Betty Kershner, PhD. is a Registered Psychologist specializing in both adults and children, from infancy onward, and recently moved her office to West Toronto. She has worked with and consulted in a wide range of settings and is familiar with many types of concerns and solutions. She is able to offer assessments and treatment. Please Contact her here.
This Afterword appeared at the end of Jeremy Grimaldi’s A Daughter’s Deadly Deception – The Jennifer Pan Story, published by Dundurn Press. It is available through Dundurn and Amazon.
How could a young woman arrive at the point of wanting to kill her parents and “cold-heartedly” attempt to carry out the plan? Was it nature or nurture? Was Jennifer Pan somehow born with “a bad seed,” a defect in her mental health that would turn her into a monster? Was it the way that she was brought up by demanding “Tiger Parents”? Jeremy Grimaldi’s narrative contains many fascinating details and insights from the public record, the court testimony, and interviews with some of the people who knew her. I have not met Jennifer Pan nor have I conducted a psychological assessment of her. However, there are psychological factors and profiles generally associated with certain kinds of experiences — the sort of background, upbringing, family, and social life that Jennifer had.
Based only on what is reported second- and third-hand, I can speculate about the personality and mental health associated with that kind of life and this kind of murder and how the situation might have developed. I cannot say specifically that this is what happened with Jennifer Pan: I do not know her or her family. I can only offer informed speculation.
I will start at the beginning.
Jennifer’s parents were immigrants to Canada from Vietnam where the rural population was bombarded during the war and the middle, upper, and educated classes in the cities were devastated in the immediate aftermath. The entirety of their childhoods took place during wartime (1946–75), and their young adulthoods were experienced in the aftermath of war as the country was being rebuilt. Hann would have been twenty-two during the fall of Saigon.
We do not know if they or their families were exposed to fighting, relocation, re-education, or whatever else, or how people in their social circle suffered. We do know that Hann attended college in the former Saigon after the war, but there would have been few opportunities for him there. We do not know about Bich’s education or otherwise. When they departed Vietnam, they left behind and lost whatever they had. Certainly, there was trauma all around: in the war on the ground, and on the water in the boats they travelled in to get away. We know that severe trauma in one generation often finds a pathway of effects down to the next and even successive generations.
If Hann and Bich themselves did not face or were too young to be aware of danger, most likely their parents did. Parents who have faced horrific experiences and demonstrate resilience often do so at the cost of shutting down aspects of their own emotions. Scars harden over tender spots, making people less vulnerable but also less aware of and sometimes less responsive to their own emotional needs or the needs of others. Recognizing emotional need can sometimes be too risky, threatening to open the floodgates and allow emotion to overwhelm. Often, parents who have been exposed to trauma want to keep it from their children to protect them. They do not talk about it. They do not share it.
Children in such families can feel that something is missing, that there is something bad, threatening, amorphous, unknown, and not labelled but is part of their environment, creating in those children a vague sense of apprehension. The very wish to protect children can lead to unanticipated, unintentional fears and worries in them because they sense something is wrong but no one talks about it and they do not know what it is.
I wonder what history and coping skills Hann and Bich brought with them when they arrived separately in Canada as “boat people.” It does not come up in accounts from Jennifer or her brother, Felix, about their childhoods, although Felix had something to say in his testimony about family as well as cultural, religious, and traditional beliefs and behaviours. But there is no mention in the court testimony or elsewhere that I am aware of about dangers, escapes, luck, skill, planning, heroics, determination to risk it all, or anything else regarding the survival of Hann and Bich and their respective families during the Vietnam War or their successful departure from that ravaged country. They did take desperate action by putting out to sea in a boat. Perhaps Hann and Bich did not talk about it with their children. But they had lived it and it must have impacted how they faced their future, including parenthood.
