 'leaving me no choice'.

Most of the victims expressed unhappiness and sought to end the relationship. This triggered increased surveillance by the abusers, which was often accompanied by stalking during periods of separation. It was not love but possessive control that motivated these men to prevent their partners from leaving for good. As one killer put it, "At least I could make sure no other man could have her". Explaining his decision to coerce his estranged wife to have sex with him just before he stabbed and bludgeoned her to death, another man said, "I wanted the other man to know I was the last to have her". A victim of attempted homicide whom I interviewed said that while her estranged husband was strangling her, he told her, "Think you're done with me bitch; you're not done with me until I say you're done with me; got that?"

Where does this possessive control come from? I believe there are two primary pathways. On the societal level, large segments of popular culture and media still glamorize violence toward women. Increasingly, the 'stars' of crime shows are beautiful dead women whose naked bodies are splayed for all to see - first on the pavement or floor highlighted by a chalk outline and then on the medical examiner's table. Violent and possessive control over women is also celebrated in popular music. Catchy song beats often camouflage lyrics that reveal contempt for women - or sell the notion that women can drive men to violent extremes in the name of love, as in "I'd take a bullet in the brain for you" (Bruno Mars) and "I keep on bleeding for love" (Leona Lewis), and "I'll be watching you" (Sting). At the same time, online pornography and much of the gaming industry provide templates to show young men how act out virtual misogynistic and violent fantasies. And until recently, celebrity men who behave badly toward women have not been held to account, leaving young fans to conclude that their public acclaim and admiration trumps their abusive behavior toward women. Given all this messaging, our societal tolerance of violence against women should not be seen as a social aberration but as a continuing reflection of structured gender inequality in which there is yet to be a critical mass of women in positions of power.

The second major contributing cause to men's possessive control is exemplified by the childhood experience of men like George and Edwin. Forty-eight percent of the killers I interviewed said that they had been physically abused as children while 55% said they had witnessed partner abuse between parents. Overwhelmingly, their fathers or stepfathers were the perpetrators of both kinds of abuse. Twice as many of the killers said that as young children, they felt closer to their mothers and more fearful of their fathers. Despite this, it was their fathers whom they came to emulate.

Child experts say that this reflects the need of some traumatized children to identify with the more powerful parent. In doing so, the child seeks to shed feelings of fear and vulnerability by adopting the abusive parent's attributes. For boys, it is simultaneously a way of resolving conflicts about male identity. Many of the killers came to appreciate their father's physical violence and emotional detachment as signs of strength, or as one man put it, as a way of helping "to toughen me up". In many cases, these men's admiration for their fathers was accompanied by a growing disdain for their mothers whom they blamed for failing to protect them. As adults, these future killers seemed to live in a state of perpetual possessive vigilance toward intimate partners.

Though possessive control doesn't always lead to murder, it is a toxic condition that surely harms relationships as well as child development. For children in these families, witnessing possessive control by one parent over the other blurs the distinction between love and control and provides the blueprint for becoming an abuser. It is important to recognize that this outcome is by no means certain. Plenty of kids who grow up with an abusive parent learn to be caring partners and parents, whether from the negative example of the abuser, or from the positive example of other adults in their lives. If we believe that it takes a village to raise (or mis-raise) a child, we are all role models, good or bad, whether we mean to be or not.