Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill John Fitzgerald Kennedy?

What motivated Oswald to assassinate JFK?

Posted Nov 21, 2013 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan

At the time of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963, I was not quite 13 years old. Like other American families, we watched this nightmare and its bizarre aftermath unfold live on our little black-and-white televisions.

JFK's alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was, at 24, less than 12 years my senior. His relative youth is something many of us forget since he appears significantly older in the grainy films and photos taken at that time.

Considering the controversy still swirling around this sad case, especially as we approach the 50th anniversary of that terrible day this Friday, November 22nd, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer, albeit purely speculative, look in hindsight at Oswald from the perspective of forensic psychology, to see whether this might shed a little more light on his possible motivations to commit this horrific, high-profile crime. Maybe the most infamous and shocking crime of the century.

Were Lee Harvey Oswald's psychological makeup and motives so very different than those of the youthful perpetrators of other high-profile, public killings proliferating today? (See my prior posts.) Or do all the conspiracy theories surviving the Warren Commission's findings and Oswald's cold war communistic political leanings make him a more exotic and unusual case study?

What do we now know about Oswald's life prior to evidently shooting the President, not with a new high-powered automatic assault rifle of the sort so popular among mass murderers today, but rather with a used, single-shot Italian, bolt-action carbine he purchased through the mail for about $12.00?

To begin with, Oswald's biological father died two months before Lee was born, leaving his destitute mother to support him and his two older brothers. Because she had to work constantly in order to do this, his mother would frequently neglect and leave Lee with various babysitters, some of whom reportedly physically abused him during his first few years.

At one point, unable to continue taking care of him, Lee was sent off to a boarding school, but then retrieved by his mother after a while. He felt rejected and unwanted by her. According to one older brother, when home, little Lee always slept in his mother's bed and continued to do so right through the age of 10 or 11.

His IQ was evidently in the bright range but he had difficulty with school, frequently cutting classes. When his mother relocated for a time to New York City (the Bronx) with Lee in tow, Oswald's early adolescent delinquent behavior resulted in his being sent to a juvenile reformatory for truancy and undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, which found the seventh-grader to have a "vivid fantasy life, turning around the topics of omnipotence and power, through which [he] tries to compensate for his present shortcomings and frustrations," citing both "schizoid features" and "passive-aggressive tendencies." (See the original evaluation here.)

Treatment was recommended, but apparently never received, and there reportedly were some legal steps taken to potentially remove Lee from his mother's neglectful custody, though this too never materialized.

Before moving from New York back to New Orleans, Oswald allegedly hit his mother (as he had numerous times before) and pulled a knife on his sister-in-law during an argument, suggesting some serious impulse control issues, especially around anger, and symptoms of what we today might diagnose as Oppositional Defiant Disorder or the even more severe Conduct Disorder.

By the time Lee Harvey Oswald was 17, he had lived in more than 20 different cities and attended a dozen different schools. His life with his self-absorbed mother provided little stability, structure, or support. Not surprisingly, Lee, likely looking for more structure and initiation into manhood, left home soon after turning 17 to join the U.S. Marine Corps.

He was trained as a sharpshooter, but somehow "accidentally" shot himself, and was subsequently twice court-martialed, spending some time in the brig for hostile insubordination toward a superior officer, illegal possession of a non-regulation firearm, and recklessly firing a rifle into a Philippine jungle for no good reason.

Still floundering for some direction, a rebel looking for a cause, Oswald read incessantly, seizing upon Marxism, communism, and the pro-Castro movement to provide some sense of meaning, purpose, and community to his seemingly insignificant existence. After voluntarily leaving the service, Oswald, disillusioned with his life here in the United States, decided to defect to the Soviet Union, where he fantasized he would be welcomed as a hero with open arms. But instead, they promptly rejected him, telling the stunned American to go home.

Lee slashed his wrist superficially and was psychiatrically hospitalized in Moscow for a week. The Russians then decided to let him stay, under extremely close scrutiny, which he did for about three years, working and marrying a young Russian woman, Marina. Bored and disappointed with the reality of life in the Soviet Union, Oswald returned to the States, ending up back in Fort Worth in 1962, just one year prior to the assassination of the President.

He had difficulties holding down a job. It is believed that in early 1963, Oswald made an attempt on the life of American Major General E. Walker (ret.) with the same rifle later used to shoot President Kennedy. He missed his target on that first occasion, but, tragically, not the second time.

Though he married Marina and had two children with her, Oswald was reportedly always an extremely introverted, temperamental, and troubled person, who preferred his own company to that of friends or family. This, to me, is one of the most important pieces of information available to us, since so many of the other young men who violently perpetrated high-profile killings during the past five decades since the JFK assassination were also described as being withdrawn, reserved, socially awkward, alienated and depressed. Excessive introversion can be as dangerous as excessive extraversion and is often symptomatic of clinical depression, psychosis, substance abuse or mania. (See my prior post on Jared Lee Loughner and the dangers of extreme introversion.)

