“Under the Hitler Cross: The story of one woman’s life-long conscription”

President Paul von Hindenburg
President Paul von Hindenburg

Lena told me she grew up in East Germany – behind the iron curtain from which she escaped when she was 33.  Her best memories were from a time when Hindenburg was the country’s president.  She lived in East Prussia near the Polish-Lithuanian border where most East Germans were Lutheran.  As children, they were made to stand under the “Hitler cross” each day before school and recite the Socialist pledge for nationalism that she cannot forget. She recites the narrative for me in her native German – translating the final few words into English – “the flag is more important than the dead” she mocked shaking her head. Lena had an unexpected and compelling history about which her doctors seemed unaware.

They were driven from their homes by the advancing Red Army during WW II in the 1940’s as millions were.  Yet, these East Germans were subjected to despicable atrocities most people are not aware of during the evacuation. “They took our homes. The banks were all closed. We had nothing” becoming tearful.  I bear witness to Lena’s personal memories – the narrative of her life living under the Hitler cross and the journey to America.

Now 91, she lives alone since her husband died over a decade ago. She lives 70 miles from her daughter.  I was asked to interview Lena and determine if she was capable of returning to her home alone after she sustained a fall and broke her humerus – the long bone in her arm. It was the second time she had fallen in the past year. I reviewed the chart and her nurse commented that she is noncompliant and suspicious somewhat randomly.  It was my role to provide an understanding of Lena’s cognitive status for the treatment team with some pithy explanation as to why she keeps falling and whether she can go home again.

Lena is frail in appearance and has a small frame.  Her eyes are hard and I cannot tell what color they are.  Her white hair is wispy, thinning.  She is sporting a blue sling that keeps her shoulder from moving. It is her dominant arm I note with some reluctance. Sadly, I wonder if the traumatic recitation I am now hearing may be a sign of the psychic unraveling that some elderly trauma survivors experience shortly before death.

As a consultant I try to remain dispassionate.  I need to determine her orientation, awareness of illness, capacity to concentrate, and review her gait training, balance, and daily carry over.  I find Lena hard to redirect but I need to respect the urgency of her thoughts while she painfully unburdened herself.  I am not optimistic about her returning home.

Moments of pleasure

Lena wants to go home so she can maintain her small garden in which she plants tomatoes and colorful flowers each year.  “People admire my yard and sometimes stop to take pictures of the flowers” she reports with a slight and hopeful smile.  She even boasted a one-handed technique used to plant her garden last year after suffering a shoulder injury in her first fall.  With her left arm she dredged an orifice just large enough for the seedling.  Then with the heel of her foot she covered and packed the plant with great acumen and apparently admirable results.  Resourceful and independent, I thought bringing new meaning to the green thumb adage.

Unfortunately for Lena, there is more than just making her garden she worries about. She is afraid about what might happen to her home when she isn’t there. There has been vandalism – “they painted the Hitler cross on my mailbox and house and broke my windows” she reported indignantly. “What can you do” her voice trailing off.  Once, she paid some boys to shovel the driveway.  They convinced her to pay them before the job was done and ran off taking her twenty dollars leaving only the snow behind.  The same thing happened with the landscapers who she had hired to rake the leaves this fall.  Can she go home again?  I could derive little experience of joy in her history – often an outward sign of depression.

Lena was raised on a farm, I learned. But she had a brief childhood marred by atrocity and abject savagery.  She was one of 9 children.  “We had horses and cows and an orchard” she reminisced. Lena was brought up Lutheran but had Jewish ancestry. “Her mother was very religious” she described.  Because they had property, landowners were expected to attend regular community meetings during which her father often spoke out against the government – against Hitler.  “They had an eye on him when he came home from the war” she reflected. “They came and beat him up once, she remembered – somebody told on him” referring to the time he spoke out against the war at the community meeting.  His battered and bruised body “looked like a rainbow” when describing his wounds. “Hitler did not grow up a German – he moved from Austria and promised to spread the ‘German way of life around the world'” she mused.  “All he did was invent the autobahn”, now her bitterness and mistrust began to show.

Traumatic Losses

Lena saw 15 members of her immediate family murdered.  Her father was shot to death in the orchard behind the family home when she was 9 years old by the German secret police because he spoke out against Hitler at a local meeting of property owners.  Her 7-year old brother was made to watch.  Her 4 older brothers were conscripts and died in the war. Lena said that her grandmother married a Jew.  He was very nice, she pleaded. Later, the family home was taken from them and the animals were killed during the evacuation of East Prussia late in the war.  By then she had already lost her parents.  Neither the Germans nor the Russians were humane to the native population of Lutherans and Catholics, and Jews.