We do know that Jennifer was afraid to be alone, afraid that she could die, and that she was asthmatic. Jennifer met Daniel, the “love of her life” and co-conspirator, when they both travelled to Europe as part of the school band. Asthma can be triggered by environmental factors such as the smoke in the auditorium where the band performed but also by emotional stress. This was the first time that Jennifer was away from her family. Who knows what that meant to her? Much as she wanted to go, Jennifer was accustomed to her family’s constant monitoring and supervision. The separation might have left her feeling exposed and vulnerable. When she suffered an asthma attack, it was Daniel who stayed with her. He comforted and calmed Jennifer and helped her to breathe. Jennifer believed that Daniel saved her life that day, and she began to love him.
Both of Jennifer’s parents worked hard and were determined to make a better life for their children. Following Chinese/Asian cultural norms described in tiger parenting and endorsed by Felix’s testimony, Hann and Bich reportedly did not believe in praise as a form of child guidance. Instead, they criticized and demanded more. It has been said that in that cultural form of parenting children do not get emotional support but only demands and expectations. The paramount goal is the creation of the necessary credentials to build a future. There is also the matter of appearances: the family must look successful. To that end, Hann and Bich worked hard. Money went to the children and to keeping up appearances: a nice home and high-end cars. Energy and time went into jobs, the home, providing transportation for the children’s activities, and Bich supervising homework. While Jennifer sometimes came home from hours of skating practice only to practise piano and do her homework, staying up late into the night, she would not have been the only one in the family with little or no time for a personal life. Neither of her parents, especially her mother, seem to have had much unstructured time — no moments to just relax with Jennifer. There might have been little opportunity for the kind of “quality” time that allows people to really get to know one another and really feel intimate on a deep level: open, shared periods together.
Jennifer’s father and Felix did some of the chores together; her mother was kept busy with the household. In those circumstances, Jennifer might have felt she was not really known by her family — she talked about being a mystery and no one knowing everything about her. She might not have felt loved for herself, intrinsically important to them, since she stated they did not really know her; but rather, as she said later, that she was important to her parents only for what she could achieve. How could they know her when she herself apparently did not believe she really, solidly existed as a person in her own right? Her fear of being alone suggests that Jennifer did not know how to self-soothe and also that during her early childhood her normal childish fears were not, or not adequately, addressed. Infants left to “tough it out” and “deal” might manage, but some will not and will be left with feelings of vulnerability and danger that are beyond their capacity to cope.
Little children might experience fear of annihilation: that without someone strong to protect them, someone who cares enough to bother and to be there, they might die or simply disappear. Thinking of their parents as all-powerful, infants can develop the misperception that if their parent is not there to see them and validate them, if they are not present in their parents’ eyes and can see themselves reflected, they do not exist. This is why “Peek-a-Boo” so delights a young child: they are just at the point of figuring out that someone continues to exist even if they are out of sight and are thrilled to be proven right when that person comes back. But if a parent does not come when the child is afraid and calls out for them, that infant/toddler can be left with a sense of doubt and insecurity, apprehensive that the parent really has vanished into thin air and so might they. This can create a deeply held, even unconscious feeling of vulnerability and a kind of hole in the beginning sense of personhood.
Jennifer’s descriptions of her adult feelings suggest the possibility of a childhood where, at least sometimes, she was left on her own with her infant fears beyond her capacity to handle. Her mother might have comforted her at points here and there, but in those moments of childhood terror, that childhood crisis, comfort might not have been dependably available. Jennifer seems to have thought in her heart of hearts, curled up in the fetal position as she did at times such as under the heavy stress of police interrogation, that she did not really exist, that she was alone and helpless, might disappear, and be nothing substantial.
Similarly, if Daniel did not love her, withheld that validation, she was “nothing.” On top of that, if Jennifer believed she did not exist in her own right rather than as an appendage and at the discretion of her parents, she might feel she existed only to fill their image of what she should be. Otherwise, she might think she would be hollow inside. In this kind of situation, people tend to feel insufficiently separated from their parents — enmeshed. Forming a core identity as distinct from the parent is something that normally happens for a child in the early years. If it does not happen successfully, the person tends to become entwined with their parent, caught in a tangle that keeps them close, at least emotionally, and interferes in the development of a freely chosen life.
