Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist

Overview

Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, brings his inimitable vision, exhaustive research, and mesmerizing prose to this timely book that dissects violence and offers new solutions to the age old problem of why people kill.

Lonnie Athens was raised by a brutally domineering father.  Defying all odds, Athens became a groundbreaking criminologist who turned his scholar's eye to the problem of why people become ...

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Overview

Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, brings his inimitable vision, exhaustive research, and mesmerizing prose to this timely book that dissects violence and offers new solutions to the age old problem of why people kill.

Lonnie Athens was raised by a brutally domineering father.  Defying all odds, Athens became a groundbreaking criminologist who turned his scholar's eye to the problem of why people become violent.  After a decade of interviewing several hundred violent convicts--men and women of varied background and ethnicity, he discovered "violentization," the four-stage process by which almost any human being can evolve into someone who will assault, rape, or murder another human being.  Why They Kill is a riveting biography of Athens and a judicious critique of his seminal work, as well as an unflinching investigation into the history of violence.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Irresistible. . . . You find yourself both surprised by some of its conclusions and mesmerized by its narrative." —The New York Times

"Unsettling, challenging, but never less than fascinating." —The Seattle Times

    
"Rhodes should be commended . . . not only for writing another wonderful book, but also for bringing to light the provocative scholarship of Lonnie Athens." -The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  
"Certain to be controversial, Why They Kill is an engrossing book on a crucial issue." —The Kansas City Star

JoAnn Gutin

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.

Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
What transforms an ordinary person into a violent criminal? Not genetic inheritance or low self-esteem or coming from a violent subculture, answers Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, etc.), but rather a process of brutalization by parents or peers that usually occurs in childhood. In this provocative study, Rhodes focuses on the work of criminologist Lonnie Athens, who teaches at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Athens believes that violent crime results from "social retardation," a process whereby an individual who was abused in childhood guides his or her actions by recourse to a "phantom community" of the internalized voices of caregivers and others. Rhodes tests Athens's theory against specific cases, including those of boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson; Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner, who at age 14 stabbed to death her mother's lover; and Lee Harvey Oswald. The author champions Athens as a pioneering genius battling a criminological establishment that ascribes violent crime to psychopathology or antecedent social conditions; yet he overestimates the originality of Athens's work (the "phantom community" in some ways resembles Freud's superego), and his well-intentioned study is at times belabored. Both Rhodes and Athens suffered through horrifically abusive childhoods, which adds a compelling personal note to this study but may also color their views. Rhodes strongly endorses Athens's call for school-based prevention programs to break the cycle of domestic and societal violence. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Drawing on exhaustive interviews with violent prison inmates, criminologist Lonnie Athens asserts that people do not commit violent crimes because they live in poverty, are mentally ill or on drugs, have a genetic predisposition to violence, "just snap," or have been brutalized as children (though the latter plays a part). Rather, they have undergone a four-step "violentization" process that leads them, under certain circumstances, to decide consciously to beat, rape, or kill. Together with Athens's own hardscrabble, violence-filled upbringing, this theory--derived as it is from qualitative rather than quantitative research--has made his existence within the academic community difficult. Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize winner (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) and himself a victim of childhood violence, offers a compelling look at Athens, his work, and its application to noted violent offenders, different eras and cultures, and men at war. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/99.]--Jim G. Burns, Ottumwa P.L., IA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Explores the discoveries of criminologist Lonnie Athens, which challenge conventional theories about violent behavior. By interviewing violent criminals, Athens identified a four-stage pattern of social development common to all seriously violent people, beginning with brutalization in childhood. The author supports this theory with historical evidence and shows how it explains the violent careers of infamous offenders such as Mike Tyson and Lee Harvey Oswald. Rhodes is the author of 17 books, including novels and works of history, journalism, and letters. His won a Pulitzer Prize. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
L.S. Klepp
Rhodes weaves together case histories with excerpts from Athens' work to make a mind-changing book that runs against both liberal and conservative assumptions about crime.
Entertainment Weekly
Kirkus Reviews
National Book Award and Pulitzer-winning author Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 1987, etc.) offers a passionate assessment of the career of Dr. Lonnie Athens, a cutting-edge criminologist whose overlooked work deciphers the process by which individuals commit themselves to violent action. Unlike most criminologists, Athens grew up intimately acquainted with interpersonal mayhem, both within his family and in the high-crime environment of Richmond, Va. As a Berkeley graduate student, he embarked on the then-radical tactic of interviewing prisoners about their violent crimes and eventually formulated a provocative yet persuasive theory that such actors undergo a four-stage "violentization" process, in which their own childhood brutalization and "horrification" (witnessing violence against others) is augmented by "violence coaching," until the individual instinctually accepts violence as a ready solution to personal conflict. Although Athens published two books on his findings, his academic career foundered for many years. Rhodes thus applies his considerable narrative authority both toward detailed explication of Athens's work and as advocacy. He accomplishes these goals in many ways, ranging from his poignant re-creation of Athens's blasted childhood, to his application of Athens's template to notorious criminals like Lee Harvey Oswald (and Mike Tyson!), and more generally to such phenomena as wartime atrocities and the extreme violence of the medieval era. By utilizing Athens's work as a foundation, Rhodes produces a disturbing and engrossing study of the (seemingly) myriad motivators of contemporary violence; however, his inclusion of sundry third-person scholarship andof such unexpected tangents as the life of Louis XIII tend to dilute the clarity and immediacy which mainstream discussion of social crises inherently demands. That said, Athens's tumultuous life is illuminated and his work comes alive in the context of Rhodes's fine prose and elegant organization. Athens's thesis is both subtle and discomforting (in that he finds the completed "violentization" process to be irreversible); one concurs with the necessity of Rhodes's commitment to introduce it into the often dissonant arenas of contemporary criminology and social theory.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375702488
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Edition description: 1 VINTAGE
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 555,109
  • Product dimensions: 5.15 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Rhodes lives in rural Connecticut.
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Read an Excerpt

