"Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist"

An expert offers a sweeping (and unconvincing) theory of violence.

By JoAnn Gutin
September 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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No one will ever accuse Richard Rhodes of having writer's block. In the past three years he's written books on mad cow disease and the social effects of technology; in the decade before that, he produced two huge works of history -- one of which won the Pulitzer Prize -- plus several memoirs. He evidently follows the advice he gave aspiring scriveners in yet another of his books, the invaluable "How to Write": "Remember, a page a day is a book a year."

However, Rhodes' late-Victorian level of productivity has a downside, which brings me to "Why They Kill." In this ambitious but unsatisfactory amalgam of biography, sociological theory, psychohistory and social criticism, Rhodes lays out a staggering agenda: He promises to reveal "a fundamental breakthrough in human psychology" that will explain essentially all acts of violence. But you may find, as I did, that the breakthrough is less revolutionary than advertised, that Rhodes leaves fundamental questions unanswered and that "Why They Kill" is a book sorely in need of more gestation.


"I have personal experience of violence," Rhodes notes in the prologue. Between the ages of 10 and 12, he tells us (as he has in many previous books), he and his brother were beaten and otherwise abused by their stepmother while their father stood passively by; this "extended personal encounter with evil" has given him a lifelong fascination with "what causes such violence and how it might be prevented."

Rhodes shares his fascination with Lonnie Athens, the criminologist whose life and work form the basis for "Why They Kill." Athens, too, had an abusive parent -- in his case, a father who beat him, pushed his head into the toilet and once pulled a gun on him. And Athens chose his career, as Rhodes chooses his subjects, in order to make sense of his own childhood violence. When Athens took his first criminology course, he tells Rhodes, "I thought, Wow, I know something about this ... I've got something to contribute here!"

His contribution took shape as an idea for a research project. Instead of merely theorizing about the factors that turn people into criminals -- as Rhodes says all other criminologists were doing -- Athens decided to go to the source: to wheedle his way into prisons and ask violent felons why they'd killed, or raped, or maimed.


What he found makes singularly depressing reading. As the extended transcripts included here reveal, violent felons are inarticulate, numbingly profane and chillingly offhand about their crimes; their motives are all variants on "He dissed me so I shot him," "He pissed me off so I shot him" and "She wouldn't stop screaming so I killed her." Life is cheap, and evil is banal.

But how did these criminals get that way? Athens' conclusion, based on hundreds of interviews and boiled down to its essence by Rhodes, is this: "Not poverty or genetic inheritance or psychopathology but violentization" -- i.e. violent socialization -- "is the cause of criminal violence." Violentization, as laid out in Athens' elaborate taxonomy, is a four-step developmental process beginning with "brutalization" by family or peers, a process that can include, but isn't limited to, physical abuse. (Simply seeing a mother or sibling routinely abused is enough.)

Brutalization can lead to the second step, an attitude of "belligerence," and the child may then respond to provocation by turning from brutalized to brutalizer with the third step, a "violent performance." If this initial act of violence succeeds, it may lead the child to a the ultimate state that Athens calls "virulence," a determination "to attack people physically with the serious intention of gravely harming or even killing them for the slightest or no provocation whatsoever." There is slightly more to Athens' theory -- each category has subheads and sub-subheads -- but this is the nut.


Athens' peers, we learn, have responded to these insights with either indifference or scorn -- attitudes that Rhodes attributes to Athens' thinking outside the academic box. For one thing, he's using case histories instead of huge surveys. Yet, disturbingly, the academics who disagree with Athens -- who turn down the papers he submits to journals and apparently savage his books in reviews -- are dismissed without being named or cited. We have to take Rhodes' word for their bias.

In fact, though, Athens' theory seems to be just common knowledge expressed in jargon -- a variant on "What goes around comes around" -- rather than the touted breakthrough. And it begs a central question: What made the murderer's grandparents "brutalize" their child? Or the great-grandparents brutalize their children? Surely poverty and psychopathology play a role here, though Rhodes specifically denies it.


Athens' etiology of violence, even if it doesn't deal in first causes, has profound implications. He thinks, for instance, that we should stop the hand-wringing over TV, because a child's "violence coach" can only be someone of emotional significance, generally a parent. On a bleaker note, if Athens is right when he says that violentization, once completed, can't be undone, then we really do need more maximum-security prisons. Yet in the end, I couldn't help thinking that all Rhodes' and Athens' hundreds of pages of labored text were distilled, poignantly and elegantly, in the 19-word epigraph to the book that Rhodes took from W.H. Auden:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

JoAnn Gutin

JoAnn Gutin is a writer and anthropologist who lives in New York.


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