This is not madness

TW for violence against a child (most notably applies to the link below).

NB: A number of people read this post as demeaning to people with mental illnesses. I apologise unreservedly. I am leaving the post up because I think the discussion in comments is valuable, but will pull the post if requested. Please let me know if you would like me to pull it (see my comment below if you would like to contact me privately).

A man threw his four-year-old daughter off a bridge, in the midst of a custody dispute with his ex-wife. This is not madness, which is what he’s using as a defence. But it makes me mad – as in angry.

That’s because – far from being madness, or insanity – it seems to me far more to be a picture of a man’s sense of entitlement. A sense of entitlement to the company of his children at the expense of his ex-wife’s time with them, a sense of entitlement to the control of his ex-wife, a sense of entitlement to the control of his children. A sense of entitlement in the manner of “if you can’t have her, nobody can”.

The idea that he didn’t know it was wrong (which is the way in which you need to be “mad” in order for it to be a legal defence) seems laughable in light of the fact that it appears he effectively gave himself up immediately.

It’s not madness. But it serves to fuel the idea that people who are “mad” are also bad and dangerous to know.

And, as I said, that makes me mad.

* Thumbnail pic from; Ref Number: 31-24-7; Photographer: Ian Britton.

Categories: violence

Tags: , ,

19 replies

  1. This is clearly a horrifying incident. The fact that the son watched from the car at the time makes it even worse.
    However the story you have linked to does not quote anyone qualified to make a judgement on the man’s mental state, least of all a qualified person that has had contact with the man. It seems demeaning to those that suffer from mental illness for lawyers (and bloggers) to make such judgements based upon their preconceptions.

  2. “Temporary insanity” is a classic defense for misogynist violence. The phone calls to his wife telling her she’d never see her children again obviously belie the assertion that this murderer didn’t know what he was doing.

  3. The social conventions that lead to that sense of possessiveness are not madness – they’re, as you say, a means of patriarchal control. However, I don’t see how you are able to judge this particular man’s medical state at the time of the murder. If he had not handed over the other children and surrendered would you instead use that as evidence that he knew it was wrong?
    Most “mad” people are not “bad” – in fact, far more likely to be the victims of the “bad”. But your comments on this case aren’t about perception of madness in general, they’re making claims about this particular case and I think you have no actual grounds on which to do that.

  4. I don’t mean to pile on Jo , but a problem with your dichotomy is that when men are “mad” they will frequently experience few internal blocks to their entitlement. I think that this is a problem for the entire species, i haven’t come across a mental illness yet that is not in many important ways mediated by the social and environmental factors experienced by the ill this of course will include the power structures that they are part of.
    on a related note, when this event happened i was deeply affected and cried a lot, there were things said on either here or LP, i forget, that i responded to intemperately, if i caused insult or hurt to anyone i wish to apologise unreservedly.

  5. I think it’s possible that he may be mentally ill, although it’s also possible that he isn’t mentally ill. However, I think that in either case, the sense of entitlement to others’ bodies that he exhibited is a definite side effect of patriarchal conditioning. It also seems significant to me that, although he had three children, the child he murdered was his only daughter, and he left his two sons unharmed. This seems like it could be a reflection of the value he placed on women and girls, especially given his attitude and actions towards his (ex) wife.

  6. To those who have said that I have no evidence that he is not mentally ill: you are absolutely right, I do not.
    I wrote the post in a moment of anger.
    I’m still angry, but I should say that I do not believe that what he did is, of itself, evidence that he is mentally ill. I should also say: it may be that there is more evidence of mental illness in the case itself, which is not reported in the article I linked.
    I apologise unreservedly for writing this post, which can obviously be read as demeaning to people or any person with a/ny mental illness. I was actually trying to say something quite opposite, and I obviously failed miserably in that purpose. Please let me know if you would like me to pull the post. (I will not pull it unless asked to do so, because I think the discussion here in comments is important.) If you want to ask me privately to pull it, please email me at [my second name] [dot] [my first name] [at] gmail [dot] com.
    Lalaroo said best what was in my head: “in either case, the sense of entitlement to others’ bodies that he exhibited is a definite side effect of patriarchal conditioning.” Also, dylan agh’s comment (which I don’t see as a pile-up at all): again, surely the problem is the entitlement, not the mental illness itself.
    My anger is based on the fact that the actions apparently done on that apparent sense of entitlement is sold as clear evidence of mental illness. My anger is also based on the idea that, even if it is a combination of a sense of entitlement and mental illness, it’s the mental illness that’s the problem.

