Everybody Kills

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From Harmless to Harmful: What made Jennifer Pan a murderer?

Like so many others, I was both mortified and intrigued when I first heard about Jennifer Pan. This wasn’t your typical murder case, nor was it easy to comprehend. Here was this soft spoken, timid, and slim girl, far from what we could expect from a typical criminal. This shy, nerdy girl masterminded a heinous plot and hired hitmen to stage a robbery so they could murder her parents, Hann and Bich Ha Pan in 2010.

When her father survived, a horrifying narrative was revealed of a seemingly innocent daughter, who with her longtime boyfriend, conjured a murderous plot eventually landing both of them in jail. Killing for love and freedom may only begin to answer a small part of why Jennifer Pan did it, however, it is much more fascinating to attempt to answer the “what”. What turns a tame daughter, with no criminal background, into a familial threat and delinquent? What factors turned Jennifer Pan into a murderer? Through a close review of various studies based on parricide , child to parent violence, and criminology, I attempt to put the pieces together in assessing Jennifer’s transition from harmless to harmful.

Habitual lying

“Frequent lying is to do irreparable damage to the relation with the people who receive the announcement…candidly speaking, it’s to place oneself in jeopardy”[1] Robert Boyers

A prominent characteristic of Jennifer that can never be overlooked is her effortless ability to frequently lie, a skill that began to form at a very young age. In a piece by Toronto Life a close friend of Jennifer’s described how by the time she was in grade 8, Jennifer would put “on a fake happy face to mask her true feelings”[2].Even so, a deceptive and emotional preteen isn’t necessarily cause for alarm, but hindsight allows one to wonder how  Jennifer’s double life contributed to her formative decision making. In an analysis of child development and deception, Lee and Talwar note that “deception is a covert adaptive strategy particularly suited for the young and the weak because other strategies such as physical violence, are not an option”[3]. If we follow their train of thought, this indicates that with every lie Jennifer told, she was laying down the rocky foundation to her existence, repeatedly placing herself in a position of subordination.

In a study by Ben Karpman on criminology and lying he describes how “the cultural imperative is to repress the basically true and to express the socially desirable even if untrue”[4], indicating that social acceptance holds greater importance than telling the truth. After all, Jennifer’s gains were merely psychological. The only thing she received by forging report cards, faking graduation, and even job positions[5] was maintaining her relationship with her parents, and avoiding shame for not being able to meet their expectations.

These fulfillments achieved by lies can start to create a detrimental complex within the self, because “the lies start to form with little regret…causing unexpected and undesirable consequences in the future, which describes the beginning of the downward spiral”.[6] Frequent lying can lead to behaviors or actions that one would have never thought of. The preservation of the self, due to social acceptance can negatively mold the personality of the liar. In a 2011 study conducted by Ackert, Church, Kuang, and Qi, it was observed that habitual lying for psychological reward leads the liar to experience the following[7]:

  1. Impression management: the need to look good in the eyes of others.
  2. Social distance: the closer you are to a person the more you will adjust behavior to their needs, but this doesn’t mean you care about the well-being of these people.
  3. Self-interested choices: lies become about self-preservation; you become selfish.
  4. Bad decision making: can skew moral judgement.

With all these in mind and considering that Jennifer strategically lied for over a decade, it isn’t hard to see how habitual lying can lead to actions that are present in many criminal behaviors. After all, Jennifer Pan did not carry out the murders with her own hands, instead she physically distanced herself from the crime as she had emotionally distanced herself from her parents long before the tragedy occurred.

Parenting Style

It is important to emphasize that this section is not here to place sole blame on the parents, but rather to contemplate how they contributed to Jennifer’s mental state as it is the most debated aspect of her story. Many close to Jennifer Pan attested to the overbearing ways of her parents even stating that they “treated her like shit”[8], and the comment section of all her articles are filled with accusations of child abuse. There is no doubt that Jennifer herself would describe her upbringing in this way, but even so one must recognize that what her parents did was not criminal, but rather just bad parenting.

