On August 20, 1989, entertainment executive Jose Menendez was shot point-blank in the back of the skull while relaxing on the sofa in his Beverly Hills mansion. His wife, Kitty, had fallen asleep next to him and was awakened by the shots. In a futile attempt at self-preservation, she bolted for the hallway, but was hit in the leg by one of the bullets. She slipped in her own blood and fell, continuing to crawl away until she was shot in the chest, then ten times in her head, before her killers bludgeoned and shattered her skull. Later, it would be revealed that Jose and Kitty Menendez had been brutally murdered by their own sons: 21-year-old Lyle and 18-year-old Erik Menendez.
Incidents of parricide—the killing of one's own parents—continue to fascinate psychologists, criminologists, and the public alike. To kill one's own parents is such an abrupt departure from the seemingly universally idea that we should celebrate our parents, especially on the heels of a holiday like Mother's Day, when people take stock of their parental bonds. According to the FBI, though, in 26 percent of all homicide cases in which the perpetrator is known, the victim is slain by a member of their family. And a Department of Justice report from 2011 shows that murders committed by a victim's own children are on the rise—up from 9.7 percent of all family homicides in 1980 to 13 percent in 2008, making parricide the fastest growing type of familial homicide.
Lyle and Erik confessed to the murder of their parents right away, so their trial was never a matter of did they do it? but instead, why? The defense claimed that they'd been driven to kill after being subjected to years of cruel emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of their father, and that their alcoholic mother sometimes took part in the abuse, too. The prosecution denied the abuse ever occurred and suggested that the brothers killed their parents to access the enormous wealth their father had accrued. Their trial soon became a public spectacle, followed like a real-life soap opera.
The vast majority of Lyle and Erik's friends and family believed the abuse allegations aimed at Jose, but the defense team had one major problem: Kitty may have been a less than perfect mother, but the evidence didn't seem to suggest she had done anything that would have made her sons want to kill her, especially in such a cruel way. Even more perplexing, according to people who knew the family, Erik and Lyle were both close with their mother.
Dr. William Vicary, a forensic psychiatrist who treated both brothers after they were arrested for the murders, told me that during his first few encounters with Erik, "all he wanted to do was tell me how wonderful his parents were—how terrific, brilliant, and successful his father was, and how loving and kind and warm his mother was." One of the police officers who worked the case also told me that during their investigation, they found phone records indicating conversations between Lyle and Kitty that would last three, sometimes four hours long. If everyone around Erik and Lyle observed an idyllic relationship between the brothers and their mother, then what could have prompted them to kill her?
There are two primary theories behind why sons murder their mothers. Sigmund Freud, who spent a great deal of his research ruminating on the relationships between parents and children, claimed that a son who murders his mother is defending against incestuous impulses. (By contrast, sons who murder their fathers may be eliminating competition for the "possession of his mother.") Other experts—like Dr. Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida who has written four books on parricide—believe sons are more often reclaiming control. In her book Understanding Parricide, Heide suggests that "men who commit matricide often reported feeling that their mothers were either ambivalent toward them or excessively domineering. These men were frequently described as considering the act of killing their mothers as a way to maintain their masculinity or as protection against extreme emotions triggered by their mothers' behavior."
Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, one of the first doctors to take an in-depth look at parricide, blended the two theories. In his 1954 book, Seduction of the Innocent, he wrote that "many matricides committed with excessive force occur in the bedroom, and are precipitated by trivial reasons. These crimes represent the son's unconscious hatred for his mother, superimposed on sexual desire for her." Wertham's theory draws ominous parallels to cases like Michael Miller, who was convicted of sexually assaulting his mother, Marguerite, after he had bludgeoned her to death, or Kevin Davis, an 18-year-old in Texas who admitted to choking, stabbing, and hammering his mother to death before having sex with her corpse.
About two-thirds of matricides are committed by adult sons (rather than juveniles) and in many of the matricide cases I researched, the crimes were sexually motivated in some way. In some cases, the mother was apathetic about sexual abuse that the son had been the victim of, or had been the direct sexual abuser herself; in others, she had interfered in a romantic relationship, or the murderer had problems associated with sexual deviance. Murders of fathers—which are twice as common as matricides—were more often the result of a heated argument, a "snapping," or a passion-fueled scenario that led to murder inadvertently. In cases where both parents were murdered, as with the Menendez murders, the motivations were not always as clear. Catalysts ranged from claims of abuse, jealousy, arbitrary quarrels, control, greed, and blatant narcissism.
During Erik Menendez's testimony during the trial, he cried, winced, and sobbed describing the moments he watched his mother moaning from the multiple shotgun blasts that he and his brother had inflicted on her. Later, a jury would convict Erik and Lyle for the first-degree murder of their parents and sentence them to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Few of us will understand the dichotomy of loving a parent while simultaneously wanting to murder them. But maybe unanswered questions are to be expected.
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