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Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D.
Mary Ellen O'Toole Ph.D.

Words Matter and Labels Make a Difference

Understanding violent criminal behaviors

Words matter and labels make a difference! Many members of the media, mental heath, law enforcement and the general public are using the terms "monster" and "evil" when describing offenders accused of extremely egregious crimes like Ariel Castro, who recently plead guilty in a Cleveland Ohio court room to charges stemming from his kidnapping three young women, sexually assaulting and torturing them and imprisoning them in his home for nearly a decade. Without a doubt this is a horrible crime and Castro’s actions are cruel and unconscionable.

But should we refer to these offenders as monsters or evil? How do these descriptors help us to better understand these types of offenders and their behavior? Or, do these labels mislead us and contribute to the confusion about how and why these crimes occur?

In my FBI experience with extreme crimes of violence, I have seen a wide range of professionals use terms like monsters and evil to describe offenders. And when we continue to do this I would suggest this type of characterization significantly impacts our ability to understand these people and the quality and nature of their crimes.

But lets go back for a moment. What can we even say about monster offenders? How many of us recall from our Psychology 101 class, the early onset symptoms or behaviors for a monster? What version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) first explained this diagnoses? For all you lawyers out there, what did your law books teach you about the rules of evidence for a case where the defendant was a monster or evil? And if a monster is convicted and sentenced to prison, where is he housed? Is he assigned to the Monster Unit? One would think a monster could not be assigned to general housing because by definition a monster is something so dangerous and ferocious even animal like – they must be segregated from humans. Do you see how far these baseless characterizations can take us and how it can impact out thinking and attitudes?

Using the term "monster" throws us back to the 14th and 15th century when mythological creatures like werewolves and vampires were blamed for violent crimes. We've come a long way since then and we know so much more about criminal behavior. Similarly, "Evil" has no legal or behavioral meaning. It is both a moral and spiritual term and can imply the offender might even be possessed by demons. But regardless, terms like monster and evil, suggest the offender is not responsible for his crimes because his behavior is the result of supernatural, mystical, or paranormal factors beyond their control. Really? Is this the best we can do in 2013 to understand violent offenders and their crimes? I don’t think so.

Offenders who kidnap, torture and sexually assault women and imprison them for nearly a decade have serious personality and sexual issues and they did not just snap one day and decide to do this. Understanding how this behavior evolves and the motives for these kinds of extreme behavior will help all of us to better understand the crime and the offender, particularly when they live right next to us and we failed to recognize it.

Thinking of Castro as evil or a monster may make us feel better, but it does nothing to further our understanding of what happened, how to recognize the behavioral red flags ahead of time and even how to prevent this type of crime in the future.

As a forensic scientist, I believe we should be considering terms like psychopath and criminal sexual sadist in the Ariel Castro case and other cases like it. I have worked these cases in the past and I know this behavior.

Psychopathy is a devastating personality disorder hallmarked by a callous lack of empathy and a disregard for others. Psychopaths are referred to as people without a conscience and a psychopath experiences little if any guilt for his behavior or the damage he has caused to others. The world is all about him. Psychopaths are glib and charming individuals who can easily blend into their neighborhoods, and present a façade of being a good guy and a good neighbor. They are grandiose and in their world it is all about them. They know right from wrong, and understand about rules. But rules don’t apply to them; they never have and never will.

Criminal sexual sadism is an extreme paraphilic behavior. The criminal sexual sadist engages in extreme and brutal behaviors against his victims for his own sexual gratification, no matter what toll it takes on the victim. But criminal sexual sadism is more than just torturing the victim. This fine point is extremely important. A criminal sexual sadist is sexually aroused by the victim’s response to his infliction of physical, emotional or psychological pain. He does it for her response: the fear in her eyes, her cries, and pleas for help. Criminal sexual sadists will keep their victims, against their will, as sex slaves for days, weeks, months even years. Collateral behaviors seen in similar cases include the use of bondage, constraints and a wide range of items of torture. The criminal sexual sadist will also likely record his behavior (audio or visual) for future use. This is horrible behavior committed by human beings who live among us, can act quite normal and look just like us. Now that is what is frightening.

These kinds of individuals do not wake up one morning and become this way. It is an evolutionary process. Paraphilic behaviors like sexual sadism begin to manifest at an early age. It is largely thought to begin as learned behavior. The development of a psychopathic personality, is a result of both nature and nurture, and also can begin to manifest at an early age. It is the perfect storm - the paring of extreme, deviant behavior becomes eroticized in an individual whose personality is hallmarked by a callous lack of empathy for others and a lack of guilt for his behavior.

This sexually deviant, and psychopathic behavior did not just snap into place at age 30 or 40. Nor is it the result of some single precipitating stressor in the man’s life. It begins to surface as early as the adolescent years, if not before. Red flags would include indicators of serious behavioral, emotional and sexual problems that becomes a lifetime pattern. The key is to correctly identify these issues early on in an individual’s life when intervention might be possible.

Crimes like those that occurred in Ohio are not the result of supernatural, or satanic forces committed by mystical, demonic figures. We really have come a long way in understanding criminal behavior, and with this knowledge comes our ability to educate parents, teachers and others about it. If we allow ourselves to default back to 14th century concepts, we are helpless to understand this behavior and worse, to do anything about it.

So, please, lets get the terminology correct. Knowledge is power and a good start is to avoid describing this kind of behavior in ways that cause us to feel helpless and powerless over it. It’s important to understand there are factors that contributed to someone becoming so violent and those factors started brewing and coming together very early in that person’s life. Understanding this as a process will help us understand and recognize the etiology and causal factors, the early warning signs, and the evolution of the behavior. With power comes change and with knowledge we no longer have to be fearful of the evil monster that lurks in the shadow of our own ignorance.

Words matter and labels make a difference.

This is the opinion of Dr Mary Ellen O’Toole and does not represent the views of the FBI

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About the Author
Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D.

Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D. was one of the FBI's senior profilers at the Behavioral Analysis Unit and is the author of Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us.