A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Every Mass Murderer Was Once A Baby: How Infancy Matters

A psychoanalyst reflects on the recent tragedy in Connecticut

As I am writing this I am deeply saddened by the senseless, tragic mass murder of children and adults at an elementary school today in Connecticut. All I know about this event is that more than twenty children and adults were killed. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza apparently first killed his mother at home and then went to the school where she had been a teacher, killing children, teachers, and the principal.

I have already heard several interviews from experts in various fields related to an event like this with helpful ideas about the incidence of such events, recent behaviors prior to the event, and various personality and behavioral profiles of such individuals. All of these experts have something to offer that takes us a step closer to making sense of such seemingly senseless acts of monstrosity.

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What we all wish for, when something so emotionally distressing occurs, is a way of making sense of it, putting it in some perspective with what we already know, and ideally with some means of controlling it through prediction in the future. All of this aims to remove the random, unpredictability of such events that leaves us all feeling insecure with regard to the inevitable question: Could it happen to us?

As a practicing child, family, and adult psychoanalyst, I have had an interest in such issues for more than three and a half decades. For a number of years I consulted to Los Angeles County Central Juvenile Hall, evaluating just shy of 900 juveniles for the court. My job was to predict their future risk to society and advise a judge or court commissioner on the most constructive disposition of the teenager. I was forever looking for predictive clues that would become useful in general for the anticipation of future criminal behavior, including violence and murder. Except for school truancy, I never found any correlation between childhood history and later behavior that was predictive because it existed in many children who never acted out in any serious manner. To me, the truancy was simply a general sign that seemed to suggest that the child was “turning away” from the family, goodness, the truth, and learning.

Since those early years of my mental health practice, I have had decades of opportunity to explore at great depth the psyches of a number of individuals. I have heard their depiction of their nighttime modes of thought as manifested in their dreams and witnessed many violent acts, including murders, in the dreams of individuals who have never and would never think of or come close to actually performing violent acts in their awake states of mind.

So if violent phantasies are part of the human condition, how are we to discriminate between imagining such an act and being at risk to literally perform one? This is the crux of the problem. We could create a number of psychological profiles of people who perform such acts and they would fit and encompass most of the personalities of individuals who perpetrate such heinous acts. The difficulty is that the profile would also fit thousands of individuals who would never come close to performing such acts.

I am not suggesting that in the near term, say a few weeks or months before performing such an act, that these individuals aren’t exhibiting behaviors that foreshadow the act. I would suspect that the vast majority of people in distress who ultimately perform violent criminal acts do display signs foreshadowing their future actions. If there were experts around witnessing the signs they would no doubt sound an alarm. I have personally been involved after the fact of such behaviors where I felt the individual was crying out for help in their own indirect manner, but no one could or wanted to think of such extreme possibilities as murder or suicide. And on the other hand, countless situations of this sort are responded to by concerned individuals and are nipped in the bud.

The question is can we take our understanding to a deeper level? To do this I would like to go to the point of this post by commenting on the “baby core of the personality” and its relationship to violent behavior. This is the point at which the use of common sense will no longer be enough to follow what I would like to propose. We now have to go to the realm of earliest brain development, earliest life experiences, and how they are recorded in the brain and affect the development of the personality.

We have all witnessed children or adults that give off a certain “vibe” that makes us feel that somehow they experience the world in a different manner than we think of as most common. There is often nothing obvious in their history to explain this difference, that is to say they were not mistreated, deprived, etc. Yet it as if they are “wired” a little differently.

I do not mean to suggest that anyone who seems different is going to do anything bad. What I do mean to suggest is that these rather global qualities or characteristics are a manifestation of how their brains developed and what sorts of experiences were stored as they developed in earliest life. The fact that we ordinarily can remember little before the age of three adds to the puzzling fact that earliest life is stored and becomes both the neurological and emotional basis for how we see and experience the world during our later development in childhood and beyond.

So as we look for explanations of extreme behavior, we have to delve deeper into the individual’s life than is commonly done. In fact, I have never seen anyone who is not psychoanalytically trained ever go to what I think is at the foundation of criminally disturbed, violent behavior, the infancy of the individual. For the sake of brevity, I would like to suggest some ideas that are worth pursuing if one wishes to get to the root of such behaviors although I do not have the time or space to flesh them out more in this setting.

1 -  Independent of whether the individual fits into a DSM category of disturbance, I find it useful to think of criminal behavior as a manifestation of a primitive emotional disturbance.

2 – Generally speaking, the criminal behavior is not a function of a “lack of conscience” or a “lack of morals” but rather is the externalization of that individual’s “primitive internal relationships between parts of self and various versions of mom or dad”. The actual criminal behavior is often suggestive of those internal relationships.

3 - The degree of violence in the criminal behavior is usually a function of violence experienced from the parents (i.e. caregivers) and/or an infancy that was experienced as violent. This latter idea really takes us to the crux of the issue.

The problem in any discussion of horrendous acts of violence is the fact that there may be no obvious explanation. No violent parents, no overt mistreatment of the perpetrator growing up, nothing that suggests violence in the environment. Yet it is possible for the inner world of such individuals to contain extreme violence because of how that individual experienced their earliest period of life, even inside the womb, as a violent attack and that violence becomes part of the universe they inhabit on a daily basis. I have had several individuals in analysis who had very difficult gestations before birth, including physically ill mothers or problematic fetal environments, who came out screaming at birth and stayed screaming for many months.

It is quite possible for such an infant to literally feel it is being torn limb from limb even though no one is actually doing anything of the sort to it. The serial killer of some decades ago, Ted Bundy, had just such an infancy, and later externalized how he experienced his infancy by doing exactly that to his victims, i.e. tearing them limb from limb.

I realize these ideas will be difficult for some to imagine being credible, but I wish to point those who may have an interest in exploring them further in the direction of thinking about the baby core of the personality when inexplicably monstrous acts are performed by someone in the future. We cannot predict such acts in the long run, but we can make more sense of them, after the fact, if we add the variable of looking to the individual’s very early history.

Copyright 2012 Chris L. Minnick, M.D.

Visit Dr. Minnick's website at www.minnickskleinacademy.com

Note from Dr. Jennifer Kunst, host of A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy:  It is my pleasure to have Dr. Minnick as a guest on my blog.  A mentor and colleague, Dr. Minnick is a training and supervising analyst at the Psychoanalyic Center of California and the New Center of Pyschoanalysis.  He has a busy private practice in Pasadena, CA where he treats adults, children, couples, and families.

Dr. Minnick is in the process of creating an education website for those individuals interested in models for thinking about and understanding the baby core of the personality. One lecture soon to be on his website was one taught a few years ago and is entitled “Criminal Behavior and the Baby Core of the Personality”. Dr. Minnick’s website can be found at www.minnickskleinacademy.com.

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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