KAHLER KILLINGS: Criminal psychologists explain triggers for family violence

Monday, November 30, 2009 | 10:57 p.m. CST; updated 10:51 a.m. CST, Tuesday, December 1, 2009

* The MU Women's Center is located in N-214 Memorial Union. The center offers rape counseling referrals for MU students. A previous version of this article misstated the location and services offered by the MU Women's Center.

COLUMBIA — For many, the level of violence that ended with the deaths of Karen Kahler and her two teenage daughters Saturday in Burlingame, Kan., is hard to comprehend. It leaves a series of seemingly unanswerable questions.

But the job of psychologists who study criminal behavior is to try to make sense of the senseless. Their research has shown that while each case is unique, there are certain common elements that help shed light on crimes of this magnitude.

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This type of research could be related to the allegations against James Kraig Kahler, who was charged Monday with first-degree murder in the deaths of his wife and two daughters.

Men are the most common perpetrators in crimes involving the murder of family members. Psychologists say men are not necessarily more aggressive in domestic relationships, but their aggression tends to be more damaging and lethal.

Of all women who are murdered, 30 percent are killed by their spouses, said Denis McCarthy, an associate professor at MU who studies law and psychology.

Psychologists say, however, that men tend to commit suicide after killing family members, making Kahler’s case — if the allegations are true — unusual. Kansas authorities said that after the shootings, Kahler was spotted fleeing by a Shawnee County sheriff's deputy. He was arrested after a 12-hour manhunt.

A common misconception is that people who commit these types of crimes are insane and have a history of violence. In fact, the opposite is sometimes the case.

“Rarely are these people psychotic,” said Longin T. Kucharski, chair of the department of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “They are angry and resentful and start to see the world in a hopeless way.”

So what can lead a person who has raised a family and achieved professional success to allegedly kill members of his own family?

Often just one or two traumatic events can trigger a chain reaction that may eventually end in violence, psychologists say.

“Generally, the people who commit these types of crimes are individuals who, as a result of acute situations and extreme losses, spiral down and become very depressed,” Kucharski said.

Those acute situations can include the loss of a job and marital troubles — both of which Kahler recently experienced. The resulting public shame and embarrassment is one of the most common motives for murder, McCarthy said.

As the depressed person looks for someone to blame for his troubles, his focus often shifts to family members. The holiday season can then become a flash point because it reminds people of the extent of their loss, Kucharski said.

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Lynn shivers December 2, 2009 | 5:26 a.m.

"individuals with acute situations and extreme losses". This statement needs to be examined more. The assumption about this statement is that the individual has not contributed to their "acute situations" or their "extreme losses". It fails to analyse that person who go the extreme ends of violence - murder of their partner and sometimes the children - have in no way, been able to control the environment around them. If you look at many of the situations of these indivduals closely, you'll see a pattern of over-controlling. They have in fact, become so possesseive and controlling of people around them ie:, they go to the extremes of neglecting their work, neglecting their finances as they become more and more obsessed. This type of obsession only serves to bring about the ending of the relationship. Hence, we tend to then justify the acts of murder by individuals who have had a run of rotten luck. How on earth resulting embarrassment and public shame can be used as a reason for murdering women and children is beyond me. Where's the connection? If psychologists really want to know these answers, they should delve more in sociology. There's more understanding and explanations when we start to consider that men who do this have an over-the-top sense of self-entitlement, lack boundaries and consider their partners and children either as possessions or extensions of themselves. There are less answers down the road of "anger" and "depression" than can be found along the path masculine constructs and what it means to be a man.

(Report Comment)
Stephen Cobb December 6, 2009 | 7:53 p.m.

To Lynn Shivers (The Person Who Commented Before Me)

I COMPLETELY agree with you and am in fact analyzing different parts of this article for a Sociology paper. There are many social factors that these "Criminal Psychologists" ignore that can in some cases play much greater roles than "depression" and "anger" which they seem to cite as the cause for any tragedy.

It is inspiring to see more people out there starting to question typical standards and looking for other explanations.

(Report Comment)

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