Foetus: From the Sensory to the Scan

As a physical state, the stages of pregnancy follow a fairly consistent form. Yet maternal perceptions of pregnancy can vary enormously across time and location. As Barbara Duden comments in Disembodying Women: Perspectives on pregnancy and the Unborn: ‘over time, woman and body do not remain the same’; we cannot feel the same as our distant counterparts because our bodies have no ‘empirical equivalent’ to theirs. I’m currently completing a chapter for a forthcoming book on perceptions of pregnancy, edited by Jennifer Evans and Ciara Meehan, and one of the aspects I find fascinating is the way that technologies of conception have entirely changed emotional responses to pregnancy.

A powerful way to illustrate this is through Anna Barbauld’s poem To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible (published 1825, probably written at the end of the 18th century). The foetus that Barbauld described in her poem below was invisible, mysterious, and unknown. This ‘stranger guest’ was a captive imprisoned in her mother’s nurturing though fearful body, burdened with the increasing physical and emotional weight of the foetus. I love this poem, so lively, so touching, so yearning, and so illuminating of maternal pregnant sensibilities in the past.

To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible (By Anna Laetitia Barbauld 1743–1825)

Germ of new life, whose powers expanding slow

For many a moon their full perfection wait,—

Haste, precious pledge of happy love, to go

Auspicious borne through life’s mysterious gate.


What powers lie folded in thy curious frame,—

Senses from objects locked, and mind from thought!

How little canst thou guess thy lofty claim

To grasp at all the worlds the Almighty wrought!


And see, the genial season’s warmth to share,

Fresh younglings shoot, and opening roses glow!

Swarms of new life exulting fill the air,—

Haste, infant bud of being, haste to blow!


For thee the nurse prepares her lulling songs,

The eager matrons count the lingering day;

But far the most thy anxious parent longs

On thy soft cheek a mother’s kiss to lay.


She only asks to lay her burden down,

That her glad arms that burden may resume;

And nature’s sharpest pangs her wishes crown,

That free thee living from thy living tomb.


She longs to fold to her maternal breast

Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;

To see and to salute the stranger guest,

Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.


Come, reap thy rich inheritance of love!

Bask in the fondness of a Mother’s eye!

Nor wit nor eloquence her heart shall move

Like the first accents of thy feeble cry.


Haste, little captive, burst thy prison doors!

Launch on the living world, and spring to light!

Nature for thee displays her various stores,

Opens her thousand inlets of delight.


If charmed verse or muttered prayers had power,

With favouring spells to speed thee on thy way,

Anxious I’d bid my beads each passing hour,

Till thy wished smile thy mother’s pangs o’erpay.[1]

Rachel Bowlby (A Child of One’s Own) shows that technologies of conception shape perceptions of the foetus, and, therefore, pregnancy. We are used to seeing the foetus within the womb thanks to ultrasound scans offered twice during pregnancy, the first usually around 8 to 12 weeks. The baby is visible in a moving image on a screen and in a still photograph produced from the same scan as a physical object and memento. However, this is a very recent phenomenon. It was the 1880s when physicians first began to use the recently invented stethoscope to listen to the baby’s heart in the womb, the end of the 19th century when X-rays were used to see a six-month old embryo in the womb, and it was not until the late 1970s in Britain that ultrasound was first used to produce an image of the baby before birth.[2] The implications of this are significant, providing information about a baby which was previously hidden until its birth; the most obvious example of this is that the baby’s sex can be known in advance.[3]

N0019383 Ultrasound scan, normal 24 weeks gestation

In Bowlby’s astute words, ultrasound has changed ‘the view of pregnancy; it makes the foetus more of a recognizable soon-to-be baby, and less of a hidden, interior being perceptible only through its creeping movements’.[4] These ‘creeping movements’ were the sensations first felt at the quickening (around three months) and continued through pregnancy to be joined by weightier shifts and painful jolts as the foetus moved and kicked. Indeed, Barbara Duden reminds us that the senses were the only means by which women in the past could report on their experiences of the unseen or the ‘sensorium’ of what went on inside them.[5] Such movements or, more sinisterly, the lack of movements were the primary indication of foetal well-being, thus they also occasioned maternal emotions. This makes the vocabulary of pregnancy all the more important to closely scrutinise in terms of an emotional discourse.

