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The Boston Phoenix Why People Kill

A controversial new book by a Pulitzer Prize–winning author explores the secrets of the criminal mind

By Jason Gay

AUGUST 9, 1999:  When violence occurs, we want answers. Whether it's Mark Barton's shooting rampage in Atlanta, Cary Stayner's brutal murders in Yosemite National Park, or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold's massacre at Columbine High School, horrific criminal acts have the ability to repel and fascinate us at the same time. We demand immediate explanations and hunt for scapegoats. Firebrands clamor to control television, film, and the Internet. Gun crackdowns are considered and contested. And even though the reality is that these horrors are statistically rare -- nationally, violent crime has dropped precipitously over the past decade -- the perception is often that things are spinning dangerously out of control.

At the heart of this fear is a search for closure. Unless we know what causes an act of violence, it is hard to put it behind us. But the origin of criminal violence has been one of our most perplexing mysteries. To date, no theory or statistical sample has yielded a conclusive explanation of why some people assault, maim, rape, and murder.

A new book by Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and 16 other books, attempts to do just that. Titled Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist (Knopf), the book chronicles the life of criminology professor Lonnie Athens, who, after years of interviewing violent offenders, came to believe that serious violent behavior is almost always the byproduct of a single specific developmental pattern -- first, childhood brutalization and subjugation; then learning that violence can bring respect; next, achieving respect through violence; and, lastly, regular criminal violence.

Though many people have long suspected links between child abuse and adult violence, Athens's theory, called "violentization," largely discounts other factors such as class, violent media, and mental illness. The theory is controversial, to say the least. It has been ridiculed and rejected by many in the sociology and criminology establishments who consider Athens's research to be flimsy compared to the databases and crime reports usually used for analyses of violent behavior. But Athens has an advocate in Richard Rhodes, who spent several years investigating and testing the violentization theory and believes that the Virginia-raised Greek-American has happened upon the biggest breakthrough yet in understanding the violent criminal mind. Rhodes spoke to the Phoenix this week from his home in Connecticut.

Q: Every time there is a high-profile violent crime, people naturally want to put a reason behind the action. In Why They Kill, you advocate a little-known theory that serious violent behavior is an intimate multistage process, starting with child abuse, which leads to belligerency, occasional violent episodes, and, later, pathological violence. How did you decide this theory was worth writing about?

A: I have spent most of my adult life writing about violence of one form or another. Even though the subject matter of my [books] has been as diverse as the Donner Party and the hydrogen bomb, all of those subjects interested me because of the central questions of "How do people get this way?" and, when you're subjected to violent people, "How do you survive that?" And [I was interested] because of my own childhood, because my stepmother was a violent individual. So I really was primed, and I was never comfortable with all of these theories that I had encountered over the years.

One of the great virtues of Lonnie Athens's work is that it isn't mystified. He doesn't invent strange dynamic forces, as Freud does. He doesn't invoke broad social trends that couldn't possibly explain violence because they leave out most of the people who experience those trends. He doesn't invoke race, testosterone, or genetics. All of these theories don't quite make sense. What Athens did find is something that I think anyone who's been around violence has an immediate shock of recognition about. I did. My wife did. The people I've since told about Athens's work, by and large, unless they are professionals who are invested in a theory, immediately say, "Oh yeah, sure."

Q: What's also different about Athens's violentization theory is that it's based on in-depth interviews with a relatively small number of criminals, versus the analysis of crime and behavioral statistics. Some people dispute Athens's work for this reason, but you argue otherwise. Why?

A: Well, I think what's so valuable about Lonnie Athens's work is that he actually talked with violent people. If you look at most of the sociological and criminological work being done -- you read, for example, that television causes violence -- they are correlational studies done on databases of various kinds. Or they are correlational studies done with laboratory experiments. In the case of the so-called visual-video-media causes of violence, correlational studies by definition don't provide causal explanations. All they provide is variations and various correlations. And I'm particularly struck by how trivial [these studies] are. What they actually look at is something they call aggression, which doesn't have anything to do with violence. We all are aggressive from time to time -- we feel more angry, feel more hostile, whatever. They looked at aggression either by asking questions of people after they've been exposed to violent media, or by looking at behavior on the playground later, none of which has anything to do with serious violence, as far as I can see.

Q: We do want quick answers, however. In the aftermath of Mark Barton's shooting rampage, a lot of attention was paid to the fact that he was a day trader, and how these big financial losses may have led him to go and kill people. But I was struck by a passage in Barton's suicide note, on why he killed his son: "The fears of the father are transferred to the son. It was from my father to me and me to my son. He already had it. And now to be left alone, I had to take him with me." That's essentially the pattern of brutalization that Athens describes, and what you're writing about here.

