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The Path to Payback

Murder, Revenge, and a Spree Killer Sends a Deadly Message

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

Dwight Lamon Jones has been linked to the recent killings of six people in Arizona, all of whom were reportedly connected to his highly contentious 2011 divorce. Among the dead are a forensic psychologist who testified against him, two paralegals who worked for his ex-wife’s attorney, and a mental health counselor who worked in the same complex as the mental health professional his son was court-ordered to see post-custody dispute. The two other victims have so far not been identified. Mr. Jones died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound during a police standoff.

While there is a lot of investigating left to do, the motive so far appears to be revenge. However, like so many other revenge-motivated murders, some of what happened doesn’t make a lot of logical sense. If his divorce happened in 2011 (although there were child support payment and custody issues for several years afterward), why did he wait so long to act? Why didn’t he kill his ex-wife?

Why kill innocent people? The murdered psychiatrist appeared to be the only one directly involved in his divorce. The two paralegals, for example, worked for his wife’s divorce attorney so we can assume she was the target. But, when it was clear she was not in the office, why kill two people who may have had no involvement in the Jones divorce proceeding and, even if they did, certainly did not play a pivotal role. And, the murdered mental health professional only “crime” appeared to be that he had an office in the same building as the psychiatrist who saw Jones’ son. Let’s take a look at the psychology of revenge and see if we can find some answers.

From Victim to Perpetrator

Vengeful people were once victims. Sometimes they were a victim of circumstances – bullying, abuse, neglect – and sometimes of their own psyches. Oftentimes, it’s both.

Revenge is an action provoked by a real or perceived wrong. Few of us would argue that an unfaithful spouse hasn’t wronged her partner; few of us would agree that a spouse who leaves an abusive relationship has. However, it’s not objective reality that necessarily determines who feels like a victim; it’s our personal perspective. However, the wrong, no matter how egregious, is not enough for most people to cross the line between fantasies of payback to plans and action. For that, it takes a specific set of personality traits, perception of available options, and travel down a specific path.

The Payback-Prone Personality

According to court records, Dr. Steven Pitt testified during the divorce proceedings that Jones had “anxiety and mood disorders and features of a paranoid personality.” Going through a contentious divorce is extremely stressful and, as such, it’s often hard to know how much a person’s behavior is influenced by the adversarial situation and how much reflects his/her characteristic way of being. However, if Dr. Pitt’s findings were true, he would have a proclivity for revenge.

Individuals with paranoid personality traits tend to be fearful and distrustful; they expect the worst from others and, as a result, can easily misinterpret innocent or well-meaning gestures as intentional slights or evidence of betrayal. They take offence quickly, take failure and rejection personally, and protect themselves from feeling hurt and pain by blaming others for the bad things that happen to them.

There are other personality traits that set the stage for revenge. One study that set out to study the link between forgiveness and vengefulness found that being unforgiving per se didn’t predict vengefulness unless the person was also high in narcissism. As the researchers wrote: “Both the narcissist’s inflated social confidence and the narcissist’s sense of entitlement could produce a desire to retaliate against wrong-doers and could reduce constraints on acting on this desire.” The theory goes that underneath narcissism is a lot of buried shame and self-doubt; the need to keep those feelings underground leads to an aggressive, entitled, interpersonal stance that strikes back hard at any hint of a personal affront or attack.

A third commonality among revenge seekers is not so much due to a personality trait as it is to a skills deficit. Revenge is mostly about “acting out” (typically through violence) markedly negative emotions, particularly anger. Individuals who seek revenge through violence have anger that won’t go away and which they can’t control.

When faced with rejection or disappointment, many individuals initially experience intrusive and unwanted feelings and thoughts about what has happened; they stew over it, can’t sleep over it, can’t get it out of their head. Most individuals gradually come to terms with what has happened; they get support, they grieve, they focus on success or moving on with their lives.

Those who wind up murdering for revenge, though, don’t. They obsess about how things are now in contrast to how they want them to be. They dwell on how angry they are and how different their lives would be if the “wrong” had never happened. They fret about the injustice that has been done them. Intrusive thoughts about their traumatic experiences gradually gives way to ruminations about revenge and, over time, anger grows.

Seeking revenge appears to be about righting a past wrong but it’s actually about alleviating a present hurt. While it’s often rationalized as sending a message or restoring a sense of fairness and balance to the universe, it’s purpose is really to kill off those raw, painful, unwanted feelings. That’s how (and why) revenge murderers can justify killing targets (for instance, two paralegals, a random therapist who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time) that have nothing to do with the original transgression while others who are more directly related are spared. How often have we seen workplace violence instigators or school shooters kill people who just happen to be at the office or in a certain classroom?

Perhaps it’s also why so many revenge murderers, especially those who target multiple people, commit suicide at the end of their rampage. No matter how many innocent people die, in order to murder your misery, you have to kill yourself.