Jennifer might have failed in a primary task of normal child development: the development of a solid sense of oneself as separate from her parents. Her sense of herself during her elementary school days and into high school is described as dependent on her parents’ perception of her and a growing sense that she was “not good enough” — tellingly, the very phrase she used later with Daniel when he told her he cared for another woman. This suggests that her very being was shaped to please her parents. It might have felt like freefall when her performance fell short and she displeased them, as if she would be destroyed or disappear.
We know that Jennifer suffered from anxiety and learned to cover it with her “Happy Mask” — at first for the outside world and later for her family. The known facts suggest that from the beginning, from earliest infancy, Jennifer might have felt it was all or nothing — her parents’ approval or she was gone. In addition to worries about being rejected, abandoned, and alone, Jennifer as a growing child was afraid she would fall while skating and hurt herself, which happened sometimes. Skating, aimed at getting Jennifer to the Olympics, was a mostly everyday activity for her. While one might think that a skater would accept the risk of falling, Jennifer seems not to have come to terms with it and the fear persisted. This implies fear for the integrity of her body: again, the kind of fear that can spill over from infancy when a child is not provided with sufficient reassurance that they have the internal resources, the emotional and physical ability, to recover from minor injury and the shock of momentary pain.
If Jennifer had had the foundation of a solid sense of self, she likely could have withstood that tiger parenting style of criticism, and for a while she did, as long as she believed she was capable of living up to what her parents wanted. She took it constructively and tried harder. But people who knew Jennifer in elementary school say that her academics, while among the best, were not the very best. She was not the top and was shocked when she did not win grade eight valedictorian, which included other criteria such as popularity that Jennifer seems to have ignored. While she had friends, Jennifer was described as “cold” and “driven.” It reportedly upset Jennifer deeply that she was not awarded any significant prize at the end of grade eight. That unexpected outcome overturned her world. No matter that she had worked so hard; she was not sufficiently rewarded or recognized. Her intense efforts failed to result in prizes that would gratify her parents and validate her personhood.
By grade nine in high school, with stiffer competition, Jennifer realized she did not have what it took to get that very top mark. Many students, faced with the prospect of trying and failing, decide that it is better not to try so that they can console themselves with the thought that if they had tried they would have succeeded. Better to abstain than to risk trying and failing. Consistent with her developmental age and stage, Jennifer turned attention to her peers, now that she had lost the motivation for all-consuming study. She spent time socializing instead. In grade nine, Jennifer began her string of lies. Having earlier conceded the right to create her own sense of herself and given it over to her parents, Jennifer next lost the identity that they had created for her. Lacking a sense of who she was to fall back on when she realized she was not going to be the girl her parents wanted her to be, Jennifer had nothing in its place. She would have been primed to fall hard for someone and to see that new person as everything for her, filling the empty spaces where her self-esteem and sense of personal identity should have been.
It was not long after this that Jennifer met Daniel. His rescue of her during her asthma attack put Daniel in the place of a surrogate mother for Jennifer: a life-giver and saviour of her body and soul. She believed her life depended on him, just as an infant’s does on its first caretaker. He had soothed and calmed her breathing, the stuff of life itself, and stabilized her body the way a mother calms an infant. Daniel was simply with her, an attentive presence. It might be that he became Jennifer’s primary attachment figure: the person she believed most able and likely to protect her in times of danger, to look out for and care about her, so that she transferred that feeling from her parents to him. With Daniel around, Bich might have become replaceable for Jennifer — perhaps eventually expendable. It seems that Daniel became the repository of Jennifer’s sense of herself once the identity her parents had created for her was shattered. Jennifer might have been starved for someone to pay that kind of close attention to her. Much later, Jennifer could spend hours on the phone with Daniel while they both lay in bed in their separate homes, just listening to his breathing. This suggests the possibility that when she was very little, that kind of connection through silent, attentive presence might not have been forthcoming from her busy parents, that during those foundational early years, there might have been repeated times when Jennifer felt alone, fearful as children can be, and her parents were busy elsewhere and not available to her. Bich likely was busy with housework; Hann likely considered that kind of thing woman’s work.
