Archive for May 3rd, 2011



I keep asking myself why parricides have so captured my fascination.

The things I see in this work are heartbreaking and horrific. These cases are profoundly dysfunctional situations that arise out of the worst things human beings can do to one another. They defy the most fundamental precepts upon which society is based and defile the sacred bonds of the family, the basic building block of society.

There is an old saying that all families are dysfunctional, which I suppose is probably true to some extent. Yet this is not a particularly useful observation unless you devise a way to evaluate how more or less dysfunctional particular families are compared to others. One way to do this is by typing families by observing the bonds between parents and their children. Research shows that there are at least four categories of attachment between parents and their kids: secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized.

A secure relationship is the strongest and healthiest type of bonding between children and their parents. A child in this category feels he can depend on his parent to be there when he needs support. He knows what to expect. The relationship is predictable.

An avoidant relationship is a category of attachment in which children have consistently learned that depending on parents will almost never get them the sense of security they want and need, so they learn to take care of themselves. This type of relationship is predictable in a negative sense.

An ambivalent relationship is a category that can be particularly confusing to the child because sometimes his needs are met, and sometimes they are not. The child notices what behavior got the parent’s attention in the past and uses it over and over, but with inconsistent results. The relationship is predictable in only a hit-or-miss way.

Children with secure, avoidant, and even ambivalent relationships are said to have organized attachments because there is enough pattern for kids to learn ways to get what they need (even if they’re not necessarily the best ways). Recognizing behavioral patterns, a child can learn to predict how his parent will likely react. A child also learns that doing certain things will make the parent do things in return. A kind of covenant between parent and child is established.

However, in disorganized relationships children don’t know what to expect. They live their lives immersed in a profound sense of chaos, spiritual crisis, and fear. For these children the parent-child covenant is weakest or non-existent. In the most extreme cases of abuse and dysfunction, a child can reach the breaking point and kill his parents. It happens about thirty times a year in the US.

But this is when things start moving from awful to abominable. Children who kill their parents violate a cultural taboo that is seemingly hard-wired in our brains and reinforced by laws, prejudices, and practices that usually preclude a wise, fair, and rational resolution of the killings. Children who kill their parents are likely to be punished twice as severely as are parents who kill their children.

How does it make any sense at all to hold a child more culpable than a parent for the results of family dysfunction—however extreme—which are of the parent’s making and not the child’s?

When I began talking to Pendulum Foundation about what is becoming our “parricide initiative,” executive director Mary Ellen Johnson and I quickly agreed that parricides and the injustices surrounding them are symptomatic of a spiritual crisis in the larger society. We eventually began to conceptualize ourselves as soul surgeons who would use parricides as an opportunity to perform a kind of “keyhole surgery” for the benefit of the child and his family and the larger society of which they are a part.

We have a big task ahead of us. As a society we have not progressed much beyond the harsh justice meted out to parricides in ancient Rome.

In Rome the absolute power of a father over his family was considered natural and primordial. A son who killed his father was an abomination in the natural order of things and subject to special punishment. He who killed a father or mother, grandfather or grandmother, was punished by being whipped until he bled, sewn up in a sack with a dog (as a symbol of contemptuous canine slavishness), a rooster with specially-sharpened talons (as a pennate symbol of insolence), a viper (as an anguine symbol of evil), and a monkey (as a simian symbol of trickery), and thrown into the sea. If the sea or a river that flowed into it was not at hand, the parricide was exposed to wild beasts, or, in the time of Paul, was burnt.

Steven Saylor describes the punishment for parricide in his novel Roman Blood:

“Within the sack, the parricide is returned to the womb, unbom, unbirthed. To be bom, the philosophers tell us, is an agony. To be unborn is greater agony. Into the sack, crammed against the parricide’s torn, bleeding flesh, the tormentors shall push four living animals. First, a dog, the most slavish and contemptuous of beasts, and a rooster, with its beak and claws especially sharpened. These symbols are very ancient: the dog and the cock, the watcher and the waker, guardians of the hearth; having failed to protect father from son, they take their place with the murderer. Along with them goes a snake, the male principle which may kill even as it gives life; and a monkey, the gods’ cruelest parody of mankind.

“All five shall be sewn up together in the sack and carried to the river’s edge. The sack must not be rolled or beaten with sticks—the animals must stay alive within the sack so that they may torment the parricide for as long as possible. While priests pronounce the final curses, the sack shall be thrown into the Tiber. Watchers shall be posted all the way to Ostia; if the sack runs aground it must be pushed back into the stream at once, until it reaches the sea and disappears from sight.

“The parricide destroys the very source of his own life. He ends that life deprived of contact with the very elements which give life to the world—earth, air, water, even sunlight are denied him in the last hours or days of his agony, until at last the sack should rupture at the seams and be devoured by the sea, its spoils passed from Jupiter to Neptune, and thence to Pluto, beyond the caring or the memory or even the disgust of mankind.”

A long way to go indeed.


Groove of the Day

Listen to Loudon Wainwright III performing “Father and a Son”