Sunday, October 18, 2009

Repeating the Past....

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Modern Day Mass Murder - The Langauge of Revenge (Or: "Vengeance is Mine... And I'm Willing to Die for It"

Top: Moby Dick
2nd: George Sodini - Pittsburgh Pseudocommando
3rd: Jiverly Voong - Binghamton Pseudocommando
4th: Cho - Virginia Tech Pseudocommando

The “Pseudocommando” Mass Murderer & the Language of Revenge

“…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee. Sink all coffins and hearses to one common pool! and since neither can be mine, let me then tow to pieces, while still chasing thee, though tied to thee, thou damned whale! Thus, I give up the spear!”

- Herman Melville (Moby Dick)
Chapter 135, p. 477

“I didn't have to do it. I could have left…. But now I am no longer running…. Do you know what it feels like to be torched alive?.... All the [expletive] you’ve given me. Right back at you with hollow points.”

- Seung-Hui Cho (Video Manifesto)

The term “pseudocommando” was used by Dietz (1986) to describe a type of mass murderer who plans his actions “after long deliberation (p. 482).” He most often kills indiscriminately in public during the daytime, but may also kill family members as well. He comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons, and has no escape planned. The pseudocommando appears to be driven by strong feelings of anger and resentment, in addition to having a paranoid character. They are “collectors of injustice” who nurture their wounded narcissism and ultimately retreat into a fantasy life of violence and revenge. Mullen (2004) described the results of his detailed personal evaluation of five pseudocommando mass murderers who, were caught before they could kill themselves or be killed. Mullen noted that the massacres were often well planned out (i.e., not impulsive, the offender did not “snap”), with the offender arriving at the crime scene well armed, often in camo or “warrior” gear, and appeared to be pursuing a highly personal agenda of “pay back” to an uncaring, rejecting world. Both Mullen and Dietz have described this type of offender as a suspicious grudge holder who is preoccupied with firearms.

Mass killings by such individuals are not new, nor did they begin in the 1960’s with Charles Whitman. The news media tend to suggest that the era of mass public killings was ushered in by Whitman at the top of the University of Texas at Austin tower, and have henceforth become “a part of American life in recent decades.” But research indicates that the news media have heavily influenced the public perception of mass murder, particularly the erroneous assertion that its incidence is increasing. Furthermore, it is typically the high-profile cases which represent the most widely publicized, yet least representative mass killings. As an example that such mass murderers have existed long before Whitman, consider a notorious case, the Bath School disaster of 1927, now long forgotten by most. Andrew Kehoe lived in Michigan in the late 1920’s and struggled with serious financial issues, as well as a wife who was suffering from tuberculosis. He appeared to focus his unhappiness and resentment on a local town conflict having to do with a property tax being levied on a school building. After becoming utterly overwhelmed with resentment and hatred, Kehoe killed his wife, set his farm ablaze, and killed some 45 individuals by setting off a bomb. Kehoe himself was killed in the blast, but did leave a final communication on a plaque outside his property. The plaque read: “Criminals are made, not born” – a statement suggestive of externalization of blame and long-held grievance.

Hempel, Meloy & Richards (1999) were among the first to note that the mass murderer with a “warrior mentality” will often “convey their central motivation in a psychological abstract, a phrase or sentence yelled with great emotion at the beginning of the mass murder (p. 213).” To date, the actual communications of the pseudo-commando mass murder have received little detailed analysis. This fact is of interest in that “the words people use … can reveal important aspects of their social and psychological worlds (p.547).” Beyond basic demographic data, the use of language may also suggest different types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or depression, and the individual’s overall level of psychological distress. An offender’s use of language may lend clues about his past experience, ethnic background, and primary motivations.

After having examined the final communications of two pseudocommando type mass murderers in detail in an effort to reveal what themes emerge, and whether such communications can lead to greater psychological insights into to the psychology and motivations of the offender, I conclude that Cho, Wong (and Soldini) shared basic pseudocommando characteristics in common, but also some very important differences. This linguistic analysis begins with the assumption that the offender would not have bothered to write down or otherwise communicate his “manifesto” unless it had great personal meaning. In the cases examined, the offenders took the time and effort to deliver their communications to the TV news media, suggesting that it was highly important to them that their “message” be disseminated to the public.

In his detailed case study of five pseudocommando type mass murderers who were caught before they were killed, Mullen (2004) described a number traits and historical factors that these individuals had in common. In particular, they were bullied or isolated as a child, turning into loners who felt despair over being socially excluded. They also were described as being generally suspicious, resentful, grudge holders who demonstrated obsessional or rigid traits. Narcissistic, grandiose traits were present, along with the heavy use of externalization as a way of coping. They held a worldview of others being generally rejecting and uncaring. As a result, they spent a great deal of time feeling resentful, and ruminating on past humiliations. Such ruminations invariably evolved into fantasies about violent revenge. Mullen noted that the offenders seemed to “welcome death,” even perceiving it as bringing them fame with an aura of power. As most all of the literature on the pseudocommando heavily references the offender’s motivation of revenge, a more in depth analysis of revenge from a psychological standpoint may be helpful.

The Psychology of Revenge

“He piled upon the whale’s hump the sum of all the general rage and hate… and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

- Herman Melville (Moby Dick)
Chapter 41, p. 154

The desire for revenge “is a ubiquitous response to narcissistic injury (p. 447).” And so it should be of interest that an emotion as intense and ubiquitous as revenge has received little study relative to other emotional drives. Both psychoanalysis and forensic psychiatry have merely skimmed the psychological surface of this destructive cognition. Yet consider how revenge “hides” in plain sight, at least in Western culture. For example, Greek mythology is “awash in revenge themes.” Revenge is the central motive in at least twenty of Shakespeare’s plays, and a main theme in many of today’s Hollywood movies. The success of movies such as the “Death Wish” series, and more recently the “Kill Bill” series, speaks to the public’s fascination with, and indeed their delight in, “the sweet taste of payback.” That there exists a strong, primal universality of the revenge theme hardly requires in-depth socio-anthropological study. And perhaps its readily evident nature, its conspicuousness, allows it to become more easily dismissed by psychological science. Across almost every culture, the taking of revenge, when “justified,” has assumed “the status of a sacred obligation (p.199).” But in many cultures, since biblical times and before, there has always been the principle of functional symmetry in seeking redress, such as the Old Testament’s admonition of an eye for an eye.

Fear and anger, in the form of the “fight or flight” response, are linked physiologically and psychologically. We will not be surprised that where we find anger, fear may also be found, perhaps obscured in the background. Human aggression, as an expression of revenge, may be traced back to this psycho-physiological link designed to enhance survival. But at this point in the stage of our evolution, affronts to our self-esteem, status, dignity or narcissism are responded to “as though they were a threat to our survival (p. 123).” We have maintained the physiological hard-wiring, which is available for excessive use in situations that do not involve survival of the body, but instead survival of the ego. I use the term ego here to represent the mind’s tendency to create the illusion that there is a “self” or identity that desires to sustain itself, seek pleasure and avoid narcissistic (ego) injury just as zealously as one would attempt to avoid harm to the physical body. This ego survival instinct becomes “sublimated into striving for an enduring sense of self which is an object of value in a field of social meanings (p. 23).” Thus, violent revenge may be viewed as a “fight response” to a particular “perceived threat to the sense of self,” its pursuit of pleasure and its various “immortality projects (p. 25).” Because the self or ego must be defined in the social-meaning field, it is the Other on whom we depend for our highly valued identity. In individuals with vulnerable, fragile egos, conflict with the Other arouses fantasies of, and sometimes actions to, dominate and/or obliterate the Other. The individual whose ego is damaged may harbor and nurture destructive rage that eventually transforms him into an “avenger.” Indeed, it is the frustration of the need to “preserve a solid sense of self,” that is often “the source of the most fanatical human violence [as well as] the everyday anger that all of us suffer (p. 85).”

But this righteous anger is, in reality, a vainglorious “pseudo-power,” as it is merely a reaction to intolerable feelings of powerlessness and humiliation. Nevertheless, there comes a point in time when this pseudo-power is the only defense the avenger has left to ward off the annihilation of his sense of self (ie., his identity and self-esteem). This is why, when the potential avenger’s ego is threatened or hurt “in such a devastating way… the only thing that remains is to persist in the ‘unremitting denunciation of injustice’” (p. 189) For certain individuals, there is no turning back or giving up on the “crusade,” because there is a perverse “honor” in refusing to normalize the perceived injustice. This is, in fact, the “hidden logic of the… avenger” (p. 83-84) – to sustain a perversely heroic “refusal to compromise, an insistence “against all odds” lest his heroic fantasy and fragile ego surrender to the reality of a “self” (or lack thereof) that he finds intolerable (p. 190).

