Robert Durst is not a "true psychopath," but childhood trauma could provide answers

We talk to an expert witness about the bizarre case of the millionaire murder suspect at the center of "The Jinx"

Published March 18, 2015 11:01PM (EDT)

Robert Durst is transported to the Orleans Parish Prison after his arraignment in New Orleans, March 17, 2015.          (AP/Gerald Herbert)
Robert Durst is transported to the Orleans Parish Prison after his arraignment in New Orleans, March 17, 2015. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

Making sense of the senseless is James Garbarino’s job. His 20 years of experience as an expert witness in murder trials requires that he interview people responsible for often horrific crimes and that he seek the humanity within them. His new book, “Listening to Killers,” describes what he’s learned about how people come to commit homicides and what we can do to make sure America has fewer of them.

Many of the murderers Garbarino has assessed come from backgrounds of great deprivation, abuse and distress. Quite a few have grown up in what are essentially war zones where the threat of violence is an everyday fact of life. “It is extremely difficult to meet the standards of mainstream society when you don’t really live in mainstream society,” he writes, “but rather in a parallel social universe where different rules apply.”

Real estate heir and suspected three-time murderer Robert Durst, the subject of the HBO documentary series “The Jinx,” may not have grown up subjected to poverty and institutional racism, but life in one of New York’s richest families probably does resemble a parallel social universe. While Durst’s wealth has allowed him to elude justice — at least up until last weekend, when he was arrested for the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman, shortly before the galvanic final episode of “The Jinx” aired — his story nevertheless has many elements in common with those of less privileged murderers. Salon recently spoke with Garbarino by telephone to get his take on the case.

With “The Jinx,” the public has been able to view extended interviews with Robert Durst, but of course none of us have actually met him. Nonetheless, a lot of people are confident that they can make sound judgments about his character on the basis of what they’ve seen. As someone who often does get information about a killer direct from the source, how do you feel about the challenges to making that judgment?

I usually have access to social history, documents, all of that, before I go in to interview somebody and then I write a report and there’s back-and-forth and revising. I took notes, watching [the series], as I might if I was interviewing the guy or hearing a social history described. I’ve tried to give it as much ecological validity as I would give the 70-plus murder cases I’ve worked on.

What did you gain from the show’s filmed interviews? Were there questions you would have asked or information missing from those interviews that you might consider essential?

To start, there are three murder cases I worked on, each of which is like one of the murders that Durst presumably committed. Killing a wife, killing a confidante who could be a witness, and then killing somebody who was threatening him with exposure— the Galveston case — and of course, we don’t know if he’s committed other murders that haven’t come to light. If I had been interviewing him, I would have tried to find out more about what he was like before his mother died.

Why that in particular?

Obviously, seeing your mother die at 7, although there is some question as to whether he actually witnessed it, is a classic traumatic event both because it’s a death and because the worst thing that can happen to you as a human being, as I’ve learned for the most part, is to have your mother abandon you. For a child, to view your mother’s suicide, it’s almost inevitable that you would view that as an abandonment. We know that elementary-school children are more vulnerable to trauma than very young children and more than teenagers and adults. This happened when he was at the most vulnerable period, where he’s old enough to have some idea what’s happening but not in the same position to manage the overwhelming [emotion] of that event.

He says he never forgot the funeral, it never left him; it was a disaster, he says. He tried to stop them from putting his mommy in the ground. Several things: his use of the word “Mommy” there is very different from his use of many, many labels. I’d say it’s the most childlike expression in the whole series. There’s that, and then he goes on to say something really devastating about his father. One of the only times in the whole six parts when he expresses something that sounds like genuine anger is when he’s talking about his father. He says that after his mother’s death, he confronted his father and he says with rage that he wouldn’t go there.

What would be a better way to deal with a child who’d experienced such a trauma?

We know that when kids have traumatic events, if they get psychological first aid or a therapy of reassurance, if it’s processed, the prognosis for kids in general is pretty good. There’s a study with Palestinian children exposed to trauma during the Intifada, and the kids who reported that their mothers were open to processing this experience with them, their mental health status is much better than kids who said that nobody would talk about it. The secretiveness of [Durst’s experience] really resonates with me as creating a dangerous outcome from this trauma.

