Behind the Murder: The Menendez Brothers’ Backstory

Behind the Murder: The Menendez Brothers’ Backstory

Maayan Matsliah, Staff Writer

Complete with wealth, high social status, and many exquisite achievements, the Menendez family appeared to be the “picture-perfect” family. This all changed, however, on March 21st, 1996, when the Menendez brothers were convicted of first-degree murder for killing their parents. On this tragic day, Erik and Lyle Menendez, 25 and 28, were sentenced to serve the rest of their lives imprisoned at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego.

Upon first inspection of the case, it may seem like the brothers had a simple motive to kill their parents: to obtain their enormous fortune. But over three years of trialing, it was revealed how much more complex this case was than anyone had initially expected.

 Jose Menendez, father of Lyle and Erik, had a very bubbly personality. He was a highly successful film and television director, and was a generally successful man. Jose was also an avid supporter of his sons’ education and extracurriculars, and paid for them to attend the most prestigious of private schools and sports clubs available in their area. Kitty Menendez, mother of the Menendez brothers, was also quite the social person. Former beauty queen and teacher, she was very popular amongst her peers, and got along great with just about everyone she met. What the public wasn’t aware of, however, was what was going on behind the scenes in the Menendez family. 

In contrast to the Menendez family’s positive outside reputation, Erik and Lyle had been getting severely abused ever since their early childhood. Losing tennis tournaments, receiving an occasional bad grade in school, or even refusing to finish a plate of food could result in physical punishment. Through his testimony, Erik explained that the punishments that he and his brother could expect included non-consensual sex (rape) and beatings. For example, when Erik had once made a snarky retort to his father during one of his tennis practices, Jose became infuriated. “[He] grabbed me and slammed me into the glass [door],” Menendez said during his trial. “The glass shattered and he just grabbed me again and slammed me through it all the way until the glass broke and I fell on my butt.”

Jose’s cruel demeanor was even further exemplified when his other son brought a pet home. One day when he was seven, Lyle had found a rabbit at school and brought it home to adopt it. Upon first seeing the rabbit, Lyle’s mother was quite fond of it. But after talking to her husband, she suddenly became angry with Lyle for getting a pet without her permission. She demanded that Lyle get rid of the rabbit right away. Lyle was merely a second grader at the time, and decided to secretly keep the rabbit in hopes that his parents would change their minds. A few days later, Lyle couldn’t seem to find his rabbit. “I noticed that it was missing and so… I went to my dad and he wouldn’t answer me and so I started to get very upset, and I said ‘Dad, tell me where the rabbit is,’” Lyle said in his testimony. “I thought he let it go and he told me that I was supposed to get rid of it and that it was in the garbage.” After checking the garbage, Lyle had found his rabbit, beaten to death and thrown away as if it had been another lump of trash.  

Jose Menendez also sexually abused both his sons. On days he returned home from a long day of work, Jose would select one of his sons and force them into sexual intercourse. He had raped the boys ever since their elementary years: “Lyle claimed he had been molested between the ages of six and eight, while Erik was abused from the age of six until he was 18,” according to Refinery 29. The Menendez brothers had been exposed and forced into participating in these activities for so long that they eventually came to believe that this was what happened in any typical father-son relationship. The Menendez brothers never conversed with each other about what their father was doing to them. Lyle was the first of the brothers to find out that his brother was also getting raped and sexually abused by their father.

When Jose Mendendez found out that Lyle was aware of Erik’s identical situation, he feared that the brothers would start going around telling others that they were getting abused. He attempted to scare his sons out of seeking help by developing a routine of questioning to be held every time he finished raping them. In this system, Jose would sit his sons (in turn) in front of a mirror, and ask them if they knew what would happen if they told anyone about what he was doing to them. “I remember the first time, I said ‘you will hurt me,’ and he said ‘wrong,’ and so I hit myself… [Again,] he said, ‘what is going to happen if you tell someone?’ and I said ‘you’ll kill me,’ and he said ‘right,’” Erik said during trial.

Kitty, meanwhile, wasn’t any better than her husband. Kitty also abused her sons mentally and emotionally rather than physically. One of Kitty’s greatest values was education, and she was extremely strict when it came to the boys’ school work. She enrolled both of her sons into the most reputable of private schools, and put a huge emphasis on how important it was for them to get high grades. Erik, who had already been struggling in public school, had an exceedingly difficult time maintaining good grades in the new private school his mother had enrolled him in. His declining grades could have also been caused by the situation going on with his father at home. Ms. Capone, Family Life teacher at THS, explained that one of the most common signs that students show when getting sexually assaulted is a sudden drop in their grades.

When Kitty noticed Erik’s test scores slowly declining, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Kitty came up with a new system of forcing Erik into studying harder. “She put me [in her closet] when she felt that I wasn’t concentrating hard enough… or just wasn’t doing it well enough to how she liked,” Erik explained in his trial. “I thought that maybe she was just doing it because she wanted to get the grades herself. At the end, she was taking it really, really hard when I got bad grades, and she was really excited when I got good grades. [It got] to the point where she no longer even cared whether I gave her the assignment and she would correct it or if she would just do the assignment and give it to me to hand it in.”

The length of time that Erik would be left in the closet varied. Some days, he was forced to stay there for just a couple of hours. Other days, however, Erik would be left in the closet over the course of the whole day, having to sleep in it overnight. Eventually, Kitty would start using this closeting method not just as a way to make sure that Erik was focusing on his school work, but as a way to monitor his every move. On days when Erik stayed home ill and she thought that he wasn’t “sick enough,” she would put him in the closet while she was away from the house. Kitty claimed to have done so in order to make sure that Erik wasn’t eating or watching television while she wasn’t home. While in the closet, Erik would be denied the basic right to use the restroom and was given a small, clear bucket to do his business in instead. When released from the closet, he would give his mother the container filled with his excrements. One time, when Erik was home alone, he left the closet to use the restroom. When Kitty found out about this, she turned him over to his father for physical punishment. 

These are only a few examples of the abuse that the Menendez brothers faced throughout their formative years. Eventually, the brothers had had enough of their parents, and wanted to gain revenge on them for ripping away their childhoods. After careful planning, the two brothers teamed up and killed their parents on August 20th, 1989. The brothers managed to avoid jail for seven years following the death of their parents, until they were officially convicted and imprisoned on March 21st, 1996.

If the Menendez brothers had sought help for their situation earlier, the murders could have been avoided. Most cases of sexual abuse, however, lead victims to feel the need to stay silent about what is being done to them. This is especially applicable when the abuser is a family member. “If it were a situation with a parent, they’re going to be really introverted, and they’re not going to talk about it,” said Ms. Gould, confidential counselor at THS. And, as explained by Ms. Capone, “Males are much less likely to report sexual assault than females.”

To call Jose and Kitty Menendez ruthless sociopaths is simply an understatement. They punished even the smallest of their sons’ misconducts to the most outrageous extent. Although Lyle and Erik’s killing of their parents is not justifiable whatsoever, the backstory of this family does compel feelings of empathy towards the brothers.