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Masking a murderer: Alan Hawe and the myth of the “good man who snapped”

If there’s been one thing more infuriating this week than the media coverage of the Hawe murders, it’s the backlash against those of us who have objected to it. “We don’t know the whole story!” “Stop jumping to conclusions!” “What about the family?”

Well, true: we don’t know the whole story. But this is what we do know – or, at least, what has been published widely without contradiction:

  • Alan Hawe murdered his wife and three children with a knife and hatchet
  • Prior to this, he was not known to the mental health services
  • He left a note inside the house explaining why he did it
  • This note expressed his view that his family members couldn’t cope without him
  • He left another note on the door to warn the next visitor

So, in brief: we know he committed a brutal familicide with intent and deliberation, with no evidence that would support an insanity verdict had he survived to be prosecuted, and in the apparent belief that the lives of his wife and children were nothing without him.

What enables us to draw conclusions from this is its chilling similarity to a number of other murders we know of. There’s even a name for it: family annihilation. And there are studies of it, and those studies clearly indicate that family annihilators share certain characteristics (in addition to being overwhelmingly male): narcissism, a sense of personal ownership of his wife and children, and often a previous history of abusive behaviour. Toxic masculinity, you might call it. Given that Alan Hawe’s murders fit the pattern of family annihilators, it’s really not a great leap to expect that his personality will also turn out to have done so.

This is true even if Clodagh Hawe’s own family had no idea, as reports suggest. Let’s face it, you don’t get to hack four people to death and still be eulogised as a pillar of your community unless you’re pretty good at hiding things. And besides, that’s also part of the pattern. As the study linked above concludes:

the annihilation makes public what had often been a private reality – a reality masked to family, friends and neighbours who often thought that this man had been a ‘doting’ and ‘loving’ father and ‘dutiful’ husband.

It’s understandable why Clodagh’s close friends and family would want to cling to the belief that her husband was a good man who just snapped. If you’ve never seen a terrible side to someone you thought you knew well, it’s really hard to accept that that side exists. I get this. And learning about a side of him you never saw until it was too late? The guilt one must feel would be unimaginable. Could I have seen this coming? Could I have done something? At a time of unbearable trauma, perhaps the one thing that can give comfort to survivors is the thought that they, at least, had not failed their loved ones by failing to somehow prevent their deaths.

But for others, who had no such ties to the family, the reluctance to acknowledge the pattern is more puzzling. Why would they rather believe that this was just a one-off “tragedy” that could not have been foreseen? What comfort does it bring them to think that anyone – maybe even themselves or someone they love – could just “snap” one day and butcher their entire family?

No, we don’t have all the facts, and maybe we never will. But here’s one fact we can be absolutely certain of: Clodagh’s death was not unique. And for that reason, as much as we wish to be respectful to her family in their grief, we cannot simply accept the narrative of the “good man who snapped”. We must try to look behind the façade of the devoted family man, and map out the murderer beneath.  We must learn to recognise him, and more importantly, what made him. What makes all of them. If we persist in deluding ourselves that they just spring up spontaneously from nowhere, we will never learn how to ensure that they don’t. And the consequence will be a lot more Alan Hawes, and a lot more Clodaghs.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

16 responses »

  1. Pingback: Murderer Alan Hawe: The Myth Of The “good man who snapped.” |

  2. This is by far the best observation, evaluation of the murderer who committed this atrocity. To excuse his cruelty and barbaric act as the act of an upstanding citizen and exemplary family man who “just snapped” is both insulting and naïve. Let’s call Alan Hawe what he was: an egotistical, narcissistic, diabolical murderer. As a member of the Catholic church since birth, I know for fact that those who committed suicide, at least in the past, were never granted a Christian burial, but apparently this murder/suicide perpetrator is ABOVE that law. Seriously?

    • People do not “Snap” It is believed that this type of murder happens because the wife says she is leaving. To say that this murderer was a good man is nonsense. My own feeling is that Clodagh and her sons probably suffered abuse for years. To say the family photo showed a “happy family” is to deny the reality that Mr Hawes stabbed and hacked his wife and children untill they were dead.

  3. Child and wife murderers are not “good men”.

  4. This is all we actually know so far:

    *Prior to this, Alan Hawe was not known to the mental health services
    *He left a note inside the house specifically for family members
    *He left another note on the door to warn the next visitor

    Everything else is conjecture, even at this stage, I can throw in a few more facts for you (all in public domain already)

    *Husband of Clodagh Hawe’s sister, James Connolly met an untimely death in April 2013
    *Clodagh Hawe’s brother Tadgh met an untimely death in 2010
    *The praise real people heaped on Alan Hawe is a near unprecedented glaring anomaly

    I don’t think leaving out the last factor is likely to be a short cut to understanding what happened, because that is part of evidence too.