But surely it wouldn’t be the only factor? Not everybody whose mother kills herself becomes a murderer.

Would one traumatic event like that be enough to set in motion this decades-long career? I think that’s improbable, unless there’s something else about him to start with, so I would have wanted to know more about him as a young child. What was he like as an infant? What was his temperament? Those are the things I would have inquired into because knowing the child he was before would help sort out the child he became after.

One way children can cope with that sort of thing is dissociation, so that could well be the case here. I represented a guy last week in a murder case who, once he started talking, went into a dissociative state. This is a 30-something-year-old guy who was involved in a gang execution murder and when he started talking about his mother abandoning him, he sat back, looked off into space, and for 35 minutes in this sort of monotone just talked. It was really striking. One of the developmental dangers is that when this kind of dissociation becomes a habit, it can lead to the kind of flat, emotionless affect that, when they appear in court, a jury often looks at and says, “Wow, this is a stone-cold psychopath.”

That’s why knowing what he was like before would go a long way, for me, to knowing what to make of his reaction at 7. Of course, the final scene in the bathroom could be understood as the culmination of this dissociated life because there are points in that bathroom thing when it sounds like he’s talking to somebody else.

The pop take on that that I’ve seen kicking around is that it reminded people of the scene in “The Lord of the Rings,” when Gollum is talking to the dark version of himself.

It’s a striking thing to witness when it happens. It’s ostensibly a monologue, but at times it sounds like a dialogue and that is very disturbing to witness. You get psychopaths from two origins and one is kids who are born missing some neurons and just don’t have the capacity to connect.

With this guy, it’s very bizarre too that when he’s asked to describe his mother he says, “Happy, happy, happy.” Genuinely happy people almost never commit suicide, so from early on there was a lot of disconnection probably going on in that family. His father comes across as this emotionally disconnected person, so much so that he wouldn’t even talk about her death. I know I’m focusing a lot on the mother’s death, but for me it’s hard not to see that as pivotal in a lot of ways.

He speaks about it in an odd way.

He says of his mother’s death that she died violently. That was very odd to me because what you would expect someone to say is either that she died in an accident— which was the official version— or she committed suicide. That’s a very odd usage, and if I was interviewing him I would have really explored that. What does it mean to say that? It may have something to do with the allegations that he’s on the autism spectrum, and there is an oddness to it.

We should clarify that the filmmaker has said that when Durst was on trial in Galveston, the defense team had a mental health professional prepared to testify that he had Asperger’s syndrome, but they didn’t wind up using this expert. We don’t know what it means that this diagnosis happened in the context of this trial.

I was just rewatching the section when he commits a million and a half dollars for his defense. There are a lot of people out there that you can commission for a lot of implausible diagnoses; it’s sort of the dark side of forensic psychology. He was prepared to pay a lot for everything. That’s, again, why you’d want to know whether he was described as odd as a young child. I just don’t remember him being described before he was 7, so it’s hard to disentangle that.

It was the dissolution of his first marriage that seemed to precipitate everything.

Durst’s relationship with his wife reminded me of one of the men I worked with. There was a lot about Durst being very controlling and wanting to know where his wife was, and her becoming afraid of him. There are researchers who have looked into something called rejection sensitivity; nobody likes to be rejected but some of us score very high on this rejection sensitivity, and that has been linked to domestic violence. A guy who scores high in rejection sensitivity — which is related to the kind of attachment problems Durst had as a child — and who sees his wife or girlfriend engaging in what the rest of us would view as normal independent behavior, that is interpreted as a precursor to rejection, which drives them crazy.

I worked on a case with this guy who didn’t have good relationships but eventually found a woman to marry him who was pregnant at the time and already had a child, but he was so glad to have a relationship that he married her and took on responsibility for both children and then, about 10 years later, one day, he ups and kills them all. He ended up with dissociative amnesia and didn’t remember doing it —which I don’t think is the case with old Robert here — but what happened was that his wife told him she was going to divorce him, his daughter was a teenager and was dismissing him, and the little boy he had raised since birth had just made contact with his biological father. This literally drove this guy crazy, that the three pillars of his life were now disappearing.