The James River flows through Richmond, Virginia, like human time. Turbulent above, where the fresh Appalachian water breaks white across the rocky shoals of the fall line, it rushes purposefully past the old Confederate stronghold only to stall and forget itself and slacken to tidal meanders below. Life is contention, and violent homicide has troubled the passage of the river since aboriginal days. It pushed up from Jamestown in 1607 with English adventurers hunting for gold, darkened the bloody ground of civil war, spills through the drug-divided city today and always aggrieves with private murder. If murder is madness, why does its run reach so far? Why has violent death undone so many?

In Jamestown days homicide rates in the West were already declining. Contending human beings had murdered one another in medieval Europe at rates comparable to those in the most murderous American cities today. Urban and rural patterns reversed in that ungoverned age: Medieval cities were safer than the violent peasant countryside. In the seventeenth century new monopolies of state began sequestering violence in police forces and armies. A civilizing process displaced murderous disputes from the street to the courtroom; homicides declined dramatically to historic lows early in the twentieth century before the modern urban rise after the Second World War.

When Lonnie Athens remembers the river running through Richmond, he remembers the Manchester Cafe, his grandfather Lombros Zaharias's diner for mill hands, set on a narrow triangle of land wedged among paper mills and cigarette factories in southside Richmond, at the end of the Mayo Bridge. Athens's mother christened him with his grandfather's name, transliterating Lombros into Lonnie to shield him from the ridicule the rednecks heaped on Greeks in Richmond. More than anyone else Pop Zaharias steadied Athens's turbulent childhood.

The Manchester Cafe was an Edward Hopper scene. The mill hands called it a slop joint: big plate glass windows, separate entrances for whites and colored and divided service inside; marble countertops where burly tattooed men in undershirts leaned on their elbows drinking buttermilk; dark booths stained with sweat; a chalkboard listing the tabs that Pop let regulars run up between paychecks; a menu of hotcakes, hamburgers, salt herring, Pop's legendary bean soup, black coffee, orange Tru-Ade, apple wine and Richbrau beer; cigarettes and chewing tobacco for sale at the register; Hank Williams's "Lovesick Blues" or Woody Guthrie's "Philadelphia Lawyer" on the Wurlitzer jukebox; coal smoke from the mills billowing past like cloud shadows and Pop's flowers and fig trees taking refuge in the garden behind. "There was always plenty of good plain food to eat," Athens remembers, "colorful scenes to watch, humorous stories to hear and no blows to fear." No lack of colorful scenes at home either, but their auras signaled storms of family violence.