  7. Here, here Jo – I understand that it is a fraught subject to navigate but I, for one, hope you don’t pull the post.
    Your words expressed an anger I have felt when I have heard the reportage on this news item: and for me that stems around the sense of patriachial entitlement:

    Freeman told her everywhere he turned ”there were angry women against him”.

    … and for me also the way it undermines mental health/illness conceptions to a simplistic term that is dangerously reductionist as not just an excuse for inappropriate behaviour but a defence. To my mind, this is a quite separate aspect to knowing whether the defendant does or doesn’t have a mental health condition/s.
    For me, it is this conflating of the distinction between not taking responsibility for one’s emotions and that of a temporary illness that is potentially demeaning to those with mental health condition/s, rather than your post discussing the context on such an emotive subject.

  8. The story underlying this story is the Howard government’s sympathetic response to the MRA movement and the resulting changes to Family law to give a “rebuttable presumption” of joint custody. As I understand it these kind of incidents have increased since. Also IIRC, Freeman was fulminating about some judgement that had recently been made meaning that he had fewer days access than he thought he had a right to. Newsflash, Mr Freeman, if you go and do something like that then you have just proved that the Family court was being too generous to you as it was. Talk about retrospectively disproving your own argument.

  9. There’s nothing demeaning to mentally ill people in this post. Discussions of the misuse of the insanity defense and how it hurts mentally ill people, as well as society’s conflation of violence and mental illness, and use of the “he’s just crazy” dismissal to avoid discussing male privilege, are really important. If you’d used disrespectful language or slurs against mentally ill people, yes, that would be terrible. As it is, you’ve apologized repeatedly for the one thing that was a little hinky (declaring him not ill), and that’s all you should have to do.

  10. I don’t care much for armchair diagnoses either, but this came across to me at least more as mental illness not being the point than whether it was there at all. For whatever it’s worth, I didn’t get the sense of “oh, another lay-expert.”

  11. Women who kill their children have long had the “defence” of infanticide which implies something different or special about the fact of them being mothers. While I don’t condone this man’s terrible actions I have worked with too many people who have done terrible things and come to regret it later, and who were clearly not in their right mind to be so black and white about it. And the definition of insanity or mental illness in the legal sense is quite tightly defined and technical, and often I have found people who are clearly not right or mentally ill who don’t fit this definition. In any case if he is found not guilty by virtue of mental illness he is just as likely to be kept in prison and may even serve longer than he would otherwise

  12. implies something different or special about the fact of them being mothers

    Severe, untreated postnatal depression perhaps?
    Being a mother I do think that there are pressures on mothers or indeed parents, especially when it comes to the round the clock care of small people and/or people unable to care for themselves. The father in this case does not fit this definition. It doesn’t mean that he wasn’t suffering from a mental illness, but trying to equate mothers commiting infanticide with this man is trying to compare apples and oranges I think.

  13. Okay, as someone who is actually mentally ill, I’d like to agree with your position.
    I have chronic depression. It messes with my energy levels, it messes with the emotional weighting I apply to thoughts and actions, and it messes with my mood. What it doesn’t mess with is intellectual constructs, such as morals and ethics. Or in other words, being depressed doesn’t make me incapable of telling right from wrong.
    My own thoughts on the “insanity” defence as a mitigation for criminal action are as follows (and as you’d expect, they’re strongly influenced by spending most of my life dealing with a mental illness of my own). For a start, I have a lot of trouble with the legal definition of insanity in the first place (legally, insanity is the inability to tell the difference between right and wrong). The biggest problem is the legal definition actually pre-dates psychology as a discipline, and as far as I can tell, there’s been very little actual work done to reconcile the legal definition of insanity (which is much more aimed at personality-disorder level illnesses) with the popular and psychological definition of insanity (which endeavours to describe cognitive, emotional and social functions overall).
    So the first thing to do is to define the psychological disorder which the person who has committed a criminal act believes they have (if they’re saying they’re insane, then presumably they have a label for their insanity). Most persons who have a mental illness are aware they’re not like everyone else – it’s hard to live in this world and not be aware of it. If a person who commits a crime is genuinely mentally ill, they’ll have a list of coping behaviours they carry out in order to be able to feign normality. So get them to list these.
    The next thing to do is to pin down where their disorder lies, and whether it is, in fact, treatable. Now, as far as I’m aware, the various personality disorders (the psychological conditions which do tend to produce an inability to comprehend right and wrong in the context of other people almost as a matter of course) aren’t actually treatable. There is no medication which can fix them, no version of CBT which will change the thinking behind the actions, no amount of therapy which will alter the way a person with a personality disorder (antisocial, narcissistic, histrionic or otherwise) actually regards the rest of the world. The best you’re going to get is someone who is aware of their difference, and who is willing to comply with social standards in order to avoid further inconvenience to themselves.
    The final thing to be aware of is the possibility that the person is lying to get out of trouble or to avoid punishment (which, while in and of itself a symptom of certain psychological disorders, is also a symptom of being human). This means an insanity defence has to be carefully examined by multiple persons, over a long stretch of time – in effect, someone who is using an insanity defence has to be aware that in effect they will never get out of prison (even after they’ve completed the necessary term for their crime), because they will be under constant watch for the rest of their life. It should never be an “easy out”.
    Criminal insanity should also never be regarded as a “get out of jail free” card (as Mr Freeman’s lawyers appear to be attempting). I’m not exempt from the law because I have depression. Someone who has psychotic schizophrenia isn’t exempt from the law because they’re not sharing a reality with the rest of us. Someone who has bipolar disorder isn’t exempt from the law because they’re on a manic high, or at the bottom of the depressive pit. Someone with a cognitive disorder isn’t exempt from a law because they’re not capable of understanding it. So someone who is criminally insane should not be exempt from the legal consequences of their actions either.

