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Altruistic Killing

from Violence and Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding by Gregg Barak

On the morning and afternoon of February 21, 1978, a Mill Basin, New York lawyer killed his three children and wife. Subsequently he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. In Facing the Wind, Julie Salamon captured the severe depression, exculpatory delusion, and altruistic killings of Bob Rowe. Her book is also a case study of lives experiencing human tragedy, of the inner depths of violence, and of emotional recovery.

On the day of the killings, while Bob Jr., Rowe’s teenage son, was still sound asleep, the father took a baseball bat and smashed his son’s head with one deliberate and forceful blow. A few hours later, when his adopted daughter, Jennifer, age 8, worrying that Bobby was sleeping too late, came to her father, Rowe talked her into bed with her 12-year-old brother, Christopher. He then told the two children that they were going to play a game and to close their eyes. Using the bat, he killed them both with swift blows to their heads. Late in the afternoon, he called his wife at work and urged her to hurry home. Upon her arrival, Rowe instructed her to stand in the middle of the living room with her eyes closed, as the children had a surprise for her. One more swift blow to the head, and his wife Mary lay dead on the floor. The next day, he turned himself over to the authorities, admitting that he had killed his family. 

This passage is from Violence & Nonviolence: Pathways to Understanding Ch 2, which explores interpersonal violence. It covers both physical violence and nonphysical violations of personhood
Other excerpts include

Reel, Real Violence
Altruistic Killing
Victim Recovery

The author's website has a rotating selection of his writings. 
Violence Theory Workshop Sponsored by the National Institute of Justice 

Mary and Bob Rowe’s second son, Christopher, had been born blind, deaf, and brain damaged. Consequently, Mary and Bob had become active during the 1960s in organizing parental support groups for others with severely handicapped children. Both were considered ideal role models: “The Rowes were devoted, selfless parents, dealing with extreme adversity with an awe-inspiring combination of optimism, determination and sense of humor” (Stewart, 2001, p. 10). Indeed, many of the mothers had wished that their husbands were as involved with their special kids as Bob was. Needless to say, Bob’s killing of his children and Mary came as a total shock to their friends, families, and other associates. Preceding the killings, Bob Rowe had been extremely depressed and down on his luck, unable to find work as a lawyer in his chosen profession. Prior to that, and for more than a decade, he had been a fairly successful attorney in the insurance industry.

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His explanation for the four murders was simply that he thought his family would be better off dead than living with a loser, a failure, an unemployed lawyer—like him. Rowe also told the various doctors who worked up psychological examinations on him to determine whether, according to New York criminal law, he was an “incapacitated defendant” not capable of mentally standing trial, that he had been depressed, and that the pressures of raising a handicapped child had been getting to him.

Rowe’s case history was coauthored by Kings County Hospital forensic psychiatrists Daniel W. Schwartz and Richard L. Weidenbacher. The two psychiatrists concluded that Rowe was insane at the time of the murders. Whether or not one agrees with their findings, excerpted quotations from their diagnoses provide much insight into Rowe’s behavior.

Schwartz’s diagnosis was (1) adjustment reaction to adult life, with psychotic features and (2) personality disorder, with obsessive features. More specifically, his findings said,

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See also 

Class, Race Gender & Crime by Barak, Flavin & Leighton

Integrating Criminologies by Gregg Barak

Insanity Defense from Criminal Justice Ethics 

[Rowe] is a rather bright man, with a verbal I.Q. of 120. His performance I.Q. (108) has been affected by the fact that he is considerably depressed. Dynamically, he appears to be vulnerable to emotional pressures and troubled by extremely forceful unconscious homosexual wishes, feelings of inadequacy as a man and feelings of insatiable needs for emotional support, things that his mother had never provided.

He somehow attributed the killing of his wife and children to his mother, but in a very confusing, unclear way. The test suggests that unconsciously he may have viewed his wife as his mother when he killed her, and his children as himself. There is a tendency to dissociate, to put off anxiety-arousing thoughts and feelings and therefore his inability to deal with emotional problems in a rational way. He says that he had “a compulsion to kill.” (Salamon, 2001, pp. 133-134).

Weidenbacher’s diagnosis was adjustment reaction to adult life, with depressive and psychotic features. His findings also said,

It appears that the essential problem may be seen as one of pathological reaction to the death of mother, some years ago. Fairly clearly, the relationship between mother and son had been a difficult one, the son feeling frustrated by his mother and harboring strong and mixed feelings towards her. She, in turn, left her estate entirely to his younger brother, disinheriting the defendant, in effect. It seems clear that within a few years of her death the defendant was affected by a psychotic disorder, entailing visual and auditory hallucination of his mother, during which she commanded him to destroy his family. She had disapproved of his marriage and his wife; his wife had borne him one normal child, and one grossly defective child.

Related Books

Inevitably, people do things to hurt us. Inevitably, we do things that hurt others. This is part of what it means to be human, to have feelings, to be imperfect, to be vulnerable. Compassion moves us beyond our own wounds and back into human community. It asks the question: What sort of people do bad things? The answer: lonely, scared, ignorant, confused, sick, misguided, angry, fallible, human sort of people - in other words, all of us. 

M. Burton-Nelson, The Unburdened Heart: Five keys to Forgiveness & Freedom


He may well also have been affected by delusion, with regard to his conduct. Although the hallucination and the likely delusion with regard to conduct resolved during the course of psychiatric treatment, including medication, there is reason to believe that he was subsequently, and around the time of the reported offense, exercised by delusion regarding poverty. . . . the defendant appears incapable at this time of adequate participation in his defense. He still “hasn’t sorted out his thoughts”; he has not as yet grasped what has transpired, so that he still rather expects his family to reappear. It would appear proper and wise to arrange for further psychiatric hospitalization, probably over a period of months, with an eye to greater emotional and mental stability and further perspective on the part of the defendant. (Salamon, 2001m pp. 135-136).

After his acquittal, Rowe was assigned to the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens. Some 2 years later, using lawyerly acumen, he was discharged (this is record time). In December 1980, his new life began as he went to work outside the confines of law. In fact, Rowe had unsuccessfully pursued his rights to be reinstated to practice before the bar of New York, employing every creative legal argument that he and his attorneys could muster.

A few years later, through a mutual acquaintance, Bob met a woman some 20 years his junior. Colleen was a deeply religious and shy woman who had been sexually molested as a girl. Along her way to adulthood, she would abandon her quest to become a nun. Immediately, she and Bob formed an unexplainable emotional bond. Her feelings for Bob only became stronger once she learned of his former life. The seemingly unmatched pair evidently found solace in each other as they were able to exchange their feelings of shame, humiliation, and mortification for love and redemption. Nine years after Bob’s release, he and Colleen married, and shortly thereafter, Colleen gave birth to their one and only child, a daughter.

Sources: Salamon, J. (2001). Facing the Wind: The True Story of Tragedy and Reconciliation. New York: Random House.

Stewart, J. (2001, April 10). “A Case of Insanity.” The New York Times Review of Books, p. 10.

Other excerpts include

Reel, Real Violence
Altruistic Killing
Victim Recovery



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