It was the end of the summer at the terrace of Les Deux Marie, which has since closed because the landlord (a former immigrant) demanded an outrageous rent, thereby closing one of the only meeting places for the « old » people in the neighborhood (nicknamed the « plateausaurus »).
On the table beside mine, the headline of the newspaper was: « Unemployed Man Kills his Wife and Child, Then Turns the Gun on Himself! » His heartbreak had driven him crazy, wrote the journalist, who didn’t actually know anything about the man. It was repeatedly pointed out that he had recently become unemployed. But was this actually what had pushed the man to do what he did? We rarely question what we are told. A similar judgment is used when speaking of the behavior of the scorpion who, when surrounded by fire, stings himself in the back and dies. The fire drives it mad and the animal reacts stupidly.
What does the scorpion understand about the fire? Probably not much. Like almost all other life forms we know of. Unable to locate the « predator » that is attacking it, the scorpion strikes at random. It ends up stinging itself and dying, putting an end to its suffering. An intelligent reaction at heart. Some condemned to be burned at the stake paid the executioner to strangle them quickly before being devoured by the flames. Spies had a poison capsule to avoid torture if they were captured (or at least that’s the case in the movies).
The consequences of a simple instinct (which is to avoid suffering) are not necessarily simple. For instance, killing your whole family. But what does an unemployed person without education or specialization understand about an unfavourable economic context or the management of a crisis situation?
The Logic of Survival
The mechanics of instinct are sometimes surprising. It’s the case for most animals that the female becomes aggressive after giving birth, which has the purpose of driving away predators as well as competitors. Similarly, the birth of a first child can make the relationship tense in an isolated couple. Maternal aggression is unconscious and must be released eventually (watch some mothers handle a carriage on a busy sidewalk).
In captivity, the male hamster cannot move away and becomes a threat to his offspring. In a shortage of space, the male hamster will have too many competitors if he lets them live, hence his murderous attitude. In response, the female hamster eats the newborns! Many will think that’s messed up. Not at all. If she doesn’t eat them, the male will. If she has to give birth again, she might as well get stronger.
But hamsters in captivity are well fed, you might say. True, but instinct always wins. A particular situation won’t change that. Why do they keep mating if this is what happens? The reproductive instinct is a fundamental mechanism, and therefore difficult to inhibit.
The impossibility of expansion or territorial conquest in the Native American villages generates a different effect: up to 40% (that’s huge) of teenagers commit suicide there. That’s a huge 40% (Quebec is, in a lesser way, a cultural town in the English-speaking world).
And the survival instinct is even more brutal. For example, the new dominant male in bonobo monkeys (which, like our southern neighbours, use scapegoats as a way to resolve social conflicts) must kill all the offspring of the former dominant male (which he has just killed) or the females will refuse to copulate with him.
The Maternal Cave
Traditionally, it was the mother who organized the family space, her « cave ». As for the outdoors, before the appearance of the first villages, it quickly became threatening. One lives around one’s home, an oasis of protection. What comes from far away is unpredictable and rarely friendly. Think of the barbarian hordes that invaded Europe like China and the Roman Empire; or the westerns; or the horror films that take place outside of civilization.
For thousands of years, the same story repeated itself. The male searched for a female. When she became a mother, she was the center of the family they built. If they were still alive in their thirties, they saw their children build families of their own. They’d give birth and this cycle repeated itself for 70,000 years. Since the first sapiens, hundreds of billions of humans have lived according to the spirit of the cave, where family in the extended sense is everything.
The family oasis that man defends against the unknown acts like the « reminder rope » does for the spider. It provides him with the will to come back when he has to venture far away. In modern cities, uneducated men, uncomfortable in society, are the most dependent on their family, even if it is dysfunctional. Outside of this oasis unknown and full of people, these males are nothing and feel lost and threatened. I was able to closely observe the anguish of an illiterate immigrant in a hospital. He saw as a threat any help that the staff of the institution wanted to give him.
Life is Opportunist not Perfectionist
The logic of the cave leads us to think that there is a raison d’être behind the behavior of the man who kills his family and commits suicide. By losing his job (territory) and his wife (cave), our uneducated unemployed man finds himself in threatening territory, an untenable situation.
So why drag his wife and child into his murderous madness? The explanation is that a mechanism similar to the scorpion’s logic is activated. A gregarious instinct would push the losing male, unable to ensure the survival of his family, to eliminate them. It then alleviates their pain and the conditions of survival of the group. A mechanism known in mammals that live in herds (in the American empire, one would perhaps speak of the « Alamo complex »).
How will society be relieved by the murder of this little family, you may ask? In the case of our unemployed man, it won’t. Society does not care about a few more or fewer unemployed people. But the dispositions of our survival instinct have been honed over the past 70,000 years (at least, if we consider only Homo sapiens). Long before the emergence of our Euro-North American civilization, where it is almost impossible to starve to death.
Simple are the mechanisms of survival, complex is life.
(A beautiful fiction on the theme of reproduction is proposed in Splice, a Canadian film by Vincenzo Natali, 2009).