Twenty-three-year-old Joran van der Sloot is once again under arrest, incarcerated, and has reportedly confessed to murder. Not Natalee Holloway's murder. This time, a young Peruvian woman, Stephany Flores, was found badly beaten, possibly with either a baseball bat or tennis racket, her neck broken, covered in blood and a blanket, dead in a Lima hotel room. The similarities in the circumstances to that fateful night in Aruba are strikingly eerie and uncanny: The murder is believed to have taken place exactly five years to the day that Natalee Holloway disappeared in the wee hours of the morning after leaving a nightclub with van der Sloot.
The synchronistic fact that this atrocious killing occurred on precisely the same date, May 30th, as the Holloway incident, seems more than mere meaningless coincidence. Like the still missing and presumed dead eighteen-year-old Natalee, van der Sloot reportedly met the twenty-one-year-old Stephany at a casino at night and was seen returning to his hotel room with her around 5 AM Sunday morning. He was witnessed leaving the hotel room alone several hours later with his bags. Three days later, on Tuesday, the victim's lifeless body, fully clothed, face down, was found by hotel staff in his room. Could Joran van der Sloot be more than merely a selfish, spoiled kid who callously covered up the accidental death of an intoxicated sexual partner? Could he actually be a predatory serial killer of two young women, including Natalee Holloway? And might he have murdered more women along the way? (To hear my radio interview about these cases, click here.)
I have commented on this case in a previous post. At that time, there was no known prior history of violence attributed to van der Sloot. Holloway's body has never been recovered. No forensic evidence of homicide had, at least to my knowledge, been found. Since then, Joran confessed publicly and privately to several accidental versions of involvement in Holloway's death, but almost immediately denied the veracity of his own statements. His father, a judge in the Aruban legal system who may well have helped his son illegally cover up Natalee's death, suddenly collapsed and died while playing tennis last February. He was relatively young. Had the chronic stress of the Holloway case and his own possible illegal involvement taken its fatal toll?
Joran, while briefly re-arrested since Holloway's disappearance, has been free to travel around the globe, and was secretly videotaped recruiting young women in Thailand to work in the Netherlands as prostitutes. In addition, he is recently charged with attempting to sleezily extort 250,000 dollars from Natalee Holloway's mother in return for telling her the location of her daughter's remains and details of her death. Van der Sloot was in Lima participating in a poker tournament. He apparently fancies himself a player. There are recent reports that his alleged victim, Ms. Flores, won $5,000.00 that evening at the casino, all of which was missing from the horrific crime scene. Some sources suggest that the victim may have been slipped GHB or Rohypnol, so-called "date rape" drugs--something the Holloway family has long suspected happened to Natalee that night.
Gradually, an unmistakable, chilling and telling pattern appears to be emerging: Prostitution. Gambling. Extortion. Willfully concealing a young American woman's death. And quite conceivably, rape, robbery and multiple murder. A pervasive disregard for and violation of the rights of others. Repeated illegal activities. Deceitfulness. Skillful lying. Conning. Physical aggressiveness. Sadistic cruelty. Irresponsibility. Impulsivity. Grandiosity. Absence of empathy. Exploitation of others. Apparent total lack of remorse for having hurt, mistreated or stolen from someone. These possible symptoms and suspected evil deeds are all classic indications of sociopathy, psychopathy, dyssocial or antisocial personality disorder. Or what in cases like this might be more descriptively termed "psychopathic narcissism."
Little is known publicly about Joran's childhood and family history. He appears to have grown up in a middle to upper middle class, well-to-do family, the eldest of three sons. His father, Paulus, was a prominent lawyer. His mother, Anita, a school teacher. However, there have been unsubstantiated stories that in the year before meeting Natalee Holloway, Joran, then perhaps sixteen, pushed a classmate through a plate glass window, and was supposedly described by some who knew him as having "anger management" problems. From a forensic perspective, it would be important to learn whether the defendant did indeed have a history of physical aggression, fighting or assaults prior to the alleged crime or crimes. If Joran van der Sloot is the spoiled brat, the arrogant bully, the self-centered, manipulative, narcissistic, misogynistic murderer many make him out to be, and the killer he now admits to being, what might have made him so? Is he an embodiment of the proverbial "bad seed"? Evil incarnate? Demonic possession? Or was his presumably privileged, protected and permissive upbringing the primary root of his possible psychopathic narcissism?
Extremely negative, traumatic childhood experiences are typically part of the classic psychopath's family history. The severe childhood neglect, abandonment and abuse of Charles Manson is one obvious example. At this point, we have no way of knowing what type of psychological environment young Joran was exposed to early on, and have very limited information on the personalities and problems of his parents during that time. But we must remember, as Sigmund Freud made clear, that during the most crucial phases of personality development in childhood, profound damage or "fixation" can be done not only by getting too little love, attention, gratification of needs, but equally by receiving too much of these necessary positive influences. Children naturally need love, affection, support, attention and recognition. But they also need firm limit-setting, boundaries, appropriate and consistent consequences for bad behavior, discipline, and what developmental psychologists call "optimal frustration." Optimal frustration is how children learn to delay gratification, persevere at tasks, develop inner strength and independence, and adapt to what Freud referred to as the "reality principle."