After being forced from their farm, Lena was committed to a warehouse to live.  It was one big room.  She was made to sleep between similarly damaged souls – many who succumbed – leaving their postmortem remains for others to see.  She and her sisters were raped.  Elderly women were raped and murdered.  “People don’t know” she grieved now bearing witness to spectacles no person should ever see.  She described the dreams she has to this day – of being trapped in a room with no escape but would go no further.

I return the next day to see what carryover she has of our first emotional conversation.  I notice Lena sitting next to others in the community room – intrepid – yielding no outward sign of her inner torment.  She spoke to no one with a glower on her face that could dissuade even the most confident salesman.  She nodded and smiled slightly – faint recognition, I predicted. Uncertain. We agreed to meet again later in the day after bingo.  I had been strongly impacted by her disclosure and felt I needed to hear more.  What had happened to Lena since coming to America? Was she a member of her community? What kind of life had she built here in New England?

The promise of a better life brought Lena and her husband to America in 1952. She had one daughter.  Her Lutheran beliefs taught her the importance of helping others in her community – even neighbors on Cape Cod, MA where she still lives. But the efforts made by she and her husband were often not returned in kind.  People were not friendly and welcoming so soon after the war.

“My husband was a teacher in a technical school (in East Germany) and used to help the man who lived behind us when his car would not start” boasted the frail woman with a strong German accent.  Here she expressed her bitterness at being persecuted by those who were ignorant and prejudice against people who are different – perhaps more so toward immigrants from Germany when they first arrived after WW II. “Kids don’t know about it today” she complained.  She worried that the abject trauma she experienced during the second World War would one day become irrelevant – forgotten.

Secondary Trauma

The pain she felt in Germany was not eased by the democratic change of scenery. In fact, Lena herself was accused of killing Jews by a neighbor simply because of her country of origin.  Her daughter was bullied and abused between school and home.  The child’s principal refused to allow her to come and speak to the students to help them understand that she too had Jewish blood and had suffered unspeakably at the hands of the Nazi’s and those who drove them out.  She wanted to protect her only daughter from the hatred and vitriol and suffering she had endured.

“I am responsible for what happens here in school,” said the child’s principal, “not for what happens when she leaves the school grounds” in a despicable collusion of denial and lack of courage. More than anything Lena wanted to shelter her only child from the same truculence she endured and make a better life than the one she knew. She didn’t even know Hitler” she cried, now rocking slightly.

Lena described a time when her husband was burned by acid that had been mixed into the water he used to wash his hands while working a stint in a local automotive garage.  Afterward, he was sent to a physician who indicated the condition of his hands was a disease brought with him from their country in an outrageous distortion of the truth.

“You can complain to nobody” she bristled.  “The police don’t do anything” she bemoaned.  After her home was vandalized, one officer asked “What do you expect us to do sit in the driveway?”

Can Lena go home again?  I am sure Lena would love to return to the idyllic family farm with the orchard and horses the way she remembers it before the Hitler cross flew above her school yard. To visit with her large family before the time when her father was murdered and her windows were broken and her mailbox was disgraced with the Hitler cross. Who can you tell, nobody knows what happened anymore?

I cannot envisage a life-like the one Lena has had with its childhood trauma, loss, and recurring prejudice and persecution. Yes, I would expect that Lena is suspicious and mistrustful but she is not paranoid.  What would anyone do if they experienced the life events and atrocities experienced by this woman?  The emotional resilience Lena has shown raising her daughter and making a home for her family has inspired me to look at her differently than others might have done in my position.

Lena should go home and yet she is at risk of falls when alone. She has fallen and broken both the left and right shoulders – unsteady on her feet.  Her fear and anxiety stem from an underlying sense of vulnerability based entirely on her history of personal trauma and abuse while living under the Hitler cross. The reason for her noncompliance and emotional detachment are the predictable product of her early beginning in East Prussia near the border with Poland. It represents her fiercely stout-hearted spirit and enduring strength – features of the emotional veneer that are the underpinning of her being.  It would be wrong to remove her from her place of safety and take her from the garden she loves that brings her a few moments of joy each summer.  She feels pride in the tomatoes and colorful flowers she has grown for others to stop and see and sometimes even take pictures.