Let me return to Barbauld’s poem to demonstrate this connection between the different senses in pregnancy. I have underlined words and phrases which illustrate the uncertainty of pregnancy (which you can see more about in this presentation) partly due to the invisibility of the foetus. Barbauld mentions the anxiety of pregnancy, the apprehension associated with the passage of time, the fear of pain of childbirth, and the unborn child as an unknown quantity perceived only through the senses. The phrase ‘Part of herself, yet to herself unknown’ conveys in beautiful form the sentiment of many mothers.

As Bowlby points out, technology has removed this aspect of pregnancy from our grasp since the advent of foetal scans has removed ‘a significant element of uncertainty – or possibility’.[6] Of course, these new ways of visualising our babies does not eradicate all anxieties; perhaps it simply replaces them with others since often scans are there to detect abnormalities.

[1] I am indebted to Sara Read for alerting me to this poem.

[2] Developed in the 1950s, ultrasound technology came to public attention with the first IVF baby in England, in 1978. Rachel Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own: Parental Stories, Oxford 2013.

[3] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, pp. 20-21.

[4] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, p. 22.

[5] Duden, Disembodying Women, p. 8.

[6] Bowlby, A Child of One’s Own, p. 21.

Image: N0019383 Credit Wellcome Photo Library, Wellcome Images Ultrasound image, lateral of head and upper chest  of normal 24 week fetus  Collection: Wellcome Images
Library reference no.: NMSB

The past is an unlit country

At the height of the recent storms, early one evening, our electricity went off, leaving us in the dark and cold for three hours. This was enough time to panic about finding suitable torches, candles, and (thanks to my mother’s foresight and her memories of a post-war childhood and a 1970s winter of discontent) a hurricane lamp. Enough time to light them all (where do lighters, matches, and batteries hide in the dark?) and to realise that landlines don’t work in power-cuts and mobile phones choose that precisely that moment to run out of charge or credit. What then? Can’t work, play, or read. My son struck lucky with a charged iPad on which he played games. Well, what would any self-respecting historian do but attempt a micro-historical re-enactment of the dark and its insights into life in the past?[1]

night

 

 

 

First off, yes, there is no doubt that candlelight is beautiful and mesmerising. You only have to see Amanda Vickery’s reconstruction of a Regency ball, or the Tudor Farm at Christmas, or Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 Jane Eyre to see its charm. Yet candles were costly and unlikely to be used in large quantities for ordinary people on ordinary days. So surely many people’s experience of darkness was much more intense than these gorgeous evocations; didn’t many of them travel the night-time with only small flickers of light to accompany them? People do seem to have pottered about in the night time. Most obviously, perhaps, children slept in rooms with their carers –no doubt to facilitate feeding them, comforting them, or talking to them in the dark hours without having to wander far.

What about that much longer ‘night’ itself? My encounter with the ‘early’ advent of darkness reminded me of Roger Ekirch’s ground-breaking findings in At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, a marvellous history of night-time activities and patterns of behaviour. His findings on changing patterns of sleep were so startling they even made the press. Essentially he proposes that in the pre-industrial world sleep was broken up into two blocks of about four hours. So when you don’t get your full eight hours sleep, don’t be surprised or worried – you are probably following your ‘natural’ sleeping pattern. Ekirch argues that industrialisation, efficiency and clock-watching eradicated this segmented form of sleep (leaving many of us as ‘insomniacs’). For more on sleep see the project Sleep Cultures.

Those of us lucky enough to read accounts of everyday lives in the past find much illumination in Ekirch’s findings about the dark. I begin to wonder how far the dark was shaped by class and gender. Men were perhaps least hampered by darkness when travelling abroad, although it remained a dangerous time for everyone in the night as fears of robbery and banditry reveal. Certainly servants and women seem to have patrolled darkened rooms and corridors more frequently at home. I recall the accounts in matrimonial litigation of times when household members saw and heard what they weren’t intended to see or hear. Indeed being kept in the dark was no distant metaphor where secrets were concerned in the pre-electric age. Servants on their duties or in precious ‘spare’ time often discovered the adulterous affairs of their employers.