The psychotherapy literature on revenge suggests that fantasized revenge is a familiar cognition in the daily life of humans. It is not at all uncommon for patients in psychotherapy to communicate, either consciously or unconsciously, fantasies of revenge. In the treatment of the various stress response syndromes “clinicians may encounter intrusive and persistent thoughts of vengeance associated with feelings of rage at perpetrators (p. 24).” While the revenge fantasies most often have the emotional content of “hate,” and “fear,” in persons with fragile egos, fear may easily devolve into frank paranoia. Thus, the prognosis of the individual with strong revenge fantasies will always have to consider his particular ego strength, along with the usual forensic factors of social/situational stressors and appropriate risk factors. In very disturbed individuals, revenge fantasies may even include rage at the self, leading to either suicide and/or homicide-suicide.”, Other research findings suggest that people, even today, generally believe in the “utility of aggression (p. 1316).” In particular there is research evidence suggesting that strong anger can serve as an attention-focusing emotion, making it difficult to think about other things. Anger thoughts can thus be a vicious cycle; the more people think about them the angrier they get, and the angrier they get, the harder it is to think about anything else (p.1317).” The psychotherapeutic challenge would seem to be the fact that rumination on revenge fantasies may prevent the individual from “engaging other strategies (e.g., trivialization) that would have allowed them to move on and think about something else (p. 1323).”

But let us return to the utility of revenge fantasies for the pseudocommando, and in particular, why they are so unrelenting in individuals with the ego vulnerabilities of strong narcissistic and paranoid traits. In such individuals, the revenge fantasies are inflexible and persistent because they provide desperately needed positive emotional effects. The avenger can make himself feel good by gaining a sense of (pseudo) power and control by ruminating on, and finally planning out his vengeance. These fantasies may lead the avenger to “experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice (p. 25).” There seems to be the promise, perhaps stemming from thousands of years of evolution and stoked by our society’s present day honor of it, that the avenger may resurrect his identity and mortally wounded ego via the revenge scenario, which “functions as a defense against being overwhelmed by sadness, helplessness, and hopelessness (p. 25).” Thus, the revenge fantasy falsely promises a powerful “remedy” to a shattered and humiliated ego. It gives the “illusion of strength,” and a temporary, though false, sense of restored control and self-coherence.

According to Menninger, there are five critical elements prompting an explosion of violent behavior: 1) a narcissistic [ego] injury perceived as grossly unfair, 2) hopelessness about a reasonable resolution, 3) the perception that the limits of toleration have been exceeded and some action must be taken, 4) access to weapons, and 5) disregard for the consequences, combined with a sense of “potent” rage. For purposes of simplification, one might use the example of when a child suffers some type of pain. One of the results is usually that the child “wants to let others know about it… to know exactly how he or she hurts (p. 121).” In other words, the internal dialogue may be represented as: “When I am hurt by you, I want you to hurt like I hurt; therefore if you hit me, I will hit you back (p. 121).”

But in the case of the pseudocommando, the drive for revenge will have no truck with either logic or reasonable consideration of adverse consequences. The type of severe narcissistic rage they experience “serves the purpose of the preservation of the self (ego) (p.124)” that has exceeded its limit of shame, alienation and aversive self-awareness. This pain and rage simply cannot be contained by pseudocommando, who then embarks “on a course of self-destruction that transfers their pain to others (p. 128).” It may ultimately be the intensity and quality of the revenge fantasies, acting in concert with other risk variables, which contribute to “whether vengefulness will be a passing concern or a lifelong quest (p. 449).” Dietz has described these individuals as “collectors of injustice” who hold onto every perceived insult, amassing a pile of “evidence” that they have been grossly mistreated. But there is also another way of thinking about their “collection.” To sustain the revenge “romance,” they must collect the unwanted, hated or feared aspects of themselves. This collection is then re-assembled into the form of an “enemy” who therefore “deserves” to be the target of a merciless, incendiary rage. Thus, the pseudocommando maintains object relations with others which are based heavily upon envy and splitting. As a general rule, a more intense desire for revenge signals a more intense idealization of the hated object(s). Targets of a very intense revenge desire must be made out to be worthy of their fate, and so we should not be surprised to see the pseudocommando portray his victims as barely worthy of being considered human beings, much as Cho portrayed other students (whom he hardly knew) as "hedonistic" "brats" who had "raped" his soul. Yet at the same time, he must view himself as blame free, thereby completing the other half of the splitting and projection dynamic.

We are now at a point where we can summarize some of the main psychic functions that the pseudocommando’s wish for revenge serves:

  1. The revenge fantasy “provides sadistic gratification, and perhaps has an evolutionary basis (p. 608).”
  2. The revenge fantasy helps the pseudocommando obliterate an intolerable reality and aversive self-awareness. His rumination “dominates thought and impels action much as an addiction or erotomania does (p. 605).” The avenger could be said to have “fallen” into romantic/idealized hate. Just as Captain Ahab believed he had been “dismasted” by the whale, he reached the final stages of narcissistic inaccessibility, and plunged irretrievably into a “romanticized” downward spiral of reality-destroying nihilism and death.
  3. The revenge fantasy serves as a defense against feelings of shame, loss, guilt and powerlessness. The pseudocommando not only denies his powerlessness, but also goes even further, gaining “virtually limitless power. An eye for an eye soon gives way to a life for an eye….(p. 603).” In this way, revenge “is an attempt to restore the grandiose self (p. 605).” It allows the pseudocommando’s “omnipotence” to rise triumphantly from the ashes of shame, loss and vulnerability.
  4. The revenge fantasy maintains the status quo of the pseudocommando’s primitive object relations, which are based heavily on envy and splitting. The greater the revenge wish, the greater was the idealization of the hated object. The targets of revenge must be worthy of their fate, and so must be dehumanized, demonized and kept bereft of merit. Yet at the same time, the avenger must view himself as utterly blame free.

The peril associated with these revenge dynamics, especially in a potential pseudocommando, is that they inexorably collide with reality in such a way as to render the defenses ineffectual. Reality will ultimately creep into his life in various ways, threatening him with aversive self-awareness, and requiring that he “feed the monster” – ie., cultivate stronger, more intense feelings of persecution and hostility towards his victims. Once this process becomes well entrenched, the pseudocommando begins to tread down the path of cognitive deconstruction, nihilism and death.

Pseudocommando Psychodynamics: Persecution, Envy & Nihilism

“They do me wrong, and I will not endure it…. I must be held a rancorous enemy.”

- Richard III

Thus far, we have seen how the pseudocommando’s revenge wish is linked to an ego disrupting injury, followed by fantasies of violence in which he struggles to re-establish his sense of identity. Now I should like to focus on the developmental psychodynamics observed in many offenders who have strong paranoid and narcissistic traits, and cling to the position of the aggrieved “victim,” despite overwhelming evidence that their own actions have placed them in their unpleasant situation. These offenders may become stagnated in their own self-pity, anger and persecutory ruminations. It is possible that the harsh early childhoods that some of these offenders endured may have contributed to their impaired ability to trust others as an adult, leaving them with a strong self-centered, paranoid character style. According to developmental theory, a more healthy development necessitates the transition away from What Klein called the “persecutory position” to a more mature stage, called the “depressive position.” The study of violent offenders using this theory has suggested that impediments to psychological development may cause the offender to become relatively fixed in a persecutory developmental stage, or what Klein has called the paranoid-schizoid position. In this stage, most of the individual’s worldview is based on feelings of mistreatment and frustration at what is perceived as “intentional” harm, or purposeful withholding of gratification. Fixation at this stage is associated with the use of more primitive defense mechanisms such as splitting, externalization and projective identification. In contrast, the offender who has reached the depressive position will have developed the capacity to entertain feelings of concern or worry that he has injured or destroyed some aspect of society (eg., his fellow man). Cognitions associated with the depressive position include regret, victim empathy and interests in making reconciliation with society.