Violence might have come from that violence. Instead, partly because Pop knew how to keep the peace at the Manchester Cafe, Athens would eventually earn a doctorate in criminology at the University of California at Berkeley. A compact, handsome man with an explosive laugh, coiled and intensely focused, he would talk his way into prisons past hostile guards to interview convicted rapists and murderers, alone and unprotected, sometimes at the risk of his life. Searching the heinous narratives for the tracks of the beast, he would find the rude, brutal, informal and probably universal program that creates dangerous violent criminals.

He would discover for the first time definitively what generations of his colleagues in psychiatry, psychology, sociology and criminology had glimpsed piecemeal but failed to comprehend: the malevolent logic of violent acts. He would publish two brilliant, original books. And then he would spend twenty years beating his head against the brick wall of professional resistance to his hard truths -- truths that might inform strategies of prevention and guide the criminal justice system to identify and sequester violent recidivists.

Pop's sheltered daughter Irene married wild Petros Athens, who called himself Pete the Greek. Pete strolled into the Manchester Cafe in his army uniform one day near the end of the Second World War, ordered a beer and asked to talk to Mr. Zaharias. When Pop came over, Pete switched to Greek and told him he'd met his daughter at a church picnic. The young soldier was due for discharge soon; Irene thought her father might hire him. Bridling at the impropriety, Pop warned Pete not to speak to Irene again unless her mother was on hand to chaperone. He didn't need help in the café, but he believed in Greek helping Greek, so he agreed to try out Pete at the front counter.

Pete combed his thick, coal-black hair straight back on his large head. He was broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, with hard biceps and powerful forearms, but he was short in the leg. Pop thought he looked like Jim Londos, the "Golden Greek," the professional heavyweight wrestling champion of the world. Pete thought so too. Londos was one of Pete's heroes. The other was Rocky Marciano.

Pete married Irene and joined the family, but he didn't last long as Pop's front counterman, slinging hamburgers under the Dr Pepper clock. The mill hands called Greeks "flat-footed guineas" and ridiculed the sound of their language: Quack-quack-quack, quack-quack. "You weren't black," Athens explains, "and you weren't white. You were just some type of strange foreigner caught between two groups and marginalized." Pop shrugged it off as the price of doing business. He had started out in the 1920s with a pushcart selling doughnuts and coffee and expanded to a shack, and now he owned his own restaurant and a nice house on Byrd Park and had money in the bank.

Pete had a different program. Pete had a bold demeanor: Bring it on if you want, and if you don't, fine. He had grown up in Pennsylvania, where his father had been a brickyard worker and a professional wrestler -- a brutal, hard-core, hand-to-mouth peasant from Sparta. Pete's mother had died in her son's arms, decapitated in a car accident. When the mill hands hassled Pete at the Manchester Cafe, he took off his apron, debouched from behind the counter and beat them senseless. "He threw one guy through the plate glass window," Athens says. "Unfortunately another guy he almost killed was the foreman at Standard Paper Company, and they boycotted my grandfather's café. So my grandfather told Pete, 'We're not here to beat up people, we're here to make money. I've had enough of this crap about Greek pride. If you have money you have pride. You don't have pride if you don't have any damn money. What the hell are you doing? You want to be a wrestler, become a professional wrestler.' So he let him go." Pete found a job at the Lucky Strike factory.

Lonnie's older brother, Rico, was born in 1945. Lonnie came along in 1949. There were sisters born before and after Lonnie and a baby brother later, but the two older boys and their mother carried the burden of Pete's domination. "Man, woman or child," Athens remembers Pete lecturing them, "it's up to you. I didn't tell you to disrespect me. You told your fucking self to do that. If you're big enough to disrespect your father, you're big enough to get what you get." He knew what he was talking about. Pete's father's hands had been callused from the brickyard, and when he had hit Pete he'd busted his lips. Pete told Lonnie they had almost starved to death the year his father had smashed another laborer in the head with a two-by-four and the brickyard had laid him off. Pete left home when his father took after him with a hot poker and almost killed him. He shined shoes at a hotel before he joined the army and shipped down to Richmond. He was big on respect.