Jennifer also loved her stuffed toys: she and Daniel talked about them as if they were real, even in her twenties. Jennifer shared that, as a child, she felt affectionate and nurturing to Felix, who was three years younger. When in elementary school, she enjoyed helping the teachers by looking out for the younger children. These are nurturing activities and can sometimes represent the wish that a person had enjoyed that kind of care and attention for oneself. Jennifer’s stuffed toys appear to have served as “transitional objects.” These are things that young children become attached to, which offer comfort when parents are not available. They hug their bunnies or their blankets to feel safe when uneasy. As the child grows up and matures, that feeling of safety moves from the transitional object to inside themselves. The successful child can comfort herself and learns to feel safe on her own — that she can handle being alone. She no longer needs her mother or her toy to protect her. She knows that she herself has what it takes.
It seems that Jennifer did not make that transition and failed to develop the ability to soothe herself. She continued to rely on her stuffed toys, even as an adult, giving them names and talking to Daniel about them. This fits with the baby talk she and Daniel indulged in together for hours at a time. With Daniel, Jennifer might try to elicit the kind of attention an attentive parent would give to an infant to calm childish, unnamed fears. As with an idealized parent, Jennifer might have come to believe that Daniel’s purpose was to be there and take care of her. Little children do not recognize that their parents have needs of their own. They believe parents should be right there whenever they want them and make everything better. Otherwise, the children can become enraged. This is another part of infancy that Jennifer does not seem to have outgrown but appears to have projected onto Daniel: that she should be the girlfriend who was good enough for him as she tried to be good for her parents, and that Daniel should recognize her value, be committed to her protection, and fulfill her wishes the way every infant believes a parent should do, leading to the inevitable disillusionment when the parent is not omnipresent and omnipotent. Jennifer stated that Daniel could make her calm, and that she needed him in order to be calm. He, on the other hand, talked about walking on eggshells around her, always being worried about her feelings. It sounds as if he monitored Jennifer’s emotional state. Her devotion to Daniel might have derived, at least in part, from his ability and willingness to manage her feelings for her.
My impression is that Jennifer was vulnerable. She could be angry, she could be cold and calculating, but she could not soothe and calm herself. Her interior world seems to have been in a turmoil of anxiety. Jennifer needed someone else to regulate her feelings. Indications are that person was Daniel. The kind of behaviour that is attributed to Jennifer with her parents when she was younger is sometimes associated with disorganized attachment. The attachment system is a relationship between two people, originating when one is a vulnerable infant who could not survive on her own, and the other is older, usually a parent, who is inclined to want to keep that infant alive and therefore protects and nurtures her. In humans, when that infant realizes the protective figure takes the job seriously, keeps her safe, fed, and loved, the infant becomes securely attached. If instead the infant experiences that sometimes that figure is not around, is not dependable, wanders off or is too busy, lets her get hungry, cold, or in danger, that infant becomes insecurely attached. Such an infant puts effort into developing a way of handling things alone or clings close to parents, trying to be one with them so that they will not forget about her. Either way the infant develops organized strategies for coping.
In disorganized attachment, there is no organized strategy for children to follow, for turning to their attachment figure versus depending only on themselves. Children in this type of relationship do not know what to do for safety and comfort. For example, if a parent is sometimes loving and available, but other times critical, rejecting, and demeaning, the child does not know when it is safe to turn to the parent, who might be the one frightening the child. The frightened child wants to go to the parent for comfort and protection, but the parent might be perceived as the source of danger — approach, withdraw. In research we see that little children in this type of situation tend to freeze or to behave in a disorganized manner. The child does not know what to do. She stands stock-still or goes one way and then the other, making no progress in any direction. Such children are unable to develop a successful strategy to use when they feel threatened. They try to approach a relationship but then they retreat from it. Their strategy is incoherent, disorganized.
