Role of domestic abuse in Hawe deaths must not be ignored

When we accept poor mental health is not enough for a man to kill his family we open up more uncomfortable truths

The coffin of Clodagh Hawe at her joint funeral with husband Alan and sons Liam, Niall and Ryan in Castlerahan, Co Cavan. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins

The coffin of Clodagh Hawe at her joint funeral with husband Alan and sons Liam, Niall and Ryan in Castlerahan, Co Cavan. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins

 

It has been a week since the tragic Cavan killings. A man killed his wife and three children before taking his own life and media outlets faced the difficult task of looking for answers.

“Why did he do it?” asked one national daily, picturing the man and his three sons.

What ensued was little short of a tribute to the murderer alongside speculations into his mental state and growing calls on social media for increased mental health funding.

Quotes describing Alan Hawe as “a valuable member of the community”, a “real gentleman” and “the most normal person you could ever meet” were regurgitated like mantras while Alan’s brother spoke about the killer’s passion for handball and how he’d “won a number of titles”.

A note had been left at the crime scene, it appeared, suggesting that Alan Hawe had been in “a vulnerable state of mind” at the time of the murders, and journalists started asking just how unstable he really was.

While I wholeheartedly agree that increased funds for mental health services are desperately needed, I was quick to question this framing of the story on my blog. Two days had passed, and we were so busy trying to understand what state of mind this lovely community man must have been in to commit such a horrific crime, that it was almost as if we had already forgotten: they were a family of five.

Amid all the disbelief, the mother of the family had all but disappeared. Her name was Clodagh, the memory of her was drowning in a twisted tribute to her abusive husband. Of course that’s what he was. Committed and kind, perhaps – but someone who committed the ultimate act of domestic violence nonetheless.

Perhaps there weren’t any photos of Clodagh or perhaps the family had asked for her identity to be protected. Maybe neighbours were more comfortable talking about Alan, who wasn’t originally from the area, than sharing information about the local woman?

And wasn’t it media’s job, after all, to find out everything they could about the man who had so unexpectedly deviated to such a frighteningly extreme extent from his typically caring demeanour?

What strikes me about the backlash against my criticism of the media framing of this story is the point-blank refusal to self-scrutinise and consider the bigger picture.

The problem with the mental health framing is not that it is irrelevant, but rather that it is inappropriate and insufficient. We can all agree that no one in their right mind would do what Alan Hawe did. But when asking questions about what made him do it and moving on to write about his mental health, we inadvertently suggest that it was his mental illness that made him do it.

It immediately shuts the door on a number of other important questions. It is only when we accept that poor mental health is not enough for someone to go kill their family that we open up to some of the perhaps more uncomfortable truths about what made him do it.

When I talk about Clodagh Hawe as having been rendered invisible in the reporting of the Cavan murders, I am talking about the omission of her from the story not just in a literal sense, but also in terms of the wider narrative of the place of a woman in family life and in society at large.

It absolutely is the job of media to ask questions to try to understand what made Alan Hawe kill his wife and children. It is also their responsibility to use their words wisely, not least because it is hard for us to empathise with someone who is made invisible in a story, not to mention what it does to a person’s sense of self when people like them are repeatedly denied a voice and representation in media narratives.

Media is a mirror to society, telling the story of who we are. If we tell the story of what happened in Cavan from the perspective of the perpetrator, with Clodagh mostly referred to as his wife, relevant only as what she was in relation to the man who killed her, we will quickly fail to understand what went on behind closed doors – and we send a very clear message to other women living with men like her husband.

While it appears true – and unsurprising – that Alan Hawe was suffering with poor mental health, his story doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

We cannot take the reporting of the Cavan killings out of context, a context of a society where, according to Women’s Aid, 63 per cent of women who are murdered are killed in their own homes, yet women’s refuges keep closing down due to lack of funding; and a context of a domestic sphere where one in two female homicide victims is killed by a current or former partner, a total of 87 since 1996, along with 14 of their children.

Mainstream media can choose what to amplify here: a culture of silence, where talking about domestic violence is taboo, or one that asks how Clodagh Hawe was doing and what went on behind closed doors.

Linnea Dunne is a writer, editor and activist who writes about women’s rights, media representation, reproductive rights and parenting.

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