The son as victim of malevolent intent: ‘She drove him to it’
Breakdown of a personal relationship is well known to be associated with suicide and is central to the accounts given by several parents. If we were processing the data quantitatively, we would simply tick a box for ‘interpersonal difficulties’ and move on, but attention to the narrative reveals that, for parents, there is far more to it than that. In five accounts, parents present highly defamatory portraits of their son's female partner as a malevolent other who knowingly hounded an innocent young man to his death.
Steven1 killed himself at the age of 24. Two minutes into the interview, the interviewer asked his mother where he had been living at the time of his death, and she took this as her cue to tell the story of his disastrous involvement with a manipulative young woman who, she maintains, exploited his good nature, trifled with his emotions and steadily drove him to despair:
He went out with her I think when he was about 17 at first and then it finished and he went out with other girls. [ . . . ] But it was a case of whenever he had another girlfriend she wanted him back. And that's how it continued. [ . . . ] Um and when was it, in the February he was very quiet and very upset and he broke down in tears one day and apologised to me and I'm saying, ‘What on earth's wrong?’ and he said, ‘Laura's pregnant’. And I said, ‘Well whose is it?’ And he said she didn't know, cos um the other boyfriend had left her. So I said, ‘Well what are you going to do, Steven?’ So he said, ‘Well stand by her’, because he was that sort of boy. So of course I wasn't very pleased about it. He said when she had the baby she was going to have the tests done to see who was the father. But I said, ‘Well Steven, you know that probably won't happen, because she knows what you’re like and as soon as you see the baby, you know, you’re going to believe it's yours whether it is or not’.
From the start, Steven's mother establishes both her son's and her own moral integrity and contrasts this with the unprincipled character of his girlfriend. Laura is portrayed as promiscuous and scheming, whilst Steven is loyal, sincere and ready to do the honourable thing in accepting responsibility for Laura and her child. She makes it clear that he stood by Laura ‘because he was that sort of boy’, not because of any extrinsic pressures and even despite his mother's expressed disapproval and her warnings regarding Laura's likely duplicity. His steadfastness reflects positively on his mother and helps to establish an image of satisfactory parenting. Later on, Steven's mother questions whether she and her husband might have contributed to the tragedy by teaching him to be too dutiful and thus laying him open to exploitation:
I do wonder whether we brought them up to be too . . . (pause), I know it sounds silly but um, what's the word I'm looking for? Wanting to do the right thing.
Framing her question as to her own involvement in the tragedy in this way is perfectly safe, since it poses no threat to her moral and social standing and actually serves to reinforce it.
She goes on to tell how he bought a house, they moved in together and Steven accepted the child as his own. His mother, notwithstanding her misgivings about the girl, accepted her son's decision and threw herself into the role of grandmother although paternity had never been established. She states clearly that, in doing so, she was fulfilling what she believed to be her parental duty:
It was very difficult but I felt this was what he wants and it's what you’re supposed to do, just back your children whatever they decide. You can't – however you feel, you've got to do what they want.
Here she conveys a sense of powerlessness to intervene, but also identifies herself with an imagined community of ‘good parents’ who support their children in the right manner. Such parents, she claims, face the same agonising situation, namely that once one's children reach adulthood one cannot make their decisions for them; one has to stand by and watch them make mistakes, in this case with tragic consequences.
Almost immediately after the birth, it was apparent to her that the relationship was in serious trouble. Laura continued to sleep with other men, repeatedly threw Steven out, then begged him to come back when it suited her or when jealousy prevailed:
And then it was obvious things weren't going right. [ . . . ] She'd thrown him out of the house. Apparently she'd been having an affair while he was working away and she told him to get out and he got out and moved in with [his brother] for some months [ . . . ]. And then he moved back. She said he could move back so he moved back. Oh no, it was the second time. She'd thrown him out again, and of course he went. The next thing, she's on the phone. She'd heard that he'd walked a girl home, so he could come back. And this is the way it was. Then when we went up there, there's a mattress in the living room and he said he'd been told to sleep on the mattress.
According to Steven's mother, she ‘goaded’ and ‘badgered’ him, pushing him to breaking point and finally, knowing that he had acquired the means of suicide, failed to seek help and even challenged him to use it. The girl's degeneracy and weakness of character are absolutely confirmed for the mother by this:
I want to know what we ever did and what Steven ever did for her to be able to act like that. [ . . . ] Wicked, wicked. I’ll never come to terms with it. She obviously knew how he was feeling [ . . . ]. Why didn't she have the sense to tell us, and worse than that, why phone him up and goad him into doing it?