It seems that when she was younger Jennifer focused on her parents, not herself, trying to give them what they wanted from her. She existed in their sphere of influence and seems to have been distracted or even prevented from developing her own personality and style, likes and dislikes. But at the same time Hann and Bich Pan are described as having been critical, dismissive, and rejecting of Jennifer, teaching her that other things such as academic achievement and superiority in individual activities were far more valuable than anything else that might have interested Jennifer — more important than friendships or relationships, for example. Jennifer’s parents wanted her close and paid close attention to what she was doing, but at the same time rejected her as “not good enough” — pulled her in, pushed her away. This type of experience tends to disrupt a child’s ability to develop a coherent style of relationship, due to the inherent contradiction: “disorganized.” Often, it leaves the child, and later the adult, likely to have confused, unsatisfactory relationships.
When Jennifer met Daniel in grade ten, after the disappointments of grade eight and the beginning forgeries of grade nine, it was within the context of ditching her old routines and old identity that her parents had crafted for her. She had seen that focusing exclusively on hard work had not led her to something satisfying, so she was open to change and experimentation. Jennifer was spending time with friends and had a casual boyfriend but that changed when Daniel “saved her life.” Here was someone she could give her all to, turn toward pleasing him the way she had tried to please her parents. Here was someone she might have hoped would give her the affectionate, dependable attention she craved. With Daniel, Jennifer got into marijuana and eventually into sex and good times. The Happy Face mask she had previously shown to the world outside the family she now showed to her parents. They did not know what she was doing or feeling. It was only with Daniel that Jennifer could relax — and she stated that she needed him in order to relax. Otherwise, during those “university” years, Jennifer drove herself to create the world of lies and to document the false life she presented to her parents, to prove to them that she was the daughter they wanted when, sadly, she knew she was not.
Having grown up with “acceptable pretense,” described as putting on a show for the sake of appearances, people acting as if something was true while knowing that it wasn’t, Jennifer pushed that concept farther. She seems to have developed the ability to decide that she would behave as if something that she knew to be true simply did not exist. To that end, she decided that she simply “refused to know” that Daniel was dealing drugs, or at least that is what she told the police. She knew, in other words, but was able to repress that information so thoroughly when she wanted to that she could react as if she really did not know. There are indications that Jennifer helped Daniel distribute his drugs. But with this type of thinking there would be moments when she might really feel that she did not know. This kind of behaviour was demonstrated later, under questioning by the police, when Jennifer was so shocked by the insinuation that she was lying that her spontaneous body language made the officer apologetic for the suggestion. Of course, at the time Jennifer really was lying. Perhaps she did not let herself know in that moment. She convinced herself of her victimization and repressed acknowledging to herself her perpetrator status.
Some people have described Jennifer as a consummate actor. I suggest an alternative possibility, that she was not acting all the time: sometimes, yes, but not always. She had divided her thinking, had “split” her mind, and one part did not know what was going on in the other. This is a defence mechanism when things are too hard to handle. This type of “splitting” conceivably might allow the person to feel and act innocent when they are guilty. Once someone develops this type of coping, they can use it for many things in daily life to bolster self-esteem and feel good about themselves. They can use it to keep away thoughts about the bad things in their life done by others or by themselves. It might be that this helped Jennifer deal with the burden of her snowballing lies during what her parents thought were her university years. On some level she might have believed those lies, made herself not think about or forget the distasteful truths. She admitted to the police that she half or sometimes fully believed in her fantasies. As she said, Jennifer did not think about the future, or how it would all work out in the end. She took things day by day, moment by moment. This kind of defence mechanism is considered “primitive” because it cannot work over the long term. Reality comes crashing in sooner or later.
