exposing the dark side of adoption
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Criminal Minds and Methods: What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

from: crimelibrary.com


Adoption as a potential contribution to the serial killer's motivation is fascinating because it creates two questions. The first one is that the biological parents may have left their child with deviant genes. (We will look into the genetics of serial killers shortly.) Finding out that one was adopted may also undermine the sense of identity in a fragile youth, and make the child prone to fantasizing an identity of his "true" parents, either good or bad. Was the mother a prostitute? A nun? Was the father a gangster? A hero? And why did they "reject" their child? This sense of rejection can have profound consequences on an already unstable psyche. If the child actually meets his biological parent and is again rejected, the damage is worse. David Berkowitz was deeply hurt when his biological mom brushed him off. Some have speculated that Berkowitz's "Son of Sam" was an fantasy attempt to reclaim a parent/child identity that had been crushed in real life. According to Bundy biographers Michaud and Aynesworth, Ted's emotional growth was stopped in its tracks after he learned that he was illegitimate at age 13. "It was like I hit a brick wall," Bundy had said. Of course, he tried out every excuse he could rummage, so it's difficult to take his word on this when his family life appeared otherwise healthy.

It goes without saying that adoption does not create serial killers. At worst, it may dislodge a child's self-identity. But that does not mean that finding oneself in multiple murder is the only option available to adopted children.

Witnessing Violence

Some lust murderers claim that exposure to violent events ignited their thirst for blood. Ed Gein, among others, said that seeing farm animals slaughtered gave him perverted ideas. But wouldn't that make 4-H a breeding ground for serial killers? Both Albert Fish and Andrei Chikatilo blamed their sadistic bloodlust on frightening childhood stories. Does this mean we can expect Stephen King's children to top the murder charts? Even truly traumatic experiences don't automatically create a serial killer. "Acid Bath Murderer" John Haigh, as a child, ran outside after a WWII bombing at his London home. The bomb came with "a horrifying shriek, and as I staggered up, bruised and bewildered, a head rolled against my foot." Joel Peter Witkin, a well-known artist who's work is admittedly gruesome but fascinating, experienced the same event after witnessing a car accident. So what makes one person become a serial killer, and another a famous artist?

Juvenile Detention

Reform school in the early 20th century did anything but reform. The stories of sadistic guards and medieval punishments are almost paralleled by the violent behavior of the prisoners who went on to serial killing. Fortunately, this sort of extreme discipline is no longer openly tolerated.

Although 1920's killer Carl Panzram was an incorrigible juvenile delinquent, the brutal torture he received in reform school aggregated his violent rage. "From the treatment I received while there and the lessons I learned from it, I had fully desided when I left there just how I would live my life. I made up my mind that I would rob, burn, destroy and kill every where I went and everybody I could as long as I lived. Thats the way I was reformed ... " Henry Lee Lucas also claimed prison transformed him into a serial killer. Manson said that he was raped and beaten by other prisoners when he was 14, while a particularly sadistic guard would masturbate as he watched. The grandfatherly pervert Albert Fish blamed his sadomasochistic impulses on his experiences at a Washington, D.C. orphanage: " I saw so many boys whipped, it took root in my head."

Peer Rejection

For different reasons, many multiple murderers are isolated as children. Lucas, who was already a shy child, was ridiculed because of his artificial eye. He later said that this mass rejection caused him to hate everyone.

Kenneth Bianchi was also a child loner, with many problems. One clinical report said that "the boy drips urine in his pants, doesn't make friends very easily and has twitches. The other children make fun of him." Dahmer was antisocial as a kid, laughing when he saw a fellow classmate injured. He later became an alcoholic teenager, routinely ignored by his peers.

As the isolation grows more severe, the reliance on fantasies, especially destructive ones, can grow. These fantasies of violence often reveal themselves through two of the three "triads" of predicting criminal behavior, firestarting and animal cruelty.

The Triad

Animal Cruelty

These secret compulsions are seen as the seeds to greater mayhem. "Violent acts are reinforced, since the murderers either are able to express rage without experiencing negative consequences or are impervious to any prohibitions against these actions. Second, impulsive and erratic behavior discourages friendships," increasing isolation." "Furthermore, there is no challenge to the offenders' beliefs that they are entitled to act the way they do." (Ressler, et al, Sexual Homicide) "All learning, according to Ressler, has a "feedback system." Torturing animals and setting fires will eventually escalate to crimes against fellow human beings, if the pattern is not somehow broken.

Torturing animals is a disturbing red flag. Animals are often seen as "practice" for killing humans. Ed Kemper buried the family cat alive, dug it up, and cut off its head. Dahmer was notorious for his animal cruelty, cutting off dogs heads and placing them on a stick behind his house. Yet not all serial killers take their aggressions out on pets. Dennis Nilsen loved animals, particularly his dog Bleep, whom he couldn't bear to face after being arrested for fear that it would traumatize the dog. Rapist torturer and murderer of eight, Christopher Wilder, had made donations to Save The Whales and the Seal Rescue Fund.


