The Common Language of Homicide and Suicide: Evidence of the Value of Durkheim’s Typologies

The Common Language of Homicide and Suicide: Evidence of the Value of Durkheim’s Typologies

The Common Language of Homicide and Suicide: Evidence of the Value of Durkheim’s Typologies

Author: J. Michael Bozeman
Publisher: El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing, LLC, 2014. 310p.
Reviewer: Melanie Clark Mogavero | January 2016

Suicides and homicides are perplexing and devastating behaviors that lead many to question, “Why did they do it?” or, “What were they thinking?” J. Michael Bozeman, retired law enforcement official from the Houston Police Department Homicide Division, conducted a qualitative study in an attempt to better answer these questions published as The Common Language of Homicide and Suicide: Evidence of the Value of Durkheim’s Typologies.

Bozeman evaluated 34 suicide notes and 27 voluntary homicide confessions given to police investigators in order to “enter the minds” of those who committed suicide and homicide. The suicide notes ranged in depth from a single passage to lengthy journal entries. The murder confessions were video and/or audio transcriptions of questions and answers of the investigators and confessed murders. During this exploration, Bozeman applied Durkheim’s four typologies of suicide to homicide and expanded upon the “stream-flood analogy.”

Bozeman gives voice to suicide victims and confessed murders in this micro-level evaluation to uncover their thoughts and motives that led to their actions.  The heart wrenching notes and chilling confessions revealed the links between suicide and homicide, and Durkheim’s suicide typologies were present in the confessions of those who committed homicide.

The first two chapters provide the legal definitions of suicide and the different types of homicides, with statistics regarding the prevalence of suicide and homicide in the United States. The third chapter offers the theoretical constructs of suicidal and homicidal behavior. Specifically, the stream-flood analogy: when “homicidal and suicidal violence converge into a stream of violence,” (p. 11) and Durkheim’s four typologies of suicide: altruistic, fatalistic, anomic, and egoistic. Altruistic suicidal behavior refers to those who commit acts of suicide as characterization of a “higher commandment” or an act of sacrifice for the greater good (e.g. family would be better off without them). Fatalistic suicides refer to the feelings of being “over-regulated by an oppressive society” (e.g. lack of freedom, enslaved). Anomic suicides are the result of an individual’s sense of absence or loss of a social regulation (e.g. cannot bear a divorce and/or the loss of custody of children). Egoistic suicides are characterized by the lack of belonging or integrating into society (e.g. feeling unloved, having no social bonds). The four typologies are illustrated in more detail in, On Suicide (1897), Durkheim’s most noted sociological works on the topic.

In linking suicide to homicide, Bozeman describes the relationship between frustration and aggression from the work of Henry and Short (1957). In Chapter Four, Bozeman describes how this study will be of interest to those who study language, linguistics, and the relationship between words and behavior. Bozeman refers to Chomsky’s (2006) focus on the use of language as an expression of one’s mental functions. In applying the work of Chomsky to suicide notes and homicide confessions, the words of those who committed suicide or homicide are used to better understand their thoughts as they relate to their violent behavior.  

Chapter Five outlines the study’s objectives and the qualitative inductive theorizing of “grounded theory,” first coined by Glaser and Strauss (1967). Although the study was constructed as a grounded theory, Bozeman sought to answer several research questions with regard to the stream-flood analogy and Durkheim’s four typologies of suicide (altruistic, fatalistic, anomic, and egoistic). Bozeman then sought to determine if the four typologies of suicide were present in the suicide notes as well as in the homicide confessions. The suicide notes and homicide confessions were coded and categorized, and original themes emerged from the data.

Chapter Six presents the results and interpretation of the themes that emerged from the suicide notes. Of the 34 suicide notes, 17 major themes emerged, of which the top five included the victims’ psychological state (e.g. hopelessness, depression, mental illness), acceptance of responsibility (e.g. accepted responsibility for suicide, articulated desired final arrangements), love (e.g. expressed loss of relationship, loneliness), contrition (e.g. apologized to family, asked for forgiveness), and resignation (e.g. had no other options, desired to be released from mental anguish). The direction of the suicide also emerged in the evaluation of the notes. Suicide as inwardly-directed violence emerged in 52.9% of notes, in which most were expressions of remorse that the suicide would cause others pain. Suicide as outwardly-directed violence emerged in 26.4% of notes, and expressed that the suicide was intended to cause others pain.

Three out of Durkheim’s four suicide typologies were present in the suicide notes. The altruistic typology appeared in two examples, in which both examples included individuals who took their lives in order for their families to live better financially. Anomic typology was present in two passages, in which both individuals mentioned an impending divorce. Egoistic themes appeared in three passages: one individual stated he had no friends, a second described his dysfunctional family and lack of family bonds, and the third described the dismantling of the family bond due to an impending divorce. No examples of the fatalistic typology appeared in any of the notes, likely due to the overall rareness of this typology (according to Durkheim). Bozeman noted that this typology was also lacking due to individual- or micro-level evaluation of the notes, versus a macro-level or cross-national study, in which fatalistic themes would be more likely to emerge (according to Durkheim).  

Chapter Seven presents the results and interpretation of the themes that emerged in homicide confessions. Of the 27 homicide confessions, 19 major themes emerged, in which the top five included aggression and escalation of violence (e.g. robbery, sexual assault), motivation (e.g. robbery, money), acceptance of responsibility (e.g. placed self at scene, admitted crime to others), avoidance (e.g. denied crime, disposed of evidence), and economic factors (e.g. robbery, money).