A: Obviously, we can at least guess that what he means by that is that his father was his brutalizer. We don't know for sure, but there's a hint in that direction.

What I was struck by were these ridiculous love notes [Barton] left on the bodies of people he had beaten to death with hammers. In the big note, he was quite clear: "I killed Leigh Ann because she was one of the main reasons for my demise." So clearly he was angry at her. And I think in the case of the two children, despite his protestations of how much he loved them and wanted to protect them, the fact is, once he killed her, they were in the way. I think one can describe their killings clearly as "frustrative," to use Athens's term. It reminded me of the case of Perry Smith in In Cold Blood, where once he killed Mr. Clutter, he really couldn't leave the rest of the family behind because they had identified him.

Q: But even if Athens's violentization theory is dead-on, it's very rare that we get a full portrait of a criminal's life, especially if the criminal commits suicide. It's going to be difficult to convince people not to look for outside answers. For example, we know very little about Eric Harris's and Dylan Klebold's childhoods. We do, however, know they both listened to Marilyn Manson records.

A: As do hundreds of thousands of other children who will grow up to be doctors and lawyers, and, God help us, politicians. Those reasons are always so glib and easy to say, and yet as soon as you look at the numbers of people who have been exposed to the same thing, you realize that it's not remotely plausible as an explanation [for violence].

My favorite example with media violence in general is the information in [Why They Kill] about medieval Europe. Medieval Europe was much more violent than today's Europe, and the only media they had then was when they went to their cathedrals on Sunday mornings. Even more dramatically, the decline in violence in Europe over the past 500 years paralleled the development of public executions. So at the very time when people were clearly being exposed to the most dramatic sort of visual presentation of violence -- people being drawn and quartered and burned at the stake and so forth -- violence was declining.

I think [film director] Rob Reiner very wisely commented on that with the Columbine killings. Movies and television from America go all over the world, but the homicide rates, the violent crime rates, are very different everywhere else.

I remember vividly as a child growing up in the 1940s that comic books, which were then quite violent, were considered to be the reason our brains were going to be damaged. Comic books were essentially emasculated in the early '50s for that reason, and obviously that didn't stop violence in young people.

Q: Not all of these cultural scapegoats are wrong-headed, though. For example, the fact that guns are so accessible clearly seems to be a factor in recent outbreaks of violence.

A: Guns are a factor. Take, for example, the kids in [the 1998 school shooting in] Arkansas. I don't think that an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old could possibly have taken out so many people had they not had access to semi-automatic rifles. What guns do is make it possible for kids in their initial violent performance -- which at their age, at their size, whatever strength they have, might well not even succeed -- it makes it possible for them to accomplish mass murders the first time out. That's something that you wouldn't even see successfully in an adult [without a gun]. So it clearly does have an influence on the scale of destructiveness of people who are approaching and trying out violence.

Q: Athens's theory also casts doubt on the use of psychiatry in explaining criminal behavior, something that is commonplace in courtroom trials today.

A: If there are so-called psychiatric reasons, we let some people off who have committed violent crimes because they are supposedly mentally ill. Psychiatry has conflated violence with mental illness, even though there's no connection between the two. They get conflated in the courtroom, and people who quite correctly should go to jail end up going to a mental hospital, and then there's the question of whether they'll be released, whether we're talking about [John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan], or whatever.

I think it's important to remember that people become violent by choice. Even though they have been brutalized, a lot of us have been brutalized. They nevertheless face decisions as a result of those experiences. There were choices. So [mental illnesses] shouldn't necessarily be invoked in the courtroom as an exculpatory reason why people shouldn't go through the legal system.

Q: You also take issue with the common perception that good people will snap and commit acts of violence. According to Athens, no one really snaps.

A: I think people who aren't violent imagine themselves snapping, or certainly recognize times when they find themselves suddenly very angry. But the real message of Athens's work is that violent people aren't any different from the rest of us in their decision-making process, in their process of interpreting situations. They get angry, they get frightened, they get frustrated, they feel hatred. But at that point, their interpretation of what to do about those feelings is that those are appropriate times to use serious violence. That's where they differ. That's so far down the road that I think people understandably would like some explanation that they can comprehend. Often people aren't even aware of how they would go about being violent. People just simply don't have any experience in that.

Q: One famous case of so-called snapping was that of boxer Mike Tyson, when he bit part of Evander Holyfield's ear off in a boxing match.

