Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill?by Jonathan H. Pincus
Neurologist Dr. Jonathan Pincus personally examined and probed into the family and medical history of numerous serial killers and other violent criminals to analyze what creates and triggers the violent instinct. He discovered that virtually all suffered severe abuse as children, as well as brain damage and mental illness. In these gripping, terrifying stories,
Neurologist Dr. Jonathan Pincus personally examined and probed into the family and medical history of numerous serial killers and other violent criminals to analyze what creates and triggers the violent instinct. He discovered that virtually all suffered severe abuse as children, as well as brain damage and mental illness. In these gripping, terrifying stories, Pincus concludes that violent criminal behavior is the catastrophic product of a dysfunctional brain coupled with an abusive environment. Focusing on these critical factors, how can we prevent the development of potentially violent persons from a young age before the damage becomes irrevocable? And how do we evaluate chances of rehabilitation? "[A] rigorous, troubling, and profoundly humane book."—Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic "An urgent wake-up call for the nation...a must-read for every professional engaged in the administration of criminal justice."—Samuel Dash, Georgetown University Law Center
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Read an Excerpt
The Theory of
Violence as Taught
by Louis Culpepper
On a pleasant Sunday morning, two correctional officers ledLouis Culpepper to meet me in the medical office of the Augusta,Georgia, jail. The jail had been Culpepper's home for fourteenmonths while he awaited trial for sexually molesting his six-year-oldstepdaughter.
He wore sneakers and an orange jumpsuit with short sleevesthat revealed his biceps, defined sharply by hours of exercise withprison weights. He was a ruggedly handsome thirty-year-old manwith a neatly clipped moustache. He demonstrated social grace ingreeting me. When introduced by his lawyer, he looked me in theeye, smiled, and grasped my extended hand and shook it, warmly.In appearance, he resembled the actor Burt Reynolds. Theouter man was fine. What horror could have so deformed theinner man?
I had been engaged by his lawyer to answer that question, touncover facts that might explain and mitigate the loathsomenessof what he had done. The purposes of the defense team and minediffered but the paths to them coincided. The defense wanted himto receive the shortest possible sentence and sought mitigatingfactors. I wanted to understand the pathogenesis of violent crime.I was an expert for the defense. As a neurologist, a medical specialistin diseases of the brain, I evaluate not just motor and sensoryfunctions but cognition and behavior as they are majoroutputs of the brain.
A few weeks before he began to molest his five-year-old stepdaughter,Culpepper had been badly injured in a near-fatal motorvehicle accident.He was driving home, after work, when anintoxicated driver crossed the median divider and struck Culpepper'scar, head-on. Not wearing a seat belt, Culpepper was catapultedthrough the windshield, head first. Unconscious, he wasrushed to the hospital. A CAT scan of his brain showed hemorrhageswith large clots in his right and left frontal lobes, the portionof the brain that lies behind the forehead and in front of theears. There was severe swelling of the brain adjacent to the clotsavery dangerous situation. Because the brain is soft and the skullaround it is hard, the pressure of the clots and swelling in hisfrontal lobes was transmitted backward and downward, liketoothpaste in a squeezed tube, toward the part of the brain thatis behind the nose and the mouth. That is where the vital centersthat control breathing and heart rate are located. His life washanging by a thread. A neurosurgeon operated on him that night,removed the clots, relieved the pressure, and saved his life.
Culpepper made a gradual but steady recovery over the courseof a few weeks and was discharged from the hospital having nomotor or sensory deficit, except that he had lost the sense of smell.His ability to read, write, speak, and remember were unimpaired,though he had no recollection of the accident or of the two weeksfollowing it, when he had been in the intensive care unit.
Culpepper told me that during the period of recuperation athome, before his doctors had permitted him to return to his job,he had been left alone with his young stepdaughter while his wifehad gone out to do the grocery shopping. He dozed off on the livingroom couch and he developed an erection in his sleep. Hisstepdaughter was standing next to the couch when he awoke. Hethought that she showed sexual interest in him by staring at thebulge in his trousers, and he became excited. He unzipped hispants and placed her hand on his genitalia and directed her tostimulate him to orgasm.
This was the first of many sessions with the little girl thatextended over the course of the following year. He taught her tostimulate him orally and he touched her genitalia with his fingersbut did not penetrate her. After he climaxed, he would kneel onthe floor with the child. He led her in prayer, begging the Lord forforgiveness.