Children must be taught by and learn from their parents or caretakers that the world does not revolve around them, and that there are some behaviors that are wrong and won't be tolerated. When a child does not receive such an education at home, he or she is ill-prepared to deal with the world at large. In such cases, we see an unchecked infantile egoism or narcissism never sufficiently socialized, and therefore, never moderated. Eventually, their bad behavior accepted at home intensifies into evil deeds, landing them in big trouble in the big world. It is quite possible that this was the situation for Joran van der Sloot. He may have come from a home where his healthy narcissistic needs were overindulged by his parents, and hence, became unmitigated and pathological. Strange as it may seem, such overindulgence, lack of discipline, and overprotectiveness on the part of sometimes sincerely well-meaning parents can be as deeply wounding and destructive as its polar opposite: neglect, abandonment, abuse, deprivation. It is in itself a traumatizing type of deprivation and abandonment in which the child's basic needs for structure, guidance, limit-setting, consequences, reality testing, supervision and parental authority are ignored, neglected and frustrated. In a sense, the child feels that the overindulgent, overpermissive parent doesn't care enough to provide the limit-setting and structure he or she needs. And the child is at first hurt by, and then angered at this parental failure and lack of responsibility. This anger, having no real outlet (how can a child be angry with such ostensibly loving, nurturing and indulgent parents?), tends to be repressed and fester, turning over time into toxic resentment, embitterment and narcissistic rage. But the psychopathic narcissist masks this rage masterfully in most situations. ( See my prior posts on "Masks of Sanity.")
A sense of "narcissistic entitlement" is characteristic of both narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder. And both share in common a distinct lack of empathy with their fellow man, being unwilling or unable to feel compassion toward, nor identify with, the emotions and needs of others. Such grossly inhumane attitudes and behaviors stem mainly from a combination of compensatory grandiosity and a schizoid-like detachment from their own feelings. The primary difference between narcissistic and antisocial personality disorder is one of degree, differentiated largely by the relative strength or weakness of what Freud called superego, as well as by the severity, type or intensity of past narcissistic wounding. The border between these two personality disorders is blurry, and sometimes indistinguishable. Psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg (1992) describes certain destructively aggressive, antisocial patients as suffering from "malignant narcissism," which is akin to what I am here calling "psychopathic narcissism."
Traditionally, classic psychopaths are described as being "cold-blooded." But how can the vicious brutality of beating a young woman to death be construed as anything but an impassioned rage killing? Why the totally excessive overkill? Joran told police that he killled Stephany in anger when she snooped into his "private life" on his laptop. Had she found incriminating evidence regarding the Holloway case? Did van der Sloot kill Stephany to silence her? Another possible explanation for such cases would be that the killer was trying to mutilate the body so as to make post mortem identification difficult or impossible, clearly a cold, deliberate calculation. "Jack the Ripper," who terrorized nineteenth century London, mutilated his victims, female prostitutes not to conceal their identity, but in part as an expression of a suspected rabid hatred of women. His (or her) identity was never finally determined, but one of the most likely suspects was reportedly an American with a well-known animus toward the feminine gender. In a fairly recent sensational New Zealand murder case (see my prior post), a university tutor allegedly stabbed his twenty-two-year-old ex-girlfriend more than two-hundred times, severely mutilating her lips, breasts and genitals. Not to deliberately disfigure the victim to allude prosecution. It was evidently all about narcissistic rage. Was van der Sloot sexually rejected by Ms. Flores? Did he fly into a violently narcissistic rage? A murderous adult temper tantrum? Or was this possibly a robbery gone horribly wrong?
As I have suggested elsewhere (see my article "Violence as Secular Evil"), repressed anger, rage, resentment and hatred are at the heart of psychopathic narcissism as well as so many other serious and dangerous mental disorders. So what might the confessed murderer Joran van der Sloot be so enraged or embittered about? What do van der Sloot's reported behaviors say about his feelings toward women? The extremely violent nature of the alleged killing of Stephany Flores suggests that this was, to some extent, a rage killing. Such vicious anger, rage and hatred toward women is typically rooted in tremendous unconscious hostility toward the mother, and a devaluation of the feminine in general. For psychopathic narcissists, it may also have to do with women being more vulnerable to victimizing with their sadistic, cruel, hostile impulses, much as animals, insects or younger children tend to play this victim role for severely troubled adolescents diagnosed with Conduct Disorder-- often a prelude to adult psychopathy. Indeed, in the case of a defendant like Joran van der Sloot, it would not be surprising to find during forensic evaluation that, as a boy or teenager, he at some point manifested many if not all of the symptoms of Conduct Disorder.
Ultimately, I believe that van der Sloot's prosecution and incarceration in Peru will lead to a resolution of the Natalee Holloway case. Given his past proclivity to make various confessions regarding that case and then recant them, his confession to Peruvian police remains suspect. While, as a forensic psychologist, I cannot diagnose this (or any) defendant without first evaluating him, nor presume guilt, the question comes down to this: Is Joran van der Sloot, as his defense attorneys will likely argue, simply the unluckiest young man in the world, finding himself once again innocently in the wrong place at the wrong time? With a dead girl's body in his hotel room? On the fifth anniversary of Natalee Holloway's probable death in his presence? And then bullied by police into falsely confessing to this despicable evil deed? If so, perhaps poker isn't really his game.