On the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 yesterday, the two newspaper reviewers – former London mayor Ken Livingstone and journalist Rachel Johnson – were reflecting on the aftermath of the Raoul Moat affair. Moat, you’ll recall, shot and wounded his former girlfriend, killed her new partner, and then injured a policeman, prompting a manhunt that ended last Friday night in a stand-off with police and the fugitive finally turning his gun on himself.

I found it interesting that both Livingstone and Johnson focused on issues of fatherhood and masculinity in their attempts to understand Moat’s actions. Livingstone referred to Moat’s supposed complaint ‘I haven’t got a dad’, just before he shot himself, and recalled the impact of his own father leaving when he was a child. The former mayor also contrasted the situation of working-class men in earlier generations, whose identity was secured through skilled work and providing for their families, with the plight of many young men today, in a period of manufacturing decline and long-term unemployment. Johnson was more direct, accusing Moat of a ‘narcissism’ which she implied was widespread among contemporary males.

I think there was an element of truth in both analyses, though the discussion was necessarily truncated and a tad simplistic. Without knowing the full circumstances of Raoul Moat’s life (and we probably never will), it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the impact on him either of his experience of a disrupted family life, or of wider social factors. But it’s undeniable that massive changes in the economy, as well as in family and community relationships, have dislodged the foundations of traditional masculinities in the course of a generation. For many men, this continues to have consequences at a psychic and emotional level, even if most don’t end up resorting to extreme violence as Moat did. As for attributing his sorry condition to the absence of a father, it seems that here Moat was parroting a powerful contemporary discourse – reproduced endlessly in the media and by government ministers such as Iain Duncan Smith – that the problems faced by men and boys today are due to the lack of adequate male role models. (This is an issue that Sandy Ruxton and I hope to explore in our proposed research on work with boys and young men: see the last post.)

At the same time, it’s hard not to agree that there was something intensely narcissistic and self-absorbed about Moat’s rationale for his murderous rampage. We saw something of the same phenomenon only a few weeks ago, when Cumbrian taxi driver Derrick Bird shot relatives, business associates and innocent passers-by, seemingly in revenge for the way he felt the world had treated him. And in listening to the perverse explanations that both Bird and Moat gave for their actions, I kept thinking of those horrific stories of fathers who kill their own children before taking their own lives, often after things have gone wrong at home or work.

In all of these cases, it’s as though the individual is saying to those whom he attacks, not only ‘I can’t go on living without you’, but ‘I can’t imagine you living without me’. Other people, even those he supposedly ‘loves’, have no independent existence for the narcissist: they only exists as a reflection of himself, to satisfy his wishes and fantasies.

Whether this kind of psychotic narcissism is a peculiarly masculine phenomenon is a moot question. On the other hand, you don’t hear about too many female mass murderers, though there have been a few tragic cases of mothers killing their own children.  It’s tempting to fall back on an essentialism that views the defensive aggression of men like Bird and Moat as due to some kind of biologically-determined male trait. But it’s probably more productive to elaborate Ken Livingstone’s analysis, and explore the ways in which particular kinds of psychosis, which seem to have a gendered element, are the result of a particular confluence of personal, relational and societal factors. These are questions that academic researchers, as well as media pundits, will continue to debate for some time to come.

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