The mind of a killer

A neurologist who studies murderers' brains talks about factors that make someone kill, the difficulty of predicting violence and why most murderers can never be rehabilitated.

Published July 27, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

In the past 25 years, Jonathan Pincus, chief of neurology at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Washington and a professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, has sat across the room from 150 murderers. He has questioned them about their childhood, administered I.Q. tests and performed neurological examinations. Pincus met with 15-year-old Kip Kinkel after he killed his parents and opened fire on a school in Springfield, Ore. He spent hours with Russell Weston, the man who shot two guards inside the U.S. Capitol. And he interviewed a charming white-collar professional named Ted Bundy after he mutilated and murdered as many as 50 women.

All of these people, young and old, white and minority, middle class and poor, shared a handful of characteristics that, in Pincus' estimation, transformed them from average citizens to coldblooded killers. In "Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill," Pincus presents his research -- much of which deals with scientific information about the frontal lobes of the brain -- in a nimble, absorbing and highly entertaining way. (His stories will have you checking the lock on your front door several times before you turn out the lights.) Although Pincus does not treat his subjects sympathetically, he also knows that to cast them off as evil, morally debased monsters limits our understanding of the ingredients that somehow get thrown together to create a killer.

Pincus spoke with Salon from his office in Washington.

According to your book, three things intersect to create a killer: mental illness, neurological damage and child abuse. Are all three always there?

Two-thirds of murderers have all three factors, and the others have two of the three. It's pretty clear that mental illness is not enough to cause violence because most people who are mentally ill are not violent. It's also evident that neurological damage is not enough to cause violence because the vast majority of people who are neurologically impaired are not violent. And it's clear that the experience of horrendous child abuse is not enough to cause violence because most people who are abused that way are not violent. Yet, most violent people have these three factors, or two of the three. That's an indisputable fact.

The theory that explains it is that abuse sets up an impulse toward violence that a good brain can control. If you get the abuse and the neurological damage and mental illness, then violent impulses are not easy to check. That's why they are expressed under stress or at times of jealousy or anger.

Have other doctors, sociologists or psychiatrists pinpointed similar causes?

When people have looked, they have found similar causes. You have to do a very thorough study. It takes me three to four hours with somebody -- that's the time I spend with the individual, examining him, questioning him and talking to him -- and it takes a psychiatrist at least double that time. And that doesn't count the review of medical, police and school records that are also available for examination.

How do you determine that a person is neurologically impaired?

There are many neuropsychological tests, just as there are many kinds of blood tests. I do a number of tests of cortical function -- the cortex is the part of the brain that you think with -- and most of my tests measure motor and sensory function. For example, I have the patient follow my horizontally moving finger with his eyes to see if his visual tracking is smooth. If it's not smooth, it indicates that the frontal eye fields are not working properly.

What about an I.Q. test?

People don't realize that an I.Q. test is not a test of all the parts of the brain. It's a pretty good screening tool for the back parts of the brain, but not a very good one for the front of the brain. That's the place where most of the neurological deficits in murderers reside -- in the frontal lobe.

Were most of these people born with this neurological damage, or did their environment contribute to it?

It's very difficult to say in most cases. In some of them, where there is a history of maternal drinking and drug use and there are physical characteristics associated with the fetal alcohol effect, it's reasonable to think that the child was born with it. If someone's head circumference is more than two standard deviations below the mean, then you can assume that this damage occurred, if not prenatally, then shortly after birth.

But most of the time there are many factors that could have played a role in the neurological dysfunction, for example, head injury -- the experience of being physically abused by being beaten in the head. And then there are automobile accidents, a history of meningitis, a history of encephalitis, a history of unconsciousness, seizures, epilepsy and drug use. It's very hard to know which of those factors was the most important one in damaging the brain, which part of the brain it damaged and when that damage was sustained.

You give the example of Lewis Culpepper, who sexually abused a 5-year-old girl. You explain that the brain damage that made him able to do that was caused by a car accident.