It wasn’t only servants who took advantage of the dark evenings. In January 1788 the vicar of Alnham in Northumberland left home for a couple of days. The young husbandman and plasterer who were doing building work on his house were suspicious about his wife Eleanor. They went to the highest part of the Smiths’ garden and looked in through the kitchen chamber which held the press-bed in which the couple slept. They saw Eleanor reading by the firelight and chatting with the person in the bed. She undressed to her shift and go into bed. The dark and the distance stopped the men’s spying, so unable to find a ladder they got a hand barrow and stood it up at the window. Each climbed in turn onto the barrow (a health and safety nightmare there, surely) and peeped in to see Eleanor lying in bed with a fellow husbandman.

In fact, servants and lower classes have been snootily written-off by historians for their propensity to pop-up with incriminating evidence about their masters and mistresses. Yet when I look again at their testimony and accounts, in the context of their darkened environments, I notice with fresh eyes their use of all their senses as they made their rounds. Hearing sighs and shuffles, encountering by touch surprisingly closed doors, and discern odd goings on in the dimmest of dim lights. Rather than household members in the contempt in which some historians have held them, I admire their quiet use of a darkened house to assert their own control over its occupants.

Mary Collier certainly saw the dark and its labours as profoundly gendered, in her 1739 poem defending women’s employment against the slurs of Stephen Duck in his The Thresher’s Labours. Resentful descriptions of the dark litter her poem.  After women’s long labours in the field for example, she tells her reader:

We must make haste, for when we Home are come,
Alas ! we find our Work but just begun ;
So many Things for our Attendance call,
Had we ten Hands, we could employ them all.
Our Children put to Bed, with greatest Care
We all Things for your coming Home prepare :
You sup, and go to Bed without delay,
And rest yourselves till the ensuing Day ;

She emphasises the never-ending nature of women’s labours by the repeated references to the dark. On days of washing and charring for others, Mary continues, women’s paid labours also necessitated them working through the night. After an interminable day washing for a mistress:

NOW Night comes on, from whence you have Relief,
But that, alas ! does but increase our Grief ;
With heavy Hearts we often view the Sun,
Fearing he’ll set before our Work is done ;
For either in the Morning, or at Night,
We piece the Summer’s Day with Candle-light.
Tho’ we all Day with Care our Work attend,
Such is our Fate, we know not when ‘twill end :

Look at all those allusions to time passing and night as burdening women still further. Again, after cleaning pewter, or making ale for the employer:

Once more our Mistress sends to let us know
She wants our Help, because the Beer runs low :
Then in much haste for Brewing we prepare,
The Vessels clean, and scald with greatest Care ;
Often at Midnight, from our Bed we rise
At other Times, ev’n that will not suffice ;
Our Work at Ev’ning oft we do begin,
And ‘ere we’ve done, the Night comes on again.
Water we pump, the Copper we must fill,
Or tend the Fire ; for if we e’er stand ſtill,
Like you, when threshing, we a Watch must keep,
Our Wort Boils over if we dare to sleep

It is SO striking that the natural rhythms of day and night, light and dark, shape Mary’s view of women’s work.

Finally, my unlit hours reminded me of people’s encounters in the dark which unsettled and frightened them, and made them think of ghosts, banshees and devils. Catherine Ettrick junior, for example, told the clerk of Durham Consistory Court in the 1760s that when her mother left the marital bedchamber (to escape her husband’s violence), the servants thought they’d seen a ghost. Her brother had his very own banshee when he grew up. Thomas Bewick, for instance, recounts in his memoir how he was scared of the dark when he was growing up in the 1760s.[2]

Among the worst [of his ‘prejudices], was that of a belief in ghosts, boggles, apparitions, &c. These wrought powerfully upon the fears of the great bulk of the people at that time, and, with many, these fears are not rooted out even at this day. The stories so circumstantially told respecting these phantoms and supernatural things, I listened to with the dread they inspired, and it took many an effort, and I suffered much, before it could be removed. What helped me greatly to conquer fears of that kind was my … father … would not allow me to plead fear as any excuse, when he had to send me an errand at night ; and, perhaps, my being frequently alone in the dark might have the effect of enabling me greatly to rise superior to such weakness.