A: Tyson adds to that confusion because he's had a lot of experience with the usual psychiatric explanations of violence. The day after he bit off the top of Holyfield's ear, he was telling the media, "I snapped." But right after the fight -- I was watching the fight and watched him being interviewed [later] and wrote it down -- he was very clear about what he was doing. The guy [Holyfield] wasn't playing by the rules, so he wasn't going to play by those rules, either. He went right to street rules.

Q: You also spend an entire chapter on Lee Harvey Oswald, using Athens's theory to try to demonstrate that, despite his and other people's protests, that he was quite capable of killing President Kennedy.

A: I've never believed there was a conspiracy to shoot John Kennedy. I've believed that ever since I first followed the case, and certainly since I've looked at the records since then. But that isn't even necessary to make the point. First of all, I don't think anyone disputes -- anyone who does must have really fallen off the edge -- that it was the rifle that this man bought, that this man owned, that was found where he was in the Texas school depository, that provided at least two of the bullets that hit John Kennedy and the governor. So whatever else is true, it seems to be pretty indisputable that he was involved. Beyond that, I don't think anyone's disputed that he took a shot at General Walker. I don't think anyone has disputed that he repeatedly raped his wife, that he shot the policeman. But let's make it clear that whatever else is true about the larger issue of who was involved in John F. Kennedy's assassination, Oswald was someone who was capable of [it], based on the record of his past. That record has never been examined with violentization in mind.

Q: What was Athens's reaction when you told him you were interested in writing a book on his work? After all, this is an academic whose career, until recently, had experienced more valleys than peaks. He was used to rejection. And then you call up and say you want to tell his life's story.

A: He was shocked. And then I said, "Hey, let's get together for dinner." He and his wife and my wife and I met for dinner in the Village in New York, and he was wary. I think he really wasn't sure what it was that I wanted to do. As it turned out, for a long time afterward -- even though we got to know each other, and spent days in interviews and traveled to Richmond and all the things that went into the book -- it's really clear to me now that, for months and months, he really didn't trust [me]. He thought I was going to steal his stuff. He thought maybe I wanted to write some sort of trashy popular book. There were clues along the way that there was some confusion about that. But it wasn't really clear to me until we really hashed it out in some fairly angry discussions that he didn't trust me. Now I think he does. He's seen the book, and except for the biographical part -- of course, no one ever likes someone else's version of their life -- he's very happy that I wrote the book.

Q: What is Athens like as a person? You spend a substantial part of Why They Kill talking about the harrowing violence he experienced as a child. What was it like to get him to open up?

A: He's a very authentic human being. You can't spend more than a few hours with him without understanding that he's honest and up-front. When I went down to his home to tape the interviews [for the autobiographical part of the book], we spent two days -- eight-hour days -- [recording] it. It was obviously an immensely painful experience. How could it not be? I kept firing question after question. He had organized everything; he knew, obviously, how people do interviews, he had documents in hand, he started at the beginning and didn't deviate from the chronology, and that's very hard to do. And at the end of that time I certainly left with the very clear conviction that I made the right decision.

You know, I left my publisher -- I left Simon and Schuster -- because they weren't enthusiastic about this book. I had been with Simon and Schuster for 17 years. But I really did believe in this book. I left them and took the risk of going and finding another publisher, and did find Knopf, which I'm very happy with.

Q: Given your experiences with violence as a child [Rhodes and his brother were eventually removed from their abusive stepmother and sent to live in a private home for boys], you must have considered your own potential for violence -- moments when, if not for certain individuals, your life could have gone in a different direction.

A: I think my brother was that individual. But I would stress that once you've been through the first part of violentization, the other parts are always potentially down the road. I went through a period as a young husband, in my early 30s, when I was starting to become violent again. I was drinking, I was in a difficult marriage, and some violent behavior started to re-emerge. I realize it now; I didn't realize it at the time. My response then, because I had enough background to know what choices there were, was to start psychotherapy. And I went through eight years of it. And when that was done, those problems were solved. So it isn't just at one point in your life.

Q: How much do you think your book will advance Athens's violentization theory?

A: I just don't know. One has to hope that enough people will recognize that by finding the real causal process [for violence], Athens has also found the way to prevent it, or interrupt it. If people understand that, I think it's going to be possible to prevent school shootings, it's going to be possible to prevent a lot of violence. Obviously, that's going to be a major process. You're talking about the family, basically.

You can't say it's guns and you can't say it's television and you can't say there aren't enough good Christians in America. You really finally do have to say it's because people are goddamned beating their children in a society that has civilized itself in terms of the larger society, and has sequestered violence in state organs, such as the police and the army, that do a pretty good job of controlling [violence] in some areas of our lives. But the family is still private, and, in a sense, no one is protected. People either learn to be violent, or to not treat each other that way.

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