The persecutory cognitions of the offender in the paranoid-schizoid position are felt by him as threatening, undeserved attacks upon his “self” (ie., identity or ego). This is of interest in that Dietz has noted that most, if not all men in the U.S. who have killed ten or more victims in a single incident have demonstrated “paranoid symptoms of some kind (p. 480).” Over time, paranoid-schizoid offenders develop strong but primitive defenses to protect against their expectations of being mistreated. Consistent with their feelings of being persecuted, such offenders also suffer from strong feelings of destructive envy. As regards envy, it is important to note that the offender at the paranoid-schizoid stage is not necessarily envious of the Other’s possessions or social status, but the way in which the Other is able to enjoy these things. Thus the offender’s true goal is “to destroy the Other’s ability/capacity to enjoy” the prized object or status (p. 90).” For example, Cho provides an excellent example of this in his manifesto when he chides other students according to his perception that they possessed “everything” they ever wanted, such as “Mercedes…. golden necklaces…. trust fund[s]…. vodka and cognac.” Yet in the same manifesto, he reveals his powerfully destructive envy, stating: “Oh the happiness I could have had mingling among you hedonists, being counted as one of you, if only you didn’t ***** the living ***** out of me.” Via projection, such individuals perceive others as persecutory not only as a result of paranoid cognitions, but also by their views of others as withholding the “goodness” and happiness to which they feel entitled. Similar cognitions were described by Mullen (2004) in his previously mentioned analysis of five incarcerated mass murderers. The offenders were described as suspicious, resentful grudge holders who had strong feelings of persecution or mistreatment. They tended to ruminate over past humiliations, and harbored resentment over old social rejections.

In contrast to the paranoid-schizoid position, the depressive position allows the individual to more smoothly confront reality. It involves the capacity to have feelings of responsibility, guilt and concern over harm done to others. During long-term incarceration, some offenders may eventually take up pursuits suggestive of attempts to negotiate the depressive phase. For example, a man sentenced to life for murder may become involved in running the prison “lifers” group, or take up creative pursuits such as art, music or poetry – all examples of “reparative” activities. Yet empirical experience will assure us that many offenders are unable to achieve an attitude embracing personal accountability and reconciliation. In particular, some of these offenders go on to develop remarkably fixed, chronic feelings of persecution. Clinical observations suggest that some of these offenders who remain fixed in the persecutory position ultimately develop an entrenched nihilistic attitude. This nihilism then pervades their worldview, cognitions about treatment, and life in general. The risk here is that their loss of, or failure to find meaning may result in feelings of hopelessness, suicidality and other self-defeating actions. Thus it might be hypothesized that once the offender reaches some individual-specific level of nihilism, he may demonstrate a significantly reduced ability benefit from efforts designed to extend help, and will have little motivation to self-regulate his behavior. It is important to keep in mind that these offenders feel persecuted by society or “the system,” and therefore have strong feelings of rejection by society. These empirical observations of the adverse effects of social rejection and nihilistic beliefs in incarcerated offenders are consistent with research findings in non-incarcerated populations. For example, social rejection has been found in normal subjects to increase feelings of meaninglessness, decrease self-awareness and lower the ability to self-regulate behavior.,

Social science research has shown that when nihilism and the drive to avoid painful or aversive self-awareness becomes strong enough, there is a significantly increased risk of suicide and/or self-destructive behaviors. This theory has been called the “escape theory” of suicide to denote the suicidal individual’s motivation to escape aversive self-awareness. According to escape theory, when the individual is unable to avoid negative affect and aversive self-awareness, a process of “cognitive deconstruction” occurs in which there is a rejection of meaning (nihilism, hopelessness), increased irrationality and disinhibition. Suicide then becomes the ultimate step in the effort to escape from meaningful awareness and it’s implications about the self. In applying this theory to the psychology of the pseudocommando, the stage of cognitive deconstruction would seem to signal a potentially deadly turning point. Having tried, but failed, to place his aversive self-awareness outside of himself, he redoubles his efforts to externalize. Such efforts return to him as even more powerful persecutory attacks from the outside. In select individuals, this may culminate in a real life physical attack directed outward to avoid what is within. For the pseudocommando laboring under a heavy burden of persecutory ideas and negative affect, consciousness of his true predicament is self-torment. As a conscious being, bits and pieces of reality will ultimately bubble up into awareness, and contemplating them too closely is, for him, the equivalent of an unending suicide. The constant assault by reality, and his own persecutory attacks, results in a collapse of the psyche. This collapse fragments his ego into bits and pieces of unspeakable pain. His existence has become the endless self-destruction of a subject given over to a condition of catastrophic anxiety, fear and rage.

The Obliterative State of Mind

“How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me.”

- Herman Melville (Moby Dick)
Chapter 36, p. 136

"I didn't have to do it. I could have left. I could have fled. But now I am no longer running.”

- Seung-Hui Cho (Video Manifesto)

Returning briefly to another literary example, Shakespeare’s Richard III is a classic example of a mind committed to revenge, and driven by powerful grievance. His state of mind may be regarded as an “obliterative state of mind,” in that it functions to spread more grievance, destruction and ultimately annihilation. Such individuals may come to embrace a self-styled image based on low self-esteem or negative self-perceptions that may be tinged with an ominous or threatening undertone. That is, they embrace their dark, negative cognitions, and fashion them into a recognizable suit of “black” armor. Just as Richard defined himself by his own deformity, so Cho defined himself by his “outcast” status – even dubbing himself the “question mark kid.” Thus, persons driven by envy and destruction tend to see others “as in the light and [choose] to stay in the dark… (p. 702).” In the case of Richard III, his inner envy and destructive narcissism lead him to consciously adopt the role of reprobate:

“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain,
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

As previously discussed, toxic levels of “envy and narcissism… can fracture the personality, hold it hostage and in thrall, by being fuelled by triumph and contempt…. (p. 703).” However, there is more at work here than envy alone. The developing pseudocommando must hold fast to his “hatred of anything such as growth, beauty, or humanity which is an advance over a bleak, static interior landscape (p. 710).” In addition, Freud pointed out that it might be easy to miss another important psychological motive behind Richard’s decision to “prove a villain.” Specifically, the pseudocommando’s notion that “Nature has done me a grievous wrong…. Life owes me reparation for this…. I have a right to be an exception, to disregard the scruples by which others let themselves be held back. I may do wrong myself, since wrong has been done to me (p. 314-315).” It is this feeling of being an “exception” to the rules, of being entitled to harm others or break societal laws, that fuels the pseudocommando’s obliterative state of mind. And once he has embraced this mindset, he condemns himself to a mental space in which “he cannot envision rescue from this commitment to a killing field externally or internally (p. 709).” The narcissistic injury which is utterly intolerable is “essentially nihilistic: nothing matters, all is despair…. all goodness and substance are obliterated, so that nothingness defines the domain (p. 710).” This is the obliterative mindset – destroy everything, embrace nothingness.

Such individuals require mental “sanctuary” from the oppressive, relentless nihilism that assails them. It is only from such a sanctuary that he has a hope of achieving greater mental clarity, freedom from persecution, reclaiming the notion of the other’s potential “goodness,” and relinquishing his pseudo-empowering revenge fantasies. Sadly, it is the case that some individuals may never be able to relinquish the “Ahab – Richard III” state of mind, as all attempts at empathy may be met with suspicion, defensiveness and contempt. Beyond having internal object relations that are primarily fixated at the paranoid – schizoid stage, it could be said that such individuals’ destructive revenge fantasies and refusal to compromise have reached a fatal and malignant stage. At this point, the individual is unable or unwilling to re-emerge from the “heroic” fantasy of ultimate revenge, with an emphasis on the concept of fantasy. As the pseudocommando comes closer to turning fantasy into reality, he must undergo a process in which he comes to increasingly accept that he will be sacrificing his own life. It may be that this obstacle is easier for him to overcome where: 1) his catastrophic thinking leads him to believe violent homicide-suicide is his only option, and 2) his nihilistic, obliterative mindset has caused him to feel that his “self” is already dead, and the death of his body is simply an inevitability. These dynamics have the ultimate effect of undermining his capacity for undistorted judgment, finding meaning in life, and sublimating aggression. Now he is able to override his survival instinct, and reach the point of “willingness to sacrifice one’s body (p. 73).”

Prior to this point, the pseudocommando’s narcissistic inaccessibility led him to be imprisoned in his own revenge fantasies, which served as a faulty/failing life preserver for his drowning ego. But once he reaches the stage of genuine willingness to sacrifice himself and others, there are no further attempts to reach out to the Other; rather, the individual becomes a vortex into which all data is taken and re-configured to substantiate the grounds of the revenge fantasy. He stands as a living example that “narcissism needs no exchange, but requires the other to collapse into it.” At some individualized point during this collapse, the pseudocommando makes the decision to bring his revenge fantasies into the daylight of reality. It is also at this point that he begins to formulate, if he has not already, his final communications. These communications have great meaning to him, as he realizes they will be the only “living” testament to motivations, struggle and “heroic sacrifice.” Therefore, he puts no little thought into them. He pulls the words from deep down within his shattered psyche, and carefully spreads them out for all to see. Like a poker player who lays down his “royal flush,” he reveals his hate-filled, obliterative hand to the shock and lament of all who bare witness.