Nevertheless Thomas went on to recall his horrors when as a teenager he set off home in the dark across the fell, after playing cards with his friends. Suddenly:

to my utter amazement, I saw the devil ! It was a clear moonlight night ; I could not be mistaken his horns his great white, goggle eyes, and teeth, and tail his whole person stood fairly before me ! As I gazed, I thought the hair lifted the hat on my head. He stood, and I stood, for some time ; and, I believe, if he had then come up to me, I must have dropped down. … I slipped off my clogs, made a start in a bending direction, and at full speed ran home. He pursued me nearly to the door, but I beat him in the race. I had always understood that any person who had seen a ghost, or evil spirit, would faint on coming into a house with a fire in it. I feared this, but I fainted none ! and when my father asked me what was the matter, I told him I had seen the devil. He, perhaps without thinking, gave me a slap on the head.

That slap on the head amuses me – a father lashing out instinctively at the fright his son got. Don’t worry, his father then went on to find out who it was that had impersonated the devil, tracked him down in Corbridge and gave him a sound beating for terrifying his son!

No wonder, as Sasha Handley, that excellent historian of ghosts, darkness and sleep, reminds us, people sought bedfellows to make the dark less isolating and frightening, to make it more amenable and companionable by sharing the ill-perceived shadows, the too quiet moments which no doubt they filled with chat, as well as snores.

This sociability began to appeal to me as I sat on the bed surrounded by candles and torches and a radio with batteries that I rediscovered, and listened to my son tell me about his day at school once he decided to chat rather than play Modern Combat. Then the lights came back on and my re-enactment was complete. By God I was pleased! Respect to our forbearers.

 

 


[1] Seriously, for an eye-opening account of historical reconstruction and its value, have a look at Pamela Smith’s ‘Making Things. Techniques and books in early modern Europe’ in Paula Findlen (ed), Early Modern Things. Objects and their Histories 1500-1800 (2013)

The importance of good parenting: past and present

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 9: What motivated William Ettrick as a father?

I have written about William Ettrick’s harsh treatment of his son and daughter in my last post. It would be easy to leave it there and just dismiss his severity as caused either because William was abusive, mad, and motiveless, or because children just got beaten in the past.

But instead, I want to think more about this. In the first place, there is no ‘Whig’ history of children where the further back you go, the worse they were treated. As I explained in the last post, eighteenth-century people from several social ranks objected to children being severely punished.

So was William simply mad and bad? Well, he may have had anger issues, but he was not without reason. After all, he acted very rationally otherwise. He was a successful Justice of the Peace, as well as business and land owner.

I think it is possible to examine the evidence – particularly William’s defence – to see what it tells us about his motivation for behaving this way towards his children. Once I did this, I realised that he seems to have had a formal structure of behaviour guiding him, although it was out of step with new ways of thinking about childrearing.

Where disciplining was concerned he accepted his wife, Catherine’s, allegations, but cast them in a somewhat different light. So, for example, he denied:

Chastizing his Daughter otherwise then is Incumbent upon a Parent to Chastize and Correct his Children.

Indeed, he declared that he did not correct his children as often as his wife requested him to, and that,

such Chastizement of his … Daughter was Generally by giving her a Slap on the face with his open Hand.

In cases where a ‘superior’s’ correction of an ‘inferior’ was questioned, it was not unusual for the superior to differentiate between an open and closed hand, or a slap and a punch, like this. William claimed that he only hurt Catherine junior accidentally because she had got into a habit of throwing herself on the floor to avoid the slap. On these occasions he’d give her,

a kick on the Backside and once unluckily hit her in such a manner that he believes two or three Drops of Blood did come from her, since which time he hath never once kicked her.

