A year-long, tragic crime saga came to an inconclusive and bitter end last month with the death of Linden father Ben Engelbrecht.
At the time of his death, Engelbrecht stood accused of murdering his wife and son. Just days before he was set to appear at the Johannesburg High Court for his trial he was killed in a car crash. It was alleged that he drove into oncoming traffic to kill himself.
Familicide – the killing of one’s family – is not unique to SA, but psychologists across Gauteng have taken a keen interest in the Engelbrecht case.
The Star spoke to three medical professionals to examine the reasoning behind these kind of tragic murder-suicides.
The Engelbrecht Case
Engelbrecht was prevented from committing suicide at his Linden home in May, when he was caught by police trying to gas himself in his car. He was arrested after it was found that his wife, Ina, and quadriplegic son, Kobus, had been strangled with scarves.
On the day of the incident, distraught relatives told the Star that the emotional and financial strain of looking after his disabled son could have caused Engelbrecht to snap. Kobus was injured in a rugby accident a few years ago, and left a quadriplegic.
Engelbrecht was released on bail of R20 000 in July, after State psychologists said he was no longer considered a suicide risk. But as the trial date approached, the State requested another psychiatric evaluation, and again was told he was not at risk of taking his own life.
But less than a week before his trial, Engelbrecht left his brother’s home and, it is believed, drove into oncoming traffic, careening off the road after almost hitting a truck. He died on the scene.
For Wits University psychology lecturer Joseph Seabi, who specialises in suicide analysis, the perpetrator of these kinds of crimes is often suicidal himself before he commits any crime. But he may ask himself: “If I kill myself, what about my kids? Who will look after them?”
It is this kind of thinking that can lead a suicidal man to familicide.
Professor Gertie Pretorius, director at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Psychological Services, agrees that men who are raised with a “breadwinner” mentality will often feel that they are saving their families from further suffering by killing them.
In her research on family murder, Pretorius noted that these individuals see no other way out in their emotional or financial woes.
The moment the provider of the family starts to fail at his/her job, a warped mind may start to rationalise their own death.
However, Seabi also pointed out that a violent burst of emotion can lead to this sort of crime, and the suicide is part of the regret the killer experiences after committing a crime of passion.
Dr Malose Langa, a specialist in the study of trauma and violence at Wits University, says that in Engelbrecht’s case, his son’s quadriplegia may have been what triggered Engelbrecht’s psychological breakdown.
For most fathers, Langa says, their sons are an extension of their masculinity and identity. The physical tragedy that left Kobus paralysed may have left Engelbrecht himself emotionally paralysed.
His inability to provide for his son’s health care may have shattered his own sense of self. Langa suggests that in Engelbrecht’s mind, rather than becoming a shameful or sympathetic figure, suicide may have been a less emasculating option.
For the average person, the death of a relative is naturally a massive blow to the psyche. Dealing with grief and mourning is difficult enough for those who lose relatives unexpectedly.
But being responsible for these deaths can magnify this grief, and could eventually lead to suicide, says Pretorius. The bonds of trust between remaining relatives are also broken, shattering a person’s emotional support system.
Langa believes that the stress of the trial and the upcoming anniversary of his wife and son’s deaths may have pushed Engelbrecht to the brink of suicide.
The deaths of his wife and son may have still been tormenting him, and the desire to “exorcise the demons” in his own psyche may have become too strong.
“By killing himself, he was also killing ‘the other’,” says Langa.
State psychologists gave Engelbrecht a clean bill of mental health just after the murders, and Pretorius believes that this analysis may have been correct – at the time.
But it was Engelbrecht’s “emotional resilience” that needed to be assessed.
For someone in his situation, having dealt with a tragic accident involving his son, he would most likely be quite resilient and may even be able to remain emotionally stable.
But after months of grief, emotional trauma and having to deal with his remaining family, the decision to kill himself may have become easier.
Pretorius says that after the decision has been made to commit suicide, minor improvements are often seen in the person’s demeanour because of a sense of relief.
This may explain why Engelbrecht’s family were unaware of his internal turmoil just before his suicide.
The three psychologists say it’s difficult to profile someone who would have the capacity to kill themselves or their families, there are some signs and personalities types that may be more prone to these behaviours. Pretorius indicates that a long history of depression or hopelessness is often seen in perpetrators of familicide. General mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, or a history of violence, may also increase the likelihood of committing these crimes.
Seabi believes that those who have trouble expressing their emotions can often turn violent. The inability to deal with the conflicts in their lives can frustrate them and eventually turn even the most reserved person into someone capable of violence.
However, those who are at risk of suicide also exhibit these kind of behaviours, from feelings of hopelessness and despair to a loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
When extroverts suddenly become reserved or introverted, that is also a sign that they may be contemplating suicide.
It’s not just men who become so deeply traumatised that they can commit familicide.
“It’s just extremely difficult to predict,” says Pretorius, adding that similar incidents have involved women killing their own children or husbands, often with similar emotional reasoning.
When a woman experiences her own child’s suffering, or sees no way of helping to alleviate it, she may try to end the suffering of both through death.
In situations where both perpetrator and other relatives are still alive, Seabi says, it is of the utmost importance to seek group psychological help.
The need to communicate after such a tragedy is crucial, but without professional input can result in further psychological damage.
Dealing with the guilt is the only way to prevent further tragedy.
Families who notice their spouses or children exhibiting signs of depression should also seek help. “If you can’t afford it, some churches have trauma counsellors. There are free helplines, like the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag),” says Seabi.
Pretorius says the best way to move on from such a tragedy – for both perpetrator and remaining family – is to use it as a catalyst for personal growth.
By finding a new meaning in life, the situation becomes more manageable, and introspection can begin.
But those suffering from depression or violent thoughts must realise that they have to ask for help.
“There is no reason to feel embarrassed by asking for help,” says Pretorius.