Book Reviews

December 3, 1999:

Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist

by Richard Rhodes

Knopf, 352 pp., $26.95

Oliver Sacks once championed a brilliant and lucid autistic woman named Temple Grandin, whose rare and shocking capacity for self-revelation was matched only by her remarkable career as a designer of abattoirs. Had Sacks not chosen to spotlight Temple in An Anthropologist on Mars, her incredible story probably would have gone largely unnoticed by those outside her circle. One senses a similar dynamic between the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rhodes and Lonnie Athens, a "maverick criminologist" marginalized as much for his hard-edged personality as for his disturbing research. Athens' private, exceedingly mental nature and obsessive professional drive jeopardized his marriage, his tenure track, and his safety. Rhodes' focus, however, is not on Athens' life but on his body of scientific work. Rhodes, for better or for worse, tells the story in language straight out of a social science text.

Athens defined violentization as the four-stage process (brutalization, belligerency, violent performance, virulency) whereby a formative personality (usually a child's) is socialized through increasingly severe degrees of physical and psychological subjugation and criminal imprinting. Working from prison interviews with brutal offenders -- a method previously widely discounted for its dangerous subjectivity -- Athens reached specific conclusions backed by hard methodology and initially realized that motive is apparent and real and that it is possible to discern why violent criminals act like they do. Prior to his work, criminological thought left little room in the commission of violent acts for "a decision to act or not to act." Athens found, to the contrary, that criminally violent acts are decisions, not explosions. Because legal and social science institutions are ill-positioned to deal with the implications of these persuasive findings, his work has been largely ignored since it discredits "the currently fashionable social-science paradigm." Athens has found no evidence linking mental illness to violent crimes, and no indication that media depiction of violence contributes to criminally violent behavior.

Empirical to a fault, Why They Kill offers a strictly scientific presentation of Athens' research. The plot consists of a thorough examination of the case and historical data (with some tedious philosophy of the self and dry autobiography thrown in), which gives it a dogged tendency to read like a textbook. It also contains crystal-clear depictions of abject brutality. Athens' prison case studies are reprinted verbatim as recorded straight from the mouths of convicted killers and savage aggressors. However, consider this aspect a vital strategy since it was from these interviews that Athens was able "to strip away superficialities and expose the gears and levers of the very apparatus of evil itself."

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