Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

Are We All Susceptible to Crimes of Passion?

Does murder lurk in every heart?

The August 3, 2014 edition of The Washington Post contains in its arts section an article about “murderous muses” depicted by choreographers.  Agnes de Mille in the ballet of “Fall River Legend” relates the story of Lizzy Borden, a quiet, unmarried daughter who in 1892 murdered her parents. Sarah Kaufman, the author of the article, writes, “De Mille capitalized on what draws us to crimes of passion, the poignancy and surprise of them. There but for the grace of not having a murderous weapon handy go the rest of us.” Kaufman writes, “Murderous rage can so easily, so unexpectedly, erupt from an ordinary heart.”

The idea in the Post article is that, given the proper circumstances and a weapon at hand, any of us is capable of committing a so-called “crime of passion.”  From time to time, we learn about  the unassuming, well-reputed individual who suddenly grabs a kitchen knife and slaughters his spouse.  Or the husband who discovers his adulterous spouse in bed with her paramour and shoots both.

The “crime of passion” is a misconception. Of course, crimes occur that are not premeditated or planned in advance.  And yes, it would be understandable to become enraged upon discovering that one’s spouse had been unfaithful.  However, most people do not react to frustration, betrayal, disappointment, and powerful threats to their self-image by committing murder.  The person who commits a “crime of passion” has at least in his thinking resorted to extreme measures in response to other disturbing, threatening situations.

Consider Toby whom I evaluated for a court-related matter.  Toby brought financial papers to his ex-wife’s home for her to sign.  He took offense when she started to question him. They quarreled, and he followed her into the kitchen, whereupon Toby snatched a carving knife and stabbed her repeatedly.  This appeared to fit the definition of a “crime of passion.”  When his ex-wife admitted Toby into her home, he had not the slightest intention of inflicting any bodily harm on her.  All he wanted was for the forms to be signed.  Before they separated, this couple’s marriage had been fraught with conflict. Verbal arguments had escalated into yelling, cursing, hurling objects, then turned physical with the couple pushing and shoving each other.  On one occasion, Toby was so enraged that he entered his wife’s closet and slashed her clothing.  Both before and after the marital separation, he had many times fantasized killing her. On the day that he actually murdered her, he was already “programmed” to kill and proceeded to enact that which he had fantasized repeatedly over a long period of time.

Further evaluation of Toby showed that he was an irascible, uncompromising person who had difficulties at work and with other family members.  His preferred way of dealing with adversity was not to work to surmount it or work to overcome it.  Rather he sought to control other people and, in his mind, he destroyed the source of adversity. 

We may become frustrated and angry when we think we have been mistreated or betrayed. But we react to disappointment, frustration, and betrayal in a manner commensurate with our character.  Thousands of people experience serious problems in relationships that tax their patience, their pocketbooks, and their psychological resources.  But they do not react by annihilating the source of their difficulties.  Killing the person whom they perceive as the source of their problem is not in character. And so they address their predicaments in other ways!

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

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