Both Cho and Wong committed mass murder as defined by the present day, accepted Bureau of Justice definition. Both men killed four or more victims at one location, within one event. Although their violent actions were strikingly similar, their final communications revealed significant and important differences between these two individuals. Both men followed the known pattern of the pseudocommando in terms of being heavily armed, wearing “warrior” gear, committing the act during the day, planning for the act, and expecting to be killed during the mass murder. The final communications of both men also revealed that they harbored extremely strong emotions of anger, feelings of persecution, severely damaged self-esteem, and the desire for revenge. Both had reached the obliterative mindset in which nothing matters, and violent destruction must be the final outcome.

In contrast, careful analysis of their final communications also reveals striking differences between the two pseudocommandos. Wong’s final letter strongly suggests that he suffered from a major psychotic disorder. Even more weight is added to this possibility by his father’s reports of Wong’s psychotic symptoms beginning in his early twenty’s, and Wong’s odd behaviors, some of which are frequently seen in individuals suffering from major psychotic disorders (eg., wearing warm clothing in the summer, isolative behavior, uncharacteristic outbursts of anger). Although he was resentful about the status of his “poor life,” he attributed all of his misfortunes to bizarre persecution by “undercover cops.” He appeared to delusionally believe that it was, in fact, these secret persecutors who had destroyed his chances of assimilating and working successfully in the country to which he and his family had immigrated. In reality, it was likely that his undetected, untreated severe mental illness which prevented him from achieving his goals in his new country. Nevertheless, he could not “accept” his circumstances.

For approximately two decades, Wong felt utterly subject to the cruel and unwarranted harassment of his persecutors (ie., his paranoid delusions). Upon reaching the obliterative state of mind, he reasoned that for once in his life he would not be the passive recipient of persecution. Instead, he would assume the role of persecutor and punishing “judge.” With one act of vengeance, he would show his persecutors that he was not a man who could be tormented forever. His actions would make them “regret” what they had done to him. Further, by killing others, he was able to discharge what must have been a deep abyss full of rage, while psychotically projecting responsibility for the tragedy onto his imagined persecutors. In the case of Wong, we see much less overt envy expressed in his final communication. Rather, his letter dwells mainly on his persecutory delusions and his plan to commit homicide-suicide due to his aversive self-awareness and strong feelings of resentment.

Cho’s final communication is a veritable course on the psychodynamics of envy and social exclusion. He even goes as far as acknowledging his fantasies of being part of the “hedonistic” crowd, who he imagined had unlimited access to all of the pleasurable “debaucheries” in life. Cho’s “manifesto” does not contain any overtly delusional material, although one may argue that his feelings of persecution may have reached delusional or near delusional levels. However, with Cho there is no evidence of bizarre or technological delusions as with Wong. Cho’s letter is rife with externalization, splitting and rage stemming from his feelings of social exclusion. Cho’s letter also contains more direct and overt expression of vitriolic anger as compared to Wong’s letter. But perhaps the biggest difference from Wong is Cho’s romanticized theme of his act as a heroic, grandiose sacrifice. Cho stresses that his own death will not be in vain – rather, he is a Christ figure who is sacrificing himself to “save” the “weak and the defenseless,” which is precisely the way that he likely saw himself – a “pathetic boy” who’s life (and self-esteem) had been “extinguished” by his feelings of social exclusion.

A final contrast between the two is clearly seen in the photos they sent to the media. Whereas the photos sent by Wong consisted mainly of him sitting down holding a gun pointing upwards, Cho’s photos were more numerous and more posed for dramatic effect. For example, Cho aims his gun directly at the camera. In another, he holds two guns with his arms outspread reminiscent of an action movie hero. In sum, Cho’s photos suggest substantially more drama, grandiosity and narcissism. All of this data, taken together with their writings, suggest that Wong primarily suffered from a major psychotic disorder, whereas Cho’s primary psychopathology was characterological. This is not meant to exclude the possibility that Cho had begun to suffer from thought disorder; however, the evidence for this is far less striking than with Wong.

In terms of prevention, the difficult reality is that such events are extremely hard to prevent. Recommendations may represent hopeful or idealistic goals, while the reality is that such events often occur without obvious opportunities for diversion. Yet retrospectively one may sometimes discover “windows” of opportunity that if taken advantage of, may possibly have had a chance of diverting the course of events leading up to the tragedy. Such windows may take the form of family members taking steps to have the potential pseudocommando evaluated and treated, or if necessary, involuntarily treated if mentally ill. Another example might be employees or co-workers notifying authorities once they become reasonably concerned. We live in a society that places a high value on both privacy/individual liberty and safety. This can be a difficult balancing act, yet in the case of an individual who raises the concern of family, friends or co-workers, it would seem that the privacy end of the equation must remain flexible, albeit in a very well reasoned way.

Other prevention efforts may involve: identifying potentially violent, angry, nihilistic persons; identifying communities in which it is more difficult to access adequate mental health services; and improving nation wide research efforts focusing on identifying and preventing such tragedies, as well as fully understanding the long-term public health effects of mass murders. In terms of media responses, it may be helpful to formalize a set of reporting guidelines. For example, it has been suggested that news media should avoid glorifying the perpetrator, and not disclose his methods or number of victims killed. Rather media should emphasize victim and community recovery efforts, and deflect attention away from the perpetrator.


Mass murders are not a recent phenomenon, but have occurred since well before the Charles Whitman shooting in 1966. However, what may be a more modern “twist” on mass murder is the pseudocommando style shootings as first described by Dietz (1986), and more recently by Mullen (2004). Present day access in the U.S. to powerful, automatic firearms, as well as a possible glorification of the phenomenon as a western culture “script” are two factors making these present day mass murders unique.

This article has presented a discussion on the psychology of revenge, with special attention to revenge fantasies in pseudocommando mass murderers. These individuals nurture feelings of persecution, resentment and destructive envy. When they reach the limits of their ability to tolerate or avoid aversive self-awareness, there is a significantly increased risk of cognitive deconstruction and nihilism. The revenge fantasy becomes the last refuge for the pseudocommando’s mortally wounded self-esteem. Prior to carrying out their mass shootings, pseudocommandos often take special care to communicate some final message or “manifesto” to the public or news media. Such communications are rich sources of data about the motives and psychology of the pseudocommando. The field of forensic psycholinguistics may be applied in such cases to better discern primary motivations, the presence of mental illness, and important individual nuances. Analysis of both Cho and Wong’s final communications revealed important similarities and differences between the two mass murderers. It is hoped that careful analysis of the pseudocommando’s final communications may ultimately lead to a better understanding of their behaviors and psychology, as well as future preventive efforts.

I will leave the reader with one final thought - coming from a study by Australian researchers. Chapman et al. (2006), studied mass murders before and after 1996 - the year of a horrendous mass murder in Tasmania. Australia quickly enacted gun law reforms which included removing semi-automatic, pump-action shot guns and rifles from civilian possession. In the 18 years before the gun laws, they found a total of 13 mass shootings. In the 10.5 years after the gun law reforms, there were 0 (zero) mass shootings. Understanding that Australian and U.S. culture have some distinct differences, it still may be very worthwhile to ponder the findings of this (single) study. [Chapman, S., et al: Australia's 1996 gun law reforms: faster falls in firearm deaths, firearm suicides, and a decade without mass murder. Injury Prention, 2006; 12: 365-372.]

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Female Serial Killers: You've Come A Long Way?