    When you pare it back to strict proof of evidence it becomes obvious that this is a tragedy that might not yield readily to standard feminist rhetoric, nor fit neatly into the usual “men’s violence to women” agenda, nor even the traditional cry of “street angel, house devil”.

    Nobody can save any of them now, I wish they could, but they can’t, they can only, MAYBE contribute to save other lives, somewhere, somehow, but not by pasting an alternative narrative of more familiar (and perversely comfortable) assumptions over it.

    The greatest majority of homicide is committed by perfectly normal people who snap. I will always be haunted by the lovely, down to earth young man who had, without question (or dispute on his part), killed and tried to hide the killing of a relative very dear to him at the age of 18. It happened for no reason and with no warning that anyone was aware of, and he was tormented by the hard fact that he could not remember anything about it however hard he tried.

    • Bríd Ní Chianain

      I agree. We don’t know what happened and yet people are using this situation as a flag of convenience for a political point of view and this is not helpful at a societal level. I want to be clear I am a feminist, I see children treated badly in Ireland all the time and devalued as members of society- hungry homeless battered abused suffering through casual cruelty of adults including the state. And I have witnessed and experienced the abusive power of patriarchy. And I know how the press and media construct stories and how the lynch mob mentality gets going quickly. The press whips it up. So just pause everyone. Mental health issues often go unnoticed in many cases until it is too late particularly when these issues are seen as weakness, skiving or lack of moral fibre. We know nothing about this man bar a note. We do not know why people want to say he was a ” good man” and maybe he was. There are many reasons why men become violent towards women and children – usually because they can. Like why so many gun shot deaths in the US – because the law allows access to guns.

      There are many many social and political issues in this tragic event. It would make more sense if we all took our rage and sorrow and fierce desire to protect the children and defeat patriarchy rather than you for th easy target of this man.

  5. Excellent article Wendy. I read Linnea Dunne’s article a few days ago and was haunted by the points she brought up. Yours is equally good, well researched and thought provoking. I have to say that the reporting on this tragedy by established media is not only disrespectful to Clodagh, but also to anyone who suffers from depression or anxiety. All mental health issues are being lumped under the one umbrella to suggest that struggles with depression equal lunacy and an ability to go on a crazy killing spree. This man’s actions were EVIL – plain and simple. And I rarely use that word, but a brutal axe murderer is not simply a victim of depression. This was an act of extreme DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.
    Many wonderful people struggle with depression as highlighted by Bressie. The reporting is insulting in the extreme and the media need to gain an awareness of the impact of their words on lovely yet vulnerable people.
    Your following point is excellent – “Studies clearly indicate that family annihilators share certain characteristics (in addition to being overwhelmingly male): narcissism, a sense of personal ownership of his wife and children, and often a previous history of abusive behaviour. Toxic masculinity, you might call it.”
    Prominent psychiatrist Ivor Brown said on many occasions, that the people populating mental hospitals were saner than most of those walking around outside and in similar fashion, Anthony de Mello was famous for saying that there were more psychopaths in the business and professional world than in prisons. I could go on and quote the words of many famous philosophers to the same effect. These guys are clever at keeping their dark side hidden from the outside world, while exercising control over both those in the community and those close to them, through self promotion. As you say, we must stop deluding ourselves and learn to recognise the kind of person who is capable of such extreme violence. As a former teacher, I have always thought there should be a school subject, covering elements of psychology, relationships, addictions and well-being. SPHE does not come close.

    On another note I send blessings to all the relatives of the family and people of Ballyjamesduff as they mourn and I have total admiration for the mother in law who so quickly forgives.

  6. Scared to put real name as I do not want to get into an Internet flame war about this

    We can hang around in echo chambers of our own views in the Internet or we can expose ourselves to other ideas and viewpoints. The article was thought provoking for me but ultimately didn’t resonate with what I feel and think about this.

    Firstly, I don’t believe the media is no eulogising the dead man. It’s more complex. There’s no getting away from the brutality, calculation and horror of his actions. The juxtaposition of previous apparent normality to his crime is present in much of the reporting. That’s a world away from eulogising.

