Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on Christine Falling, the Babysitter Killer who was found guilty of three murders including that of her 18-month old niece. I provided the following psychological insight into Christine, which was published in the 1st November 2012 edition.
Why did Christine torture and kill cats from such a young age? What motivated her experiment into their nine lives?
The main reasons for children torturing or killing animals, besides innocent experimentation, are imitation and rehearsal. It has been found that a significant proportion of children who torture or abuse animals have either witnessed abused or been abused themselves. Indeed, one study found that 30% of children who had witnessed domestic violence, re-enact the violence on pets or other animals. When it is the result of being abused oneself, this is called ‘posttraumatic play.’ In terms of rehearsal, it is not uncommon for adults who abused animals as children to have started as a way to practice more violent crimes, usually against people. In addition, the fact that Christine used to strangle cats to show them ‘love’ does indicate that violence she had endured violence and associated this with attention and thus love.
She was said to have developed mentally as far as an eleven/twelve year old and no further. What impact would this have had on Christine’s life, her understanding of the world and of her place in it?
Christine would have seen the world from a child’s eyes, which can have a number of implications. In particular, in Christine’s case it removed any sense of responsibility or knowledge of right or wrong, or even of consequences.
How can we understand her decision to marry a much older man?
Christine’s decision to marry a much older many is likely to be related to her immature mind and a search for a father figure.
Where did her hypochondria come from, and what does it say about her?
Hypochondria often begins when an individual becomes ill and realises that this gains them care or attention. For Christine, hypochondria was indicative not only of a manipulative personality intent on getting her own way, but it is also indicative of a need for attention that she perhaps did not receive as a child. Christine learnt that she had to take desperate measures to gain attention, such as faking illness.
She would later claim that voices had made her suffocate the babies in her care, but what can we understand by that? How could anyone suffocate a baby?
Christine’s suffocation of babies is similar to her strangulation of cats. Christine had a fascination with breathing and, in particular, stopping animals or babies breathing. It is difficult to understand how anyone, especially a woman, could kill a baby – however, for Christine, it was a matter of targeting a living being that could not fight back. It also does again raise the possibility that Christine was abused as a child and is re-enacting her experience with other people’s babies.
Late on in her killing career, she was travelling with her stepsister in the car. When they pulled over so the stepsister could nip into a shop, Christine smothered the stepsister’s baby? This seems like an audacious and risky attack. What can we make of it? Was she an opportunistic killer? Or was the urge to kill really too much?
It is this risky attack that does support Christine’s claims that she heard voices telling her to smother these babies. Hearing voices is a common symptom of mental illness and detachment from reality. In severe cases, hearing voices can lead to people committing violent crimes in disorganised and often unexplainable fashion.
The community at large was very slow to suspect Christine of any wrongdoing. People kept leaving babies in her care. But why was this?
Christine’s childlike exterior, in many ways, acted as a mask she could hide behind. Indeed, so did her job as a babysitter. Why would a babysitter harm a baby? There is also the fact that Christine is a woman and even today people find it difficult to comprehend a woman harming anyone in such a vicious way, especially a baby.
She said in a police interview that she ‘didn’t know what she’d done’. Is this possible? Did Christine really understand her crimes?
The evidence suggests that delayed maturity and possible psychosis in the form of hearing voices did, in fact, render Christine unable to truly understand the severity of her crimes and the consequences they would have on not only herself but the families of the babies she smothered.