With Durst, they said in “The Jinx” that she had filed for divorce. Given how controlling he was and how he lost his mother, it wouldn’t be surprising if he was overreacting to that at that point in his life. That’s plausible.

The other issue that came up is the rich white privilege in all this. I’ve interviewed black guys and Hispanic guys with very similar issues and histories and they don’t get the benefit of the doubt this way. When you hear those jurors talking about him … There is a lot of research about the way jurors interpret defendants based on class and race. He clearly, in addition to spending a million and a half dollars on his benefit, was getting the benefit of the doubt.

He probably had less experience with having his desires frustrated, and also had become used to the idea that the rules don’t apply to him.

It’s hard not to think there’s a narcissistic element to this. Growing up in this privileged position, it would be surprising if he didn’t have an expectation of grandiosity. Once that gets going, what’s called narcissistic supply comes in and he constantly needs affirmation. All this stuff about his brothers and [being sidelined and eventually pushed out of] the family business and being wounded by that, certainly would fit. Narcissism often arises as overcompensation for feelings of worthlessness. When people ask, “How did he think he could get away with all this?” that’s one explanation. You know the section when he talks about lying to the police about the night his wife disappeared? He’s so cavalier! Perjury is just a minor inconvenience for him.

There’s also a long history of him urinating inappropriately. It sounds bizarrely Freudian, but apparently, while he was working at the family business and while he felt he was being pushed out, he developed this habit of urinating into wastepaper baskets. He was once arrested for peeing on a rack of candy in a drug store. There’s something so childlike about that.

I’m glad you used that word because the first approach to understanding most killers is as untreated traumatized children controlling the bodies and minds and hearts of scary men. There is a lot of that childish stuff in him when he’s confronted with the handwriting. It’s almost like if you confronted a 5-year-old child and said, “Here’s the empty cookie jar and you’ve got cookie crumbs on the face,” and he’s like, “I don’t know how they got there!” There’s much that’s childish about him, and that always suggests to me an untreated traumatized child. His mother’s death was never dealt with in an adult way. His response was a very 7-year-old response and nobody took it any further.

Do we know about bedwetting early on? A lot of dissociated kids will sleepwalk, they’ll have problems like that. I was interviewing another guy last week with similar problems of peeing and defecating as a child. Again, they’re not rich, privileged children so it doesn’t get covered up in the same way.

A lot of Robert Durst’s stuff, some of these things have that quality. Maybe he is on the autism spectrum, an autistic child inhabiting this rich, clever guy, but it results in some of these childish behaviors like the lying, the total refusal to say it’s your hand in the cookie jar. Then he goes into the bathroom and that stressful event seems to sort of set off this dialogue.

As weird as he is in the interview, that part was another order of strangeness.

A guy named Lev Vygotsky, one of the great child development researchers, said that internal speech is originally external speech. Sometimes you hear a 3-year-old child talking about what they’re going to do. That eventually becomes internalized. Again, if we’re talking about this child running amok inside him, it’s not surprising that that might come out under stress. Imagine a 7-year-old saying to himself aloud, “I got caught and now what am I going to do?”

Another researcher looked at the level of aggression among toddlers and finds that 90 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls engage in specifically aggressive behaviors at 11 months. We don’t see this because they’re so small and weak. He makes the point that if every toddler in America went to bed and woke up tomorrow morning 6-foot-2 and weighing 240 pounds, by tomorrow night, most American parents and early childhood educators would be dead or maimed! When I interview guys in prison, I think about that. I’m looking at a 240-pound toddler.

Robert Durst is more sophisticated than that because he’s not a poor black kid who didn’t do well in school because of racism and other kinds of deprivation, but he’s a privileged kid with a lot of the same issues.

Could you explain why they won’t be able to plead an insanity defense for him?

