Like Father, Like Son: Spousal Murder Runs In The Family


It’s shocking enough when a man murders his wife, seemingly without motive, in cold blood. When his son goes and does the same thing, you’ve really got a problem on your hands.

The story of the case of Colin Bouwer‘s murder of his wife is told compellingly in this week’s New Yorker. Bouwer, “a stout, self-assured psychiatrist with an Afrikaans accent” was a highly-regarded neighbor and colleague in the New Zealand town of Dunedin. When his wife died and the many layers of his deception began to fall apart, it turned out the man was a psychopath who’d lied about almost every aspect of his life, from his former wives to spurious war heroics. Writes Carl Elliott,

Bouwer’s method of murder was simple. He had written prescriptions for glucose-lowering drugs, ground them up with a mortar and pestle, and given them to Annette, most likely in her food. The day before Annette died, Bouwer picked up a prescription for a thousand-unit vial of Humalog insulin, a dose large enough to kill her.

The enduring mystery is why he would do it, save that, you know, he could. With what the author describes as a not-uncommon arrogance of psychopaths, Bouwer had been incredibly sloppy — apparently not crediting his pursuers with the intelligence to read the clues he’d made no attempt to hide. And then this:

In May of 2000, four months before Colin Bouwer was arrested in New Zealand, his son Colin Bouwer, Jr., then twenty-five years old, was arrested in South Africa and charged with murdering his wife, Ria. She had been found dead in the guest bathroom of their home, in Kempton Park. Her panties were slashed, and toiletries were scattered around the bathroom, as if a break-in had occurred. Colin, Jr., initially told the police that he had been out of the house for several hours with their seven-month-old daughter, Melissa.

It seems after strangling Ria, Bouwer Jr. had called his mother – who helped him fabricate an alibi, create an appearance of sexual assault and arrange the crime scene. The stories, horrifying in themselves, obviously raise issues of heritability, something the author addresses.

Complicating the issue of blame still further is the fact that at least some aspects of psychopathy appear to be genetically related-not in their criminality, which appears more closely linked to classic causes, such as trauma and abuse, but in their emotional poverty.

While it’s a hot-button issue in psychiatric circles, no reader can help wonder, too, at observed attitudes towards women — not to mention the vulnerable people who are often involved, as Elliott points out, with psychopaths. (The fact that, in this case, the non-psychopath parent helped her son clean up the crime scene cannot be ignored.)

A cautionary tale? One hopes it’s too isolated — and will stand more as a tragedy. For scientists of the phenomena, a grim dream subject. As one nurse says early on in the New Yorker article, “In Dunedin, we have only interesting murders.” Which is to say, because the town is quiet and secure, those that do occur are doubly “shocking.” While no murder will ever be ordinary to a victim’s loved ones, she’s right in one respect: this is can’t-look-away awful. One can only hope some it can serve some preventative utility.

Mind Game [New Yorker]

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