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Voice Male--Spring 2006

Reflections on Neil Entwistle

Fathers in Crisis

By Haji Shearer

On January 22, a woman and her infant child were found shot to death in their home in suburban Boston. The husband and father of this unfortunate family had flown back to his native England on a one-way ticket shortly after the murders. The gruesome nature of the crime contrasted with the image of an upstanding, middle class, white family, catapulting the case into an international media spectacle. In February, Neil Entwistle, the husband and father, was indicted for double murder and extradited to the United States. Voice Male contributing writer Haji Shearer hopes that one outcome of this tragedy is that another troubled father--or mother--seeks help for problems with debt, deception, or depression before another disaster devastates another family.

As an advocate for what is described as healthy father involvement, I realize the Neil Entwistle story reflects badly on fathers everywhere. Although Entwistle pleaded not guilty to the murders, his own behavior and circumstantial evidence presented in the media do not bolster his case. Some may abhor these questions, in part, because everything that follows is based on conjecture, but I wonder: If in fact he did commit these crimes, what would cause a man to take the lives of his wife and infant daughter? What was his state of mind before this tragedy? The media reported that he was in debt, that he was lying to his wife, that he was researching murder and suicide on the Internet, and that he was exploring hooking up with sexual partners from various websites. By some accounts, he hinted to his family that he had a secret job with the British government. I've seen nothing indicating there was previous family violence or that he had a substance abuse problem, but more disclosures will surely come with the trial.

No one close to the family has acknowledged seeing Entwistle's demons before the murders, but given what has come out in news reports he must have been under a great deal of stress. Of course, all families are stressed these days. The salient questions are: what is the breaking point; where is the fabric weakest; and what can be done to mitigate the stress? One way the Entwistle saga can be productive on a level beyond morbid titillation is if this tragedy inspires another father or mother to seek help for problems with debt, deception, or depression before another disaster saturates the media.

As a social worker, I've worked with many men, women, and children who "lost it" and became dangerous. As a husband and father, I too have separated from my sanity in smaller ways and seen how close that edge can be. One of the things that fascinates people about public family dramas is that, if we're honest, with just a little imagination we can see our own family in similar straits. There but for the grace of God go I. Just as we identify with great athletes, singers, and businesspeople, we can identify with great transgressors of law as well. Is there anyone out there who hasn't thought about going postal? "Is that baby crying again?!" "Leave me alone about the money, will you?!" "It doesn't matter where I was, I was just out, OK?!" "What, I can't look at a little porn on the computer?!" How many families today are in debt? How many spouses hide money problems from their mate? How many dads hook up online? How many new parents feel like pillowing that crying baby?

Mental health clinicians all over the world have already done drive-by diagnoses on Neil Entwistle, but let's refrain from that for a moment and look at just two possibilities. One, he married his wife in 1999 with the idea that he would someday murder her and their child. Or, two, he got married seven years ago with the same hopes and dreams of marital bliss that have kept function halls and wedding photographers in business for generations. The reality is we will never know what was in his heart that day and therefore we cannot rule out the first possibility.

However, given what we know so far it appears the second possibility is at least as likely as the first. And if Neil Entwistle did marry with the sincere vision of a long, productive marriage and generally happy family life, then his story is more instructive to us. If the second possibility is true then the internal mechanisms of his mind shifted in the past seven years to such a degree that this terrible crime became thinkable and doable.

We know that Entwistle was not alone in the types and degree of stress he was under, and it would be naïve to think he is the only man or woman to consider such an ignoble "solution." In fact, he may be immortalized not only in the criminal annals of this country, but in the criminal lexicon as well. Just as certain men have considered and even threatened to "pull an O.J.," others may now contemplate "pulling an Entwistle."

My point here is not to create an abundance of empathy for a murdering spouse and father. Besides, empathy doesn't suggest a criminal should not be held accountable for his actions. I write about Entwistle not for the rare father who might go off and kill his family under similar stress, but for the many more who engage in less extreme, but still unhealthy coping mechanisms, under similar pressures.

A significant number of men simply disappear when the burdens of family life become too heavy. If Entwistle did commit these crimes, it would have been infinitely better for him to have gotten on the plane for a respite to England before he murdered his wife and daughter. He would still have problems of debt, depression, desertion and lust, but those problems pale in comparison to being tried as a double murderer. Faced with similar stressors, it's likely a greater percentage of men remain home physically, but check out emotionally. Others are arrested for lesser crimes related to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like taking drugs, soliciting prostitutes, or committing financial crimes to cover their debt.

Fathers in these types of situations must realize that deception, debt, lust and family stress are a toxic combination that will not go away by themselves, but can be managed. I'm a proponent of small, regular healing circles for men to recalibrate our lives. Ken Canfield, author of The 7 Secrets of Effective Fathers (Tyndale House, 1993), goes so far as to say, "A man without a small group is an accident waiting to happen." Finding some way to manage the stress that occurs in high-pressured 21st-century life is essential to our good health. Men's groups, physical exercise, team sports and other activities that connect us with other men, and spiritual rituals like meditation and reflection can go a long way in helping to pull a man back from the brink of desperation.

Entwistle struck a chord because he appeared so "normal" before going over the edge. Driving around in his SUV, loaded with debt, looking for a little action on the side and trying to keep the deals coming fast enough to shoo the wolf from the door, he looked like a lot of American men. Throw in some guns, some mental illness, maybe some drugs and you've got a made-for-TV movie. If we look at this on a deeper level, we can see patterns in our culture that extend well beyond this one family and its sorrow. And, if we are wise, we will set up individual and societal supports to prevent such another family tragedy from happening, and to keep other fathers from "losing it," in both large and small ways.

Haji Shearer advocates for healthy father involvement, facilitates men's groups, and lives with his wife, son, and daughter outside of Boston. He writes frequently for Voice Male and can be reached at [email protected].

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