“and deliver us from evil…”

A Wolf in sheep’s clothing

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.  

Albert Flick is led out of the courtroom following his initial appearance in the Androscoggin County Courthhouse in Auburn Wednesday morning. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

WESTBOROUGH, MA January 2, 2017 I grow contemplative with the change of each calendar year and wonder where the time has gone since 2000 when one of our closest friends dressed as the pink millennial elephant and danced on the front yard to the delight of the four boys who were stuck at home with nothing to do. It was a big surprise to us all and was meant to make us laugh and bring joy. I cherish these friends and am fortunate to have so many more.  For those of you who regularly read these posts I wish you all a happy new year – oa-wolf-in-sheeps-clothingne that is safe and prosperous. I expect that most people wish others peace and prosperity on New Years Day.

Intuition and deviance

I know there is a subset of people who may not be who they would have us believe they are.  The world has seen unconscionable acts of barbarism in lone wolf terrorists in 2016 that I will not revisit here.  Deviance comes in many forms of disguise.  Workplace violence is nothing new and continues to be on the radar screen of human resource and security experts.  Vester Lee Flanagan, 41, a disgruntled television reporter killed WDBJ colleague Alison Parker and her cameraman as she did her job on live television. He had been escorted off the station property following repeated attempts at bullying the people he worked with in Roanoke, VA in summer 2015.  The live twitter posts, videotaping the shooting, and horrific execution of the victims by Flanagan will be a specter for years to come. People may have anticipated this behavior by looking closely at his prior employment patterns and behavior that were highly erratic. Mental health advocates might argue that Flanagan had depression or some other debilitating psychiatric illness that he chose to ignore. In his 23 page manifesto he cited discrimination, harassment and bullying as the reason for his actions.

“Like dozens of mass killers before him, the shooter embodied a deadly mix of resentment, delusion, and thwarted aspiration” according to Sarah Kaplan (Washington Post, August 27, 2015).

Each of us needs to be aware of our environment and the possibility of a wolf in sheep’s clothing in our midst. Do not be surprised by the behavior of wolves – especially those looking to feed their hubristic conceit.  Relationship and intimate partner violence takes on special significance in this new year and there are well documented red flags that forewarn offering a glimpse of the wolf lurking below the surface flash and excitement of what is new. Gavin deBecker offers the textbook – The Gift of Fear as an essential reminder for each of us to closely be aware of our inner feeling states such as the sense of fear – when in the presence of those who might do us harm. Understand fear as a prehistoric memory trace genetically programmed into each of us. It allows us to feel a warning as the wolf gets us in his sites.  deBecker owns a security firm that provides employee threat assessments and interviews victims to see what they were thinking and feeling before being attacked. Many reported an odd sense of foreboding just before being assaulted or attacked. By listening to and acting on one’s internal sense of fear you may save your own life.

The possibility of home-grown violence erupting in the life of the average American is greater than ever before. As recent events have illustrated there are marginalized people living on all sides of us – some of whom are brooding – blaming.  The reasons for homegrown violence: relationship and workplace violence are very complex and beyond the scope of what can be explained in these pages.  As a society the identification and containment of those who depravedly evoke fear in others is requisite to social order. The next generation of leaders should find a balance between public safety, treatment and rehabilitation for those living with mental illness and ardent protection from the brooding haters who dress as sheep in order to make us afraid and bite our throats.

Happy New Year and be aware of your surroundings and watch for the wolf in sheep’s clothing.