There are months that go by when I don't read a single novel or work of fiction in any form, if only because I find my attention captured by a nonfiction book that makes all the fiction I could have picked up during that time look like ... well, fiction. That was the case back in April of 2005, when I spent most of the month reading and re-reading Richard Rhodes's Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. This was, and is, one of those rare books that provides you with a perspective-shattering point of view on a previously well-worn subject: Why are some people violent and remorseless monsters and not others?
Rhodes approaches his subject by examining the life and work of Lonnie Athens, a criminologist / sociologist who managed to survive an unbelievably violent childhood and adolescence that should have left him dead five times over. Out of that experience he was compelled to ask hard, direct questions about why people did violence to one another. What was the real reason? Not the theory, but the practice — because if there was anything wrong with the sociological or psychological theories about the motives for violence, it was simply that they didn't explain anything. They were post facto explanations that revolved around existing formulas, and they seemed to have little or no predictive value.
At the time Athens started his work (in the late 1960s / early 1970s), the prevailing theory about why people did violence to each other could be summed up as the "I Just Snapped" Theory: People reach a "breaking point," do something they have no control over, and violence is done. Athens didn't buy it. He'd lived with an unconscionably violent man for years — his own biological father — and there seemed nothing "snappish" about the man. Quite the contrary: his violent behavior seemed quite deliberate and calculated. He knew what he was doing, and he savored it. It seemed right to him, and neither injury nor legal threats could sway him from eventually doing it again (and again, and again).
Athens's original attempt to answer the "why" of violence led him to get involved in the quantitative branch of sociological work: compiling and assessing statistics about violence. Statistics alone did not seem like the answer, though. What he wanted to do was go right to the people who had done the killing, earn their trust, and find out their point of view about what they had done. His idea was at first greeted with disdain, since qualitative analysis in sociology was not considered useful at the time. But he girded himself and did what to many of us would seem unthinkably dangerous: he went into several max-security correctional facilities, earned the trust of dozens of men and women who had murdered, raped, assaulted, beaten, burned, sliced and pummeled other human beings, and used his own front-line experience with exactly that kind of violence to break down their wariness about sharing, to connect with them empathically where others had not been able to, and dissect their stories.
Over time Athens found several key elements that gave these people a common denominator aside from the mere fact that they had committed violence. Violence — the strongly antisocial variety of violence that usually ends in the death of the committer or his incarceration — transcends economic, racial, social, spiritual and all other strata. Everyone, everywhere, does this stuff. The rich beat, rape and torture just as savagely as the poor; whites and blacks; and, yes, men and women. He did not find that the unrepentantly violent were brain-damaged or "mentally ill"; otherwise, how to explain the vast majority of brain-damaged or people with DSM-IV diagnosed disorders who never lay a hand on anyone? There had to be a more inclusive and thorough explanation other than mere biology.
The answer, as much as can be condensed into a few words, is that they were socialized into doing so. They were indeed a product of their environment, but their environment had to consist of several elements that inculcated in them a sense that violence was inevitable and a part of their genuine self-image. They were exposed directly and intimately to violence at a very young age and/or an intensity and particular purpose and manner of violence that caused them to be "schooled" in it. They were hurt directly; they witnessed someone they cared about being hurt (Athens's word for this process is "horrification"); and they were taught to hurt — either deliberately or coincidentally — usually by the same person who dealt out the above damage.
Eventually the person's inculcation into violence reaches a point where their own understanding of themselves becomes saturated with it. They are not simply a witness to it, nor simply a participant in it, nor simply an agent of it — they see themselves as a violent person, and this self-image is reflected or confirmed in the way others treat them. Their social circles change. Their habits and dress and comportment reflect that of a "violent person." And from there on, it's all downhill unless some kind of serious and deep variety of intervention can be conducted — but by then it's usually too late. In fact, one of the grimmer conclusions Athens drew in his work was that the damage was usually done quite thoroughly and very early on in life, and could not be reversed by simply providing role models or any of the other things that worked best as early on as possible.
I have encountered a good example of this process as detailed in a case study published in a clinical journal: a young man whose father was a butcher, who came home drunk a great deal, who beat both his son and his wife, whose sex with his wife bordered on rape (which was overheard a great many times by the hapless child), and who gleefully tried to indoctrinate his son in his line of work only to have the boy fail (which included such punishments as having his face rubbed in a butchered cow's carcass). Thanks to his father's example, the boy came to regard violence as an inevitability in dealing with others: he sexually assaulted girls his age and younger boys, bullied and threatened, and when he reached adulthood eventually founded a fascist organization that preached and executed violence on many American streets.