He was sexually abused for the first 15 years of his life; then he lived 15 years as a relatively good citizen, held a stable job as a mechanic and married a woman who had been previously married and had a child. She considered him to be a good husband. He was a responsible father. But all that time he was having fantasies of a pedophilic nature, which he never acted on. Then he was involved in this automobile accident where his frontal lobes were destroyed. He seemed to be completely normal, was discharged from the hospital and was recuperating at home. Shortly after, he began to have a sexual relationship with his 5-year-old girl [his stepdaughter]. That continued for a year until her mother found out. It seemed so clear in that case that the destruction of his frontal lobes had destroyed his capacity to check those pedophilic fantasies and to realize that there were consequences to acting on them.

He didn't seem to think there was anything wrong with what he did?

Right, he thought that the whole thing was exaggerated, and even the personal consequences, such as, say, being killed in prison for being a pedophile -- that's something that happens in prisons -- didn't seem to bother him.

Were most of the people whom you spoke to this way as well -- not seeing what was wrong with what they did or comprehending the consequences?


Did they express remorse?

Very rarely. In order to express remorse, you have to feel it. The feelings of people who have had frontal lobe injuries are one of the things that are affected. You can get somebody who knows something is wrong, but doesn't feel that it's wrong.

What's the difference?

Here's a morally neutral example: I have a patient who's a physician. He had had a frontal lobe brain tumor that was removed, with consequent severe damage to both frontal lobes, but you wouldn't know that there was anything wrong with him -- until you talked with him for a little while. He had two or three automobile accidents that were essentially identical. He would be driving along in a lane that was blocked off on the highway. He saw the barrier but he could not stop the car or change lanes. He would drive right into the barrier at 60 miles an hour. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Now, you could ask, Did he not know that two things cannot occupy the same place at the same time? Of course he knew that. Did he have an accident every time he drove a car? No. Did he change lanes at other times? Yes. Well, why didn't he change lanes under these circumstances? You could suggest that there must be something wrong with him morally. Obviously, that's not true. The same thing is true of people who have frontal injuries and do terrible things to other people.

This brings up the question that your book addresses, and I want to ask it directly: Where do morality and ethics reside in the brain?

The only honest answer to that is that I don't know. But I do know that morality and ethics are expressed through the brain. And if there's something wrong with the brain, there could very well be something wrong with the expression of morality and ethics. If a composer wishes to let an audience know what is in his mind, he must have a symphony orchestra. And if the symphony orchestra plays well, and it's terrible music, then there's clearly something wrong with the composer. But if he wrote something and, after a terrible performance, an investigation reveals that the symphony orchestra was performing on broken instruments, then that must have had something to do with the poor performance. It doesn't get the composer off the hook, but if there are broken instruments in the orchestra, it's not fair to judge the adequacy of the composer.

Do you feel the same way about free will?

Free will, let's say, resides in some recondite place, but it's expressed through the working of the frontal lobes. If there's something demonstrably wrong with that system, and the behavior could be explained by such a lesion, then I think it should be considered mitigating at least, if not exculpatory.

Do you apply the same composer/orchestra metaphor to the question of someone's being evil? I wonder what it was like for you sitting in a room, across from some pretty horrible people, and trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Did you ever reflexively think, OK, this man or woman is just evil and that's it?

There have been very few criminals whom I've seen who have not acted in a totally unacceptable and evil manner. There have been very, very few who I thought should not be punished for what they did. To the extent that a person has exercised free will -- and very few people are turned into automatons by this combination of abuse, mental illness and neurological deficit -- they should be punished, and punished severely. But if these factors, which are not under their control, are operative and may have influenced their actions, then they should be mitigating.

So what does your work lead you to think about the punishment for murderers?

The issue I'm really facing is: Should this person be executed or given life imprisonment without possibility of parole? I think the latter. I am not one of those people who believe that life imprisonment is somehow the same as getting off and being free. The conditions in prison are far from plush. It's not a country club. Just the idea of not being free is a terrible, terrible deprivation.

Has your research gotten many killers off death row?

I have been moderately successful in that way. Two killers whom I've examined have been executed.

Do people call on you to make judgments of guilt or innocence -- to examine people who have been accused of violent crimes?

Everyone I've seen has been guilty.

Would it be possible for you to make accurate predictions about whether someone is likely to become a murderer?