I return yet again to visit Lena and clarify some of her story and see how she is progressing. In what city did she live?How had she coped with the trauma of her life?  When I enter her room I notice an aide rounding up the sheets and blankets from her bed.  “She has been transferred to a nursing home,” he remarked without emotion. She had been discharged only a few minutes before I arrived.  Her doctor believed it was the safest thing to do. Her daughter agreed I suppose.

For whatever reason Lena felt safe enough in my presence to share the narrative of her life over the course of a couple of weeks.  I made an effort to deconstruct the mistrust she projected and summarily to lessen her emotional burden.  Arguably, I was unable to extract a pithy aphorism that would send her homeward based on my impression.  Yet I wanted to explain the rationale for her transfer.  I am sure she was dispirited about not going back to the Cape.  Again conscripted into battle over personal control and humility forced to sleep once more among the damaged souls. “Nobody knows what happened” Lena might say – but I do now.

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Words to live by… for 2015

“Take care of yourselves, rest as much as you can, read good books, sing loud songs (when you’re alone…would be best) and read a poem now and then”

Personal note in holiday card from Ann Sefton (Mom)

These were the words of Ann Sefton in a Holiday card sent to my wife and I and are among the best advice I have ever received from my mother or anyone else.  I think they are worthy and spoken from the heart and I intend to share them with anyone who will listen.  The kindness and wisdom in the words struck me as a reminder of the joy and simplicity I seek in my life.

Those words along with the espoused words of David Trimble, Ph.D. are beliefs that foster greater self-awareness, self-compassion, firm authority, integrity, and coherence to my life. Here’s to a great New Year!

Read them and share them with someone you care about.

Things of importance

WESTBOROUGH, MA November 30, 2014 A patient once said Dr. Sefton “don’t ever grow old”.  At the time I wondered what he meant.  The man was alert, physically fit and had a great support system. We have heard for years that today’s baby boomers are growing older. No kidding, I am one of them.  “People believe human touch and the relationships we forge along the way sustain us into our old age with a sense of well-being”  according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D., who provides neuropsychological testing for older patients.  Along the way the connections we make open our experience and our hearts. As people age, time begins to have greater significance – especially at the end of life. Some people say time moves quicker with age – especially when memory fades. Greater attention to things of importance must include keeping memory and history alive. Ask yourself “what do I value most?”  If the answer in your head is money, job promotion, or things like material objects then priorities may be outright misguided. Next, ask yourself how much dignity you might feel if you suddenly were made to feel irrelevant?  That is how may older Americans feel as they age and enter the “golden years”. Depression and loneliness are highest among people who are older and have become marginalized. This contributes to the inability to participate in their communities adding to feelings of loneliness and increased risk of functional decline and even early death (Singh, A. and Misra, N., 2009).

Cultures everywhere include senior citizens among the things that are valued and respected although this is not universal. Some believe that with age comes wisdom. Here in America, the population of older citizens will grow by a factor of 2 in the next decade or two. No society should discredit those who are older and may be stepping aside to a younger generation.  “Senior citizens, especially those who may be blind, deaf, immobile or senile, contribute less and require more care, which is likely unavailable” according to Discovery Health. The growth of older Americans has far exceed the growth of programs geared to help those in need. Why?

Retirement and aging

For those who are entering the last years of employment a sense of trepidation may confound their decision to retire. The age of retirement has edged upward largely due to financial need. People are constantly speaking out about the need to plan ahead for the retirement years. In a blog I wrote about police officer retirement the success a person feels in retirement depends upon how valued they feel in society (2014).  Many believe that older workers are more reliable and bring a higher level of maturity that benefits employers everywhere.  Others see the older worker as the greeter at the local box store – someone now irrelevant. The impact of this prejudice adds to a high incidence of depression among people over 65. The rate of poverty among older Americans is greater than 15-20 percent, according to Intergenerational Learning Service based in Illinois.  And the rate of grandparent’s who take care of their grandchildren has never been higher.  How is this scenario apt to impact human development for years to come?

A fundamental change in attitude must take place toward people who are aging here in America.  At the same time, a belief in lifelong learning and personal responsibility for health and well-being will give an older person an equal advantage for those who are aged and wish to continue being relevant.

Michael Sefton


Singh, A. and Misra, N., (2009). Loneliness, depression and sociability in old age. Industrial Psychiatry Journal, Jan-Jun; 18(1): 51–55.

Sefton, M. (2014) https://msefton.wordpress.com/police-service/the-working-chief-a-job-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts/. Blog post, taken November 30, 2014.