Athens's other major revelation was the thought processes of the person who kills or commits violence. Instead of finding blind, unthinking rage, he instead found very well-detailed lines of thought that supported and made the acts possible. People may get angry (and a great many violent acts are committed in a fit of rage), but rage does not obviate the existing thought processes of a killer — it heightens them. The way a killer thinks, either in a calm moment or a bloodthirsty one, has been permanently shaped — they see themselves a certain way, they see others a certain way, and they see the interaction between themselves and others in a certain way. A twisted and damaged way, yes, but that's the way that makes sense to them, that supports their behavior — which they have been schooled in.
What made Athens's work unique, I think, was that for the first time someone tried to go to the killers themselves to see what the common elements were in their lives and build a theory around that — then test the theory against others who had killed as well and see if the theory held up. Rhodes himself does this in a number of chapters in the middle of the book, where he puts Athens's theories to the test against an number of killers with well-documented life histories — Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance, or Mike Tyson. He found Athens's analyses held up startlingly well, and that there was no need for him to be selective about the evidence used to confirm it. The evidence spoke for itself — if anything, it cried out to be seen in this way. It made murders that before had been completely incoherent into something comprehensible, and it stood head-and-shoulders above earlier notions about killers derived largely from Freud and Lacan and Havelock (and Albert) Ellis, none of whom really provided a detailed breakdown of the sociology of how someone is made to kill.
There are a number of things about Athens's work that I find striking, and which Rhodes echoes as well.
1. His work implies that murderers are completely responsible for their acts. It does not let anyone off the hook for their violent behavior; it does not imply that they "lost it" or "couldn't control themselves" or "didn't know what they were doing." This in a way confirmed my own feelings about killers — that they are quite conscious of their acts, that they savor them, and that a strong part of their life-view is made up out of them. How else to explain someone who kills, brags about it, and gets picked up and shows no remorse? He's not unthinking — in fact, he's all too conscious and calculating about what he did. It heightens his ability to savor it, and that is why he seeks out such things, regardless of the consequences. In fact, the consequences are sometimes part of the package: if you are picked up and sent to prison, you're among others who will eagerly hear your stories of braggadocio and respond in kind.
2. His work also implies that murder is not the "normal state of human affairs" — in fact, quite the opposite. It takes a degraded and vile emotional environment to produce a remorseless and even jocular killer — someone who kills and enjoys it, or is drawn to it, or puts themselves in harm's way to allow that to "justify" their behavior. It puts the lie to the idea that violence is inevitable in human society, which I've never personally believed, but could never find a solid argument to back up. One of the better ones I've used before in the past (which I must credit to Barrows Dunham, from his book Man Against Myth) goes like this: If war and armies and violence are so inevitable, why do we need to draft soldiers to fight in armies, against their will; why do we need to school them so thoroughly and mercilessly in combat; why do we need to enforce strict penalties for defection or going AWOL; why do we need to provide them with psychological counseling after they come out of battle? I've asked this exact question many times and never gotten a straight answer; Rhodes and Athens have provided one in the context of this book.
3. It confirms that violent people are created by violent surroundings. I am not talking about the phony proxy violence of movies and video games, so easily scapegoated by the ignorant — but by spousal battery, child abuse, gang warfare, all the social conditions that we've only made minimal inroads against in the past century despite our increasing enlightenment about them. We keep getting distracted by nonsense like lurid comic books or TV, and ignore that violent people create more violent people by inculcating them in violence firsthand. You cannot take an ordinary person and give them a book and make them into a killer, and I am tired of people drafting laws and acting as if this ridiculous canard had a shred of truth to it.
3a. It implies that if people need to be hurt badly and deeply to be evil, then they are probably at least not evil by default, and maybe even decent at heart by default.
4. It shows up a great many of the sorts of vest-pocket psychological motivations for killers (professional or novice) in movies, books, TV and other entertainments, as being contrived at best and phony at worst. Think of all the movies you see where someone who has never touched a gun is compelled to not only pick one up but shoot someone else dead (or a whole bunch of people), and seems more exhausted and relieved about it than horrified. (The one movie that comes most to mind that didn't hew to this formula, and that in fact was a little closer to the truth than most, was — believe it or not — the original Death Wish.)
Rhodes devotes a good deal of time to Athens's long and difficult struggle to get his work in front of the people who needed to read it most — the very sociologists and thinkers to whom he was submitting his work for peer review. There is also a superbly disturbing chapter in which Rhodes suggests that it wasn't until the last few years that the human race has started to emerge from seeing violence as inevitable and normal — not simply the violence of wars and armies (which he also devotes a chapter to), but the violence of beating one's children or spouse and calling that "love".
There are times when Rhodes seems more an evangelist for Athens than an examiner, and that can be dangerous: Athens's theories, as insightful as they are, are far from being a Theory of Everything about human violence. But they come closer and explain far more attentively than almost anything else yet encountered, and they echo in the most startling ways the simplest common-sense understandings that have been repeated about the subject: Beat a kid and in time he beats back. This book goes a long way towards showing how, why, and whether or not it can be undone.