What would drive a mother to kill her children and then herself?
The events of Christmas Day in Boston — where a 40-year-old mother and her two children, ages 4 years and 15 months, plunged to their deaths off a garage roof — have left a trail of sorrow and bafflement.
Little is known publicly about what led up to the death of the mother, Erin Pascal. But people who study maternal murder-suicides, which are rare, have identified one common — seemingly paradoxical — motive behind such incidents: love.
Women who have decided to take their own lives sometimes believe their children are better off dying with them, Dr. Phillip J. Resnick, professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said Friday.
“It’s murder out of love rather than murder out of hate,” said Resnick, who has studied filicide — the killing of one’s son or daughter — for 50 years. “Women who decide to kill themselves may take young children with them. More often this happens in women who are depressed or psychotic.”
Sometimes, he said, the mother believes she’s taking her children to heaven with her. Sometimes she has a delusional belief that she’s saving her children from a fate worse than death, such as abduction or torture. In either case, though misguided, Resnick said, the mother’s motives are altruistic.
“In the Boston case, I can’t say what happened, but it’s more likely to be in the altruistic category, of someone who loved her children, and somehow in her distorted thinking believed she was doing them a favor,” Resnick said.
Cheryl L. Meyer, a forensic psychologist at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who has written two books about mothers who kill their children, said that sometimes mothers planning a suicide may fear, legitimately or not, that their children will be mistreated after they are dead.
Sometimes, a mother sees her children as an extension of herself and cannot fathom leaving without them.
“Most of these moms are described as devoted, loving mothers,” Meyer said. “I’m going to guess that might be the case here” in Boston.
Women who kill their children have long held a morbid fascination for the public. The cases of Susan Smith, who drove her two young children in to a lake in 1994, and Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001, were widely followed in the media.
Smith and Yates were each tried on murder charges, and Resnick consulted for the defense in both cases. He said Yates laid her children’s bodies on the master bed, tucking the 6-month-old under the arm of her 5-year-old brother, “so he could look after her in heaven,” Resnick said. “It was clearly done in a loving manner.”
As for Smith, Resnick believes that she intended to kill herself and her children, but jumped out of the car at the last minute, too late to save them.
But what could have brought the West Roxbury woman to an empty garage near Northeastern University on the holiday?
Among the critical unknowns is whether Pascal suffered from a mental illness or had expressed suicidal thoughts, whether she had been in treatment, and whether there were troubles in her relationship with her children’s father, Meyer said.
She cautioned against the tendency to assume that Pascal was either “absolutely insane” or “totally evil.”
“It really isn’t that simple,” Meyer said. In her research, hardly anyone who committed such acts was vengeful or cold-hearted. But are they insane?
“They’re not thinking clearly,” she said. “It’s that tunnel vision — there’s no other solution to this problem.”
Meyer, who also wrote a book about suicide, has found a common thread among those who kill their children and those who kill themselves: a lack of social support.
“Not necessarily a real lack of social support — it can be a perceived lack,” she said.
A Brown University graduate who worked at a Cambridge biotech company, Pascal probably had access to good health care, but “she might not have felt comfortable using those resources,” Meyer said.
Years ago, Meyer said, an older acquaintance made a confession that illustrates the importance of social support. The woman had worked as a nurse to put her husband through medical school, then left work to raise their three children as he started his practice. One day her husband announced that he wanted a divorce and custody of their children, and froze their bank accounts.
Devastated, the woman fell into a deep depression and concluded the only solution was to end her life and take her children with her. She poisoned four bowls of ice cream and was about to serve them when her pastor called, asking how she was doing. By the end of their conversation, the ice cream had melted and the woman had come to her senses.
It’s impossible to know how many women have contemplated such acts; few would ever admit to it. But Meyer said some women have told her they could not read her book about women killing children “because it’s too close to home.”
“I don’t think mothers are walking around ready to kill their kids every second of the day,” she said. But she knows women who recall moments when they scared themselves, locked themselves in the basement till the rage and frustration subsided.
Despite the expectation that motherhood brings only joy, raising children is hard and often thankless work that continues to fall mostly on women, Meyer said.
“At work, I get awards, people coming in and say, ‘You did a great job on that report.’ ‘You taught a great class today,’ ” she said. “When you’re a mother, there’s none of that.”
In our society, being a mother can feel like a lonely struggle. Postpartum depression is much less common in cultures where aunts and grandmothers are nearby to provide help and advice, Meyer said.
Fifteen months had passed since Pascal gave birth to her younger child, putting her past the end of the postpartum period, which is usually thought to last up to a year. But, said Dr. Kimberly Mangla, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, “if the symptoms are not treated, there’s no reason to believe they’re going to get better.”
Mangla’s research has shown that suicide is an underrecognized risk among new mothers, driven most often by depression, substance use disorders, or intimate partner violence. Women benefit from teaming up with other mothers in new moms’ groups.
“They’re often very surprised that so many other women are experiencing similar symptoms,” she said. “That solidarity can be extremely comforting.”
Dr. Leena P. Mittal, director of the Division of Women’s Mental Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, worries that people will draw the wrong conclusions from this “exceedingly rare” murder-suicide. Depression, though very common especially after childbirth, rarely is associated with violence, and even suicide is not common, Mittal said. Women should not fear seeking diagnosis and treatment for mental illness, she said.
If you need help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Support is also available at the Samaritans Helpline at 1-877-870-4673, and Boston’s Neighborhood Trauma Team at 617-431-0125.