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Anger, Rage and Pathological Embitterment: What Motivates Mass Murders?

What motivated the two recent California massacres?

As a former forensic psychologist for the Criminal Divisions of both the Santa Clara County (in Northern California) and Los Angeles County Superior Courts, I evaluated many violent offenders over the past fifteen years. While there is no single "profile" or explanation for every case, for me, the one underlying force influencing most violent behavior is pathological anger, rage, resentment and embitterment. (See my prior post on Post-traumatic Embitterment Disorder.) By "pathological," I mean excessive, destructive, debilitating and abnormal. But how does anger, an emotion we all share and deal with fairly regularly, particularly during these tough economic times, transform from normal and appropriate to dangerously pathological in these perpetrators? My short answer is "anger mismanagement." (See my prior post.) Let's more closely examine the two tragic California cases in as many weeks to see exactly how this happens.

The Cupertino shootings last week (in the San Francisco Bay Area) were reportedly perpetrated by

My clinical experience tells me that violent offenders in general--with the possible exception of those who commit impulsive and unpremeditated "crimes of passion" or suffer from some sudden medical crisis or neurological impairment—don't just "snap." They slowly and insidiously "bend," "stew," "simmer," and "boil" before breaking, snapping, boiling over, erupting or exploding. (See my prior post on such metaphors for anger.) And though they may have been very proficient at hiding their frustration, their rage, their resentment, their embitterment from others, and sometimes even themselves, the proverbial writing was on the wall. It's really a matter of being able and ready to read the signs by reviewing the perpetrator's behavioral and psychiatric history in sufficient depth to disclose the details. This is part of what takes place during a thorough forensic evaluation.

Of course, not everyone who goes through a divorce and child custody proceedings goes ballistic, becoming a mass murderer. But some do. Divorce, especially when it involves disputed child custody, is a very volatile, stressful process. And it can induce dangerous states of mind. (See my prior post and Joel Schumacher's cinematic depiction of this slow and dangerous descent into madness in his 1992 film, Falling Down.) In 2008, here in suburban Los Angeles, in a bizarre case reminiscent of this one, Bruce Pardo, a 45-year-old recently divorced engineer, an usher at his church, upstanding citizen and reported "nice guy," donned a Santa Claus suit on Christmas Eve and brutally shot and burned to death nine people, including his ex-wife and her family, before committing suicide. (See my prior post.) Whatever mental health issues Dekraai may have had before, perhaps partly related to his military service, it would appear that the divorce and "bitter" custody battle likely pushed him over the edge.

Embitterment builds over time, turning toxic and pathological, and frequently manifests in fantasies, sometimes intrusive, obsessive and unwanted fantasies, of exacting revenge on those perceived to be to blame for one's problems. When the anger, rage, resentment and embitterment grow wild, unchecked or ignored, vengeful, murderous fantasies turn into reality. It is highly likely, and indicated by the premeditation present in both of these sad cases, that such fantasies and murderous impulses preceded their heinous enactment. There is almost always some "final straw," some perceived blow not necessarily apparent to others, that sets the mass murderer off. Some spark that ignites the powder keg. In the case of Mr. Dekraai, the course of the custody battle not going in his favor could have been the catalyst. But only because the embitterment and fury had festered for so long.

This dangerous state of mind may be partially likened to what is traditionally known in Malaysia as "running amok." During the incubatory stage of this amok syndrome, as described in the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-IV-TR, the perpetrator, almost always male, goes through a "period of brooding followed by an outburst of violent, aggressive or homicidal behavior." In some, but not most cases of mass murder, as with the amok syndrome, the violence can signal the presence of psychosis, and is typically followed by a return to "normalcy" and full or partial amnesia for the event. Significantly, the amok syndrome "tends to be precipitated by a perceived slight or insult." This is really the key to understanding what motivates such evil deeds. The perpetrator has been somehow hurt, psychologically wounded, figuratively castrated, insulted, disrespected, rejected, traumatized, humiliated or defeated in some way, and seeks, at least unconsciously, revenge and retaliation. This primitive "talionic response" is fueled by festering rage, anger, resentment and bitterness, which, when denied, dissociated, repressed or chronically masked, becomes pathological and potentially destructive. (Pre-existing pathological narcissism or what I have referred to as "psychopathic narcissism" certainly makes one more susceptible, though we all suffer from some narcissistic vulnerability.) It is a narcissistic need to win at all costs. To right a perceived wrong. To exert what little control, dignity, freedom and power one feels one has left by lashing out at others or the world. And, in some cases, such as the numerous school shootings in recent decades or the recent cases of Anders Breivik in Norway (see my prior post) or Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona (see my prior post), it is motivated by what I call a "wicked rage for recognition." (See my prior post.) However, whereas Loughner, Ted "Unambomber" Kaczynski (see my prior post), possibly Breivik and many other violent offenders who "run amok" are subsequently diagnosed with Schizophrenia, Dissociative Disorder, Bipolar Disorder or some severe personality disorder, most are not psychotic, and certainly do not meet the criteria for legal insanity. They are mad, angry, resentful, embittered. But not necessarily mentally ill. Or, maybe more accurately, it is their raging pathological embitterment, their underlying anger disorder (see my prior post) that makes them mentally "ill" and motivates their violent behavior, rather than vice-versa.

The bottom line is this: The violence epidemic (and there surely is one today, despite what evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker naively says in his newest book) is really a rage epidemic. It is a new and pernicious form of violence arising in part from a postmodern loss of meaning, power, significance and conscious relationship with the daimonic. We frail humans are prone to feeling hurt. And when we feel hurt, we are prone to feeling angry. If we deny this anger, dismiss it, deem it merely destructive, uncivilized and therefore, evil, fail to embrace and provide it some positive outlet, it will eventually become exactly that. But if we acknowledge it, recognize it, find ways to constructively express it, anger, rather than becoming toxic or pathological rage, resentment or embitterment, can be empowering and positive. When individuals cannot manage their anger constructively, when it begins turning into pathological embitterment, depression, irritability, temper tantrums or manic rage, professional help is required. Medication may sometimes be needed. But pharmacotherapy that serves only to suppress the anger is counterproductive and can compound the problem. Psychotherapy is absolutely essential in such cases. In psychotherapy, the anger must be talked about openly, confronted, accepted, understood and verbally expressed. Not just drugged or rationalized away. Had the recent California killers sought and received the right kind of therapeutic treatment for their anger, had the warning signs been heeded, had the appropriate treatment been found, these terrible tragedies might not have happened. It is never futile to try to make sense of such incidents. Far from it. We, as psycholgists and citizens, have a responsibility to do so, to learn to better understand and stem these convulsions of violence (which also include hateful terrorist acts) as much as possible.The consequences, for all of us, of failing to do so are catastrophic.