Top: Stacy Castor - convicted of murdering her husband with antifreeze; suspected of murdering her first husband, and trying to murder her own daughter.
Middle: Shirely Winters - Arsonist & Serial Killer. Pleaded guilty to killing two of her young children, but is suspected of killing five other children.
Bottom: Aileen Wournos - convicted of killing seven men; executed in 20o2.
After my recent involvement in a so-called "black widow" murder case (Stacy Castor), I thought I would give a little update on what we know about female serial killers - a rare breed. The strict definition of serial killer is not quite set in stone, but most proposed definitions share the following elements in common: 1) there have been at least two victims (some definitions require three victims), 2) victims are killed in a non-continuous fashion (i.e., there is an emotional “cooling off” period between murders), and 3) the murders usually involve a sexual component.[i], [ii], [iii] So, technically, Ms. Castor could not be "officially" classified as a serial killer - but she is suspected of killing her first husband in a similar manner (poisoning), and of trying to kill her own daughter by poisoning as well. Here is a link to an interview I did with the show 20/20 on this case:
In another case I consulted on, a woman named Shirely Winters is suspected of killing no less than seven children, most by different forms of arson. This was particularly interesting to me due to the fact that Ms. Winters herself barely escaped death as a child, while her siblings were killed in an accidental gas/asphixiation type incident (she happened to be the only sibling who was spending the night away that evening). Ms. Winters was a resident of the central NY, who was convicted in 2008 of killing her five-month old son, Ronald Winters III, in 1980 and 23-month old Ryan Rivers in 2007. She has also been under investigation for the 1979 deaths of her two older children and the 1979 deaths of three children of a friend.

Female Serial Murderers

Perhaps the first documented female serial killer was a 1st century Roman woman named Locusta. She was a “professional poisoner” who lived in the time of Nero (54 A.D.), and was ultimately executed.[i]

Relatively little has been written about female serial murderers as compared to their male counterparts. In a review of published literature on female serial murder, the most common motive identified was material gain.[i] Sexual or sadistic motives are believed to be extremely rare in female serial murderers. Psychopathic traits and histories of childhood abuse have been consistently reported in these women.20 In a study of 105 female serial killers, the preferred method of killing was poisoning.[ii] An analysis of 86 female serial killers from the U.S. found that the victims tended to be spouses, children or the elderly.[iii] Sometimes referred to as “black widow” killers, these women tend to be geographically stable and live in the same area where their offenses occurred. Their victims are not strangers, and the methods they use are covert or “low profile.”21 On rare occasions, women may be involved with a male serial killer as a part of a serial killing “team.”[iv]

Perhaps one of the more high profile female serial killers in the U.S. was Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted of killing seven men in separate incidents. Wuornos had claimed that all of the men had raped her (or attempted to) while she was working as a prostitute. Thus, she did not fit the typical profile of a female serial killer. Her case received remarkable media and Hollywood attention. In a detailed case study analysis, it was theorized that Wuornos was biologically predisposed to psychopathy, and her abusive childhood resulted in serious attachment deficiencies.[v] Finally, her aggressive narcissism and antisocial lifestyle predisposed her to situations in which she was able to commit acts of predatory murder. Wuornos was executed by lethal injection in 2002 in Florida.

[i] Meloy J., Felthous A. Introduction to this issue: serial and mass murder. Behav Sci Law 2004 22: 289-90.
[ii] Myers W., Husted D., Safarik M., O’Toole M. The Motivation Behind Serial Sexual Homicide: Is It Sex, Power, and Control, or Anger? J Forensic Sci 2006 51(4): 900-907.
[iii] Douglas J., Burgess A.. W., Burgess A. G., Ressler R. Crime Classification Manual. Lexington Books: New York, NY, 1992.
[i] Newton M. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Facts on File: New York, 2000
[i] Frei A., Vollm B., Graf M., Volker D. Female serial killing: Review and case report. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 2006 16: 167-176.
[ii] Wilson W., Hilton T. Modus operandi of female serial killers. Psychological Reports 1998 82: 495-498.
[iii] Kelleher M. Kelleher C. Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer. Praeger: Westport, CT, 1998.
[iv] Holmes R., Holmes S. Serial Murder, 2nd Ed. Wadsworth: Belmond, CA, 1998.
[v] Arrigo B., Griffin A. Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos: Attachment Theory, Psychopathy, and Predatory Aggression. Behavioral Sci and Law 2004 22: 375-393.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Craigslist Killer? What do we know about Physician Serial Murderers?

The so-called Craigslist Killer - hasn't even been convicted, at least not in a criminal court

The Craigslist Killer has been the recent subject of media attention. Since I seem to recall my law professors teaching me that an individual is presumed innocent until proven guilty at trial, I shall refrain from offering worthless speculation and adding to the hype. Instead, I'll try to do what I always do - provide you with some forensic knowledge about the issue in general, like I try to do with juries, and you can take this knowledge and form your own conclusions.

So - what do we really know about physicians who kill?

A physician swears by the hippocratic oath, and also swears to "first, do no harm," while putting his patients' best interests above all else. What could be more unnerving than a person who has taken this oath, looks the part, talks the talk of the helping profession, and appears to walk the walk as well? The truth is that killer doctors are nothing new, yet perhaps the aura of the profession has buffered these individuals from being examined too closely by the research - until relatively recently.

The study of medical serial killers may have gone overlooked due to an unwillingness to perceive sworn “healers” as potential murderers. However, research has revealed that medical killers may actually be the most prolific of all serial killers. Doctors who serially murder their patients are considered to belong to a larger group of “career-assisted killers.” The term “clinicide” has been used to describe “the unnatural death of multiple patients in the course of treatment by a doctor.”[i] Such murders may be difficult to detect, since they often occur in settings where death is expected to happen. Doctors accused of clinicide will be likely to put forth the defense that they were relieving suffering or providing euthanasia. Clinicidal doctors may have extreme narcissistic personalities, and may obtain pleasure by “determining” when a person will die.

One of the most deadly doctor serial killers may also hold the dubious distinction of being one of the most prolific serial murderers to date. Dr. Harold Shipman, a UK physician, was convicted of killing 15 patients with lethal injections of narcotics. In a post-trial investigation, it was concluded that Shipman was responsible for 218 known victims.[ii] Other estimates have suggested the number is closer to 450.[iii] Most of Shipman’s victims were not terminally ill, nor did they have an immediate life threatening illness. Shipman refused to speak to anyone, and no complete psychological assessment was ever performed on him.29 He committed suicide in prison in 2004.

Other healthcare professionals have been implicated in serial murder. In a study of 90 healthcare killers, 86% were nurses and 12% were doctors.[iv] Injection was the most common method used, followed by suffocation, poisoning and tampering with equipment Fifty-four of the 90 cases were ultimately convicted. A total of 2, 113 deaths could be attributed to these 54 convicted healthcare killers.

The motives? Most have speculated that it has much to do with the feelings engendered in the killer by the power of life over death - perhaps the very thing that drew them to the profession in the first place. Does the Craigslist killer appear to fit this profile? Unknown - because a legitimate forensic scientist will not draw such conclusions based only on what the media presents us with. We will just have to wait for the case and evidence to unfold.

[i] Kaplan R. The clinicide phenomenon: an exploration of medical murder. Australasian Psychiatry 2007 15(4): 299-304.
[ii] Esmail A. Physician as Serial Killer – The Shipman Case. N Eng Jour Med 2005 352(18): 1843-1844.
[iii] The Shipman Inquiry. First Report, Volume One Death Disguised. COI Communications, Manchester, 2002.
[iv] Yorker B., Kizer K., Lampe P., Forrest A., Lannan J., Russell D. Serial murder by healthcare professionals. J Forensic Sci 2006 51(6): 1362-71.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Analyzing Threats: Forensic Psycholinguistics

Above: Threatening letter to a friend intercepted by police
Middle: Rationale of a "Rejected" type stalker
Bottom: Same stalker - ultimately killed his victim

A “threat” may be defined as a declaration of intent to harm. It may be the basis for criminal or civil liability. Threats are common, and most are not carried out. There is only a weak association between threats and violence, but there is an association. Consider the following statistics[1]:

§ 75% of threateners are not violent
§ When a threat is made, there is a 52 – 83% false positive prediction of violence
§ Attacks on public figures are rarely preceded by threats

In contrast to a clinical risk assessment done by a treating mental health clinician, a threat assessment is typically done by an expert with training and experience in the field of threat assessment. Competence in threat assessment comes from: 1) specialized training, 2) familiarity with current literature & research, and 3) experience in the field. The average mental health clinician would not reasonably be expected to perform a formal threat assessment of the type described in this course. The following table lists some differences between threat assessment and clinical risk assessment:

Differences Between Threat & Risk Assessment

Threat Assessment
§ Case-specific
§ Target specific
§ Usually not clinical
§ Goal: protect target, apprehend perpetrator
§ Procedure: threat mgt. plan

Risk Assessment
§ Population-specific
§ Actuarial or Structured Clinical approach
§ Clinical scenario
§ Goal: “predict” likelihood, reduce risk
§ Procedure: risk reduction/treatment plan

There are three possibilities in relation to a threat. The individual:

1. Made a threat, but does not pose a threat
2. Made a threat, and does pose a threat
3. Made no threat, and does pose a threat

Although there are many different types of threats, clinicians may be likely to encounter “instrumental” and “expressive” threats[2]:

Instrumental – made to control or influence the target’s behavior. They can be recognized by their conditional nature: “If you ____, then I’ll ____!”