Chapter Eight included the interconnected themes between the suicide notes and the homicide confessions. Eleven themes were interconnected; one included the individual’s psychological or emotional state, which was present in 61.8% of the notes and 51.8% of the confessions. The suicide notes revealed the victims’ psychological state (e.g. depression), whereas the homicide confessions revealed the murders’ emotional state (e.g. fear or panic). A second, interconnected theme related to acceptance, with the acceptance of responsibility of committing suicide (76.5%) or taking someone else’s life (88.9%). Those who committed suicide often took responsibility by leaving final instructions to surviving family members in the notes. The high percentage of murders in which the perpetrator accepted responsibility was likely due to the fact that the confessions were voluntary and the individuals waived their Fifth Amendment right.

Other interconnected themes demonstrated vast differences between the suicides and homicides. For instance, a third, interconnected theme was contrition, present in 64.7% of notes, but only 41% of confessions. Contrition in suicide notes often included an apology to family members, where the confessions rarely mentioned an apology. Resignation was a fourth theme apparent in 55.8% of notes and only 11.1% of confessions. In suicides, resignation was an expression of helplessness or having no other options, whereas in the confessions, confessing to the homicide was an expression of relief (after the individual realized the impact the homicide would have on the individual’s life).

A fifth interconnected theme was self-esteem, present in 50% of notes and only 7.4% of confessions. The similarity of self-esteem between the two behaviors was in reference to bullying. Suicide victims often expressed they had been bullied by family, friends, or acquaintances, whereas the confessed murderers expressed being bullied by their co-offenders before, during, or after the murder. In other words, both suicide victims and murders expressed an inability to “stand up” to others.

Chapter Nine details the stream-flood analogy and its “forces of production” and “forces of direction” present in the language among those who committed suicide and homicide. Forces of production are the sources or causes of frustration, stress, or negative life event(s) that led to the suicide or homicide. Forces of direction are the conditions that affect who the individual believes was responsible for the frustration, stress, or negative life event(s). According to this analogy, as illustrated by Unnithat, Huff-Corzine, Corzine, and Whitt (1994), violence is channeled through either suicide (directed inward) or murder (expressed outward). In other words, the forces of direction can be inward (blaming self) or outward (blaming others). Suicide and homicide are separate expressions of violence; however, it is the forces of production and the forces of direction that dictate which expression of violence manifests.

In the language of those who committed homicide, economic frustration and unsatisfied needs were present as forces of production (e.g. unable to pay bills, desired materialistic goods). With regard to the forces of direction, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness was present among the murders. In other words, a crime escalated to the point where the individual felt as if there were no other options or else went “too far” and could not “turn back” (inwardly-directed violence). Outwardly-directed forces were also present in the perpetrators’ language as, in some cases, the murder was meant to place blame on others and to cause others harm.

It was also noted that murder and suicide could converge into a single manifestation (as seen with suicide bombers or high-profile school shootings). In this sense, an individual committed homicide by expressing rage or blame (outwardly-directed violence), and then committed suicide out of hopelessness because there was no “turning back” (inwardly-directed violence). A homicide followed by suicide conceptualizes this stream-flood analogy.

In chapter Ten, Bozeman applies Durkheim’s typology of suicide to homicide: altruistic, fatalistic, anomic, and egoistic. Three out of the four typologies were present in the homicide confessions. Altruistic behavior was present in two confessions, in which both “higher commandments” had to do with preserving family (i.e. killing a rape victim so his girlfriend and daughter would not find out, in one instance, and murdering estranged wife and children to prevent children from being raised by another man, in another). An anomic typology (absence of society’s regulation) was present in two case examples. One example was a murder-suicide due to the fear of losing custody of his children to his estranged wife (absence of family), and a second was a murder for money to avoid returning to jail because he was on probation and absconded (previous and current society regulation).

Egoistic behavior (lack of integration into society) was present in two confessions, in which both involved the desire to for financial gain and the lack of meaningful social structure. In one case, the individual planed the murder of his own mother to gain control of the family business, the second case was the same case mentioned above, a murder for money to avoid returning to jail. Clearly, both cases expressed a lack of meaningful social structure (family, close social bonds) and a lack of integration into society. As with the suicide notes, there were no examples of the relatively rare fatalistic typology in the homicide confessions.

In summary, Bozeman sought to examine the motivations and interconnections between suicide and homicide. By quoting direct passages from these gruesome and disturbing suicide notes and homicide confessions, Bozeman revealed the depth of their messages, which allowed detailed themes to emerge. Although a small sample (34 suicide notes and 27 voluntary confessions) from a single police department (Houston, TX), during a brief period (January 1, 1998-January 15, 2008), the language present in these notes and confessions revealed the similarities and differences between the two behaviors. This small and limited sample ‘skims the surface’ of the suicidal-homicidal violence integration, but sets the ground for the future study of these behaviors in conjunction with one another. The topic of this study crossed several social science disciplines, and will interest a vast audience, including criminologists, sociologists, psychologists, social workers, professionals involved in suicide prevention, and linguists.

Melanie Clark Mogavero, Ph.D.,
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, Georgian Court University

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