The other aspect of William’s behaviour as a father that was rather at odds with his wife’s and his household’s expectations, was his failure to protect his children. For instance, on several occasions, William responded to his daughter’s perceived insubordination by leaving her alone outside. On one occasion, in August 1764, when Catherine junior was eleven, the Ettricks were travelling from their home at High Barnes to Durham Assizes in their chaise (see the map below). In the midst of a sudden thunder storm, William began to swear at his daughter and beat her, and then, in his wife’s words:

taking the Stool which she satt upon from under her, Struck her with it, so that her Nose bled, and ordering the Chaise to Stopp Putt his Daughter out, tho’ it then Rained Hard and she was four Miles from Home and must be up to the Anckles in Dirt upon the High Road before she could Reach any House or shelter.

Deponents stressed that he ordered the chaise on and ignored what became of Catherine junior. You’ll be relieved to know that the girl was eventually taken in by a pub landlady who looked after her and got her accompanied back to her home.

Sunderland map

Map from: http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/

A household servant, John Arrowsmith remembered a similar occasion when Catherine was riding behind her father on a horse, on a family visit to Westoe (to the north of Sunderland, near the River Tyne). Without warning, William suddenly ordered her off the horse and rode away, leaving the child alone. Catherine emphasised that she was not permitted to help her daughter and bemoaned the girl’s vulnerability, stating that she was left upon the road:

in a Place where she was an intire Stranger and must Cross the River Wear in a Ferry-Boat before she could get to Sunderland which is above two Miles from Barnes [their home].

William ignored his wife’s pleas not to leave their daughter. Luckily she came to no harm again, as she was taken care of by John Chapman, a passer-by, who found her wandering alone and carried her to his house.

Where Catherine saw neglect and abandonment, William’s defence indicates that he seems to have believed in the influence of ‘Nature;’ giving freedom to his daughter to walk alone. For example, in his interrogatories (questions addressed to the deponents answering the articles in Catherine’s libel) he asked whether or not Catherine junior regularly walked two miles anyway, with her mother’s approval, when she went to collect her brother from school. He also observed that the pub which gave his daughter shelter was close to where she was ordered out of the chaise and that the weather was not that bad.

Untangling William’s approach to fatherhood is difficult. Why did his view of parenting differ from Catherine’s and his servants’?

John LockePart of the answer to this question is that a range of child-rearing views could and can be held by the same family, even perhaps by the same individual. This is important since there was an evolution in attitudes towards childhood over the course of the eighteenth century. Three key ‘stages’ in thinking have been identified: the ‘Puritan’ conviction that the child was born in original sin, which permitted corporal punishment as a means to train the child; the Lockean Jean-Jacques_Rousseau_(painted_portrait)concept that the child entered the world as a clean slate in terms of ideas, which required that the child be moulded by reason and negotiation and only in extremity by physical correction (Top picture: John Locke, Wikimedia Commons) and the Rousseauian celebration of a distinct phase of childhood in which Nature knew best, which promoted a less interventionist form of parenting (Bottom picture, Jean-Jacques Roussea, Wikimedia Commons). None entirely replaced their predecessor, however, and traditional ideas remained in circulation alongside more novel ones.

Thus it seems that some of William’s ideas were traditional. In stressing that he had a right as a parent to chastise his children he adhered to the authoritarian image of the father who could deploy physical correction to improve his offspring. This was not the dominant discourse of the eighteenth century, however, following John Locke’s influential work that rejected physical punishment except in cases of obstinacy. So William’s attitudes were possibly ‘old fashioned’ by the mid-eighteenth century and certainly departed from his wife’s and servants’ views. Yet in his promotion of the physical freedom of his children, he had much in common with Locke’s and Rousseau’s recommendations that boys be exposed to the cold and wet, and introduced to physical exercise in order to harden them for adult life. By including his daughter in a regime intended for boys, of course, he was still out of step with current advice.

I would suggest, though, that we need not be surprised by the apparent contradictions in his practice. Modern childhood studies show that where there are several discourses available, parents will often hold internally competing and conflictual views.

The existence of different attitudes towards child rearing within a single household may have also been the result of differing experiences of being parented. The hypothesis that one’s exposure to parenting shapes one’s behaviour as a parent is hardly addressed at all in existing historical studies and needs to be more fully explored through research in family archives and more ‘self-reflexive’ sources such as autobiographies. One thing is clear from the lengthy narrative of the Ettricks’ marital separation, interestingly: William had not had enjoyed happy or fulfilling relationships with his own parents.