Peter Kurten loved to watch houses burn, and Berkowitz, when he tired of torturing his mother's parakeet, became a prolific pyromaniac, keeping record of his 1,411 fires. "Oh, what ecstasy," said Joseph Kallinger to his biographer Flora Schreiber, "setting fires brings to my body! What power I feel at the thought of fire! ... Oh, what pleasure, what heavenly pleasure!" Pyromania is often a sexually stimulating activity for these killers. The dramatic destruction of property feeds the same perverse need to destroy another human. Because serial killers don't see other humans as more than objects, the leap between setting fires and killing people is easy to make.

Bed Wetting

Bed wetting is the most intimate of these "triad" symptoms, and is less likely to be willfully divulged. By some estimates, 60% of multiple murderers wet their beds past adolescence. Kenneth Bianchi apparently spent many a night marinating in urine-soaked sheets.


Formative years may play a role in the molding of a serial killer, but they cannot be the sole reason in every case. Many killers blame their families for their behavior, seeking sympathy. In true psychopathic fashion, serial killers are blaming someone else for their actions. If their bad childhood is the primary reason for their homicidal tendencies, then why don't their siblings also become serial killers? And if these conditions truly created them, serial killers would probably be unionized by now, there would be so many of them (a sad commentary on our continuing neglect of children.) We must look at other components to see what pushes a serial killer over the edge.


Twisted Rationalizations

"I'm the most cold-blooded sonofabitch you'll ever meet," said Ted Bundy. "I just liked to kill, I wanted to kill." The hallmark of the psychopath is the inability to recognize others as worthy of compassion. Victims are dehumanized, flattened into worthless objects in the murderer's mind. John Gacy, never showing an ounce of remorse, called his victims "worthless little queers and punks," while the "Yorkshire Ripper" Peter Sutcliffe brashly declared that he was "cleaning up the streets" of the human trash.

In the 19th century, psychopathology was considered to be "moral insanity". Today it is commonly known as "antisocial personality disorder" or "sociopathology." Current experts believe that sociopaths are an unfortunate fusion of interpersonal, biological and sociocultural disasters.

Psychopaths/sociopaths are diagnosed by their purposeless and irrational antisocial behavior, lack of conscience, and emotional vacuity. They are thrill seekers, literally fearless. Punishment rarely works, because they are impulsive by nature and fearless of the consequences. Incapable of having meaningful relationships, they view others as fodder for manipulation and exploitation. According to one psychological surveying tool (DSM IIIR) between 3-5% of men are sociopaths; less than 1% of female population are sociopaths.

Psychopaths often make successful businessmen or world leaders. Not all psychopaths are motivated to kill. But when it is easy to devalue others, and you have had a lifetime of perceived injustices and rejection, murder might seem like a natural choice.

The following are environmental factors, psychiatrists say, which create a sociopath:

  • Studies show that 60% of psychopathic individuals had lost a parent;
  • Child is deprived of love or nurturing; parents are detached or absent;
  • Inconsistent discipline: if father is stern and mother is soft, child learns to hate authority and manipulate mother;
  • Hypocritical parents who privately belittle the child while publicly presenting the image of a "happy family".


Tests are showing that the nervous system of the psychopath is markedly different — they feel less fear and anxiety than normal people. One carefully conducted experiment revealed that "low arousal levels" not only causes impulsiveness and thrill-seeking, but also showed how dense sociopaths are when it comes to changing their behavior. A group of sociopaths and a group of healthy individuals were given a task, which was to learn what lever (out of four) turned on a green light. One lever gave the subject an electric shock. Both groups made the same number of errors, but the healthy group quickly learned to avoid the punishing electric shock, while sociopaths took much longer to do so.

This need for higher levels of stimulation makes the psychopath seek dangerous situations. When Gacy heard an ambulance, he would follow to see what sort of exciting catastrophe was in the making. Part of the reason for many serial killers seeking to become cops is probably due to the intensity of the job.

Genetics and physiological factors also contribute to the building of a psychopath. One study in Copenhagen focused on a group of sociopaths who had been adopted as infants. The biological relatives of sociopaths were 4-5 times more likely to be sociopathic than the average person. Yet genetics don't tell the whole story; it only shows a predisposition to antisocial behavior. Environment can make or break the psychopathic personality.

When a psychopath does inherit genetically-based, developmental disabilities, its is usually a stunted development of the higher functions of the brain. 30-38% of psychopaths show abnormal brain wave patterns, or EEGs. Infants and children typically have slower brain wave activity, but it increases as they grow up. Not with psychopaths. Eventually, the brain might mature as the psychopath ages. This may be why most serial killers are under 50. The abnormal brain wave activity comes from the temporal lobes and the limbic system of the brain, the areas that control memory and emotions. When development of this part of the brain is genetically impaired, and the parents of the child are abusive, irresponsible or manipulative, the stage is set for disaster.

Can psychopaths be successfully treated? According to the psychiatrists, "No." Shock treatment doesn't work; drugs have not proven successful in treatment; and psychotherapy, which involves trust and a relationship with the therapist, is out of the question, because psychopaths are incapable of opening up to others. They don't want to change.

2008 Apr 6