Pete worked for Reynolds Metal after Lucky Strike let him go. "I'm a hardworking SOB" -- Athens transcribes one of his father's monologues -- "and I deserve some respect for it. I work a regular job, but I make my livelihood by working on the side too. I'm a natural hustler. I know how to talk to people. I was born with the gift of gab. I can sell anybody. I can go out there anytime and make myself some extra money. I don't need any college degrees or union cards to do it, either. I don't need to wait for payday every week to get my money. I can make it on any day of the week. Talk is cheap. Money is what talks in this world, and my mind is always on how to make a buck."

Early in the Eisenhower era, when Lonnie was three or four, Pete bought a diner from a brother-in-law in Washington, D.C. The Red Star Lunch became Pete's Snack Bar, thirteen stools and a counter, fish cakes, hot dogs, hash smokes, french fries, pies, icebergs, two big coffee percolators, breakfast all day. The growing Athens family moved to the second floor over the diner. Pete had been a drummer in high school; he made extra money in Washington after hours playing drums at the Friendly Tavern.

He kept an unlicensed gun in a holster nailed up under the counter near the cash register, figuring a robber would order him to open the register and then Pete would grab the gun and blaze away. The neighborhood was transitional -- Athens thinks that's why his uncle sold the place to Pete -- and becoming threatening. Two black men came in one day and ordered three dozen hot dogs with everything on them. Lonnie was there helping out.  "We had little pieces of paper already cut, and we'd get the hot dogs from the steamer and put the stuff on and wrap them, wrap them, wrap them." They loaded a box with the hot dogs and put the drinks in: Rock Creek Colas. The order came to twenty-five dollars.

Instead of paying, one of the men grabbed the box. Pete demanded his money. "They said, 'We ain't payin' you anythin'. This is the cost of doin' business here on H Street,' and they started toward the door. My father pulled out the pistol, shot over their heads and said, 'The first SOB goes through that door, he's going to be eating some lead with his hot dogs.' " Pete held his gun on them while Lonnie called the police. Declining to press charges, Pete had the police collect fifty dollars from the two hustlers.

Pete was no less violent at home. "He'd grab my brother and me by the hair and smash our heads together, bloody our faces," Athens says. "I'd hide under the bed. He'd pick up the bed, and I'd hold onto the springs so he couldn't get me. He was a barbarian, a peasant from a Greek peasant family, an extreme patriarch." Pete believed that the man is always right. He would fight anybody, Athens remembers. "He'd say, 'I don't care who you are or who you think you are, you could be a doctor, you could be a lawyer, you could be anything, but if you mess with Pete the Greek, I'll knock your fucking ass on that floor, and you may not be able to get back up again.' " Athens respected his determination. "He didn't go off every day. I don't want to give the wrong impression. But when he went off, he went off."

He went off one evening when Lonnie, four or five years old, was arguing with his mother about taking a bath. She wanted to wash his hair. He resisted, and she complained to his father. Pete came roaring in, grabbed Lonnie, picked him up and shoved his head down the toilet. "Flushed it two or three times. I thought I was going to die. I thought he was going to kill me in that toilet. It was humiliating. The water kept going over me, and I just felt filthy. I was frightened to death."

Pete put Rico in the hospital. Rico learned from Pete. When Lonnie was a baby Rico had attacked Lonnie in his crib with a hammer and smashed his baby bottle. More than once he'd tried to smother his little brother with a pillow. This time they were fighting, and Rico pushed Lonnie down the stairs. He wasn't hurt, but it knocked the wind out of him. At supper Pete asked Lonnie how he had fallen down the damn stairs, and Lonnie told him Rico had knocked him down. Irene rushed to Rico's defense, which made Pete all the madder. He picked up a plate and broke it over Rico's head. Rico had to be hospitalized for stitches and a concussion.