Jennifer was never physically abused, never held captive and into young adulthood always had the ability to leave her home. In an article published by Toronto Life we receive a glimpse of what growing up as a child in the Pan house was like:

“Hann was the classic tiger dad, and Bich his reluctant accomplice. They picked Jennifer up from school at the end of the day, monitored her extracurricular activities and forbade her from attending dances… Presumably, their overprotectiveness was born of love and concern. To Jennifer and her friends, however, it was tyranny. ‘They were absolutely controlling,’ said one former classmate’.”[9]

From this and other descriptions, we can concur that her parents were very strict, had high expectations, and were probably too overbearing, to which many still ask, so what? Didn’t we all have strict parents? It is important to remember that Jennifer wasn’t even able to choose her own career, and for much of her adult life she was treated as a child. She was never taught nor given the chance to be independent or make mistakes, meaning that Jennifer was never given the chance to develop good decision-making skills. In 3 separate studies conducted from 1985 to 2010 on child-to-parent violence (CPV), they identified that “difficulties in child-parent relationships, parents with unrealistic expectations, and a lack of adequate communication skills” were high risk factors that led children to want to kill [10].

D’Orban and O’Connor also found that daughters who commit parricide usually experienced a “tyrannical relationship with the father motivated by delusional beliefs”[11]. It is safe to say that Jennifer’s mind wasn’t all there, because she grew up in a world that did not allow for self-actualization or growth. In truth, her parents may have been the best examples of how to be selfish, as her dad’s wants held greater precedence over hers. Sadly, Jennifer’s parents had good intentions, but the existence of their strict rules meant that Jennifer Pan could never authentically exist. In her interrogation tapes we see a glimpse of what Jennifer attributes to parental love:

“Officer Bill Goetz: So Daniel’s parents were more liberal?

Jennifer nods: They loved me for who I was”[12]

Her parents’ acceptance is all Jennifer Pan desired, and because it wasn’t given freely, she developed hate. This is why it isn’t surprising to hear that “fostering good parenting by enhancing the development of good communication skills, healthy emotional ties, and parent-child bonding are key factors in avoiding parricide”.[13]

Emotional Immaturity & Mental State

It is important to note that upon reading many articles on parricide I found that the majority of cases of children who kill their parents involve children who are in their teens, who have been severely abused, or there is a diagnosis of mental health that inhibits the inability to distinguish between right and wrong. It is safe to assume that Jennifer Pan did suffer some kind of mental distress, yet none of the above apply to her. Does this mean that Jennifer Pan exhibited an emotional immaturity? What is apparent is that Jennifer never formed a proper sense of self. We can see this by how she was described by a close friend who said that “by age 22, [Jennifer] had never gone to a club, been drunk, visited a friend’s cottage or gone on vacation without her family…by 24 she was still sneaking around terrified of her parents but not willing to leave the house.”[14] In an article titled Why Kids Kill Their Parents, it’s reasoned that “adolescents tend to kill because they cannot leave the home”[15], and if you consider the fact that Jennifer had the means and the option to leave her home (even though it would be hard) you begin to realize that a lack of good decision making in her life caused her to never mature.

Jennifer also had outrageous thoughts which alluded to her immaturity. Her elaborate and unbelievable story of being gang raped in her own home and being sent a bullet in an envelope by one of Daniel’s exes, is almost eye roll inducing. All of this was simply get him back. Even when Jennifer was caught by police she still made a ridiculous claim saying the murder plot was a suicide attempt gone wrong. What Jennifer lacked in behavioral development was demonstrated through emotional immaturity.

In the end, one can only speculate what truly went wrong with Jennifer Pan, but what was obvious was a family dynamic that was a bit broken. Within it sprung a cunning and manipulative young woman, who, blinded by her fantasies of freedom, found herself in jail for 25 years over a web of lies she herself wove. Yet we should not overlook the factors that created this young criminal, because there is always something to learn.

