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Beauty and the Beast: Violence in the Lives of Women and Girls (December 2013): Homicide and Maternal Filicide

By Karen Evans

Homicide and Maternal Filicide

One of the most unthinkable acts is a mother murdering her child, commonly known as maternal filicide.  Although definitive statistics are difficult (the homicide may be masked as accidental or SIDS related), between the years of 1976 and 2004, 30 percent of all children murdered under the age of five were killed by their mothers.[1]  Mothers Who Kill Their Children: Understanding the Acts of Moms from Susan Smith to the “Prom Mom,” by Cheryl Meyer et al., begins with an introduction on the cross-cultural history of infanticide.  It describes the history of this practice in ancient Rome and Sparta, traditional Chinese society, early Muslim and Hindu cultures, and Judeo-Christian Europe.  The authors describe five typologies (a chapter on each) of mothers who kill their children.  Two types are related to abuse and neglect.  Another is purposeful killing (for example, Susan Smith in 1994 drowned her two small sons in a vehicle and claimed she was carjacked).  Case histories add haunting details to this volume about mothers who murder their children.  In 2008, Michelle Oberman, a law professor, and Cheryl Meyer, a psychology professor, continued their work in When Mothers Kill: Interviews from Prison.  They identified characteristics of violence and isolation in the eight women they extensively interviewed.  The first half of this book concentrates on the stories of the women, while the second half tries to understand their crime.  Infanticide: Psychosocial and Legal Perspectives on Mothers Who Kill, edited by Margaret Spinelli, provides a scholarly treatment of maternal infanticide, addressing epidemiology, historical legal statutes, bio-psychosocial and cultural factors, legislation, and treatment and prevention.  With insightful medical, psychological, and legal perspectives, Infanticide offers an in-depth look at mothers who kill their children.

The New Predator: Women Who Kill—Profiles of Female Serial Killers by Deborah Schurman-Kauflin presents a detailed study of women convicted of multiple murders in the United States.  The volume covers theories, maturation, and behavior problems as the author attempts to understand why the women committed murder.  An interesting chapter focuses on interviewing multiple murderers, possibly the outcome of the author interviewing four serial killers and three mass murderers for the book.  Hannah Scott discusses the various types of female killers, including “black widows,” in The Female Serial Murderer: A Sociological Study of Homicide and the “Gentler Sex.”  Scott looks at killers characterized as “angels of death,” “client based killers,” and “family based killers.”  A chapter on psychological explanations for female serial murder includes a discussion of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a disorder in which women seek medical attention for a relative (usually a child) and bask in the attention the child receives.

Why Women Kill: Homicide and Gender Equality by Vickie Jensen is the product of nearly eight years of the author’s investigation of gender and homicide.  Six chapters delve into the topic, with Jensen comparing men and women within gender and homicide bounds, and exploring gender equality and women’s homicide rates.  Are gender-equality variables necessary to understand the rate of women’s homicide?  Jensen seeks to start a conversation on the topic.  The volume also looks at gender equality within the framework of domestic homicides (including children and other family members).  At the very least, within this volume the author points out the need for further studies on gender equality and homicide.

Sheila Isenberg has written an absolutely fascinating work on women who love male prisoners in Women Who Love Men Who Kill.  Isenberg, an investigative reporter, relates the lives of women who have found true love with men behind bars for murder (often more than one murder).  The interviews are riveting.  Women describe how caring and solicitous the men are when they see them during prison visiting hours (one woman states that her man calls her “princess”).  Women describe how they move closer to the prison, work more than one job to help support their inmate, and plan for a life together if their husband or lover (rarely in the physical sense) is released from prison.  Although the women are obviously aware the men are in prison for murder, they believe (for numerous reasons) that the murder was not their man’s fault or that he had no alternative but to kill to survive.  Isenberg’s book is an intimate look into how these women find love with a violent felon and often ignore the reality of their situation.


[1] An overview of filicide.  Retrieved from  (Accessed October 7, 2013).