CNN.com recently reported on the story of Chris Keith, a thirty-year-old man living with his wife and family in Fort Worth, Texas. To look at them, there is little to indicate that the Keiths are anything but a healthy, happy young suburbanite family, living the Norman Rockwell vision of the American dream. But the Keiths are also keepers to an awful, tragic family history.
When Chris Keith was eight years old when he lost his entire family, and very nearly his own life.
His father, who suffered from drug and alcohol addiction, had confronted Chris’ mother in their home, hoping to reconcile. After the encounter degenerated into a heated argument, however, Chris’s father murdered his mother in a fit of rage, before pulling out a .38 caliber pistol and shooting both Chris and his brother, Mikey, in the head while they slept. Chris’s father then turned the gun onto himself. Despite being shot in the head and pronounced DOA by EMTs, Chris was the sole survivor.
But as senseless and horrific as Chris’ story may be to most, perhaps the most tragic part is that his account, and others like it, are neither so rare nor so isolated as we might think, or hope. Indeed, the law even has a word for it: familicide. Even more chilling than the terminology, however, are the numbers that are associated with it. According to the Justice Department, 559 children under the age of 4 were the victims of homicide in 2008 alone. And in about 350 of those cases, at least one parent was listed as the perpetrator.
Like many victims of domestic violence, Chris struggled for years after the event to make sense of something seemingly senseless. And while he notes his father’s persistent alcohol and drug abuse as a contributing factor to the violence, Chris understands that there were other forces at work. Chris cites his father’s “self-centeredness” and ego as likely causes, indicating that it was his father’s inability to tolerate their perceived “abandonment” that may have incited him to violence.
Sadly, this pattern is not unusual. Abusers who engage in one instance of domestic violence are several times more likely to engage in similar behavior again. Indeed, the longer the relationship lasts, the quicker the cycle of violence repeats and escalates. And the longer the abuse continues, the more likely it is that an abuser will inflict lasting harm on those they abuse. Even more tragic, is the fact that male children who witness or experience such abuse, are 60% more likely to become an abuser themselves.
Primarily, this stems from the fact that children who grow up in DV situations, are at risk of adopting these maladaptive tendencies, and of internalizing coercive, cruel or dangerous attitudes and behavior as “acceptable” and “normal.” When these children do grow up, their experiences often leave them with a poor self-esteem and unrealistic expectations of their partner and others, making them generally incapable of forming meaningful, healthy relationships.
For his part, Chris admits that there was little to inspire much hope for himself and a future as a healthy adult male. At least, not at first. Despite relocating to a loving, supportive home with his grandparents, Chris still struggled. He became, in his own words, a “recluse,” and spent years in therapy and counseling, grappling with guilt, anger, fear, and difficulties sleeping or trusting others. He married young–at age 19–in part, he says, because he wanted desperately to develop some form of deep interpersonal connections.
Ten years later, through a combination of therapy, faith, and sincere reflection, Chris is a changed man. He is still happily married to his wife, and the couple now have a five-year-old son. He holds a steady job, and travels to youth groups and juvenile justice centers sharing his story. Chris, and others like him, are living proof that DV is neither inheritable or inevitable. Those who abuse make a conscious and willful choice to do so, as do those who do not abuse.