As I have previously suggested, there tend to be two primary motivations for young men like James Holmes (24), Jared Lee Loughner (22), Dylan Klebold (17) and Eric Harris (18), Seung- Hui Cho (23), Adam Lanza (20), and others: a violently murderous pent-up anger combined with a "wicked rage for recognition." (See my prior post.) Mental illness (e.g., psychosis) may be present in some cases, but that is typically more the symptomatic psychological and behavioral manifestation of the conflicting feelings and confusion that underlie and drive these two motivations than the root reason for committing their evil deeds.

In this regard, it seems Lee Harvey Oswald--who was charged with killing two people that day, the second being a police officer, and seriously wounding Texas Governor John Connally--shared with our more contemporary high-profile multiple shooters several key characteristics: He was apparently an impulsive, frustrated, confused, angry young man with a feeling of hostility toward authority in general, and the U.S. government in particular. This kind of psychological projection of malicious power, evil intent, and personal persecution onto the government, CIA, FBI, IRS, is commonly seen in paranoid patients, whether suffering from schizophrenia, major depressive disorder with psychotic features, delusional disorder, or paranoid personality disorder.

It is interesting to note that, after returning from Russia to the U.S., Oswald reportedly claimed that he had gone there on behalf of the CIA and was secretly working for them. We do not know whether this had any basis in fact. But if this was not true, then we must wonder whether he was merely lying to his friends to impress them, or if he himself fully believed that to be so. Either way, it begs the question: Was Oswald delusional?

Lee Harvey Oswald was evidently a deeply dissatisfied and unhappy individual, an antisocial "loner" who tended to entertain grandiose and possibly paranoid fantasies of brilliance, success, and power which he was unable to constructively realize in life. It has been reported that, initially, Oswald, like most Americans, admired JFK, and may have even read his book Profiles in Courage. Kennedy could have symbolized for Oswald a positive father figure or male role model he never had. Someone to look up to and emulate.

But when President Kennedy imposed the embargo against Cuba and faced down Nikita Kruschev during the Cuban missile crisis, he may have become, in Oswald's disturbed mind, a demonic figure to be despised and exterminated due to his anti-Cuban and anti-Soviet stance. This sort of idealization and demonization, coupled with the fantasy of becoming famous, popular or powerful by killing someone famous, can be seen in many other cases, including, for example, the murder in Manhattan of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman, then 25, in 1980. Assassin Sirhan Sirhan, also 24, who gunned down Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the President's brother, in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, told his captors that in the brief few seconds it took to pull the trigger, he attained the fame RFK had worked for his whole life.

Oswald may have defected to "mother Russia" because he hated "Uncle Sam," a stand-in not only for male authority, which he lacked, and for a system in which he had not succeeded, but for his deceased father whom he had never met, and by whom he probably felt abandoned. Like Charles Manson, Lee never really had a father or father-figure around, likely resented that fact, and felt inferior to other boys because of it. He may have experienced a powerful need to prove his manhood and masculinity, to demonstrate that he was not just his mother's son, a "momma's boy." To do something "big," something "great" that would capture the attention of the entire world.

Despite his introversion, Oswald had always sought attention; either positive attention from young women in Russia or indirectly in his acting out behavior, which is an unconscious way of seeking at least negative attention — attention never received from a father or mother.

Whether he indeed committed this crime and acted alone or in concert with others may never be known. However, given his introverted personality, impulsivity, grandiosity, arrogance, isolation, and poor social skills, coupled with the highly incriminating circumstantial evidence, I tend to doubt that Oswald was part of some grand conspiracy, though he could have easily created such a scenario in his own troubled mind, as hinted at when referring to himself as "a patsy" following his arrest.

But Lee Harvey Oswald certainly became the center of national and international attention for the two days he was detained in a Dallas jail before being shot to death by Jack Ruby right in front of police, reporters, and millions of stunned television viewers.

Based on his reported behavior, some of the early signs of sociopathy seem to have been present in Oswald, along with narcissistic traits, as evidenced by grandiosity, inflation, and his reportedly rude, egocentric, and arrogant attitude toward others, including his wife, whom he allegedly physically and emotionally abused on more than one occasion. This is a syndrome I have previously referred to as "psychopathic narcissism." (See my prior posts.)

So, not only was Lee Harvey Oswald likely a very insecure, anxious, angry young man with a somewhat paranoid, perhaps even delusional, fantasy life, but he harbored also what I have called "a wicked rage for recognition." (See my prior post.) This is what most of the young men who commit such very public crimes seek: facile infamy. Some form of immortality. Compensation for feelings of unimportance, inferiority, anonymity, unlovability, unworthiness, badness, failure, or inadequacy. A way to give their lives some sense of meaning and purpose. To win admiration.

When this innate need, what Viktor Frankl called our "will to meaning" is frustrated or unfulfilled, it can express itself negatively and destructively. In Oswald's mind, he may have been convinced he was doing the world a favor by taking such bold and courageous action against Kennedy for the good of the country — not unlike the delusional beliefs of Anders Breivik in Norway. (See my prior post.)

But in reality, these are depraved, egotistical, and cowardly crimes. Such embittered individuals, unable or unwilling to distinguish themselves constructively in life, turn in frustration and fury toward destructive, evil deeds to both angrily lash out at society and life for treating them unfairly, while simultaneously trying to gain the public recognition and attention they desperately crave and feel they deserve.