Are there evil people living among us here in Boston? I learned much about the criminal personality while attending graduate school. I was fascinated when reading about psychopathy and its prototypic charm, lack of remorse, and proclivities toward violence. I read Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, first published in 1979 about serial killer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was the last death row inmate to die by means of the firing squad here in the United States. It was his request to be put to death in this manner. The book was an encyclopedia of the underpinnings of psychopathy or sociopathy, used here interchangeably. I also studied David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer in New York City. Berkowitz used a Charter Arms Bulldog, a .44 caliber pistol, to kill 6 and wound 7 in 8 separate shootings in 1976. At his trial, he claimed that a neighbor’s dog instructed him to kill young lovers whom he caught and killed while parking on lover’s lane. He later retracted these claims and was sentenced to 6 consecutive 25 year-to-life sentences. It is largely impossible to truly “know” someone but if you are picking up subtle signals in your brain about something someone said or did during your time together, Gavin deBecker might say that your unconscious “gut instinct” appraisal center in the amygdala and hypothalamus is giving you a warning to stay away. His book Gift of Fear was published in 1997.
“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves”. Mt 7 15-20
While these publications are not specifically about criminal personality or the neurobiology of antisocial behavior, it struck me during the Spring semester class that a neurobiology of rage, and a neurobiology of moral development, and the neurobiology of emotions are very real. Professor Sabena Berretta, M.D., a physician studying brain disease at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts carefully laid out the ground work for this. It is written, in the same way a good tree cannot bear bad fruit nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.
Dr. Berretta described the case of Theodore Bundy who may have killed and mutilated over 30 female college students – even females as young as 12 year of age. Mr. Bundy was intelligent and charming and disarmed his victims slowly. He earned the trust of many of his victims only to use his cunning to undue that trust by sexual torturing and mutilating his captives often while still alive. These members of society have callousness, lack of remorse, egocentricity, manipulativeness, superficial charm and shallow affect (Berretta, 2019). They are able to act witty and charming in a callously, predatory manner. Ostensibly, predation is a biological phenomena over which one might argue Bundy had no control.
This is a hard sell for me. I was always of the belief that psychopathy represented something of an anomaly in human behavior and it was for them that death row was made. I began to see for myself when I heard the predator analogy – see Great White shark, Alaska Brown bear, and the pride of lions – all hunter killers.
After some degree of give and take Dr. Berretta made a compelling case for mental illness as the cause of these horrific events committed by people I believe to be fully culpable for their crimes. The mutual understanding Dr. Berretta and I came to accept was based on our knowledge of the center for emotional regulation in the brain – the amygdala and hypothalamus and prefrontal brain coupled with a lack of social and moral development and disinhibited sexual drive and unregulated anger were the multifactorial underpinnings of his serial killing. These are all functions regulated by circuits in the brain. Ted Bundy did not affiliate with others and had no interest in anyone but himself and meeting his primal drives highlighting the hypothalamic and pituitary absence of oxytocin – a hormone that when present at normal levels produces affiliative, pro-social behavior AKA “the love hormone”.
Bundy was, by definition, a career criminal and was put to death in 1989 – a bonafide wolf in sheep’s clothing. No one should lose sleep over his departure from this world.
It can be unsettling when career criminals go free. In another case in point, in July 2018, Albert Flick was released from prison in Maine after serving 30 years for the violent murder of his wife. This was committed in front of her two children and was by all accounts a gruesome murder. The crime occurred in Westbrook, ME in a city police agency where I served as a patrolman. Soon after Mr. Flick was released he began stalking a woman and her two children near Auburn, Maine. Within a few months his fixation grew and he started to follow her. She knew he was around. Always around. Something in her brain triggered an early warning of danger. Shortly after this the victim told friends that he worried her although he was 72-years old and appeared somewhat frail. She should have listened to that primitive signal. Gavin deBecker described the fear instinct as a gift to be recognized when in the presence of evil. Dr. Berretta linked this early warning to a primitive survival instinct seen in all animals. It drives the fight-flight response in the autonomic nervous system and keeps us on guard. Long before there is conscious awareness of danger the amygdala signals that a threat exists.
Within a few days of disclosing this she was dead. She had a strange feeling about Albert Flick that she shared with her friends. She was stabbed to death, again in front of her two small children. Flick stabbed both women, his wife – 30 years earlier, and a relative stranger with whom he had an infatuation, both occasions in the presence of small children.
Flick is once again in prison where he belongs.
At the same time I am studying the underpinnings of psychopathy. Psychopathy is a term ostensibly used interchangeably with sociopathy and refers to a pattern of criminality. The neurobiological underpinnings of which come from a lack of empathy, sensation seeking, and superficial exploitation of others. These features are derived from a primitive drive state of predation, stalking, and killing or injuring without conscience. In animals these are survival instincts and as human beings, we sometimes naively believe in a higher order sense of right and wrong.
There are people who are drawn to committing violence and would like nothing more than to steal our lives if we let them. But these citizens lack the internal moral development needed to affiliate with others and are often transient. Some families seem to contain far more than their share of criminal family members across several generations. This familial concentration of crime has been confirmed as a characteristic of the general population.
As a society we need to identify these sociopaths before they become active. They seek out violence and are rewarded by the release of brain chemicals when locked in or on the chase. That brings excitement and often erotic pleasure. They are predators and they live among us. Their brains are wired differently than most of us and they live without moral contemplation or regard for the feelings of others. These members of society have callousness, lack of remorse, egocentricity, manipulativeness, superficial charm and shallow affect (Berretta, 2019). They are able to act witty and charming in a callously, predatory manner all the while planning the snare looking very wolfish and bearing their teeth.