Expressive – made to control or influence the target’s emotions. They can be recognized by their affective nature (ie., “blowing off steam”): “I could kill you!”

Expressive threats may be easier to spot and abort with management interventions. For example, some therapists handle them by allowing the patient to “vent” in a therapeutic manner, and then invite the patient to come up with nonviolent solutions to the problem. Instrumental threats may be more likely to be used by manipulative and/or antisocial individuals who may be less likely to respond to clinical interventions alone.

In a recent large DOJ study[3], 56.8% of stalkers made no threats, whereas 43.2% did make threats. The most common threats were:

1. Hit/slap/harm – 13.6%
2. Kill victim – 12.1%
3. Harm or kill self – 9.2%

This DOJ study considered stalking only from the standpoint of stalker and victim, and did not involve any stalker typologies. Among all stalkers, the following rates of violence were found:

1. Property damage – 24.4%
2. Attacked victim (hit, choked, raped, used weapon) – 21%
3. Attacked 3rd party or pet – 15%

The 3 Principles of Threat Assessment:

1. Targeted violence is neither impulsive nor spontaneous. Targeted violence results from an understandable process of thinking and behavior.

2. Violence is situational and contextual. Violence stems from an interaction among the potential attacker, past stressful events, a current situation, and the target.

3. “Attack-related” behaviors must be identified. Investigation and resolution depend on identifying the discrete behaviors preceding and liked to the attack. Attack-related behaviors move along a continuum from idea – to behaviors/communications – to preparations.

Key Questions for Threat Assessments:

1. What motivated the subject to make the statements, or take the action?

2. What has the subject communicated to anyone concerning his intentions?

3. Has the subject shown an interest in targeted violence, perpetrators of targeted violence, weapons, extremist groups, or murder?

4. Has the subject engaged in attack-related behavior, including any menacing, harassing, and/or stalking type behavior?

5. Does the subject have a history of mental illness involving command hallucinations, delusional ideas, feelings of persecution, etc. with indications that the subject has acted on those beliefs?

6. How organized is the subject? Is he/she capable of developing and carrying out a plan?

7. Has the subject experienced a recent loss and/or loss of status, and has this led to feelings of desperation and despair?

8. Corroboration – What is the subject saying and is it consistent with his/her actions?

9. Is there concern among those that know the subject that he/she might take action based on inappropriate ideas?

10. What factors in the subjects life and/or environment might increase/decrease the likelihood of the subject attempting to attack a target?

Examining the Data: Communications & Behaviors

The forensic psycholinguistic analysis is best done as a part of a team approach, where the forensic psychiatrist can meet with and obtain feedback from law enforcement, the victim, and the DA assigned to the case. From the outset, the forensic psychiatrist should pay careful attention to the quality of the evidence examined. It is recommended that the forensic psychiatrist obtain the best possible sample of the writing, communication, etc. A trip to the detective’s office may be necessary to view the original evidence.[1] This may also be useful where the detective involved can provide other helpful background information to the investigator in person.
If copies are used, make sure they are high quality and complete. It may be helpful to make multiple copies of single documents so that highlighting, notes, etc. can take place, yet you will still have a clean copy.

Review document(s) carefully, slowly and multiple times. Each review may be done with a different primary purpose. For example, the first review may simply be to obtain a general first impression. Subsequent reviews may be done for:

Identifying themes, motives
Identifying evidence of mental illness
Identifying threatening language, types of threats
Identifying idiosyncratic language or symbol use
Comparisons with other related documents
Identifying basic features, such as type of medium, style of handwriting, dates, drawings, postage markings, etc.
Method of delivery of the threat

After careful, multiple examinations, it may be possible for the investigator to determine important basic information such as the unknown stalker’s: age, sex, ethnicity, geography, educational level, religious orientation, and other valuable data.[2]

The use of language may also suggest different types of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, or depression.[3], [4] In particular, the excessive use of pronouns has been associated with high levels of psychological distress.[5] The use of metaphor or metonymy may also lend clues about an individual’s past experience, ethnic background, primary motivations and level of distress.[6] One psycholinguistic study of threateners from the FBI’s NCAVC database found that higher conceptual complexity and lower ambivalent hostility/paranoia were more strongly associated with predatory violence.[7]

A working knowledge of recent internet communication trends is important, as 25% of victims reported some form of cyber or electronic stalking.[8] For example, even a piece of data as seemingly unimportant as an E-mail address may suggest clues about the stalkers personality structure.[9] Do not fail to listen to any CDs, audiotapes or other recorded media, as stalkers may communicate what they believe are their most “important messages” in seemingly unimportant “gifts.”

Keeping the above principles in mind during the analysis, one should consider paying close attention to the following data[10]:

§ Changes in tone, affect, organization, etc., over time in serial communications.
§ Statements suggesting the stalker has knowledge of victim’s location
§ How the stalker perceives consequences of re-contact
§ Stalker’s responses to any past victim actions
§ Presence/absence of violent intent
§ Duration and intensity of infatuation
§ References to third parties, suggesting some degree of morbid jealousy. Thus, third parties may also be at risk if he perceives them as thwarting his goal.
§ Violation of personal boundaries (visits to the victim’s home or office to deliver communications)
§ Evidence of persecutory delusions coexisting with linear thought processes
§ Evidence of erotomanic delusions, and intensity of intimacy fantasies and unrealistic desires
§ Severity of mental disorder as suggested by communications
§ References to access to weapons or weapon usage
§ Language suggesting that the stalker views himself as an “aggrieved victim.” In some cases, this may suggest a lowered threshold for acting on threats, as the stalker may feel justified in seeking retribution against his perceived persecutors.
§ Evidence of or references to possible substance use
§ Antisocial and Borderline personality styles – (past failure to conform to the law, lack of remorse, fear of abandonment, difficulty controlling anger, impulsivity)
§ Overall personality structure suggestive of an “externalizing” style of coping
§ Statements demonstrating a forceful sense of entitlement (eg., “I’m not going to ask for you, I’m going to take you”)
§ Frequency and intensity of relevant cognitive distortions – (eg., minimization, denial and externalization of blame)

Finally, consider consulting with a qualified forensic document and/or handwriting examiner in difficult cases.

[1] Morris R: Forensic Handwriting Identification: Fundamental Concepts and Principles. San Diego, Calif: Academic Press, 2000.
[2] Smith S, Shuy R: Forensic Psycholinguistics: Using Language Analysis for Identifying and Assessing Offenders. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. April 2002, pps. 16-21.
[3] Stephane M, et al.: Empirical evaluation of language disorder in schizophrenia. J Psychiatry Neuroscience, 2007;32(4):250-8.
[4] Pennebaker J, Stone L: Katie’s Diary: Unlocking the Mystery of a Suicide. (D. Lester, Ed.). Ch. 5, pps. 55 – 79; Routledge Press, 2003.
[5] Henken V: Banality reinvestigated: A computer-based content analysis of suicidal and forced death documents. Suicide and Life-threatening Behavior, 1976; 6: 36-43.
[6] Eynon T: Cognitive Linguistics. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 2002; 8: 399-407.
[7] Smith S: From Violent Words to Violent Deeds: Assessing Risk From FBI Threatening Communication Cases. In: Stalking, Threatening, and Attacking Public Figures: A Psychological and Behavioral Analysis. (J. Meloy, L. Sheridan, J. Hoffman, Eds.) New York, NY: Oxford Press, 2008; Ch. 20, pps. 435-455
[8] Baum K, Catalano S, Rand M: Stalking Victimization in the United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Dept. of Justice. January, 2009: pps. 1-15
[9] Back M, Schmukle S, Egloff B: How extraverted is Inferring personality from e-mail addresses. Journal of Research in Personality, 2008; 42: 1116–1122
[10] This list of evidence consists of both risk factors from the literature, as well as the author’s experience.
[1] Calhoun F, Weston S: Threat Assessment and Management Strategies: Identifying the Howlers and Hunters. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2009.
[2] Meloy J: Violence Risk and Threat Assessment: A Practical Guide for Mental Health and Criminal Justice. San Diego, Calif.: Specialized Training Services, 2000.
[3] Baum K, Catalano S, Rand M: Stalking Victimization in the United States. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, U.S. Dept. of Justice. January, 2009: pps. 1-15

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mass Murder

Above: Mass Murder is not new
Middle: Charles Whtiman - died 8/1/66

Below: Life cover of U.T. Austin Tower shooting by Whitman

With the recent tragic mass murder in Binghamton, NY, I felt compelled to post some of basic research knowledge about Homicide-Suicides, of which Mass Murder is a category. My deepest sympathies go out to the survivors and community. I hope that the Binghamton community can come together to grieve, support one another, and not let this isolated act of selfish anger and resentment define them.