Laura is portrayed as the key player throughout this drama. She remains firmly in control, whilst Steven progressively loses his grip. This is typical of this story-type, which, by focusing on the partner's acts and omissions, seeks to establish the son's innocence. The son emerges as a pawn whose every move was controlled by his partner, so that, notwithstanding the verdict of suicide, he cannot be held responsible for his own death. Another mother tells an almost identical story involving her son Paul and his wife, whom she refuses to name but refers to throughout as ‘the-daughter-in-law-from-hell’. At several points during her narrative, Paul's mother corrects herself, tellingly shifting the action from her son to the daughter-in-law in order to emphasise her part in bringing about the events in question:
. . . a month or so before he left (brief pause) – no, not left her, she threw him out.
Paul's mother goes further, explicitly constructing her son's death as a case of indirect murder:
I never met anybody as cruel as her and I never want to again. She destroyed my son [ . . . ] I truly believe she murdered him.
We might reasonably assume that this story is a product of a mother's inability to accept the other woman in her son's life, but two fathers also reconstruct events in much this way. One begins his tale by observing tersely:
Well, I think Mandy was being, um, a bitch to him.
Later on, he offers corroborating evidence that supports his assessment of the girl:
We found all the letters that she wrote to him in his room afterwards, you know. I mean, we just couldn't believe that anyone could write those things [ . . . ] We've got copies upstairs that we could show you if you wanted, just to see an example of what she was like.
This strategy is used frequently by parents telling persecution tales, and not only to reinforce their low opinion of the girl. They also produced cards, letters and tributes testifying to their son's blameless character. The girl's behaviour after the death is also cited as confirmation of her callousness. This includes various forms of alleged ‘money grabbing’, failure to attend the funeral and refusal to have any further contact with the family, all of which are presented as demonstrating complete lack of remorse. Paul's mother says of her daughter-in-law:
She had to be contacted to see if – what she wanted to have done with the body, because it didn't belong to me. And she said, ‘I don't want anything to do with you. You do what you bloody well like with him’.
She goes on to tell how the girl continues to make her life difficult and to compound her misery by denying her access to the grandchildren.
In these stories, both son and parent emerge as victims of a malevolent other, with the desecration of the parent's domestic world constituting a secondary narrative. All the parents in our study used the interview as an opportunity to recreate their domestic world. Those in this subset present a socially normative vision of the home and family as a safe, wholesome, nurturing environment, and portray all threats to the wellbeing of family members and to the integrity of family life as coming from outside. Steven's mother is again typical. In her account, the family home is depicted as a warm, secure base from which her adult sons still came and went, where there was always a hot meal on the table and a ready welcome for any of their friends. Steven himself is portrayed as an archetypal ‘home boy’:
He used to come home here for his dinners a lot. Well, he always used to come home a lot anyway.
Central to the story is the construction of the girlfriend as an outsider. This is achieved by emphasising her deviance from the values held by the parent and purportedly shared by the rest of the family. Promiscuity and materialism are chiefly cited as evidence of the girl's lack of moral fit. A number of parents, including fathers, also point to the girl's lack of even the most rudimentary domestic skill. Neville's mother says of his wife-to-be:
She lived in a most filthy house. [ . . . ] I'd learned my housewifery skills from my mother, but she hadn't. I don't think she had any.
In identifying the girl as the cause of the tragedy, positioning her firmly outside their own domestic sphere and showing how she violated their sense of decency and pattern of stable family life, the parents are able to defend their moral integrity and preserve a mental image of the perfect home and family that was destroyed by an alien force.
The son as victim of social disadvantage: ‘The system let him down’
A second type of victim story blames no-one in particular. It is a classic tale of the individual crushed by the social system and by the hand of fate: inexorable, impersonal forces against which he stood little chance. There is one outstanding example, namely Carl, while two other parents combine elements of this story with those of another.
