- "Chris" discusses how his mother had shamed him and erased his self-esteem.
- His informed retrospection illuminates how this experience influenced his violent thoughts.
- Learning from those with such experiences is essential to treatment and prediction of future violence.
“Chris” contacted me through this blog because he’d seen the documentary of my book, Confession of a Serial Killer, about my extensive work with Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. I’d commented that I hoped my work would assist us in spotting red flags in kids at risk for future violence. Among Rader’s risk factors was immersion from a young age in lethal fantasies, some of which arose from episodes of humiliation.
“As I was watching,” Chris said, “I thought to myself, there are probably other people like me out there where they've gone through the steps toward actual murders, and somewhere along the line [they] didn't do it. Lots of people have dark thoughts, but they have internal braking mechanisms. [They've] got impulse control [and] emotional empathy, which I'm largely lacking. So, it was this terrible combination of not having internal braking mechanisms plus having these very dark drives.”
Chris described his experience with violent obsessions that could have led him down a path like Rader’s. He included what he thinks triggered them and explained why he believes he evolved toward a more prosocial life. We need more reports like this. Such first-person reflections offer valuable information to the clinical data pool.
Chris is now 40ish and works in a professional field. His father had schizophrenia and alcoholism. His mother was deeply religious and highly narcissistic. His parents fought so often that Chris could count on it as a daily alarm clock. “My home life was constantly having to navigate a minefield of personalities. My mom and dad did not get along. There was physical violence at home between them. You had to learn how to manipulate to survive. You're always on guard.” Chris was also bullied at school and possibly molested at a day care by a male employee. He acted out by starting fires and telling lies.
As a teen, Chris realized he was bisexual. He found like-minded internet chat groups where he could discuss his feelings. Then his parents found printouts of his communications about attraction to males. His father merely warned him to be careful. “But my mom turned it into a waking 24-hour-a-day nightmare. Just beratement from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. If I could have, I would have torn that part of myself out and thrown it on the ground and lit it on fire because I came to hate myself. This hatred morphed into these extremely dark thoughts.”
Chris described fantasies in which he got sexually involved with unknown men and then killed them. Afterward, he’d cry. “I'd go and wash my hands for 20 minutes, trying to get the symbolic filth off of me. It was like the darkness subsided and the hatred subsided, and it was like, oh, I've killed the thing! I've killed the bad thing, I'm good again.” He thinks now that he was trying to eliminate that aspect of himself. “If this gay man didn't exist, I wouldn't have this gay experience. Then I wouldn't be this loathsome animal that is sinful and has a lesser experience of life and is a disappointment to family. I was taking it out on these men who were nothing more than a concept to me.”
Although he purchased a knife, he had limited access to the internet and a car, which thwarted his ability to do the things he’d imagined. Instead, he purchased dildos to slash into pieces and burn. He grew obsessed with murder.
Vaughn and his colleagues (2020) examined homicidal ideation (thoughts about perpetrating lethal violence) in children and adolescents, ages 5-17. These dark imaginings increased with the presence of conduct disorders, emotional disorders, a problematic social environment, and “fledgling” psychopathy (kids who show signs of the potential for adult psychopathy). The researchers found that among kids who eventually killed someone, behavioral and clinical red flags in their developmental history were apparent but overlooked. Those kids with homicidal ideation perpetrated more violence than those without. The researchers advised that improvements in the social environment and attention to homicidal thoughts as a predictive factor might help to prevent future homicidal acts.
Among Chris’ risk factors, which he learned later, was possibly psychopathy. He gets a high score on the TriPM, a self-report psychopathy assessment for meanness, boldness, and disinhibition. It’s unclear whether he developed psychopathic traits as a reaction (secondary) or has some organic condition (primary). Chris’ experience of shame and rejection during adolescence appear to be key factors in his obsession at that age with harming others.
A recent study in Health News identifies the influence of parenting on the emergence of psychopathic traits in children. A lack of empathy and an authoritarian style in parents can influence low self-esteem and low social competence in kids, both of which Chris admits to having. Children learn by observing and absorbing their home life. Chris received little support and significant rejection during adolescence while also enduring constant parental fights.
From Antisocial to Prosocial
Chris’ violent fixations eventually dissipated. He thinks it’s because he had experiences that decreased his self-hatred. “I started to develop a friend circle. Girls started to notice me, and I was able to spend time with them. It wasn't for quite a few years after that I actually had a consensual sexual experience with a man, and it was great.”
When asked how he thinks his experience teaches us about intervention and treatment of kids at risk of becoming violent, Chris emphasized acceptance.
“I think what would have helped me was just acceptance. Just someone to tell me who knew who I was, with my sexuality, to say you're OK. No, you're not this terrible thing. Basically, I was being taught that I was a monster, and it had started to create monstrous thoughts. I think the biggest thing that helped the thoughts diminish was having supportive people who cared about me. This started to take my focus off [the violence].”
Chris has advice for adolescent boys today who might be in a similar situation.
“Do whatever it takes to get out of that situation. If it means moving in with friends, get yourself out of any situation where someone is consistently, emotionally abusing you over immutable characteristics. Find someone you can talk to, whether it's from an advocacy group or peers that you trust, just something to push back against that constant idea that you're broken.”
This is just one man’s experience, but Chris’ reflections add valuable information to what we’re learning about the development of violent fantasies in adolescents and how prosocial intervention might ease their negative drive.
Carbone, J. T. , Testa, A., Vaughn, M.G., & Jackson, D.B. (2022). Fledgling psychopathy meets social determinants of health: Evidence of childhood homicidal ideation among pediatric emergency department patients. Journal of Criminal Justice, 83. doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2022.101926.
Crimmins, J. (2023, Oct 19). The link between parenting and psychopathic traits in children. Health News. https://healthnews.com/family-health/family-relations/signs-of-psychopa…
Vaughn, M. G., Carbone, J., DeLisi, M. & Holzer, K. J. (2020). Homicidal Ideation among Children and Adolescents: Evidence from the 2012-2016 Nationwide Emergency Department Sample, The Journal of Pediatrics, 219, 216-222, doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2019.12.045.