I first heard of criminal psychiatrist Eugene Revitch at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a course taught by Dr. Louis Schlesinger. In this age of Google searches passing as research, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the enhancement – and enchantment – of deeper learning. Schlesinger does this by collecting the papers of his mentor in a new book, Psychiatric Aspects of Criminal Behavior. He calls this a Gedenkschrift, a posthumous book that honors a respected person.
“This book has been written,” says Schlesinger, “in the hope these important works of Dr. Revitch will not be abandoned nor forgotten.”
He assures us that Revitch’s papers, published 50 years ago, are still relevant. Schlesinger had read and reread them, “always learning something new.” He met Revitch during his clinical internship, attending his staff meetings and hearing cases explained in ways that deepened his understanding and inspired his future career in forensic psychology. This mentor would also become a colleague and a friend.
How many of us wish we could make a similar gesture for those who have moved us along in our thinking, our careers, and our lives?
Dr. Revitch should be honored. He published some of the earliest empirical studies on sexual murder, explosive violence, and patients who kill their physicians. Besides these topics, he also wrote about “conjugal paranoia,” mental disorders, epileptoid violence, and sexually motivated burglary. This collection includes papers on each topic.
In 1965, for example, Revitch published the results of his study of 43 men whom he had examined himself who had sexually assaulted women. From this, he learned about “red flag” behaviors that show up during the development of gynocidal offenders. He proposed specialized diagnostic and treatment facilities for them.
He also discussed the differences between sexually motivated burglaries and those committed for material gain. The voyeuristic impulse of the sexual burglar, who became aroused from entering other people’s houses, could grow more dangerous. I can easily apply Revitch’s insights to what Dennis “BTK” Rader described in Confession of a Serial Killer about his own sexual burglaries. Revitch identified the theft of female underwear, destruction of female clothing, and torture of cats as “ominous.” All are true of Rader. He reveled in the power he felt inside a stranger’s house, and he would wear the stolen underwear during his autoerotic activities. These fantasies fueled his murder of ten people.
I learned about the notion of “catathymic crisis” in Schlesinger’s graduate course on criminal profiling. The condition emerges from an emotionally-charged idea that temporarily overwhelms a person. Revitch had much to say about its potential for violence. An influence on Revitch was Dr. Fredric Wertham, who had outlined five stages of tension and release that characterized the condition in its acute form.
Following a traumatic experience, an unsolvable internal state leads to pressure from emotional tension.
1) The person projects blame for this tension onto an external source and becomes self-protective.
2) He perceives violence as the only way out and forms a plan.
3) Extreme emotional tension culminates in a violent crisis – acted out or attempted.
4) As tension recedes, superficial normality occurs.
5) Inner equilibrium is recovered, with the development of insight.
With Schlesinger, Revitch noted that a chronic catathymic crisis might also arise from a prolonged, conflict-ridden relationship. Tension builds that will not be easily contained. It can produce a seemingly inexplicable outburst of rage or agitation, along with partial amnesia for a violent act. The tension might have incubated for many months. Post-incident, the attacker’s flat affect is difficult to explain in a typical diagnostic context. Revitch understood how important it was to study this condition on its own terms.
I can appreciate Schlesinger’s desire to keep Revitch’s work relevant and available. Mentors can make a significant difference in anyone’s life. Some have also contributed to an important field of study. Schlesinger’s collection of Revitch’s papers honors his personal and professional impact. Practitioners in the forensic field today will benefit from this acute observer's many insights.
Schlesinger, L. (2017). Psychiatric aspects of criminal behavior: Collected papers of Eugene Revitch. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.