I have to wonder about the nature of the relationship between Jennifer and Daniel. She said that not even Daniel knew everything about her. At the end she spun out quite a web of deceit in order to try to get Daniel away from his new girlfriend. Jennifer thought that Daniel used humour to mask what he was really feeling. Were they really open with each other? How emotionally intimate was the relationship really? They spent hours baby-talking on the phone. That kind of conversation would not likely get very deep or thoughtful. They seem to have related on the level of little children seeking comfort at bedtime. And there was sex. Police have suggested that Daniel was in the relationship for the money that he got from Jennifer, but for him there was also her adoration and Jennifer’s wish to be what he wanted. She would be the “best” girlfriend for him, just as when younger she wanted to be the “best” daughter for her parents. Daniel was increasingly into a criminal element. Did Jennifer think she would enhance her attractiveness to him by becoming a gun moll? A Mata Hari? A master criminal? A murderer? Would that give Jennifer street cred with her man?
On her side the attraction might have been that sense of almost maternal acceptance and nurturance from Daniel, his close attention to her moods and feelings, his regulation of her anxiety. These suggest a wish to repair a maternal bond gone astray. If Daniel was a type of replacement for her mother, her mother might have felt disposable to Jennifer. It seems that Jennifer withdrew her focus from her family and gave up the hope of having her parents meet her emotional needs — that she poured out all that need onto Daniel. At the same time, knowing that she had Daniel, Jennifer allowed herself increasing expressions of anger and resentment toward her parents, with Felix, her brother, stating later that the arguments everyone had over Jennifer, knowing that she was lying to them, were breaking the family apart. This might have been the time when Jennifer indulged in revenge, when she felt safe with Daniel, no longer alone in the dark, and therefore free to vent within the closed confines of the family, away from public sight. She was no longer the demure child with filial piety.
Daniel urged Jennifer to leave her parents and move in with him, but she refused. Daniel would live with her but would not, at least at that time, marry her. Perhaps she could not bring shame on herself and on her family by living common law. Friends attempted an “intervention,” believing that the restrictions her parents placed on Jennifer were draconian and she should leave them. They offered to help Jennifer find a place of her own. But she would not. Was it because she simply wanted the creature comforts of her family home, the middle-class existence her parents had worked so hard to provide? I think not. By this point, someone with this type of upbringing would most likely have incorporated the values of her family, and Jennifer’s sense of personal esteem likely by now was dependent on public success, presenting a “correct” image to the outside world. She would not be likely to settle for living in a place that she would consider substandard, or in a public relationship that lacked social status. Status was non-negotiable. In a real sense she had already lost her family. She had “killed” their image of the kind of daughter that they had, and the kind of family that they were, but only in private. If she moved out, she said, she “would lose everything that ever meant anything to me, my family, my mother, my father, and my brother” because it would become a public shame. Jennifer knew that she could not survive on her own. Alone, she did not feel real to herself. She felt empty, “nothing.”
The extreme of this was demonstrated during police interrogation. Jennifer shook violently, visibly, when questioned, and also when alone. She asked for someone to come in with her whenever the investigating detective stepped out. At first she was accommodated, but not later, when suspicion against her was gaining momentum. Jennifer had a “meltdown.” She paced, “manically” stroked her hair, rambled to herself, and became dizzy, needing to lean on something to keep her balance. At times she took the fetal position, rocked, covered her face, and wept. Many guilty people would not be able to rise to the occasion under police interrogation. But Jennifer’s reaction was extreme. Under pressure, on her own, it seems that there was nothing inside her to fall back on. Having felt rejected and abandoned by her family, Jennifer next was rejected by Daniel when he took up with someone else. Even worse, Jennifer was losing the competition to another woman. Losing was intolerable for Jennifer. She had to win with Daniel, just as she had to win those competitions and prizes for her parents. Sometimes a suicide attempt such as Jennifer alluded to can be a call to activate the attachment system, to bring running that person who is supposed to care, to get them to demonstrate their concern and bring them close. If Jennifer actually did self-harm (she had scars) and considered suicide when younger (she told Felix), it might have been in the service of trying to get her family to show affection to her and about the “real” Jennifer. Her fabrications to Daniel about phone calls, texts, threats, rape, et cetera, fantastic as they were, might have similarly been intended to activate Daniel’s attachment and pull Daniel back to her — and they were partially successful.