The insanity defense laws in most states are very, very narrow and specific. It boils down to two things: You have to say, “I was so disconnected from reality that I didn’t know what I was doing,” which is very rare. The other one is, “My normal moral compass was broken that day and I was so emotionally overwhelmed that I did stuff that I would never do but that I didn’t know was wrong at the time.” In New York state, out of 6,000 murder trials, only seven succeeded with that defense, and most of them are plea bargains where even the prosecutors acknowledge that this guy was totally crazy and living a different planet while they committed this crime.

I don’t think they’re ever going to be able to argue that for Durst because there’s the deliberateness of the workup to it and the deliberateness of what follows. If Durst had dismembered that guy in Galveston and then sat there nibbling on the parts and somebody walked in, then you might have argued it. I mean, he is crazy.

I was interviewing someone with a psychiatrist, and the brother and sister of the defendant both happened to be there so we talked to them. The brother, who worked for an insurance company, proceeded to tell us that he has an extended family hit list and that he revises it every month. If you’re nice to him that month you move down on the list; if you’re mean to him, you move up. We finish the interview and go into the lawyer, who turns to the psychiatrist and asks for a professional assessment of the brother. The psychiatrist says, “My professional assessment? He’s fucking crazy!”

And he’s the one who’s not in jail!

I interviewed a guy who was telling me how he was the reincarnation of Buddha and Jesus but the crime he committed, they could not commit insanity— even though he’s obviously crazy— because the narrow definition didn’t apply to him. He knew at the time that what he was doing was illegal; he planned to do it. If they react afterwards to cover it up or run away, that shows they have guilt or remorse, which means they knew it was wrong, so it doesn’t apply to them. Most of the people who commit murder are, on some level, crazy, but they’re not legally insane.

I don’t know anything about Durst’s early childhood; who knows what was going on in that house? Was he molested by somebody? Was his father brutal and emotionally degrading? Who knows? But that’s the kind of thing you’d want to know if you’d want to try to account for some of this. What I’m trying to do in my work is get from people’s view of this person as a monster to a sort of human explanation of him which can lead to compassion for this child who’s manipulating this scary person into doing all these terrible things.

One of the points you make is that most murderers emerge from situations where they have several combined factors that make them at risk to commit these violent crimes. The logical thing is to look at Robert Durst and wonder what caused this, what the other factors are, given that he was poor, or whether he’s just genetically predisposed to behave this way.

Most of the time, 85 to 90 percent of this violence is as predictable as the climate because of the environment. You go back to first-grade teachers who say, “I’m not surprised!” Then you get this 10 to 15 percent, like Dylan Klebold in the Columbine school shooting, where the explanation is not this overwhelming adversity that beats them down very early. A case like Robert Durst is very psychological in that sense. With the Sandy Hook school shooting, Adam Lanza obviously was an extremely bizarre, weird, vulnerable kid, but he was kept afloat by living in an upper-middle-class community and environment. If he was a poor black kid with the same personality, he would’ve come to ruin much, much earlier on.

You explain the difference between affective and predatory behavior. If Durst did kill his wife because her threatening to leave him was a narcissistic injury, that seems like an affective crime. But the crime that he has currently been arrested for is he’s accused of driving all the way down the coast of California and lying in wait for Susan Berman, and that seems quintessentially predatory.

One thing that’s unusual about him is that he’s not one-dimensional in that sense. The current understanding of multiple personality disorder is that it’s an extreme form of dissociative identity disorder. You first think of it as pretending, and then before long you’re saying, “It didn’t happen to me, it happened to somebody else.” He seems like this fractured self and personality, and there clearly is this predatory side to him but there may also be this highly reactive person.

Maybe they have a sort of alliance and that’s the bathroom confession at the end. He’s almost throwing up from the emotion of it. A true psychopath is not going to throw up because they don’t have an emotional life like that, and that’s one of the reason why it’s such an interesting film. He is so interesting; I think anybody who watches it thinks he’s an interesting guy. He’s diabolical and he’s childlike, and that is a lack of integration of self. I think that’s why they end the film that way, because that last segment is showcasing that lack of integration. If it wasn’t so terrible and diabolical, it would be very sad to see a life like that; sad and dangerous, I guess.