  14. It messes with my energy levels, it messes with the emotional weighting I apply to thoughts and actions, and it messes with my mood. What it doesn’t mess with is intellectual constructs, such as morals and ethics. Or in other words, being depressed doesn’t make me incapable of telling right from wrong.
    Likewise. It makes me prone to upsetting or stressing people, because I lose sight of how what I do or say can matter enough to be upsetting – but it doesn’t make me lose sight of the idea that upsetting people is bad. And it certainly doesn’t make me lose sight of the fact that throwing someone off a bridge is bad.

  15. the thing i find interesting here is the assumption that someone is either permanently in control of their mental state or permanently not, and that this is a static thing. all of us experience our mental state as a mutable and fluid thing – sometimes we have flashes of rage that pass as quickly as they come, sometimes we can go from being very happy to being quite sad if appropriately triggered. why, then, must we assume that if someone is “mad*” they are completely out of touch with reality all the time? to say that for someone to be genuinely mentally ill means that they have to be displaying all the textbook symptoms of psychosis all the time shows a lack of understanding of how consciousness and the mind really work.
    it would only take a few dreadful moments of being out of control for this man to do what he did. just because the consequences of this were so horrific does not mean that he doesn’t deserve our compassion.
    *also, i take exception to the use of the word “mad” to describe a person suffering from mental illness.

  16. after reading comments, i also want to express my confusion at people saying that because they suffer from depression they understand all mental illness.
    i also suffer from depression associated with a panic and anxiety disorder. i don’t for one moment claim to understand what it must be like to experience psychosis. psychosis is a partial or complete separation from the ‘real world’ – it’s experiencing the world in an entirely surreal and frightening way. i don’t think the moral codes of reality apply – hell, half the time the basic laws of physics don’t apply in psychosis (that’s why people jump from buildings believing they can fly, or walk out into 8 lane highways believing they can halt the semi-trailers with the force of their will) psychosis and depression are entirely different and cannot be equated.
    i don’t know what was going on in that man’s mind, but i think that to throw your kid off a bridge you would have to be experiencing a psychotic episode, not a depressive one.

  17. @es – yes he may have been experiencing a psychotic episode, but the issue in the original post is that his defence team is trying to use it as a get out of gaol free card. He may have been having an episode or he may be a complete ars*hole intending to punish his estranged wife.

  18. From today’s court reporting: Daughter thrown off bridge for ‘revenge’

    Dr Skinner, a psychiatrist of more than 25 years experience, examined Freeman in November last year for approximately three-and-a-half hours.
    She told the jury she had examined people involved in more than 80 cases of parents killing their child.
    Asked by Chief Crown Prosecutor Gavin Silbert, SC, if the facts were consistent with spousal revenge, Dr Skinner replied: “Yes”.
    The day before Darcey died, Freeman’s allotted time to see his children was reduced in a custody settlement with his wife.
    Dr Skinner said it was possible that Freeman was in a state of dissociation on the day he killed Darcey, but that did not mean his actions were not conscious or voluntary.
    Freeman’s barrister, David Brustman, SC, suggested that only someone who was mentally disturbed could have committed such an extraordinary act.
    But Dr Skinner said it could be explained by the “psychological sequence of events that happened preceding and on that day”.

  19. He’s been found guilty of murder.

    After a marathon five days of deliberating, a jury has found Melbourne man Arthur Freeman guilty of murdering his four-year-old daughter by throwing her off the city’s Westgate Bridge.

%d bloggers like this: