One of my loyal blog readers asked me to write about serial killers. This is a timely topic here in Cleveland where the remains of eleven women have been found in the Imperial Avenue house of Anthony Sowell. What is evil and what is mental illness? These are philosophical and spiritual questions as well as psychiatric ones. When faced with an account of murder, people sometimes think that only someone who is insane could perform such an act. It’s not so simple. Psychiatrists would limit the definition of insanity to situations in which the person had a major mental illness like schizophrenia and the murder was a direct result of the illness. Clearest example of that would be a murder committed at the command of hallucinations and delusions. A mother might have heard the voice of Satan for months threatening to take her children to hell before she kills them to save them by sending them to heaven. Murders like this are rare and don’t help us understand the more common occurrences.
Researchers study those who murder by looking for genetic traits, patterns of brain malfunction and life histories, hoping to find clues to what make a murderer. Some genetic markers are more common in violent individuals but no one marker identifies a murderer. On brain scans, there is evidence for decreased activity in the areas of the brain responsible for judgment and behavioral control. But again, this pattern of brain function does not mean a person is violent or a murderer. In life histories, the combination of violent individuals in the family tree and abuse or mistreatment as a child seems to produce violent behavior. It’s as though the genetic components are activated by early life trauma.
Dr. James Fallon at the University of California at Irvine is a psychiatrist interested in violent behavior and whose own family tree includes multiple murderers. He studied the DNA of family members and found that he himself carries the violence markers. He also has some patterns on brain scans typical of violent individuals. He has no history of violence and explains that his childhood was nurturing and safe and perhaps that is what overrides the genes. There is a video about this work on the Wall Street Journal site. Caution: there are some pictures of murder victims and of brain dissection. Not for the squeamish.
What makes a murderer or a serial killer remains mysterious,. Psychiatrists do not have all the answers to this question. In fact, we have very few.