The idea that he has two selves would explain certain mystifying things like sending the cadaver note. This whole documentary was initiated by him. When, in the bathroom, he says, “I want this,” do you think he’s reenacting his desire to do the film or is he saying he wants to be caught?

Maybe there is part of him that finds being what he’s like so exhausting, but that wasn’t my first response. My first response was not that he wants to get caught, but that there’s part of him that wants it to be known what he did and there’s another part that doesn’t. Wanting to be caught doesn’t feel right to me, but maybe I’m way off on this.

You don’t think he wants to be punished?

That’s not my first thought. Again, it’s so complicated that he may not even know; we may never know. I think it started with the way his mother’s death was handled. Clearly, there were these two realities and everyone’s saying not to look at one of them: She fell off the roof. It’s in the paper that way and his father won’t talk about it, but there’s this other reality. They tell him, “Your mother is fine now,” but they’re putting her in the ground. I think it may be coming from that. It’s this lingering sense of truth and falsehood. He’s wrestled with this his whole life, with the falsehood that was perpetrated when he was a child and that he’s still pissed off at. Like I said, the only time he sounded genuinely angry was when he said, “My father wouldn’t go there,” to confront the truth of his mother’s death.

So maybe that’s part of his motivation. There’s also research on narcissism that shows that it tends to decline with age. Maybe he’s wrestling with how much truth he can tolerate and how much truth the world can tolerate. He’s feeling mortality now. Maybe he didn’t like the fictionalized film presentation of him—

No, he did like it. He said it made him cry. It depicts him as a killer, but it’s very sympathetic to the way that he is rejected by his father. He told Jarecki, “You know Robert Durst better than any other journalist.”

Referring to himself in the third person there.

Yeah, he does that a lot. He even refers to his first wife with her full name, and who else are you going to call by their first name if not your wife? I suppose the most mysterious thing of all is the cadaver note. What motivated that?

I was struck when he talked about his mother’s death as a violent death rather than as a suicide or an accident. “Cadaver,” to me, is also a sort of disconnected word for a body. Most of us would say, “You’re going to find a body, a dead person,” but “cadaver” is very strange. They speculate it’s because one of his first wife’s friends talked about the cadaver she worked in medical school in very personalized terms.

Psychoanalysis and the concept of Freudian slips went out of favor for a long time, but modern neuroscience has sort of brought it back. There’s this book called "The Brain That Changes Itself," and it talks about how some of these associations happen literally in the brain. It’s quite possible that he’s using “cadaver” there as a sort of emotional reference to his wife, linking them together. It is possible that he is tipping things into the outside world from this bizarre, unconscious life that he has going on. The thing about shoplifting…

Shoplifting a sandwich when you have $37,000 in your car…

The parallel to the shoplifting is his bathroom monologue. Somebody might say, “How could he be that stupid?” but stuff that’s driven by unconscious motivation is often really stupid. There’s such a parallel there. He said at one point when he was asked about the shoplifting that it was to see if he could get away with it. Later on, when he does the bathroom thing, he’s almost acknowledging that he was trying to get away with something but that he got caught. To me, it’s very parallel. The other really weird thing is the woman he’s married to now.

She’s an enigma. We only have this taped deposition; she obviously didn’t talk to the filmmakers so we don’t really know anything about her. They don’t seem to live together but she seems to be very concerned that she retains control of his money…

Oh, yes. All those phone calls from the jail about which lawyers to use. She threatens to not stand by him unless he fires the family lawyer because the family lawyer will try to screw her out of some money. Yes, I thought she was more bizarre than he was, I have to say.

He has never been at a shortage of women who help him out, it seems. That probably has something to do with the amount of money he’s got.

I’m glad you said it. Susan Berman said about Robert, “He needs me.” This is almost Psychology 101: You lose your mother at 7 and the question of women who are going to take care of you becomes such a central thing.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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