Watch for the flying of the flags

Terminal rage dissembled by increased red flag threats and violence

WESTBOROUGH, MA  November 2, 2014 A group of my colleagues and I were drawn into the chilling events of June 13, 2011 after Stephen Lake killed his family and then himself.  During the final moments of his life Lake laid out the death scene ostensibly to torture his spouse from whom he was estranged and ordered to stay away.  While police closed in, Lake killed and attempted to burn his victims in an act of emotional mayhem.

Arguably, the murderer in this case became blinded by anger and resentment at perceived disrespect and exclusion from the lives of his children. This anger had grown over the year since a protective order was issued following a violent episode in the family home. The perpetrator grew marginalized during the coming months becoming resentful and humiliated at missing key events like Christmas and an 8th grade commencement.  All the while he posted on social media sites his love for his family he grew depressed and disorganized.  12 hours before the violent ending he tearfully described feeling depressed to a family member and was advised to seek help.  Lake wrote 9 suicide notes that were found in the days after his death.

Renewed interest in retrospective study

The psychological autopsy revealed an increasing pattern of red flags in the weeks before the murder-suicide in Dexter, Maine. Greater awareness of these red flags may serve as a stopping and containment point for perpetrators of intimate partner violence.  In a sad retrospective, the Maine state Chief Medical Examiner cited that “in spite of some mental health treatment the extent of (the perpetrator’s) anger was not fully appreciated”. The research led to a call for no bail holds for some violent abusers and GPS monitoring for others.  After 3 years, these recommendations are finally beginning to emerge in the protection of victims of domestic violence in Maine. Mr. Lake was alleged to have violated the protective order more than twice.  His reported view of the “cost of divorce was the price of one bullet”.

Who can be expected to bear witness to red flags?

It is well documented that domestic violence is a secret happenstance that effects far too many families across the country.  Victims are expected to remain loyal servants of their spouses under the dissembling guise of love and devotion.  The findings published in the Dexter, Maine study reveal that people knew what to expect from Mr. Lake.  His unwinding was clear to some of his closest family members.  A paternal aunt was quoted as saying “I never thought he would take the kids” suggesting an awareness that Lake might kill his spouse and then himself – sparing the children.  Others believed Lake might commit suicide in front of his wife and children leaving them with the emotional specter of his violent death.  Instead, as the chief medical examiner cited the full extent of Lake’s anger was not appreciated.  In this case, as in many other retrospective studies of DVH red flags were not appreciated. Many believe that an order of protection is not effective in protecting victims from violent spouses who seem to ignore “stay away” orders seemingly at will and without consequence.  These are the red flags that require containment of the abuser and must serve as the frank evidence of elevated risk for domestic violence homicide.

The team of people helping 22-year old Elliot Rodger, a young man who went on a shooting rampage at the University of California at Santa Barbara in May 2014, all reached out to police and the media when they could not reach the estranged and overwrought man.  But they were too late as he had made his mark on history by then.  The the Virginia Tech shooting some red flags were missed.  Had the subtle clues the Rodger’s underlying mood been recognized the shooting may have been averted.  To read the blog from the UCSB shooting click here.

Mandated reporting for domestic violence 

As a civilized society there should be mandated reporting for those most at risk for domestic violence and the penultimate DVH as it becomes apparent.  Just as practitioners are mandated to report cases of suspected child abuse and elder abuse so too must we begin to take heed of the signs of domestic or intimate partner abuse and take action.  By doing this we may save the lives of those most effected by DV and arguably break the recurring cycle of domestic violence.  Some people wrongly believe there is nothing that can be done about domestic violence homicide. Others remark that “what happens behind the closed doors in a dysfunctional and violent household is no business of anyone else”.  To the extent that this draconian belief system prevails in the public understanding of DVH there is little chance of preventing this scourge.  As a result states are slowly changing their response protocols for DV and the police response to signs of abuse with mandated arrest for suspected perpetrators.

Risk assessment of those arrested for domestic violence is often overlooked.  However, police departments are teaming up with agencies serving the population of abuse victims like never before and are adopting tools to assess the likelihood of future violence when determining bail amounts. Bail commissioners must be educated about the cycle of abuse and domestic violence when assessing bail amounts.  The average abuse victim experiences 5-7 episodes of DV prior to calling the police. Police response to DV has slowly started to include a careful analysis of the history of aggressive events including the number and type of physical assaults that have taken place.  Some events are clearly more foreboding like choking to a point of unconsciousness, sexual aggression, threats of suicide, and the use of veiled threats of death if the spouse ever tries to leave. Other behaviors such as unrealistic jealousy may be the underpinning of current or domestic violence.  One victim told me that the abuse started as soon as she said “I do” 16 years earlier.