There is often the (false) impression in the media that mass murder more or less began with the Charles Whitman incident, but this is simply not the case. They have been occuring probably for longer than we have recorded history available to us. It is simply that the media has become more sophisticated and adept at reporting it (See above table). Here, I will briefly outline the phenomenon of Homicide-Suicide, and then discuss Mass Murder.

Homicide – Suicide is the phenomenon in which an individual commits a homicide, and subsequently (usually within 24 hours) commits suicide (Felthous, 1995; Marzuk, et al, 1992). The dramatic nature of a completed homicide-suicide frequently captures media attention, while efforts at recognition and prevention have received much less consideration. Because the event leaves no living victim or perpetrator, input from a mental health professional is typically not sought.

Most information about homicide-suicide has been gathered from data present in police and coroner’s reports. (Malphurs, 2002; Felthous 2001; Morton, 1998). Few studies have utilized interviews of family members, in addition to record reviews, to enhance the psychological autopsy approach.

The rate of homicide – suicide has been found to vary only slightly throughout the world. In the United States, rates have been reported as more or less consistently between 0.21 to 0.55 per 100,000 (Coid, 1983; Milray, 1995).

Although it is a relatively rare event, it is likely responsible for 1,000 to 1,500 deaths per year in the United States (Marzuk, et al, 1992). Coid (1983) found that countries with a high homicide rate had the lowest rate of homicide – suicide.

In their review of the literature Marzuk, et al (1992) were the first to propose a clinical typology for the classification of homicide – suicide. Their system categorizes perpetrators based on victim – perpetrator relationship, and by class of precipitants or motives. For example, it has been reported that the most common type of homicide – suicide is spousal killing, usually with the male killing his female “consort” due to a breakdown of the relationship (Milray, 1995). Marzuk, et al (1992) have classified this type as a Spousal homicide – suicide of the “Amorous Jealousy” class.

Depression was found to be the most common diagnosis in perpetrators of spousal homicide-suicide. These dyads were commonly characterized as chaotic, abusive relationships. In addition, histories of alcohol abuse and violent behavior are frequently found among this type of perpetrator (Rosenbaum, 1990). The common thread running through this type of homicide – suicide appears to be the precipitating factor of a loss of a previously intimate consort. Indeed, recent estrangement of a partner increases the risk of both homicide and homicide – suicide (Darpet, 1966; Currens, 1991).

Another common type is the Spousal homicide – suicide of the “Declining Health” class. In this group a male, usually elderly, kills his spouse and then himself because of declining health and it’s associated hardships. In actuality, both may be suffering declining health, or conversely, only one has health issues while the other suffers from depression. There may have been some form of threat (eg, financial) to a spouse’s ability to continue functioning in the caretaker role. Beginning in the 1990’s, younger couples suffering from AIDS have been classified in this group. Cohen argues that homicide – suicides of this class are not acts of love or altruism, but of depression and desperation (Cohen, 1998).

Other typologies of homicide – suicide seen with less frequency are the filial, familial, and extra-familial types. Filicide – suicide usually involves the classic scenario of a depressed and psychotic mother who kills her infant in an “extended suicide” (Resnick, 1970; Marzuk, et al 1992). A familicide – suicide is usually committed by a depressed man who kills his entire family. He is likely to view his act as a delivery of the family from continued hardships or stressors (Selkin, 1976).

The Extra-Familial type is sometimes referred to as the “Adversarial” type because the most common event involves an offense against a perceived “enemy” who is unrelated to the perpetrator. Adversarial homicide-suicides typically consist of disgruntled employees, or antagonistic, hate filled individuals. They are likely to be suspicious loners who have had a recent social stressor. They are prone to perceiving themselves as persecuted, and seek revenge in the workplace, or indiscriminately in public (Dietz, 1986; Felthous, 1995; Marzuk, 1992).

Mass murderers who commit suicide would fit into this category, as their relationships to their victims are often extra-familial and adversarial in nature. The U.S. Bureau of Justice has defined “mass murder” as the killing of four or more victims at 1 location, within 1 event. Thus, the following categories of homicide-suicide could also potentially be considered mass murders: 1) the “disgruntled” (ex) employee, 2) the “class room avenger,” and 3) the “pseudo-commando.”

Adversarial Homicide-Suicide (Extra-familial)

This type involves a disgruntled employee who has recently been dismissed or is experiencing work stress. He externalizes blame onto his supervisors or co-workers, and feels wronged in some way. He is very likely to have depression, as well as paranoid narcissistic traits. Actual persecutory delusions may be seen. Variants of this type include disgruntled students, patients, and litigants.

The phenomenon of mass murder described by Dietz (1986) has some over-lap with homicide-suicide. A mass murder occurs when multiple victims are intentionally killed by a single offender in a single incident. The "pseudo-commando" subtype of mass murder can be considered a homicide-suicide in certain cases. The pseudo-commando is usually a man who is feeling strong anger and resentment, in addition to a paranoid character(Dietz). He kills indiscriminately in public during the day time. He uses a powerful arsenal of weapons, and has no escape planned. This may sometimes involve a "passive suicide" in that he forces police to kill him in a last stand "blaze of glory."

Pseudo-commando mass murders have been described as often possessing the following characteristics (Mullen, 2004):

§ Bullied or isolated as a child
§ Loners who are socially excluded and despair over feeling excluded
§ Suspicious, resentful, grudge holders
§ Obsessional or rigid traits
§ Narcissistic, grandiose traits
§ Externalizers – unable to take responsibility for their distress and place responsibility on others
§ Weapons collector, preoccupied with weapons
§ Strong feelings of persecution or mistreatment
§ World seen as rejecting, uncaring
§ Resentful with rumination on past humiliations – “collectors of injustice” (Dietz)
§ Fantasize about violent revenge
§ No significant criminal or violence history
§ No significant mental health history or serious mental illness
§ No significant substance abuse

The massacres carried out by pseudo-commandos are often characterized by the following:

§ Well planned out – not impulsive, did not “snap” (JK: If you investigate closely enough, you will find that no one "just snaps." This is a lay-myth. The act is the culmination of a long period of harboring/collecting resentment and fantasizing about violent retribution)
§ Set out to kill as many people as they can
§ Come well prepared and well armed, often in camo or “warrior” gear
§ Pursue a highly personal agenda of “pay back” to an uncaring, rejecting world
§ Sometimes also against those he has a grievance with

Mullen (2004) raises the possibility that these “autogenic massacres” (mass murders) are unique to western society. Further, subsequent pseudo-commandos appear to have been inspired or influenced by previous ones via the media. The perpetrators “welcome death,” and perceive it as bringing them fame with an aura of power.

Here are more results from some interesting studies:

Mass Homicide & Suicide: Deadliness & Outcome (Lester, ’05)

This study examined a nonrandom sample of 98 Lone “rampage” killers. Lester defined "deadliness" by number of victims.

In terms of deadliness, here's how the perpetrators fell out:

  • Most deadly: Killed by police
  • 2nd most deadly: Committed suicide
  • 3rd most deadly: Captured by police

Lester also found that perpetrators often showed an interest in guns, had past violence, and demonstrated paranoia or paranoid traits. Interestingly, disgruntled employees were more likely to commit suicide.

Mass Murderer Characteristics (Hempel, ’99)

This study looked at a sample of 30 nonrandom mass murderers and found:

•Paranoid and/or depressive traits
•Personality disorders
•Major loss precipitating the event
•A “Warrior mentality” among perpetrators - coming to the event "decked out" in military-like garb, heavily armed and even sometimes shouting particular "war cries."

Another common theme running through these types of events is the toxic effects of social isolation or rejection. This phenomenon has been well studied by Baumeister, who has shown that social rejection engenders feelings of nihilism, hopelessness, anger, as well as impaired cognition and ability to make cautious decisions.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Masochistic Serial Killers?

Top: Rader/BTK "becomes the victim"
Middle: BTK's "symbol" (note sexual symbology)
Bottom: Dennis Rader (aka: BTK)

Readers: For a full discussion of this unusual phenomenon, see published paper:
Knoll J, Hazelwood R: Becoming the Victim: Beyond Sadism in Serial Sexual Murder. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 2009; 14: 106-114.