Ultimately, his wife came home unexpectedly and witnessed herchild stimulating him. His wife was distraught and told her minister,seeking his guidance. He called the police. Culpepper wasarrested and charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minorand endangerment of a child. He faced ten to twenty years inprison for this, the first arrest in his life. While he was in jail awaitingtrial, his wife divorced him.
When I examined him, he was calm, collected, and apparentlyrational, except that he thought his six-year-old stepdaughter hadmade sexual advances to him. He was certainly not psychotic ordepressed. He spoke about his likely incarceration in prison withoutanxiety. He said that his appetite for food and his ability tosleep while he was in jail were normal, unaffected by his circumstances.He knew that child molesters are targets for other prisonerswho beat and kill them. Yet, he was not agitated ortrembling at the prospect of a long term in prison.
He discussed his behavior and urges without expressing shameand fear. He said, "What I did was wrong but modern societymakes too much of sex with a child. I did not abuse her. I did notforce her to have sex with me, and I did not hurt her. If my wifehad not told the minister, I could have straightened things out. Icould have gone to therapy, and I would still be married."
He suggested that his young stepdaughter had initiated thewhole thing by looking at him in a "sexy" manner, thereby indicatingher desire to be sexually involved with him. When I toldhim that it was impossible for a six-year-old to initiate sex withan adult, he argued the point. He had no concept that he mighthave harmed the child. He did not see himself as others saw himand did not seem to care about the consequences for himself orthe child. He did not express verbally, with facial expression, orbody language the emotions that should have accompanied whathe said. The flatness of his affect reflected his lack of emotionalfeeling.
Culpepper's lawyer had told me that when Culpepper was achild he had been sexually abused by his father and grandfatherand some of their friends. He had been beaten, penetrated, andforced to perform fellatio. His abuse had ended in his early adolescence,long before he began to abuse his stepdaughter butextended through most of the formative period of his brain'sdevelopment. He had finished high school, worked at the samejob for eight years, and married a woman who had a daughter bya previous marriage. His wife told investigators that their marriagehad been stable, warm, and nonviolent. He had been reliableand caring to her and to her young daughter. They seemed tobe an ordinary family.
His lawyer thought that the history of Culpepper's abuse in hischildhood was not relevant to the case. After all, he pointed out,it had ended without Culpepper's having committed any offensesfor the next fifteen years. He thought that Culpepper's braininjury was the cause of his crime because the brain injury hadoccurred shortly before Culpepper first molested the young girl.
I suspected that causation was not so clear-cut. I discoveredthat the injury did not initiate Culpepper's pedophilic urges.Culpepper confided to me that he had fantasized about having sexwith a child for years but, before the accident, he had never actedon his impulses.
Culpepper was one of the first criminals I had seen whose damageoccurred in adulthood, had a clear date of onset, a cause, anda well-defined location in the brain. My examination indicatedthat he had sustained two kinds of damage: developmental andphysical. His mind had been damaged by a horrible childhood,and his frontal lobes had been ruined in an automobile accident.
Culpepper crystallized for me two of the disparate elements Ihad regularly found in violent individuals. The sexual abuse hesuffered in his childhood was necessary to establish his pedophilicurges but had not been sufficient to set them off. Having been avictim of childhood sexual abuse imprinted on him the urge tosexually victimize children. He had carried this imprint and theimpulses it generated throughout his life. Until the car accident,those impulses had been inhibited by the frontal lobe of his brain.
Absent the prior abuse, Culpepper, like the vast majority ofpeople who have sustained brain damage, might have been emotionallyblunted, impaired in his concerns about the consequencesof his acts, limited in the capacity to be self-critical, and may haveeven had reduced sexual inhibitions. He would probably not,however, had the specific desire to sexually abuse children. Byinteracting with each other, his sexual abuse in childhood and thistraumatic brain damage had transformed him into the perpetratorof a sexual crime against a child.
This case and cases like it led me and my colleague, Dr. DorothyLewis, to develop a new theory, one that has the capacity toexplain violent crime. According to this theory, the elements wehad found in other murderers interact in the same manner as theyhad in the case of Louis Culpepper. It is the interaction of childhoodabuse with neurologic disturbances and psychiatric illnessesthat explains murder. Abuse generates the violent urge.Neurologic and psychiatric diseases of the brain damage thecapacity to check that urge.
Excerpted from Base Instincts by Jonathan H. Pincus. Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan H. Pincus, M.D.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Jonathan H. Pincus is chief of neurology at the Veteran's Administration Hospital, Washington, D.C., and professor of neurology at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
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