There was a guy named Joel Rifkin who killed 16 prostitutes in New York. He killed the first one when he was 32. He's in some upstate prison now. If I had seen him before he was 32, I would have said, "Here's a guy who goes to prostitutes a lot, has neurological damage and was abused as a child, and he has some pretty weird fantasies, but he's never been violent." He had been thinking about killing people for quite some time, and most serial murderers do that. But it would have been very difficult to predict his behavior because not everybody who has all three of these things is violent. And not everybody who is violent is violent all the time.

Have your feelings toward the death penalty evolved over the period that you've been doing your research?

Yes and no. I am not a principled opponent of the death penalty. I believe that it might be appropriate in certain circumstances, but I think that it should be used rarely and for the most horrendous of crimes -- such as Adolf Eichmann. Or even Timothy McVeigh.

Did you examine Timothy McVeigh?

I did not evaluate him, but I was asked by one of the defense attorneys if I would be willing to, and I said, yes, I would. I wasn't asked because McVeigh wouldn't permit that type of a defense -- a diminished-capacity defense. He preferred to be executed as the embodiment of evil, rather than have someone say that he was a sick, weak character, which is probably what he was.

Does your theory of what makes a murderer seem to apply to him?

All I know about McVeigh is what I've read in the newspapers. He was paranoid -- he thought that the government was against the people and against him. He was also grandiose -- he believed that he was specially endowed and was going to be the Rambo to take on the government of the United States. Blowing up public buildings was his Sylvester Stallone-like posture. There was something seriously wrong with him mentally.

Although there was no history of abuse reported, I got vibes that his family didn't have a close relationship: He didn't want them to be in the prison at the time of his death, and there was very little contact during the trial. Why was that? Where did all of this hatred of authority come from? My guess is that he was abused.

But he killed 168 people, and for a crime like that, maybe the death penalty is justified.

We're talking about people who hate. What about the killers of Matthew Shepard?

I did examine Aaron McKinney, one of the killers. He satisfied the criteria. Who commits crimes of hatred? Who wants to hate people like that? It doesn't just spring into someone's mind to hate this or that group. Those things are programmed by experience. People have various reasons for hating groups. There's always some group available to hate, and it's the people who have been abused who displace their anger onto a particular group. There's an example in the chapter titled "Hitler and Hatred" of a young man who hated women.

So you think this applies to Hitler as well?

I'm almost positive it does. There were two or three paragraphs in "Mein Kampf" in which he seemed to indicate that he came from an extremely abusive home, and there was independent evidence of that. A guy by the name of [Walter] Langer was commissioned by the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA, to do an in-depth psychological study of Hitler. He had primary sources of information -- Hitler had a half-brother who was a petty criminal. The story was that Hitler had been left for dead once after a particularly bad beating. His father was a drunk who would come home and beat up the family. In "Mein Kampf," he even hints that he experienced sexual abuse.

That explanation is kind of hard to swallow because Hitler seems so different from, say, the young man in your book who impulsively killed the convenience store cashier.

Remember, Hitler probably was not brain-damaged and was probably very bright. But he was also manic-depressive and filled with anger at a variety of things.

The man who held up a convenience store in Modesto, Calif., who shot and killed the proprietor and forgot to steal anything, was functioning with an I.Q. of about 70. Instead of having mental illness, as Hitler did, he was neurologically impaired. But they both had been horrendously abused.

By "abuse," you're usually talking about really disgusting abuse. Some of your passages describing child abuse are more horrifying than the murders.

This guy in Modesto had been raised in a home where he had impetigo at age 2. The neighbors described how cockroaches covered his body and there were so many cockroaches in his house that you couldn't see the color that the wall was painted. The kid was starving and he used to eat lead paint.

What about Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy? What did you find in them?

I only examined Bundy. His neurological examination was normal, but he had symptoms that suggested manic-depressive illness and a history that was strongly suggestive of grotesque sexual abuse. I did speak to Dahmer's mother in a confidential phone conversation, and sexual abuse was suggested by some of the things she said to me.

How would you assess Andrea Yates?

Postpartum depression is usually seen as part of bipolar disorder, so there was the mental illness part of it. What went on in her own home when she was a little girl, I don't know. But Susan Smith, who drowned her two children, was sexually and physically abused as a child. And she was depressed at the time that she did that.

I noticed that the father of one of the murderers in your book was a fundamentalist minister. Does being raised in a very strict religious environment have any effect on potential murderers?