Jennifer used what her father had nourished in her, that dedication and perseverance, to disrupt Daniel and his new girlfriend. Daniel got back in touch, involved, to ensure Jennifer’s safety. She successfully activated the attachment system. For Jennifer the murder plot provided another reason for Daniel to stay in contact. She had to hook him and keep him. With a shared murder between them, Daniel would not be likely to abandon Jennifer, even if he wanted to. She presented the idea to Daniel in a five-hour phone conversation followed by his silence and then massive communication attempts from her to him. Jennifer bombarded Daniel with calls and texts, suggesting that he needed persuading.
Eight days prior to the murder, Jennifer was engaging in endless baby talk with Daniel. On the day before the original date set for the home invasion, he confessed his love for Katrina. Why would he bring up this potentially destabilizing news at just the point when he and Jennifer most needed to rely on each other? When the transcript of that call is read, it seems as if Daniel is naive about Jennifer’s motives and innocently trusts in the goodness of her character. My interpretation is that the intensity of the planning made him feel close to Jennifer; that he was performing the murder for her benefit — a gift for an important friend. I suggest that he thought he was doing so much for her that Jennifer should be able to do something for him: to recognize and acknowledge him as a true friend and be happy for him about his feelings for Katrina. This reveals Daniel’s naïveté. That was not going to happen. Although she had told him previously that the murders were something she wanted for herself, not in order to free herself of her parents so she could be with him, Jennifer blurted out that she loved Daniel and that he should call off the murders. Then she recanted about loving him.
Jennifer was not able to acknowledge her feelings to Daniel. Her relationship with this most important person in her life did not include that level of trust. Daniel quickly backtracked. It seems impossible that Jennifer could recognize Daniel as a person in his own right, having needs and wishes other than those from her perspective. It seems that she viewed him as an appendage of herself, there to satisfy her needs in return for which she would give him herself as he wanted her to be — much as her parents might have done with her. Daniel’s function to Jennifer was to provide her with unconditional love, not to develop his own desires and pursue them. Jennifer might have felt that she was replaceable to Daniel and that she was not going to be missed. Again, she did not exist. She existed only in the image that someone else had of her. Jennifer needed to be first and constantly on someone’s mind in order to keep her reassured that she was real, hence the need for constant texting and contact with Daniel.
When Daniel told Jennifer that he loved Katrina, Jennifer asked, “Who will protect me from ‘them’ if you’re not in the picture?” Jennifer knew there was no “them,” having fabricated “them” herself. But my impression is that Jennifer really did not feel safe and had decided on Daniel as her protector from her chronic fear of annihilation, her fear of ego death — the loss of a workable image of herself. Possibly, when Jennifer decided to continue with the murder plot even after knowing about Daniel’s affection for Katrina, the plot actually became just for her own sake, as she had claimed all along. Perhaps at that point Jennifer felt she could manage alone in the family home, with her parents gone and Daniel with someone else, temporarily. She probably assumed she would get Daniel back.