Carl was only 19 when he killed himself. His mother tells a powerful story of social injustice, in which deprivation and disadvantage play a key role. In it, she reconstructs her own struggle as a lone parent on benefits to get a decent deal for her kids and shows how, despite her efforts, the family as a whole, and Carl in particular, was repeatedly failed by the welfare system. His story begins in early childhood. Having answered a few preliminary questions, his mother plunges into a tale of unremitting hardship. Throughout her tale, the problems faced by her son are inseparable from her own struggle as a parent to get her voice heard:
Well he left school um, school was a problem for him. He was dyslexic. He had um, he found education very difficult. [ . . . ] He was, you know, quite a bright enough lad but he just had real problems with um reading and writing and stuff because of his dyslexia. It was quite severe and he had very low self-confidence, no self-worth, not enough support from the right kind of people. I mean at the age of five I questioned whether he was dyslexic or not and was told, ‘No, don't be silly’, and eventually I contacted educational welfare and took him along and demanded that they test him at 13. Then they discovered, yeah, he was dyslexic which I'd known all along because I'm dyslexic, but there was no help. The school was hopeless, the educational authority was hopeless, the health authority was hopeless, nobody wanted to know. I was just classified as a fussy mother, you know, but um, they were all wrong and I was right. They don’– they don't trust you to have enough knowledge to be able to say these things for them to believe you. They think that because you’re just a parent, because you’re not a trained expert, you don't know what you’re talking about, you know. That might be so in some cases but in mine it wasn't. I'm not stupid. I feel that Carl was let down badly by a lot of people. I'm sorry . . . (crying).
She presents herself here as a highly competent mother, who understood her child's needs perfectly, but whose concerns went unheeded for far too long by those who thought they knew better. Other parents describe similar experiences of service providers who ignored their appeals for help, but lack the heroic quality of this particular story.
This mother depicts herself as a fighter, battling to get help for her failing child, and thus establishes her absolute moral integrity. Her son, on the other hand, emerges as utterly defenceless, lacking the will to survive in this harsh world and gradually giving up. Carl's mother tells how, in his early teens, his life began to fall apart. He began truanting, drinking heavily, engaging in antisocial behaviour and acts of violence against his mother and siblings, and eventually against himself. His mother defends him to the last, making it clear that he was not to blame for what might be seen as moral failings:
He wasn't a bad person. [ . . . ] He really was a nice, nice lad. [ . . . ] He had a lot of problems but they weren't his fault. He was just very unlucky.
She sees it as part and parcel of his misfortune to have been denied the inner resources that he needed to overcome the odds and make something of his life. His is essentially a hard luck story; life dealt him a poor hand and he never really stood a chance:
He just didn't have that strength or whatever it is that you need – that you have to have to cope with a hard life. [ . . . ] It's just one of those things. People are different and um, sadly for Carl but he was always vulnerable.
There is no idealised portrayal of family life here, and Carl's mother is candid about her own mistakes. Unable to cope with his deteriorating behaviour, she expelled him several times from the family home and admits that this cannot have helped his fragile self-esteem:
He went into foster care for a while, which was a terrible experience and it shouldn't have happened really, but at the time I didn't know what else to do. [ . . . ] I thought that if he went into a family situation where there was a strong male figure, you know one that he could relate to, that it might help him to turn his life around a bit but um, it didn't really work.
I imagine that he felt we all let him down actually. [ . . . ] He must have felt pretty pissed off with me because I made him move out of the home and stuff like that, but I had to think about all of them, not just him. [ . . . ] Obviously to Carl it was the ultimate rejection.
In this tale, the son is cast as the outsider, whose behaviour cannot be accommodated within the family and who has to be ‘othered’ for his own good and for that of the whole. His mother protests that she always had the family's interests at heart and was simply doing the best she could in difficult circumstances. Again, both mother and son emerge as victims. This is a tale of her personal hardship as well as her son's: an alcoholic and violent husband, poverty, poor health and the struggle to bring up her children on a run-down estate and to counteract the negative influences of their environment. Her defence of both herself and her son rests on her representation of her family as being at the bottom of the social heap. Both she and Carl emerge as well-meaning but powerless in the face of social inequalities and the seeming indifference of welfare agencies towards their plight.
The son as agent of his own destruction: ‘He ruined his own chances’
Other parents locate the seeds of the tragedy within their own son and show how even the most diligent nurture proved powerless to counteract a perverse and self-destructive nature. Those in this first subset portray their sons as ‘bad lads’: wastrels, who, despite their parents’ best efforts, went off the rails at an early age and recklessly threw away their life chances. There are three clear-cut examples.