Ronald Allanach et al., Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.

Sefton, M. (2011) The Psychological Autopsy: Provides a host of pre-incident indicators. Blog:  http://www.enddvh.blogspot.com/2011/11/psychological-autopsy.htm, taken May 26, 2014.

Drug addiction: an uncertain high

I hear ev’ry mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down
And though she’s not really ill
There’s a little yellow pill
She goes running for the shelter of a mother’s little helper
       Rolling Stones Lyrics – Jagger & Richards


WESTBOROUGH, MA  August 31, 2014  The problem of drug addiction is effecting both individuals and families like never before.  Addiction to heroin has taken the lives of 11 young addicts in the past one month alone here in central Massachusetts.  Is no one paying attention to this?  It seems as though everybody knows there is a strain of uncut heroin making its mark in the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts leaving behind the bodies of one OD victim after another.  But faced with an uncertain high the addicts do not seem to be changing their behavior.  One might expect that with so many deaths due to overdose this summer the demand for heroin might slowly evaporate.  Not so, in spite of high lethality the abuse of heroin continues like a death defying game of roulette affecting all those who inject the toxin into their veins.  Some family members quote 12-step programs citing the need to “hit bottom” before an addict will begin to fight back and dig himself out of the morass of addiction.  “But for some addicts there is no hitting bottom” according to psychologist Michael Sefton, Ph.D..

To combat the problem of death by overdose the city police have been trained in the use of nasal Narcan – naloxone – a known antidote to heroin and other narcotics that have respiratory and cardiac arrest as one of their featured outcomes.  The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has established an Opioid Overdose Education Program that sets the protocol for first responders who encounter an overdose victim who may still be alive. Naloxone given via nasal aerosol can revive a dying addict by binding to the opioid and quickly removing the drug from the body.  Naloxone is an opioid antagonist which means it displaces the opioid from receptors in the brain. An overdose occurs because the opioid is on the same receptor site in the brain that is responsible for breathing.  By giving naloxone this allows the victim to begin breathing and quickly regain consciousness.  In some cases naloxone is being prescribed to the family members of known drug addicts as a remedy against the lethal effects of bad heroin.

This raises the question: how are the rehabilitation programs doing in getting people to quit using heroin and other drugs?  Some addictionologists quietly acknowledge that there is a high likelihood that many people addicted to heroin will never be able to quit the drug.  This in spite of needle exchange programs that offer methadone programs in lieu of the risk of shooting up. With daily use of opioids, the body develops tolerance; which means individuals have to use an increasing amount of drug to get the same effect. Because of tolerance, a daily opioid user can use a quantity of opioids that would overdose an opioid-naïve individual or someone without the same level of tolerance (OEND, 2012).  People with chronic pain require high dosing of opioid analgesics that expand with passing days, months, and more. They quickly feel the sickly maiaise of withdrawal 8-12 hours after last  dosing.

When drug users are trying to quit the amount of the drug they use can place them at risk for overdose if they load at pre-withdrawl levels .  The usual dose no longer fits adding to the risk of an uncertain high.

ABKCO Music Inc.

Relationships, red flags and gun violence

Westborough, MA July 23, 2014  The pendulum of public opinion on gun ownership swings back and forth between those with the fierce belief about the inalienable right to bear arms granted by the U.S. Constitution and those who believe intuitively that fewer guns will result in fewer deaths.  The argument is not a simple one especially when it comes to people suffering with mental illness.  I read a paper authored by Liza Gold, M.D. in which Dr. Gold, a psychiatric physician is quoted as saying “most people with mental illness are not dangerous, and most dangerous people are not mentally ill” (Gold, 2013).  I agree with this point and have written about it in the past.  More recently, mass shootings have occurred when the perpetrator had a history of major depression and was receiving treatment.  These isolated cases fan the flames of misattribution that mental illness and gun violence are correlated.  It is important to remember the vast majority of persons receiving treatment for emotional problems are not violent.  It is true that fewer guns may result in fewer gun-related homicides but not necessarily the rate of death itself.