    Next up is the fact that Ireland has
    decriminalised suicide and the church has allowed victims of suicide to be buried with a funeral and interred in consecrated ground. Society has also acknowledged suicide as prevalent, not a “matter of fault” and this is at the same time that society trying to demystify and tackle it. Here, we have a murder suicide. So the usual suicide no-blame right-on reporting consensus sounds confused because it is. This man was “a victim of suicide” under conventional 2016-speak. But also an axe murderer. The media are totally at sea.

    Seeing the crime or reporting through the prism of patriarchy and talking of “toxic masculinity” is wrong on a number of levels. Firstly, as a society we should not intrude on the visceral grief of 2 extended families before their loved ones are even buried with media inquisitions and thought pieces. Miriam Lord says it best

    “”In life we loved you dearly, In death we do the same…” read Clodagh’s sister, Jacqueline, struggling to contain her grief…….
    …….Questions will have to be asked. In time, there might be answers. Saturday was not the time.”

    Secondly, I resent as a man being told that patriarchy and any form of masculinity is responsible for this. It’s personally insulting and it’s also part of an avalanche of contradictiry, confusing, damaging messages younger males are receiving about themselves and their gender in modern society. And we already know about the overwhelmingly male phenomenon of suicide in Ireland. This is a society where men struggle daily with a court system that seems not to value their potential to care for children. A society where the overwhelming majority of prisoners are male. So if we’re calling out reporting that’s insensitive or damaging let’s consider whether it applies to this sort of analysis too.

    We do need to understand violence and murder but we also need to remember that men are sons of women, brothers of women, husbands of women, fathers of women and so dividing the world into “men and women”
    may not add light, only heat. When I read recently of Marta Herds driving her car off a pier to kill her non-swimmer male passenger, my first thought didn’t run to “woman killer / man victim / let’s parse the reporting”. It was a murder. Horrific. Not toxic femininity. Not matriarchy gone wrong. I don’t think that’s simplistic or incorrect.

    • I’m not going to reply to most of the comments here because I would simply be repeating things I already said, but you’ve clearly completely misunderstood what toxic masculinity means. Read the study I linked to, which goes into more detail about this (and two of the three authors of which are men). Toxic masculinity is undoubtedly a key factor in the higher suicide and imprisonment rates of men. It needs to be addressed for men’s own good, too, not just women’s and children’s. If toxic femininity is even a thing, the case of Marta Herda, who killed her stalker, certainly isn’t an example of it. Try looking at what words actually mean instead of knee-jerking over imaginary personal slights.

      • I don’t think the linked study referred to “toxic masculinity” but rather that’s the term you applied to summarise some of its findings. I take the point that it is intended to cover a phenomenon damaging to males also. But it’s a loaded term which by implication calls masculinity itself into question (Who decides what is toxic? Or what negative behaviours arise from masculinity?).

        The study found that in over 66% of cases (c.17% of cases had women perpetrators, but weren’t included in this study, so that’s 66% of 83% of total cases), family breakup was the *reported* reason. That’s a very significant proportion. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators in this category were classified as “self righteous” under the authors’ suggested categorisation. Though uncomfortable to ask anything about cause lest it prompt a charge of justification, should the UK interrogate the experience, outcome and perception of family break up for males to minimise the chance of any further apocalyptic responses? Sure, interrogating masculinity is an appropriate response given that males murder in this way in such greater numbers. And if there are markers which might warn of such murderous intent or possibility, we should identify them and act. And it may be that the crime is carried out not because of the experience of breakup, but simply as a reaction to someone having the courage to finally break free from an abusive relationship. (Though the authors saw a distinction between “revenge” and “self righteous”). It’s very hard to be definitive about much from the study as it is literally a distillation and attempted analysis of newspaper reports and no more. Perhaps one positive outcome would be to put resources into further substantive research to get answers to these questions.

        Good to see independent, critical analysis of mainstream media.

  7. Totally agree with your overview of this most horrific heartbreaking event. My heart breaks for clodagh and her beautiful babies and their last moments on this earth. It is the stuff of nightmares. That man Alan hawe was evil personified and no one will know the lives that clodagh and those children lived behind closed doors.

  8. Sadly yet another case of fatal male violence whereby the language used by the police and media reporting on it erased the victims and allowed the perpetrator to be portrayed as some kind of tragic, misunderstand figure – a man who just “snapped”. (Hope he rots in hell).

  9. Pingback: “Masking a murderer” – recommended blog post – Domestic Abuse Blog UK

  10. Pingback: When a ‘good father’ decides to kill his whole family -

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