And, as I will go on to show, both Catherine and William junior had rather troubled familial lives themselves. No wonder parents in the eighteenth century, just as much as today were warned that their behaviour had an enormous impact upon their offspring for the rest of their lives!

He ‘Beat his Daughter in such a Manner that the flesh did rise in Several Parts of her’

Savagery and Sadness in Sunderland Part 8: How harsh was parental discipline in the eighteenth century?

Catherine Ettrick’s separation suit against her husband William, on the grounds of cruelty, also attacked his fathering skills.

One of her criticisms was his lack of demonstrative affection towards his two children. By the mid eighteenth century it was expected that a father should show his love for his children through kisses, hugs, and play, like the father below playing peek-a-boo with his infant.

V0038681 A tight-knit family group with the father playing a game of

Catherine therefore knew the court would be shocked by her claim that William would:

frequently Threaten to Spitt in their [the children’s] Mouths forcing them open, and he frequently Spitt upon their faces and Necks but more frequently upon his Daughter.

A witness, George Applegarth, recalled that when the children had followed William’s instructions in front of guests,

some of the Company did say Mr Ettrick shou’d kiss them upon which he said if the Children wou’d come to him he wou’d Spitt in their Mouths and that was the way to kiss them.

Catherine also attacked William’s capricious and unpredictable exercise of physical punishment against his son and daughter. When William was in a ‘good humour,’ she reported, he would often lay his daughter across his knee and tickle her about the waist. However, when he was in an ‘ill humour’, whether she was guilty of any fault or not, he would:

suddenly Curse her, Beat her, throw her upon the Ground and Kick her about the Floor, Telling her he knew she would be a Whore and that she wou’d be Hang’d and once he Kick’d her with so much Violence upon the Belly that some Blood came from her and she complained of being in Great Pain.

It was evident that Catherine and the servants thought the physical correction William applied to his children was far too severe. Sarah Beadnell, a servant, explained that Catherine Junior insulted Sarah’s mother, Mary Beadnell, by telling her she was an ‘ugly Bitch and that her Father had said so’. She was shocked, nonetheless, that William took

a Hazel Rod and Beat his Daughter in such a Manner that the flesh did rise in Several Parts of her Sides, Back and Arms to thickness of one’s Little finger

as punishment. In describing the wounds he left on his child, she showed that the correction was too severe. Another maid emphasised the disproportionate nature of William’s correction when she recalled that when his daughter’s reading did not please him, William ‘with his hand Struck the Child and knock’t her down to the Ground.

Unfeelingness - Advice to a man on venting his temper on the least guilty, from the series 'The Necessary Qualifications of a Man of Fashion', 1823 (hand-coloured aquatint)

Actually, the servants emerge as something of heroes in the Ettricks’ awful family life. They regularly intervened to try and prevent William’s ill treatment of his wife and children and monitored it amongst themselves. Mary Reevely disapprovingly explained that she once saw Mr Ettrick give his fifteen month old daughter

a Blow upon the Buttocks with the flat of his Hand with such force that it left the Marck [sic] of his hand upon the Buttocks of the Child and saith that the Mark was not gone of[f] in a Day or two afterwards when she show’d the same to Jacob Trotter … [her] Brother and Robert Calvert, an acquaintance…

It is clear from this that she checked on the child’s injuries and was obviously quite ready to report her master’s behaviour in front of people outside the family.

The servants also directly tried to mediate ill-treatment. George Applegarth set William Junior off to school on Mondays. He recalled taking the boy’s breakfast for him when his father had ordered him out of the house in such haste that he missed it at home. Similarly, Isabel King took boiled milk to the boy when he walked to school ‘down the park on the back side of the house where Mr Ettrick could not see him’. She and another servant brought in Catherine when William locked her outside in the dark and put the frightened child to bed ‘in the nursery unknown to the said William Ettrick’. Thus all these servants supervised the standards of parenting in the household, even while outwardly conforming to patriarchal forms of discipline.

These glimpses of genteel household life might reveal the unpleasantness of one man’s family behaviour, but they also illuminate the individuality and agency of domestic servants who, like women, are still too often cast in the role of victims by some scholars.