Actually, I didn't study religion, but I did find murderers who came from strict religious backgrounds. Of course, what passed for religion in their homes is hypocritical. There was the serial killer whose father was a fundamentalist minister and subjected the family to frequent biblical exegesis. He was very inconsistent in his own behavior and what he tolerated. He was extremely perverted, he and his wife both, with the children. The abuse included ritualized beatings, which he found sexually stimulating. Most of the children did not turn out to be antisocial, but one became a serial murderer and used to amputate the feet of prostitutes. That could be traced to the way his mother used to deal with him in a sexual way.

It seems mysterious that people suddenly become violent killers after years of a seemingly normal life. For some of them, it takes 30 years to become violent, while others are killers at age 12.

It's during periods of mania, when a killer feels released from the constraints of society, and during periods of depression, when he's feeling victimized again, that he's likely to be a perpetrator. A lot of serial killers do all of what they do within a little space of time; then there's a period of calm and they do it again.

What about groups like the Mafia? It seems like Mafia men don't have much in common with Kip Kinkel or Ted Bundy.

Everything that we know about the Mafia is anecdotal. But I would imagine that the hit men have come from abusive families. The issue is whether they are neurologically impaired, and I suspect that they are. But it's possible that these people may have grown up in a world where they weren't asked to control their violent impulses, or where violent behavior was accepted.

In his book about Nazi Germany, "Hitler's Willing Executioners," Daniel Jonah Goldhagen estimated that up to half a million German civilians might have actually killed people. That's an enormous number, but there were 60 million people in Germany at that time. It's still a small minority. Were they all brain-damaged and mentally ill? I doubt it. But I bet that all of them were abused in some way as children. Then the government tells them that if they kill a member of a certain group, it will be good for the country.

Is there a difference between the architects of murders and the people who actually pull the trigger?

That's a good question. I don't know. I've only examined two hit men and they both had all three factors. Psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis examined a death row executioner and he was quite like the people he executed.

The executioner displayed the same characteristics that murderers do?


What about the people who murdered but who didn't seem to have all three of these characteristics -- how do you explain them?

There was one boy, for example, who was 15 when he stabbed his next-door neighbor to death. He had been adopted in the first year of his life. His adoptive parents, from everything that I could learn about them, were not abusive. They were decent, fine people. But the boy was psychotic and had been brain-damaged. He was born to a heroin addict who had manic-depressive illness. He had two of the three factors. He thought that his neighbor was spying on him. It was a delusional belief and he couldn't check the impulse to kill. In this case, one of the few such cases, I actually think the media played a role, because he used to watch "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" again and again and again. I think that set up the paradigm for doing what he did.

So watching violence can affect young people?

That's rare. Actually, more than a few people I saw had been fascinated by violence or had seen the same violent video again and again. That did form the template for what they did. But the real horror in their lives was not coming from the videos, it was coming from their homes.

You also talk about the hallmarks of abuse -- cruelty to animals, fire setting, bedwetting. Do people use these things as predictors?

They use them as predictors of violence. That's been known for some time. What hasn't been known is that they are indicators of abuse. You show me a kid who's set fire to his bed or his parents' bed and I'll show you a kid who's been sexually abused. With cruelty to animals -- things like setting a cat on fire, really awful things -- he's trying to enact what's happened to him on something weaker than him.

Do groups or organizations exist that are trying to determine whether certain children may end up violent later in life?

There are some, but not enough. One of the shining examples of what the government can do is in Hawaii. The organization, Healthy Start, targets women who are about to give birth and are likely to be abusive on the basis of certain criteria -- unstable housing, inadequate education, no immediate family contacts, a history of substance abuse, a history of psychiatric care, depression. It offers a woman the services of a trained person who goes into the home and helps with applying for welfare and housing, making contacts at medical clinics and teaching her how to be a mother. Some people are just ignorant about that, probably because they've never seen good parenting themselves.

If society targeted child abuse, you'd get rid of a lot more than just violence.

Can violent murderers be rehabilitated?

I don't think so. To the extent that their mental illness can be treated and their neurological illness can be treated, they might have a lower potential for violence, but never a zero potential for violence. I don't believe in a medical -- as opposed to a criminal -- approach to corrections where violence is concerned. I'm not against treatment, but it should be done in a correctional facility. I would never want someone out on the streets just because he was under treatment.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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