Richard killed himself at the age of 24. He had a criminal record, was single, unemployed, lonely and apparently in despair at his lack of prospects. His parents allege that he had sabotaged his own prospects and had only himself to blame for the situation in which he found himself.
Some way into the interview, having struggled to make elements of her story fit the interviewer's questions, his mother abandons the attempt and asks to be allowed to tell it in her own way. She immediately homes in on what she believes to have been the nub of the problem, namely her son's wayward nature:
I mean, perhaps it might be easier if we started at the beginning, you know, it's quite a long story. Um well, most of his life Richard has always been the odd-one-out (laughs), for want of a better expression. Richard always did what Richard wanted to do and it didn't really matter what the repercussions were. Whether it was lawful or not didn't really make any difference to Richard.
Delving back into his past, his parents recount how, even as a small child, he had exhibited the character traits that they believe were responsible for his ultimate downfall: impulsiveness, an inability to conform, a wilful disregard for others, a need for immediate gratification and a complete lack of ‘sticking power’. Before the age of 10, he was stealing from his mother's purse, truanting regularly and disregarding all forms of authority, including their own. All parental efforts to keep him under control failed and their appeals for professional help, like those of Carl's mother, went unanswered. So he continued on his self-destructive course, spiralling downwards into a life of petty crime and serving repeated prison sentences.
These parents, unlike Carl's, cannot claim social disadvantage, nor do they seek to excuse his behaviour in any way. They make it clear that, whilst friends may not exactly have been good influences, they did not lead him astray. He is portrayed throughout as a free agent, responsible for making his own moral choices, landing himself in trouble and shaping his own destiny. Like Carl, he was expelled from home, but these parents show how, through his independent choices, he exiled himself from the family circle and made himself an outsider:
Mother: And then when he was 16 he left to live at his friend's house.
Father: I chucked him out as much as anything.
Mother: Yeah, yeah, because he was just splitting the whole family, wasn't he? He didn't have any regard for anybody's property. He would come and go as he pleased. [ . . . ] And we said to him, ‘Well, you don't want to be part of this family. It's obvious you don't, because you wouldn't be doing the things you’re doing’. So he went to live with his friend for a while.
The threat to the parents’ moral identity from his life, quite apart from his death, was acutely felt. They strove to dissociate themselves from his moral shortcomings by taking a tough, uncompromising stand towards his delinquency. Martin's mother tells a strikingly similar story of her struggle not only to control her errant son, but also to maintain her own sense of moral integrity:
I was summoned to his school and I thought, ‘I'm losing this. I'm going to have a son in real trouble soon’. So we put him on a rein and held on to it really tightly, so that if he wanted to go anywhere he had to be taken and we had to fetch him. [ . . . ] Then I had a phone call from my mother-in-law who lives nearby to say that while she had been away somebody broke in her house and stuff had gone missing there. [ . . . ] And I had to be Judas and shop my son to the police. Because I had to know, had he done it?
What comes through in these stories is a genuine sense of puzzlement and of personal injury. The parents are clearly wrestling with the unspoken question: ‘Why, despite all we did for him, did he do this to us?’ They leave their audience in no doubt that he abused them, their love, their trust and their property. He caused them endless grief, in life as in death, and he was morally in the wrong: on this they refuse to budge. At no point do they condone his conduct. They also repeatedly emphasise its unwarrantedness. Recounting how he stole her handbag, containing vital medication as well as money, Richard's mother comments:
We felt so abandoned and let down, didn't we, because I don't think as parents we deserved – we hadn't done anything to deserve that really. [ . . . ] How old was he then? Twenty-one, twenty-two? I mean, he wasn't a child. He was a fully-grown man. He should've known the distress he was causing. He shouldn't have done it. I mean, there was no two ways about it.
Both families cite the well-adjusted nature of siblings as evidence that their childrearing practice was not at fault. They present themselves as decent, honest, hard-working folk, who did their utmost to provide a stable home and impart sound values to their children. Richard's mother says:
We’re nothing particularly outstanding or whatever. We’re just, well I think we’re just a typical family. You know, we work, we have good times and bad times and normally do our best, don't we?
This claim to normality and lack of pretension appears in several parents’ interviews and plays an important role in highlighting both the incomprehensibility and unmeritedness of the tragedies that befell them. At the same time, it is a device for defending their status as ‘good enough’ parents, who did possibly no more but certainly no less for their child than the average parent.