There is no single road map to understanding the complexity of human behavior in general and homicide in particular. If there were the rate of domestic violence homicide might be reduced to zero”, according to Michael Sefton (Sefton, 2013) .  Arguably, there are often signs or “red flags” that forecast the increased likelihood of a violent outburst. These include an increase frequency of aggression or threats of aggression, advanced substance abuse, marginalized demeanor, stalking, and defiance of an active protection from abuse order.  The presence of firearms in the homes of these individuals raises the risk of domestic violence homicide or DVH across the board.  “It is much easier to be anti-gun than to be anti-murderer, and to correctly structure the murder prevention methodology around the manner of murder (person) rather than mode of murder (bomb, arson, knife, gun, person, motor vehicle, strangulation, rope, poison, drowning, etc.)  absolutely necessary to keep people alive” according to Brian Gagan (2014).

As a psychologist, I am interested in the underlying triggers of aggression and the continuum of violence among intimate partners.  Those who would abuse grow unpredictably violent based on their own idiosyncratic attribution of a spouses motive and an internalized need for power and control.  The emotional inequity in these violent dyads calls for stopping the cycle of abuse early in the formative stage of the relationship.  Containment of individual abusers should take place when this fails and red flags such as physical violence, threats of death or threats of suicide are made.  Initially containment might be in the form of behavioral support, substance abuse education, and anger managment.


Gagan, B. (2014) Personal communication.

Gold, L. (2013) Gun Violence: Psychiatry, Risk Assessment, and Social Policy. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, Volume 41, November.

Sefton, M. (2013) Roadmap to violence. Blog: http://www.msefton.wordpress.com. Taken 7-14-2014.

Sefton, M. (2005) The Evil that Kid’s Do. Exlibris, Philadelphia.

The Alpha Male: leadership, mentoring and new age behavior

Michael Sefton, Ph.D.

Westborough, MA July 2, 2014  By definition the alpha male is the most dominant and powerful in the group.   New age leadership requires flexibility and fluid leadership that must adapt to the needs of  individual officers and meet the needs of a heterogeneous group.  The most successful alpha males may be those that hold back and allow individual officers to define their response based on the tactical scenario encountered rather than a single response template.

A new officer was dispatched to a vehicle on the side of the road with one male sleeping or unconscious behind the wheel. It was after midnight.  His response was aggressive and unidimensional while making contact with the sleeping motorist.  As a precaution the dispatcher had called for the fire department and EMS to roll on the call in case there was a medical emergency.  The officer had been taught to modulate his patrol presence in accordance with situational demands but in this case he did not.  Known as verbal judo, police officers use these verbal strategies during interviewing to maintain control of chaotic scenes.  This scene was neither chaotic nor demanding.

I was told that the bellicose police officer could be heard yelling at the motorist – telling him to “leave his town” and he should be aware of the commotion he had caused by sleeping on the side of the road.  Given that no alcohol or drugs were suspected there was no need for the motorist to be admonished as he was.  Arguably, the motorist should have been praised for his decision to pull over when tired rather than risk a crash by falling asleep behind the wheel.  These kinds of aggressive verbal encounters needlessly put people on the defensive and do nothing to enhance citizen-police relations.  They represent an attempt at controlling a scene when it was clearly not confrontational and therefore unnecessary.  Some believe this kind of verbal banter does more to inflame a scene than to achieve the desired disarming needed to assure the scene is safe.  The patrol presence illustrated in the scenario above reflects an anxious and inexperienced officer who used the color of authority to unfairly intimidate the motorist setting the community policing ideal on its heals.  This kind of response sets a tone for adverse citizen encounters that must be addressed during the field training period – well before he is on his own.

Police officers are taught verbal judo – a technique used to deflect and protect officers who encounter a verbally aggressive complainant, victim, or even fellow officer.  It works with all kinds of interpersonal conflict but is thought to provide tools for police officers to maintain their authority at all times.  Verbal judo is defined as a method of interviewing that takes advantage of the training in verbal discourse and conflict resolution.  Some call it martial arts for the mind that meets verbal aggression with empathy and disarming tactics such as nondefensive recognition of the point of view being thrust upon you.  The case presented was neither hostile nor threatening and should not have been met with the antagonism demonstrated by the officer.  During the field training the inexperienced officer may have been corrected for such a response.  The field training supervisor may have modeled the appropriate handling of the incident using empathic recognition of the plight of the sleepy driver sandwiched into the corrective intervention needed by enforcement of the town by-laws that state “no overnight parking is permitted on town roads”.

The purported competition for “alpha” male status belies most citizen contact as if each encounter calls for one person to win and one person to lose.  It need not be this way.  The animal kingdom bears witness to conflict over alpha male status almost everywhere.  In many instances frank disrespect for the alpha role has led to bloodshed and turf wars in American cities from coast to coast.

