The same day God’s Nobodies was published, December 14, Adam Lanza committed the same crime as Tim Ginocchetti when he killed his mother. Then Lanza went far beyond that at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Comparisons are dangerous, especially when we lack details on Lanza’s twisted motives for his infamous massacre of 26 children and their teachers. We also don’t know precisely why he killed his mother. Perhaps it was as simple (and, to repeat, twisted) as wanting to spare her knowing what he was about to do. I already speculated, immediately after the Newtown, Connecticut, tragedy, about whether they had one common precursor: untreated mental illnesses. Now I’ll add to the speculation. I can’t help wonder whether the profile that researchers have developed of the classic mother-killer doesn’t apply at least somewhat to Lanza. I do know one thing: It certainly describes Tim Ginocchetti.
Matricide is rare. In 2011, 123 mothers — fewer than 1 percent of what the FBI classifies as murder victims — died by a child’s hand. So it doesn’t grab a big share of researchers’ attention. The studies that have been conducted sometimes rely on small numbers of cases, or find a disparate list of explanations for what triggers the crime. Still, researchers have spotted some patterns among young men who kill their mothers.
One scenario in particular stands out in the studies: a son with an absent or neglectful father and overly controlling mother. His dependence on her is infused with hostility. Our first common-sense reaction — he must be sick to kill his own mother — isn’t all wrong. Many indeed suffer from mental illness and personality disorders. But the studies have found mental illness isn’t consistently a driving force except among older killers. The younger ones — Lanza was 20; Tim was 21; both acted more like kids — are often very bright, successful students, never in trouble, who privately seethe until the frustrations boil over in cases of extreme overkill. As researchers Kathleen Heide and Autumn Frei termed it, these are “long-term dysfunctional relationships that culminated in violence.”
While older killers fit the common image of dysfunction — think raging drunks or psychotics whose domestic-abuse impulses turn deadly — younger offenders tend toward the Lanza personality type, at least what we know of him so far: troubled misfits. By comparison, Tim — admittedly a painfully shy, awkward kid — looks downright well-adjusted by comparison to the brooding, scary Lanza. Still, Pam Ginocchetti’s micromanagement of his life walked her dutiful son into a trap common for mother-killers. William Holcomb, in “Matricide: Primal Aggression in Search of Self-Affirmation,” theorized from the studies he reviewed that shame at being controlled and belittled transforms into a perceived threat. The son fears his very identity is under attack. He sees no escape other than through suicide, matricide, or both.
Some plan their attack, while others act spontaneously. Lanza reportedly tried to buy a gun before turning his mother’s weapons on her and then leaving the house to stalk his other victims. Although Tim had fantasized before about killing Pam, he didn’t plot his crime. He lost control in an instant and reached for kitchen knives. Some confine their violence to the home and a single victim, while others, tragically, do not.
The anomalies and mysteries of this less-than-precise science inhibit neatly prescribed outcomes in criminal courts. For one thing, the psychological motivations I’ve described most likely fall far short of the legal standard for an insanity defense, as they did in Tim’s case. But by learning the mother-son narrative — insisting on a detailed understanding, rather than resorting to casual labels (“evil,” “nuts”) — we make more sense of the seeming senselessness.
Special thanks to Kate Szrom for her research assistance on matricide and to the Newhouse School for providing me with such a talented graduate researcher. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. James Knoll, the prosecution’s forensic psychiatrist in Tim’s case, for the extensive research of matricide that appears in his evaluation of Tim.