The behavior and characteristics of sexually sadistic serial murderers have been described primarily in relation to their paraphilic arousal to the control and torture of their victims. Sadistic sexual murderers who demonstrate both sadism and masochism have been described, but less is known about this type of offender.
Dennis Rader (aka “BTK”)

Dennis L. Rader, who gave himself the title “BTK” (Bind, Torture, Kill) was born March 9, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Kansas. He was one of 4 sons, and a college graduate with a degree in the Administration of Justice. He received an honorable discharge from the Air Force. He was married to the same woman for 27 years and had two children. His employment history included installing security systems, being a supervisor with the U.S. Census Bureau and a compliance officer for Park City, Kansas. By all accounts, Dennis Rader was a good father to his son and daughter. His family lived in the same home for 25 years. He had no arrest history, was a Boy Scout leader and president of his local church assembly. On the surface, Rader appeared to be a stable, reliable and respected member of his community. Nevertheless, he held that same community in fear from 1974 (when he killed a family of four), until his arrest approximately 31 years later.

Dennis Rader was arrested on February 25, 2005. Rader eventually confessed to murdering 10 victims. Although 59 years of age at the time, he had completed his selection process for an eleventh victim, and was simply awaiting an opportune time to kill again. Regarding his murderous desires, he stated, “It started in grade school. I used to make sketches even back then. Annette Funicello was my favorite fantasy hit target…I had these imaginary stories of how I was going to get her, kidnap her and do sexual things to her…” (Smith, 2006) During the period of time that he was carrying out his offenses, Rader appeared to enjoy communicating with the media, writing anonymous letters to a Kansas TV station. One letter stated that “no one in Kansas is safe because I am omnipresent.” After his arrest, a large volume of materials were seized which documented his sexual fantasies, interests, and crimes. Among those materials were postmortem photographs he had taken of two of his victims along with items of clothing belonging to each of them. Also recovered were photographs of Rader in bondage and cross-dressed in his victim’s clothing. Analysis of the photos of Rader and his victims revealed striking similarities.

Rader Victim A

On April 27, 1985, Rader murdered victim A, a middle aged woman who lived only 6 doors away from him. He told police that he would occasionally see her in her yard. Her body was found, some 9 days after she had been missing, in a ditch seven miles from her home. Authorities later learned that after manually strangling the victim in her home, Rader took her body to his church where he “…played God: controlled her…posed her bound body in lewd positions, and took photographs...” (Wenzl, Potter, Kelly and Hurst, 2007)

In one of the photographs, the victim is lying nude on her back with her ankles and wrists bound. In two other photos, she is in a semi-sitting position with her back against a wall partition. Rader had placed a bra on her and she was bound at the ankles, calves, and above the knees. Her wrists were positioned behind her back, suggesting that they were bound. A black cloth was wrapped around the lower part of her face. Law enforcement recovered a photo Rader had taken of himself almost 4 and ½ years later (Rader had dated the photo himself). The photo showed Rader in his mother’s basement wearing lingerie. He was standing up with his back against a wall, bound at the ankles, calves, and above the knees. His wrists were behind his back, suggesting that they were bound. He was wearing a black cloth over the lower part of his face.

In another Rader photograph, victim A was lying on her right side with her head resting on a pillow and a black cloth covering the lower portion of her face. Her wrists were behind her back, and her knees were drawn up in a fetal-like position with a black cloth tied above her knees. Approximately 5 ½ years later, Rader photographed himself lying on his right side, wearing a bra and a decorative mask with a cloth item covering the lower portion of his face. His head was resting on a white pillow. His wrists were behind his back, and his knees were drawn up in a fetal-like position with a white cloth item tied above his knees.

Rader Victim B

On January 19, 1991, Rader murdered victim B, a 62-year-old widow who lived in a single family residence. Like victim A, victim B was strangled and transported away from her home after her death. Her body was found 13 days later beneath a bridge several miles from her home. A decorative mask with painted black eyebrows, eye lashes and red painted lips was found near the body. Rader took several photographs of victim B after he had murdered her. One photo is of victim B lying on her back with her arms bound behind her back. Her face was covered by the decorative wall mask.

After murdering victim B, Rader photographed himself lying on his back in a grave that he later told authorities he had dug for her, but did not use. The photo shows Rader with his hands behind his back, and fresh dirt covering the lower half of his body. Having left his favorite mask for authorities to find with victim B, the photo shows Rader wearing a different decorative mask with black tape covering the mouth. Photographs of Rader wearing the first mask prior to the murder of victim B were later found police. Upon questioning, Rader told police that he missed the first mask, and had regretted leaving it behind. Another Rader photo shows him at his parent’s basement when they were not at home. In the photo, Rader was wearing victim B’s clothing (Wentzel, Potter, Kelly, and Hurst, 2007).

Discussion of Rader Case

The available photographic evidence shows that Rader placed his victims in specific positions while they were bound and had either a cloth or mask over their faces. Several years after his offenses, Rader made special efforts to photograph himself while carefully imitating the positions, clothing and bindings of victims he had previously photographed. Assuming that Radar, like most SSSMs, was operating from a fantasy script, he would be motivated to re-experience his offenses by memorializing them (ie., photos), as well as by re-living the fantasies as best he could when no victim was available. The latter behavior may suggest that he was using himself as a “stand-in” when no actual victim was available. If one were to stop here, it might be hypothesized that Rader’s behavior corresponds most closely to the substitute victim hypothesis. However, there are still several other key pieces of behavioral evidence to consider, specifically Rader’s use of facial coverings, as well as placing himself in his victim’s intended grave.

Rader’s regret over parting with his mask suggests that he had developed a significant attachment to it. From a psychiatric perspective, this may raise the possibility of a fetish. Fetishism is defined as having “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving the use of nonliving objects.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) Fetishistic objects are more commonly women's undergarments, shoes, and leather apparel. A specific “mask” fetishism does exist ( Accessed on: 9/8/08), although it is not well studied. It has been observed that adult fetishism may develop out of the early childhood developmental phase called the transitional period (Greenacre, 1969). Prior to the transitional period, the infant sees himself and the mother as “one” being. The mother gratifies the infant’s needs without delay, resulting in the illusion of omnipotence. At this stage, the mother-child relationship is entirely symbiotic – the baby feels “merged” with the mother, as well as all powerful.

This “subjective omnipotence” inevitably collides with objective reality. By means of fantasy, the child may find temporary comfort. It is at this point that a so-called “transitional object” (eg., blanket, stuffed animal) may be used to symbolically represent the mother when she is absent (Winnicott, 1971). In this manner, the child clings to the transitional object while he finds a balance between his fantasy and objective reality. Given Rader’s proclivity for his mask and facial coverings, one might speculate about whether his female mask and/or black cloth served as a form of transitional object allowing him to bridge the gap between his fantasy and reality (ie., between torturer and victim). His regret over losing his mask may have been due to the fact that it served as a transitional portal into his world of grandiose, omnipotent control. Additionally, using the mask for auto-erotic activities would allow him to re-create a fusion of torturer and victim at his leisure, thereby prolonging his omnipotent control of his victim. Finally, Rader’s photo of himself in victim B’s grave also shows his desire to fuse himself with her. In doing so, he exerts control over her beyond her death, and in a sense, mocks the limits of death itself. Having become the victim, he achieves God-like power over her, and “proves” that death cannot limit his omnipotence. His wearing of the mask while in the grave underscores its importance to him, and furthers his efforts to re-create a torturer-victim fusion.

Summary Points

§ Clinical forensic case examples suggest that control is the “worm” at the core of sadism.
§ Sadistic sexual murderers who demonstrate both sadism and masochism have been described, but little is known about this type of offender.
§ There are a number of potentially overlapping hypotheses that might explain why some serial sexual murderers would enact the roles of both victim and torturer. These include: 1) trauma related theories, 2) cognitive distortion – implicit theories, 3) the substitute victim hypothesis, 4) the vicarious enhancement hypothesis, 5) the addictive tolerance model, and 6) the grandiose sadism hypothesis.
§ The grandiose sadism hypothesis suggests that some rare offenders assume the identity of the victim to extend their control over the victim beyond life and death.
§ This type of grandiose control provides the offender with a God-like sense of power, as a result of an omnipotent fusion of torturer and victim. The offender is able to control and experience gratification from both sides of the power differential, permitted by his fluid boundaries between self and other.