There is contemporary leadership emerging among new officers that comes in the form of mentoring and active field training.  The model takes its pages from theories of community policing.  There is no room for conflict over the alpha role and the days of “taking names and kicking ass” are over.  The real battle should be waged over which male is comfortable in a shared alpha role or better still – which male can mentor a young man ultimately handing over the alpha role while at the same time maintaining a cohesive sense of self-respect, firm authority, and an empathic regard for those who might be king.

By the hand of a father’s son

Vermont patricide shows complex impact of veteran’s plight and DVH

WESTBOROUGH, MA  June 12, 2104  The Vermont killing of a veteran warrior this spring brought to light the high price being paid by military veteran’s who returned to civilian life unable to function.  Much has been published about the wait for treatment that many of the most needy veteran’s experience.  As Father’s Day approaches readers are urged to think about this case. It is particularly unsettling because the man’s death came at the hand of his son.  Kryn Miner, 44 was shot and killed by his son after threatening his wife and stating that he was going to kill his family.  Miner threatened his family with a gun a year before his death but the event was never reported to police. The shooting was called a justifiable homicide and no charges were filed against the teenage child who fired the fatal shots.  The child has not been identified out of privacy concerns and by all accounts may have saved the lives of his mother and 3 siblings.  The victim’s wife Amy has spoken out about the plight of veteran’s who are not getting the help they need. “The truth of the matter is if we can’t take care of our veteran’s we shouldn’t be sending them off to war” said Amy Miner.

The victim in this story was a 25 year Army veteran who returned from Afghanistan in 2010 after being deployed 11 times from 2007 to 2010. Miner was a career soldier and was well liked. He was shot 5 times in his Vermont home after threatening his family with a gun and throwing his son a loaded pistol saying “Do you want to play the gun game?” Mr. Miner had served tours of duty in Panama and Iraq as well.  He was suffering from the residual effects of a traumatic brain injury and experienced symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. He was injured in combat after a blast threw him into a concrete wall. Ironically, after becoming dissatisfied with the V.A., Mr. Miner turned to the Lone Survivor’s Foundation for help and eventually becoming a spokesman for the foundation.  To his credit, Miner was committed to helping veteran’s suffering with emotional and physical symptoms from combat-related PTSD and was receiving treatment himself for this enduring injury.

The Department of Veteran’s Affairs is finding it difficult to manage the influx of veterans in need of care.  Ostensibly, the volume of cases exceeds the resources available at VA hospital and clinics throughout the country.  The Phoenix, AZ regional director has resigned because of the wait listing of patients and the obfuscation that occurred once the facts became known.

The story is one that compels the author to look at the complex interplay of domestic violence, guns, and the ongoing plight of war veteran’s.  The sheer number of men and women returning from the theater of war over the last decade is staggering.  It is estimated that 15 percent of these veteran’s are experiencing PTSD and/or the effects of traumatic brain injury from blast waves and other wounds. Arguably, this number may actually exceed 20-25 percent of all returning war veterans by some accounts.  The case of Mr. Miner is particularly troubling because it involved a history of domestic violence and criminal threatening that was never reported to authorities.  Had it been reported the Miner family may have been helped.

The immeasurable impact of this violence on the family may be reflected in the actions of one of its own – who must now live with the consequence of patricide.  The killing was justified according to the Vermont State Attorney General.  But how can one justify this when so young?  The killing of one’s father is often the manifestation of long felt anger, emotional pain, and in reaction to enduring humiliation.  The motivation in this case is not clear aside from the threat posed by Miner and the child’s immediate defense of a loved one – his mother and siblings.  Just how emotionally equipped this boy is to recover from this remains to be seen.  He will never forget what has happened to him and his family as long as he lives.  Each day this family must experience some loss and recurring trauma inextricably linked to the events of April, 2014.  Some responsibility lies with the victim who issued the threats and was armed with a gun.  He died by the hand of a father’s son that should never have been touched by such things.



Asperger’s Disorder: Not linked to violence

Dr. Sefton discussing psychological autopsy of Steven Lake
Dr. Sefton discussing psychological autopsy of Steven Lake in 2012                  BDN PHOTO

