Sunday, July 27, 2003
Why do parents kill their children?
By Margot LeSage
As New Hampshire and the nation grapple with the
question of why a seemingly devoted father would kill his own
children, experts offer a range of possible explanations.
If Manuel A. Gehring did kill his two children, he may have been
trying to get back at his former wife, or may have thought his
children were better off dead. Or he may have just "snapped" under
the emotional stress of losing a job and enduring a bitter divorce
and custody battle, they say.
But psychologists caution that there's no simple theory or answer
behind the crime, and until Gehring speaks, no one will know for
sure what really happened to Sarah and Philip Gehring.
Gehring has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder
for allegedly shooting his children, a crime to which he has pleaded
innocent. Their bodies have not been recovered.
Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at
Northeastern University and author of a number of books on murder,
said there are two underlying reasons why Manuel Gehring may have
killed his children: One, he wanted to protect them; or two, out of
the rage and anger he may feel toward his ex-wife.
"When I hear friends, neighbors and relatives talk about what a
protective father he was, and how responsible he was and that this
is out of character, I think he may have been motivated by a
perverted sense of love, loyalty and protection," he speculated.
"Given the circumstances surrounding the divorce and the custody
battle ... he decided that his children were better off leaving this
world and going to a better world in the hereafter. He thought he
was doing something fatherly by protecting his children from this
Levin added that, usually, when fathers feel this way and decide
to take their children's lives, they also decide to kill themselves.
However, Levin noted that it's much easier to kill others than to
For example, Susan Smith, the South Carolina mother found guilty
of killing her children when she strapped her two young boys in
their car seats and pushed the car into a lake in 1994, most likely
intended to kill herself, as well, Levin said, but couldn't go
through with it.
The second reason why Gehring may have killed his children, Levin
added, is he may have believed himself a "victim of injustice."
Levin pointed out that Gehring had lost his job, was not awarded
full custody of his children and had recently gone through a
divorce. "He may have blamed his wife for his personal problems and
decided to get even with her," Levin said. He added that Gehring may
even have suspected the children of being involved in a plot against
him, perhaps siding with their mother in the custody battle.
Children, Levin said, are often viewed as the extension of the
Whichever the reason, Levin said, it's "very unlikely" Gehring
suffered from psychosis. He may have some mental illness, but not
"so severe it would make him insane in a court of law," Levin said.
"The question for the court is whether he knew the difference
between right or wrong and whether he knew he did something wrong,"
Gehring's attempted escape makes Levin believe that the father
was behaving rationally and that he didn't just "snap."
"He killed two children in such a hideous act that the jury will
feel that someone has to pay, and who else is there?" Levin said.
"If it was more indiscriminate of a killing spree, then it would be
more likely insanity would be involved. (Gehring) knew the
difference between right and wrong and he chose to do wrong.
"It's a hideous murder, a hideous crime," Levin continued. "It's
hard for people to understand the motivation. But, from the killer's
point of view, it makes a lot of sense. He was so miserable or
suffering so profoundly that he wanted to spare his children the
same fate. After the fact he might have felt more convinced he did
the right thing. If you're looking for remorse you may not find it."
The Gehring case differs from other parental murder cases, Levin
said, because usually the parent will have a "temper tantrum" and
become violent. The crime wasn't intended and afterward the person
feels remorse. Gehring, Levin said, appeared to have been "very much
in control" and allegedly executed this murder "very methodically,"
perhaps thinking of killing his children days or weeks earlier.
Levin said women are more likely to kill someone they know, such
as a family member, although 90 percent of all murders are committed
by men. According to a study by the Journal of Family Violence, 63
percent of all parental homicides of children between the ages of 13
and 18 are committed by fathers.
"When women kill, they are more likely to kill people they know
well, especially family members, especially their own children,"
Levin said. He said women tend to spend more time caring for their
children than men do, therefore are more apt to have disputes with
their children. "It's not premeditated (with women). "Women lose
their temper and explode into a violent act."
When men kill members of their own family, Levin continued, they
more often kill more than one person and they are less likely to be
"Chances are he doesn't think he's killing gophers or killing his
children to prevent earthquakes or to execute demons," Levin said.
Men are much more likely to commit a "premeditated act of murder,"
Dr. Rick B. Silverman, a fellow of the American Board of Forensic
Examiners who has a practice in Plaistow, N.H., agreed with Levin
that some people who take their children's lives do so because they
feel their children would be better off dead.
He said if Gehring has an undiagnosed mental illness, he wouldn't
automatically be ruled insane by a jury. He said the mental illness
would have to be so profound that he would be unable to use any kind
of reasoning to convince himself that murder was wrong.
"The fact that someone has a belief doesn't make them insane,"
Silverman said. "To be insane you have to not be able to use the
power of reason or judgment."
But not everyone feels that Gehring's actions were planned and
Linda Dunlap, chairman of the psychology department at Marist
College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said she believes Gehring felt
overwhelmed by his family situation and wanted to spare his children
from the horrors of life, and may have also harbored resentment and
anger toward his ex-wife.
"Maybe he felt overwhelmed by the responsibility he was given,
financially or emotionally, and although he thought it was still
best that the children would be with him, he realized it was not a
workable situation," Dunlap said. "Maybe he really planned to take
his own life, but couldn't do it."
While Dunlap feels Gehring may have thought about the idea of
killing his children, the actual murder itself was a sign that he
just "snapped." She said it's "totally inconceivable" for a parent
to take the life of his own child without the possibility the person
lost his mind.
"There's got to be a level of mental instability," Dunlap said.
"For a parent who had just gone through a custody situation and
still really thought his children should be dead ... there is
something very much psychologically amiss here for anyone to do
this. A person has to be mentally unstable to do this, period."
She added just because he got in the car after the murder --
allegedly with his dead children in the back -- and drove
cross-country, doesn't mean he was thinking rationally or even
mentally stable during his cross-country excursion.
Dunlap noted that as a society people don't want to think Gehring
was insane because then we'd essentially be "letting him off the
hook" for a horrific crime.
Dr. Jan Nealer, a marriage and family therapist who has a private
practice in Newburyport, Mass., also believes Gehring became a
victim of too many pressures piled up on him at once. His recent job
loss -- something that usually impacts men more than women -- is
just one of many pressures he had to deal with.
"To me he wasn't in a good space," Nealer said. "He sure wasn't
She also finds it unusual that he is still alive and notes that
while he's not saying much, he does look remorseful.
Nealer said because of his silence, she's not sure whether he
"just snapped" or if he planned the murders. She said society,
however, would hope that this nice, quiet father did "just snap" and
did not have a cruel and vindictive nature.
As a family therapist, Nealer has worked with abusive parents.
She said the parents don't start their day looking forward to
harming their children. In fact, they don't plan it at all and often
feel sad after they've lashed out at their children.