Talking about her feelings for her mother, Jennifer had described her mother as “home.” For many people the family home itself attains attachment status as a secure base, a place where they feel safe and comfortable. Maybe Jennifer believed she could manage alone as long as she was in the family home and not elsewhere, someplace unfamiliar, probably with less status, such as if she moved in with Daniel or got a place of her own. Alone in that showplace of a house, with Felix off at university, Jennifer would have been Lady of the Manor. With Daniel’s admission that he loved Katrina, Jennifer, who to that point had pretended acceptance of their relationship, texted Daniel: “I’m sorry for never being good enough.” This is exactly what she said about her family. Jennifer saw herself as “not good enough” for them and then for Daniel. Rejection of this sort was not something Jennifer could accept and move on from. She seems to have responded to perceived rejection by focusing her considerable effort and skill into trying to change reality into what she wanted it to be, even if that meant getting rid of people who did not see things that way. If she no longer was good enough for Daniel, would he eventually have been the next one on her kill list? She congratulated Daniel (and Katrina) for “winning” — and hinted at suicide, likely another ploy to activate his attachment to her.
Her testimony that the intended plan was to kill her, not her parents, a kind of suicide, was true in a way. With her parents gone, so also would go the vision of the daughter that her parents had wanted. It might have seemed a necessary sacrifice so that Jennifer could “come out” as a different kind of person. On one level, killing her parents was the ultimate way to protect them from the shame of her failure: they would never know how far down she had gone and the world would never know that the family was not a smooth-functioning unit of hard-working high achievers. In a way, murder would have fulfilled her cultural responsibility to take care of her parents. They would die with some remaining shred of belief in her and would not have to face the shame of social exposure when Jennifer did not return to school as they expected. In a way, she tried to take ultimate care of them, killing them to remove them from a life that would not be to their liking. Her mother, at least, did not live to witness public exposure and shame, something her father and brother now have to deal with.
Then there is the factor of “ultimate” winning. Patricide cannot be topped for extremes. This dramatic event could have been Jennifer’s Olympics, demonstrating the stuff that she was made of and her determination to win. Had she developed Hann’s stubbornness and rigidity? Was Jennifer, after all, faithful to her father — internalizing the characteristics of determination and persistence that he wanted her to have? With the murders, Jennifer would prove to herself and would show those who knew, such as Daniel, how exceptional she really was. The murders would be proof of her mettle, the most forceful display. For Daniel, it would show him how much he meant to her, and how “ultimate” a person she was: someone of extreme value that he should want to be with. If tiger parenting claims that the one who shows the most drama wins in the family competition, then that was Jennifer, with this ultimate play. She showed herself and others that she was not a “loser,” that she was capable of going to much greater extremes than anyone else to win: her father’s girl, after all.
One detail from the murder enactment is striking. Jennifer had no final words for her parents. Helpless, with guns pointed at them, Jennifer could have told her parents off with anger and impunity. She could have had the final word. She could have tried to explain herself or apologized. But there was nothing. She kept up the pretense that she was also a victim of the home invasion. This was an opportunity that I do not think Jennifer would have passed up if revenge had been her primary motive. I believe Jennifer really wanted her parents to die thinking well of her. She wanted to preserve what she could for them of the illusion that she was a good daughter and that they were a good family together. Jennifer also wanted to preserve it for herself, giving herself memories that she would revisit to think well of herself.
With the type of disorganized attachment that I think Jennifer might have had, with the ability to split off and repress from her awareness what was really going on, it might be that Jennifer was already focused in her head on her fantasies for what her life was going to be, how she was going to think about herself, and that the real-life flesh and blood of her parents held little meaning for her. Was this inborn in Jennifer? As I hope to have made clear, I think not. In my view, Jennifer did not have the type of upbringing that she needed to help her learn to cope with her vulnerabilities. It was not a good fit. She made, as they say, bad choices. Those kinds of choices and experiences take root within a person and become who they are. They are not easy to change, sometimes impossible to change. They can become a personality disorder, but that is not an excuse for murder.
Betty Kershner, PhD. is a Registered Psychologist specializing in both adults and children, from infancy onward, and recently moved her office to West Toronto. She has worked with and consulted in a wide range of settings and is familiar with many types of concerns and solutions. She is able to offer assessments and treatment. Please Contact her here.
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