Lessons from the Tragic Tale of Paul Murdaugh

Article by Carolyn Bradfield for InterAct LifeLine

I took a break today at lunch and turned on the Netflix 3-part series, The Murdaugh Murders, a Southern Scandal. You'd have to be living under a rock not to be inundated with the sensational trial of Alex Murdaugh, a prominent South Carolina attorney, now on trial for the murder of his wife Maggie and son Paul.

But if all you takeaway from this sensationalized story is a "who dun it" crime, then you are missing a tragic tale of what happens when you have a family history of underage drinking, substance misuse and addiction that decimated this family and tragically affected the people around them.

I encourage you to watch the series, but pay particular attention to how it all started with Paul Murdaugh in Episode 1 and what can be learned from their family tragedy that applies to millions of other families.

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Composite image of happy friends drinking beer and toasting
Paul Murdaugh started drinking at a very young age

In the Netflix documentary, episode 1chronicles how Paul drank daily and to excess.  According to Morgan Doughty, Paul’s ex-girlfriend, Paul drank alcohol almost every day as a teenager, often becoming grossly intoxicated.  In the documentary, Morgan details the Murdaugh family holidays, get togethers and vacations where underage drinking was an accepted part of their family dynamics.

So was Paul on the way to becoming an alcoholic and an addict?  The statistics on that are quite frightening.  The adolescent brain continues to form until about the age of 26 and for many adolescents, excessive abuse of alcohol or substances has the potential to "rewire" the brain to pursue those substances in the face of increasingly negative consequences.  From everything I see, Paul was likely in the throws of addiction before he even left high school.

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They all knew and turned a blind eye.

The Murdaugh family made it easier for Paul and his friends to get alcohol and engage in some heavy partying in high school.  Morgan Doughty said his parents handed over their credit card for Paul to buy alcohol and alternatively would even give Paul alcohol to party with his friends  Paul's older brother and parents knew he was using his brother's ID to buy liquor and beer.

And Paul wasn't just drinking, he was blitzed.  There are videos showing him bombed on boat trips, at parties, and at his house in plain view of his parents who often joined in the festivities with him.  

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Paul's reckless behavior, fueled by alcohol, lead to tragedy

One tragic night, 3 teenage couples got together for a ride in Paul's boat to an oyster roast.  Heavy drinking began early and accelerated as the teenagers attended the party and ended up at a bar.  Before they even left the oyster roast, everyone was concerned that Paul, the driver of the boat, was blitzed, but they got in the boat anyway to go home. The boat crashed into a bridge near Parris Island, sending  passengers flying overboard and killing Mallory Beach, the girlfriend of one of Paul's best friends.

Paul allegedly used a credit card belonging to his mother, and an ID belonging to his brother Buster to purchase alcohol from a convenience store earlier that day.

Substance misuse and addiction seems to run in the Murdaugh family

According to reports on CNN, Alex Murdaugh's best friend testified that Murdaugh told him that he had been addicted to opioids for 20 years, potentially driving him to steal money from his law firm to feed his expensive daily habit.  If Alex's admitted addiction to opioids pans out to be true, it certainly made it more likely that Paul might follow in his footsteps.

Addiction runs in families.  The American Addiction Centers Resource (AACR) states that first-degree relatives of someone with a history of addiction are between 4 to 8 times more likely to develop problems with addiction themselves when compared to those who do not have a family member with an addiction.  Couple a genetic predisposition to addiction along with underage drinking and you have a deadly combination that stacked the deck against Paul.

Pieces of broken glass over white background. Recycling
A broken community system failed Paul and contributed to the tragedy

The officers did not offer Paul Murdaugh a field sobriety test when they responded to the deadly boat crash, even though he was visibly drunk.  Although Paul was charged with two counts of boating under the influence, his family helped him easily bond out and while awaiting trial the state did not restrict him from drinking alcohol or driving a boat.  Paul's blood alcohol tests came back showing he was 3 times over the legal limit, yet even after the accident, it appears nobody suggested that he get help.

The Net Out
Paul Murdaugh
South Carolina Attorney General's Office

We are not here to debate whether Alex killed Paul and his mother Maggie.  Our job is to look at what lead up to Paul's alcohol abuse and the tragic death of his friend Mallory Beach.  Paul drank heavily as a kid, did so at home and with the blessing of his parents, had his drinking funded by his parents' credit card, and was observed many times by his family and friends being grossly intoxicated.

For any parent that thinks its cool to party with their teenagers or their friends, let this be a lesson.  You never know which kid will become addicted, what they will do when they are blitzed out of their mind, and the unintended consequences and tragedies that may result.  Paul Murdaugh, if given the help he needed for his compulsive drinking, might still be alive today and his friend Mallory might be attending college instead of being a statistic.