Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

Perpetrators of Sickening Crimes Are Not Necessarily "Sick"

What seems obvious often turns out not to be true

In the aftermath of the Aurora massacre, again we find ourselves trying to make sense of what happened. In the absence of facts, there seems to be an assumption on the part of many that this horrible tragedy was perpetrated by someone who is mentally ill. Despite the fact that the alleged killer, over a period of months, systematically amassed the materials to commit this crime as well as to booby trap his apartment with explosives, many people, including some professionals, assert that to do what he did, the suspect must have been mentally ill. And this certainly could be the case. We have to wait for a lot more information, including professionals who will make their assessment.

A 17 year study (1961-1978) that I was a contributor to at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C. looked into the lives and thinking patterns of men who had committed a variety of crimes and had been declared not guilty by reason of insanity. After spending hundreds of hours interviewing some of these individuals, the late Dr. Yochelson and I found not one was mentally ill unless one tortured the definition of mental illness. Since 1978, I have continued evaluating (and, in some instances, treating) offenders. Many of their crimes are so horrifying that one’s gut instinct would be to assume that the perpetrators must have something terribly wrong with them, that they must be mentally ill.

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However, by interviewing offenders at great length and coming to understand their thinking patterns, it became evident in the overwhelming number of cases that they were anything but mentally ill.  Although they did terrible things, they were calculating and deliberate in their actions. And the crime that they were caught for was the tip of an iceberg of nearly lifelong irresponsibility and criminality.

The horrific nature of the crime is not the key. One must go beyond the crime itself to develop a detailed understanding of the mental makeup of the individual. How does he view himself? How does he deal with life’s challenges and adversities? How did he make decisions? What thoughts and schemes did he devise over time, deterring most or all until a time arose when he could strike and enact those schemes and fantasies? And so forth.

In my next blog, I will address the issue of whether people really “snap” and do something “out of character.”

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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