I am not saying that all liars will become murderers, and all bad parents will create murderers, but when various negatives components start to come together this can form personality traits that are disingenuous and consequential. In Jennifer’s case, it wasn’t so much about the lying, but why she was lying. It wasn’t about strict parents but rather Jennifer’s inability to bear a world in which she did not belong. I would never condone her actions or behavior, but it isn’t too far-fetched to understand how a tumultuous relationship with one’s controlling parents can lead to distorted thoughts and decisions.

Jennifer lived a life of lies for so long that her proper misjudgment caused her own distortion, because she was able to rationalize murder as a positive thing. Her mind went into a dark place that she could not get out of alone. It is also vital to say that although her brother did not have the same fate growing up in the same house, we cannot assume that parenting styles are all universal. What may have worked for her brother, manifested as evil within Jennifer Pan.

[1] Boyers, Robert. Observations on Lying & Liars No.29 (New York: Skidmore College, 2011), 49-50.

[2] Ho, Karen K. “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge: The Inside Story of a Golden Child, the Killer She Hired, and the Parents She Wanted Dead,” Toronto Life, July 22, 2015, https://torontolife.com/city/crime/jennifer-pan-revenge/

[3] Talwar, Victoria and Kang Lee. “Social and Cognitive Correlates of Children’s Lying Behavior.” Society for research in Child Development 79, no. 4 (2008): 1751.

[4] Karpman, Ben. “Lying: A Minor Inquiry Into The Ethics of Neurotic and Psychopathic Behavior.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 40, no. 2 (1949): 138.

[5] Axworthy, Jon. “Girl, 24, Hired Thugs To Kill Her Parents After Her Dad Exposed Lies She’d Told To Cover Up Failing Grades,” The Sun, March 12, 2017, https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/3056622/girl-24-hired-thugs-kill-parents-dad-exposed-lies-cover-up-failing-grades/

[6] Ackert, Lucy F, Bryan K Church, Jason Kuang and Li Qi. “Lying: an Experimental Investigation of the Role Situational Factors,” Cambridge University Press 21, no. 4 (2011): 606.

[7] Ackert, Lucy F, Bryan K Church, Jason Kuang and Li Qi. “Lying: an Experimental Investigation of the Role Situational Factors,” Cambridge University Press 21, no. 4 (2011): 607-613.

[8] Ho, Karen K. “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge: The Inside Story of a Golden Child, the Killer She Hired, and the Parents She Wanted Dead,” Toronto Life, July 22, 2015, https://torontolife.com/city/crime/jennifer-pan-revenge/

[9] Ho, Karen K. “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge: The Inside Story of a Golden Child, the Killer She Hired, and the Parents She Wanted Dead,” Toronto Life, July 22, 2015, https://torontolife.com/city/crime/jennifer-pan-revenge/

[10] Holt, Amanda. Adolescent-to-parent Abuse: Current Understandings in Research, Policy and Practice. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013: 31.

[11] D’Orban, PT and A. O’Connor. “Women Who Kill Their Parents.” Br J Psychiatry 154 (1989): 33

[12] Goetz, Bill. Jennifer Pan 3 — Climax of Police Interrogation of Girl Who Hired Hitmen to Target her Parents Tape 2. York Regional Police, Nov. 22, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9Yl_TVHmZ8: 00:27:20:24.

[13] Heine, Kathleen M. “Why Kids Kill Parents. Tragedy in the Family: When Kids Murder Their Parents.” Psychology Today, June 9, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/articles/199209/why-kids-kill-parents

[14] Ho, Karen K. “Jennifer Pan’s Revenge: The Inside Story of a Golden Child, the Killer She Hired, and the Parents She Wanted Dead,” Toronto Life, July 22, 2015, https://torontolife.com/city/crime/jennifer-pan-revenge/

[15] Heine, Kathleen M. “Why Kids Kill Parents. Tragedy in the Family: When Kids Murder Their Parents.” Psychology Today, June 9, 2016. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/articles/199209/why-kids-kill-parents

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