Killer Dads: The Twisted Drives That Compel Fathers to Murder Their Own Children
I have always been curious about crime. I watch Law & Order, trying to figure out who done it and why.
I reached out to Mary when I saw her book, Killer Dads. Of all the horrific murders in the world, Dads killing their families completely confuses me, and intrigues me at a beastly level.
If you are a writer in the non-fiction realm, you will appreciate Mary's answers to the questions I asked her. This sensitive topic is one that writers much approach their leads with sympathy and openness. Mary explains how she does just that and much more to get to the real story beneath the crime.
How has being a journalist helped your book writing?
I couldn't have written my book without my experience as a journalist. My work was my inspiration. I was captivated by the problem of domestic violence years ago as an editor at the New York Post and New York Daily News when I realized the tremendous volume of violence in the American home on any day -- yet we are largely ignorant of it, blind to it, or simply care too little about it.
Much later, when I covered the California murder trial of Scott Peterson (who killed his pregnant wife, Laci, at Christmastime in 2004) for the Daily News, I was transfixed by the mystery of why men kill their children. What had triggered Peterson to destroy the only child he'd ever have? I decided to research the phenomenon.
Beyond that, because of my work as a journalist researching and writing stories, I knew exactly the questions I had to answer, knew how do the necessary research and deliver on deadline. This book was particularly challenging because I had to convince total strangers to confide in me about the most difficult, tragic moments of their lives. But I've learned as a journalist that if you believe in what you're doing and you approach people with compassion and sensitivity, sharing their pain can be an incredibly moving experience. Something about that human connection reduces the power of the pain for me and, I hope, for them.
How is it that you got involved with the William Parente family?
I'm a news junkie and avidly follow all the stories I can, from crime to politics to international conflict and everything in between. When I began the book I thought back on the various crimes that had particularly interested me in order to plan my chapters. Beyond the issue of killer dads, I was especially fascinated by “family annihilators" -- men who kill their families before committing suicide. Many of these men have absolutely no history of abuse and there’s no indication they're about to destroy their families, making them a particular puzzle within the puzzle of killer dads. I decided to look at two types of annihilators --- dads driven by rage, and a father apparently motivated by love and a sense that he was "saving" his family by killing them.
I chose the William Parente case primarily because of his murder of his 19-year-old daughter, Stephanie. By all appearances, Parente was a hard-working, upstanding member of his Long Island community in Garden City. But it turned out he was running a Ponzi scheme out of his Manhattan law office and it was about to implode, which drove him to murder his family. He had just written hundreds of thousands of dollars of bad checks in spring 2009, then collected his wife, Betty, and younger daughter Catherine, 11, and drove down to Maryland, where Stephanie was a sophomore at Loyola University in Baltimore. He killed them all in a hotel room before committing suicide.
Every murder is tragic, but Stephanie's particularly affected me. Here was a young woman at the beginning of her adult life. She had a circle of friends, had chosen a career, and was nearly beyond the "orbit" of her family, yet her father reached out and dragged her to the grave with him. So I contacted friends and family and wrote my story about the Parente family annihilation.
What intrigues you about crime?
I was so sick of crime after working for years in New York, particularly after I had my son and daughter. It's one thing to read (or write) about a baby being killed, it's another when you hold your own baby in your arms and realize how utterly defenseless children are.
When I had some distance from writing or editing crime stories, I realized that crime has something profound to tell us about ourselves and our culture -- and that looking away from violence does nothing to end it.
I've read true crime stories all my life. I think I read them because I'm ravenous for clues about what drives murders because murder is something I absolutely cannot imagine doing myself.
Extreme behavior defines the "outer limits" of what it means to be human, and I want to understand those extremes. So I decided to examine a type of crime particularly mysterious, and to twin various cases with theories and profiles of experts as driven to understand domestic murder as I am.
After interviewing the Killer Dad named J – is it tough to look at anyone the same again?
Bizarrely, James, who slashed to death his 5-year-old stepdaughter during a vacation in Washington state, seems like a "nice guy," if you can use that phrase for someone who killed a young child. I think he lost control, and killed his stepdaughter in a white-hot rage during a vicious argument with his wife that not even he quite understands. He says he's completely sorry for what he did, has no excuses for it, and wishes he could trade his life for his stepdaughter's. I actually worry about him.
Researching the book, however, did make me look at family situations very differently. I now find myself often wondering if troubled dads I encounter are capable of family annihilation. I was struck recently when friends told me the father of their future daughter-in-law became insanely jealous because she was paying too much attention to them during dinner. He walked out, furious, and sat in his car. That’s the kind of guy who might murder his family.
I also now too clearly see more of our ape-like drives, uncovered by anthropologists, in everything from rock song lyrics, to Anna Karenina to Shakespeare's plays. That takes some of the romance out of literature and art for me.
What is the best and worst thing you’ve found out about our prison system while researching for your books?
Is there a best? Perhaps the best is keeping people from killing again.
Oddly, I think of James often, and how the prison system is doing nothing for him. Many people would say the system shouldn't do anything other than to keep him locked up.
I'm convinced he wants to make some kind of amends for killing his stepdaughter, though he knows nothing could ever make up for even a fraction of his horrific crime. Yet he would like to try, and there's absolutely no opportunity for him to do anything. He usually just sits in his cell.
I think he should be given an opportunity to seek some modicum of redemption, even if he'll never find it. I also think it's such a waste not to put those empty hours to some kind of use.
Why do you think these dads snap?
Dads snap for a number of reasons: jealousy, rage, humiliation, a desperate sense of impotence. Some men are driven by anger, whiles others are so depressed they suck their entire family into a vortex of annihilation.
One researcher I cover at length in Killer Dads believes there's something specific about American life that makes it a particularly fertile ground for family annihilators.
Neil Websdale, a professor at Northern State Arizona who has studied 200 cases of familicides in the US, believes American culture demands far too much of men, and a national ethos of rugged individualism fails to deliver help regardless of struggles facing families.
Men are expected to be competitive, aggressive and successful in the workplace, as well as a nurturing, attentive father and romantic helpmate to spouses. It’s a bar set so high, Websdale believes, that many men are destined to suffer in failure and humiliation that can turn murderous.
Why should readers choose this book?
You should choose this book if you're interested in crime in a violent America, particularly the most baffling crime committed by a parent against a child. It's also for readers intrigued by possible motivations driving violence in our most elemental, profound human relationships.
Who are you reading right now?
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld. I love historical nonfiction, but I like to have a good novel going at the same time.
Any advice for newbie writers?
Be passionate about what you write about. That passion will get you through the tough spots.