In the next post I shall reveal another aspect of William’s odd ideas about fatherhood, and offer some reasons for them.

Is masculinity to blame for men who murder their children?

I have written this post in response to an article in The Observer today, titled ’Masculinity Crisis leads to family murder, according to new study.’ It is a short piece, which states that Birmingham City University criminologists have studied 59 men who between 1980 and 2012 killed their children and, sometimes, their wives as well. It states that the study concludes that:

the increasing instances of the crime were a reflection of “masculinity in crisis”. He [Professor David Wilson] said: “Some men are unable to come to terms with different and developing notions of the institution of the family, where women increasingly play a much more dynamic role than they had in the past.”

The same study’s findings were reported in The Daily Mail in May this year. In this report, the causal factors of marriage breakdown were highlighted. Elizabeth Yardley, one of the criminologists working doing the research comments that the murders ’find it impossible to cope when their families break up’. All ’seem to have one thing in common. They feel that their masculinity is being threatened’.

Binding of IsaacI have to say that I am delighted that this crime is being investigated. Like everyone else, I have found the incidents reported extremely troubling and, as a historian, have been struck that this phenomenon seems to be relatively ‘modern,’ in that I am not aware of similar cases in the past. Moreover, the press reports which call these crimes ‘tragedies’ seem to me to be obscenely recategorising terrible pre-meditated murder as family breakdown tragedy. Thus, I want criminologists and social scientists to help explain why this happens and how it can be prevented.

But today’s article really worries me and seems to represent a trend in discussing gender more generally. I want to point out that I have not been able to track down the study itself, which is published, so my comments are reserved for these articles themselves. Yet, this is significant since this is where most people will meet the information and – rightly so – will assume that it is unproblematic because experts have carried out empirical reserach and drawn conclusions from it.

In the first place, to assign 59 men’s killings of their children over 32 years as the result of a crisis in masculinity is strikingly problematic. Surely a crisis cannot last that long? What about the concept itself? Historians of masculinity (like John Tosh) show that the notion of a ‘crisis’ in masculinity is flawed; for each supposed example, such as in the seventeenth century or the late nineteenth century, when societies shifted due to changes in labour or because women’s status improved, there is little evidence that ALL men experienced anxiety about their identity, their position relative to women, or their autonomy.

Nor is this weight of historical evidence unknown to the social sciences. Harry Beynon’s Masculinities and Culture, published in 2002, devotes a chapter to ‘Masculinities and the notion of crisis’. He points out that the concept is at best ’ill defined and elusive’ (p. 75) and after describing the problems concludes that the crisis has:

become a contemporary cliche, a catch-all container into which anything negative about men is simply poured. (p. 95)

I hate this tendency to talk about men as a collective who are all ‘naturally’ violent, sexually predatory, and liable to exploit women and children given the ‘right’ circumstances – which seem to include both not being in control and being in control. Thanks to unreflective articles of the kind we see in The Observer today, to use Beynon’s words:

Boys are constantly confronted with the notion that men are by nature brutal and emotionally damaged. (p. 97)

Indeed The Daily Mail’s report ends with the shocking claim that as marriages continue to breakdown:

there is no way of predicting which men are going to carry on being loving fathers — and which are going to act on these feelings and turn into Family Annihilator

But the men who who spitefully murder their children as a way to damage further their estranged wives are not representative of men in general, nor of men who find it difficult to cope with changing gender constructions. They are psychologically damaged, no doubt, since they seem unable to comprehend of their children as individual humans with rights of their own. Indeed, I wonder if they see their offspring simply as extensions of their mothers and therefore abuse them as such. Arguably this may have links to some models of masculinity since the study found that many of these killers were policemen or soldiers. These institutions do promote forms of masculine identity that use controlled violence to achieve specific ends. However, of course, it is the word ‘controlled’ that is important. Neither of these institutions should automatically produce men who can kill their children.

All in all, I would like to see more precise language and concepts being used to think about domestic violence in all its forms. This kind of reporting is crass and insults men as well women by following the usual ’victim blaming’ route.

Please note that this post is also hosted on Ending Victimisation and Abuse Website.

Image is The Binding Of Isaac, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons