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Does Frequent Fire-Setting Signify Mental Illness?

Arsonists are calculating in their destruction of property and lives

Key points

  • Most arsonists have committed other types of crime.
  • The arsonist experiences excitement during every phase of his crime.
  • So-called "pyromania" is not an "impulse disorder."

“He knew he was going to have a good day if he could run a fire,” stated the detective. The officer was speaking of a young man who not only enjoyed putting out fires, but he found it even more exciting to set them in the first place.

After being arrested for numerous fires, Bill* was referred to me by his lawyer for a psychological evaluation. Bill had set aflame bushes, leaves, grass, bales of hay, a barn, and a small church. Since he had been a young child and played “fireman and cop,” Bill, now 23, had admired first responders who risked their lives while extinguishing fires. As a teenager, he started hanging around fire departments and helped out at the fire house any way he could. As soon as he was old enough, he became a regular volunteer and completed all the training that he was eligible for. He recalled, “I’d put my gear on and start helping.” At the small fire company where he continued volunteering, Bill was put in charge of “water supply operations.” He had his eye set on “a successful career in fire-fighting.”

One way Bill could ensure that he would gain experience fighting fires was to set them. Once he set a fire, he knew his fire company would be at the scene, and he’d be there with them. He told me that after he set one blaze at a garage, “I was the first one in to put out the fire.” As to the church, Bill assured me, “I have nothing against God.” He ignited the structure because he wanted to be at the site and “use the training I received.” He said that he relished “showing everyone that I knew what to do.”

There was another dimension to Bill’s being at the ready and on the scene. He launched into detail about rivalries among fire houses. “I knew about fire house pride,” he asserted. Bill wanted to do his part to convince other companies that the fire house he belonged to was the best. Any comment that was critical of his fire company, Bill internalized as though it was a personal insult.

A mental health professional might surmise that Bill’s condition was that of “pyromania.” This is a mental disorder that was viewed decades ago as symbolic of deep underlying conflicts. In 1945, Otto Fenichel in “The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis” wrote that fire setting was “analogous to other impulse neuroses.” Fenichel stated, “The pleasure in starting a fire may become the indispensable condition for sexual enjoyment.” He went on to say, “The typical aim of this hostility is to force the object to give the affection or attention narcissistically needed.” Fenichel was correct in that an arsonist’s behavior commands attention.

Pyromania is conceptualized differently in the 2013 edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, page 476).” Whereas pyromania had been described as an impulse disorder, it is now seen as akin to “conduct disorder” and “antisocial personality disorder.”

In every case in which I have interviewed an arsonist (with the exception of people who deliberately set a fire for profit), that person had been irresponsible and arrestable long before he was apprehended for setting a fire. Bill is fairly typical. As a child, he shoplifted, stole from his parents, drove without a license, was banned from the school bus, and was suspended from school for threatening a boy. Speaking of school, Bill commented, “I didn’t put my potential to the fullest.” He had to repeat the fifth grade and showed an “all or nothing” pattern in his approach to subject matter. If he liked something or found it easy, he performed well. Whatever he found difficult or not of interest, he ignored. Bill told me that he became engrossed in history whenever the subject was warfare. He never applied himself to anything the way he did to hundreds of hours of firefighting training.

Before they found out about their son’s fire-setting, Bill’s parents were most alarmed about his volatile temper. His father said that he could change from being “a perfect gentleman” to showing “total disregard for others.” He described Bill’s behavior as similar to “a flip of a switch.” Bill would become enraged for no discernible reason and “destroy stuff.” The holes in the walls of his home bore testimony to his intense anger.

Bill had been seeing a counselor for a short period of time. That therapist described Bill as a “gungho young man who was bored and wanted action.” As to Bill’s volunteering at the fire house, the therapist said, “It was the rush of wanting to get involved and becoming a hero.” Characteristics described in a report of a personality inventory that Bill filled out include:

· He appears excessively self-preoccupied and prone to ruminate about how others have made life difficult for him

· He has intense underlying anger that could appear as unexpectedly intense outbursts

· He is apt to have a poor awareness of how his hostility alienates others

· He has marked handicaps in intuitively sensing the feelings of others

· His rigidity and severe problems in relating to others would handicap psychotherapy

Bill was sentenced to several months in jail followed by probation.

Criminals have different preferences when it comes to the type of crime they commit most frequently. An offender becomes known for the crime for which he has been apprehended. However, I have found again and again that the crime for which a person is arrested represents only a fraction of the number of crimes for which he had never been arrested. Bill was known to law enforcement authorities as an arsonist but, as stated above, he had committed irresponsible and arrestable acts throughout his young life that were unrelated to arson.

There is no reason to presume that a person who frequently sets fires does so because he is mentally ill. The act of setting fires is calculating and deliberate. Choices are made from the time a person contemplates the crime until after the fire is extinguished. The arsonist carefully selects the place, time, and manner in which he sets the fire. There is excitement at every stage – scouting out the area to set the fire, setting the fire and watching it, summoning the fire department, watching or participating in extinguishing the fire, and following the publicity that may follow. The serial arsonist experiences an enormous sense of power because no one knows when, where, or how he will strike. He can sit back and watch the commotion that transpires and remain anonymous.

*Identifying details in this case have been disguised to protect confidentiality.