Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Anomaly of a Mom Who Murders Her Teenagers

Frequent Quarterbacker Jackie sent along a link to an article from the Daily Beast about the murders of Calyx and Beau Schenecker. You probably heard about the murders when they happened at the end of January. The two teenagers -- aged 16 and 13 respectively -- were shot to death in their Tampa, Florida home. The alleged killer, who reportedly has confessed, is their mother, who attempted suicide in the same incident.

Certainly this incident is horrible and worthy of discussion in a blog about traumatic current events. But what catches my eye about the article that Jackie sent along is the headline:
Did This Mom Kill Her Kids?
The article explains at some length that it is incredibly rare for mothers to kill their teenage children. Children murdered by their mothers are almost always infants or toddlers. Teenagers murdered by a parent are generally murdered by their fathers.

The article is a decent one, exploring the unanswerable question of why this mom did what she appears to have done. Their was clearly mounting discord in the family, the mom and daughter were seeking counseling, the mother may have been using drugs and was probably depressed, and the dad had recently deployed to the Middle East with the Army. And it points out that we will most likely never know what snapped in Beau and Calyx's mother to make her kill her own children.

But the headline says something else entirely. Did this mom kill her kids? It sure seems like it. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of question as to whether she did, only as to why. So why doesn't the headline match the article.

The somewhat boring explanation is that whoever wrote the headline was doing so quickly, skimmed the article, saw the part about this being almost unheard of, and misunderstood the thrust of the article. But I think it was a little more than that.

On the whole, people are very bad at evaluating statistics and probabilities. It is this phenomenon that was at work when a friend of mine, during a research study, asked people in line for a roller coaster what their chances of dying on the ride were and several people answered "50/50." Did these folks actually think that, on average, people die on the ride half the time? That seems unlikely. They didn't understand what "50/50" means. And I think, on some level, the headline writer didn't understand what something being so rare it is basically unheard of means.

The fact that something is unheard of -- even if it has literally never happened ever before -- does not by itself mean that it hasn't happened this time. As the saying goes, there's a first time for everything. What it means is, all other things being equal, it is unlikely to be true.

But  all other things aren't equal. This mom confessed. The evidence points solely to her. The fact that she did it is notable because it's unusual. The fact that it's unusual, unfortunately, does not mean it's not true.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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