WESTBOROUGH, MA – May 25, 2014 The weekend when most people are celebrating Memorial Day was marred by another mass murder involving a young man who may be linked to Asperger’s Disorder – a developmental condition in the same family as autism – but one that is thought to be higher functioning.  It is unclear that the man exhibited the syndrome of Asperger’s although it may be true.  Initial reports suggest the assailant who is now dead began having psychiatric trouble in the 4th grade – about age 10.  If this is true then it is unlikely he was suffering with Asperger’s – because this disorder is usually first observed before the age of 10.  True, Asperger’s is a social interaction disorder and like Adam Lanza, we are learning that Rodger was socially awkward.  It may eventually be clarified by history provided by those who knew him best like his parents, friends, teachers, and physician’s who were treating him for mental health issues. If current reports are accurate Elliot Rodger was a 22-year old college student in Santa Barbara, California who killed 6 people after writing a chilling 137 page manifesto espousing his anger and powerful resentment at women over his experience of being rejected.  He later was involved in a gunfight with Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s officers and was killed or took his own life.  In his wake there were 6 people killed and 13 injured either by gunfire or being struck by Rodger’s BMW during the frenetic melee.  No official word as yet on the cause of his death. Rodger’s experience was also published on You Tube entitled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution” and came to the attention of his parents, the police, and others well before the onslaught.  His psychotherapist received an email telegraphing the event signaling the terminal onset of Rodger’s emotional dehiscence.  “Have you gotten Elliot’s email? I think you should see it,” the suspect’s therapist said to his mother just 13 minutes before authorities say he opened fire outside a sorority house, according to the L.A. Times story (May 25, 2014).

Frenetic Anger – Accelerating Risk

The events of Friday May 23 reflect the rage of an alienated, inadequate young man who lacked the basic relational capacity to form meaningful bonds.  Mental health experts see a series of “red flags” in retrospect.  The Washington Post cited Philip Shaenman who believed that authorities should have noticed “the acceleration of red flags” (May 26, 2014).  A similar acceleration [of red flags] was reported in the Psychological Autopsy of Steven Lake – Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide (Allanach, et al. 2011) and just as importantly people knew was was going to happen. The alienation Rodger experienced stemmed from loneliness and repeated humiliation eventually leading to explosive anger and blame. The specific trigger may remain a mystery.  In the written pages left behind, Rodger cited “wasting last 8 years of my life” apparently making a vague reference to the duration of time spent trying to establish a meaningful relationship without success.  Sadly, Elliot Rodger was not equipped to form the intimate bond he sought although high functioning autism seems like an unlikely cause.  More likely, Rodger was an entitled young man with deep-seated resentment and fear of women that contributed to feelings of shame.  He may have believed that his social status set him ahead of other men who were looking for the same things as he.  He may have had significant conflict over having so much status, e.g. being on the “red carpet” but having nothing of what he really wanted in the form of intimacy.

Analysis of behavioral indicators suggest high risk

USA Today images
Shooting scene                                ibTimes photo

His writing revealed the preoccupation with physical attributes of both the women he sought and the men he blamed for taking them away rather than exposing the extreme pain and loneliness with which he struggled.  In spite of living in a family with financial means and outward success, Rodger saw power and success as coming from a sexual relationship with an adoring blond.  The anger he projected was indicative of delusional jealousy and humiliation during his frenetic final days.  The process of compiling behavioral data that were “red flags” in the form of a psychological autopsy may one day reveal the complex layers of Elliot Rodger’s personality, primitive coping skill, unmet needs, and perhaps the true motive for the maelstrom in Santa Barbara.  In the case of domestic violence, family members who are in the crosshair of these dangerous events often see but lack the knowledge to stop the emotional and behavioral kinetics once they start. Arguably, a continuum of interagency cooperation is needed to effectively measure risk and understand the red flags that are common underpinnings of abuse.  The psychological autopsy offers a final analysis of the behavioral data and the compilation of pre-incident red flags that may be applied to the current understanding of explosive violence as in the tragic cases in Santa Barbara, CA, the Washington, DC Naval Base shooting, and the horrific school shooting in Newtown, CT.

The frequency and intensity of red flag aggression may forecast terminal violence.  As these red flags come into focus it becomes incumbent upon each of us to take action on behalf of those most at risk.  Each of us has a duty to warn potential victims.  Given the final outcome of the Elliot Rodger timeline, one might push for this type of posthoc analysis of the tragic events and hope that in coming forth – some degree of healing may once again take place.


Ronald Allanach et al., Psychological Autopsy of June 13, 2011, Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicides and Suicide: Final Report 39 (Nov. 28, 2011), http://pinetreewatchdog.org/files/2011/12/Dexter-DVH-Psychological-Autopsy-Final-Report-112811-111.pdf.

Sefton, M. (2011) The Psychological Autopsy: Provides a host of pre-incident indicators. Blog:  http://www.enddvh.blogspot.com/2011/11/psychological-autopsy.htm, taken May 26, 2014.