The parents in this group set themselves a supremely difficult task, for they choose to show that, through their own moral deficiencies, their sons were responsible for wrecking their own lives and profoundly disrupting theirs. The challenge is to accomplish this whilst maintaining their self-respect and sense of parental competence, and without appearing callous and unloving. Richard's parents are helped by their joint presence during the interview. They constantly look to each other for confirmation with the words, ‘didn't he?’ and ‘wasn't he?’ Richard's mother also works hard to keep the listener on her side through repeated use of the phrase ‘you know’, appealing to intersubjectivity or a shared reality (Baruch 1981). Several other parents explicitly made such an appeal by interrupting their stories to ask the interviewer, ‘Do you have children?’, thereby seeking acknowledgement of the difficulties and dilemmas facing parents even at the best of times.
Parents in this group face the challenge of having to account for their son's life, as well as his death. It is the life that is presented as the real puzzle. The suicide makes sense to them when set in the context of a long history of aimlessness and anomie, but the question of why, despite their love and care, he was unable to carve out a meaningful path through life remains largely unresolved. Finding no other satisfactory explanation, Richard's mother finally settles on Nature as the culprit, deciding that there must have been some innate flaw in his psychological make-up that no amount of parenting could rectify:
I think there was part of his personality that was missing. There was something missing, for him to do the things that he did.
The son as agent of his own destruction: ‘He pushed himself too hard’
The sense that their son was ‘not like us’ is shared by parents in the final subset, but these parents place their sons at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. Far from wasting talents and opportunities, their sons are depicted as overachievers, who drove themselves to the limit of their abilities, and beyond. Two stories are unequivocally of this type, whilst a further three contain some elements.
Perfectionism is a personality trait that is well known to be associated with suicide, particularly in students (Blatt 1995). Adam is a classic case. A final-year university student and brilliant young international sportsman, he is portrayed by his mother as a high achiever who put himself under extreme pressure to succeed in both work and sporting activities:
Everything he played he won. He always wanted to win. [ . . . ] His nan said to him, ‘Adam, it's only a game’, and he said, ‘No, it's not a game any more’. [ . . . ] He was too strict with himself.
Her account focuses on her son's internal driven-ness and his inability to accept anything but the best from himself. She tells how, although clearly on course for a first-class degree, he misjudged, fell behind with his coursework and apparently panicked at the prospect of failing to meet his final deadlines. Clearly there were some external pressures, but his mother leaves us in no doubt that the problem lay within her son, in some defect of nature:
There was obviously something that was not quite right somewhere.
Jonathan's father tells a similar tale of a model student who took excessive pride in everything he did and who collapsed under the weight of his own expectations:
Everything he did had to be done right, you know. He was a perfectionist, no doubt about that. His work and even if he washed the dishes. He wouldn't even let me wash dishes.
Unlike the previous group, these are ‘home boys’ and exemplary sons, but this does not make the parents’ task any easier. They still wrestle with the question of whether, as parents, they contributed to the tragedy and take pains to exhibit themselves as normal, unassuming folk who did not exert undue pressure to succeed. Jonathan's father states:
I never, never pushed him. I've often said to him, ‘If you want to drive a truck, Jon, or go on a building site, you do it’. [ . . . ] But he said, ‘No, I want to go to university, it's something I want to do’. [ . . . ] My wife, she hasn't tried to push him. His sister, she was completely opposite. All she wanted to do was leave school and get a job.
Adam's mother tells how she worried about him all along and often urged him to ease the pressure on himself. Like Steven's mother, she appeals to a shared parental reality in which one has to accept that, as a parent, one cannot make their choices for them:
He'd achieved all his life. He should've had a year out and relaxed and wound down from the system. Picking potatoes or anything. It would've made him more ordinary somehow. But no, he went straight from A-levels.
These parents are in an odd situation. It is usual for parents to bask in the reflected glory that comes from having a high-achieving child. They cannot do that. Their son's prodigious talent turned out to be a poisoned chalice, destroying his life and theirs and leaving them wondering where on earth it came from. In an effort to preserve their self-respect, they seek to rule out the possibility that he inherited it from them. Adam's mother insists that, while she too is a meticulous type, she is nonetheless at a loss to understand her son's fanaticism. Like those in the last group, these parents can only point the finger at Nature and charge her with having made a fatal error.