The streets of Washington were violent as well. Lonnie did not escape being victimized. He describes an early incident in one of his books:

"While I was walking home from elementary school, three teenage boys began calling me "short legs" and taunting me relentlessly about my small stature. After I thought they had walked a safe distance away from me, I made the mistake of yelling back at them. They suddenly began running after me. I cut across a vacant lot in a vain attempt to escape them. Once in the lot, they began throwing rocks and bottles at me as I ran. I was able to avoid getting hit until I tripped on an empty tin can. Just as I got back on my feet, one of the boys ran up to me and bashed me in the head with a brick. As I wobbled backward and put my hands to my head, I saw stars, black splotches, and blood pouring all over my hands and down my shirt. Then I got dizzy and collapsed. I woke up in the hospital, thanks to the kind intervention of a woman who had seen me lying on the ground."

Another time in Washington, Irene left Lonnie in Rico's care while she checked into the hospital to deliver a new baby. Rico had trouble at school. He used the occasion of his mother's absence to load his air rifle with BBs and go looking for revenge; he positioned himself outside his school and shot out windows and shot at kids leaving the building. He had dragged Lonnie along with him. The principal threw both of them out of school. They ran away and holed up in a shack in the woods for three or four days, surviving on food they shoplifted from a nearby Safeway. The police were looking for them. Their adventure ended when someone came up behind them at the Safeway and grabbed them by the back of the neck. They thought it was the manager, but it was Pete. He busted their heads together.

Living with violence, a child as bright as Lonnie could hardly avoid studying it. Hypervigilance is in any case one price children pay for childhood abuse. Athens traces the beginning of his interest in criminology to the summers he loved when Irene sent him from Washington to vacation with his grandparents in Richmond. The Zahariases lived in the Greek neighborhood on the edge of Byrd Park, an urban forest west of downtown Richmond that descends southward to the James River shoals. Their front porch looked across to the fountain in the northern reach of the park and the boat lake beyond. One summer a child molester was working the park, kidnapping children. The FBI, which has jurisdiction in kidnappings, decided it needed a decoy, and the agent in charge chose Lonnie. He sent him to the lake to walk around, cautioning him to stay by himself, away from other people. With men stationed to intercept anyone who tried to drag the boy off, the agent watched with binoculars from the Zahariases's porch. Lonnie, seven or eight years old, enjoyed his decoy work. "I'd go there every day," he says. "I wasn't scared. After awhile it got boring, and I started hoping that whoever it was would grab me." The molester never turned up. But Lonnie was intrigued.

Back in Washington after his summer adventure, Lonnie was playing the pinball machine at Pete's Snack Bar one day when mayhem ensued. A man walked in to challenge Pete. Pete had kicked him out before and told him to stay away. They had words. "Pete said, 'I told you not to come back in here. Get out.' The guy said, 'Fuck you, motherfucker, I don't have to get out of here.' " The man brandished an empty bottle, Pete drew his pistol, the man threw the bottle and Pete started shooting.

The bottle missed. Bullets flew. "Contrary to popular opinion," Athens observes, "when you're really excited it's hard to shoot straight." But Lonnie was almost in the line of fire. The confined explosions beat against his head: Bam! Bam! Bam! "I could hear the bullets hitting the plaster wall beside me. I crouched down and held my ears." He was so terrified he wet his pants. Running toward the door, the man took a bullet under his arm on the right side. The shooting was ruled self-defense, but Pete was convicted of illegal possession of a firearm and had to pay a fine.

Between gun battles and the changing neighborhood, Pete's Snack Bar was failing. Pete had the soul of a carny, florid with wanderlust and get-rich-quick schemes. When Athens saw Federico Fellini's film La Strada, years later in college, he couldn't believe how much Anthony Quinn's circus strongman and Giulietta Masina's blond, diminutive, long-suffering mistress reminded him of his father and mother; mentally he retitled the movie Pete and Irene on the Road in Italy. In the summer of 1959 Pete sold his snack bar at a loss and prepared to take his family on the road to Florida. "The famous trip south," Athens calls it, laughing now at the lunacy of it. "The big dream, south to Florida for gold and the fountain of youth. We bought this damned station wagon and loaded up everything. Pete buys a big, extra-size cooler, puts ice in it, bologna and cheese, milk in there for my sister Connie and the baby, Billy. We made the trip in July, no air-conditioning in the damned station wagon so we were burning up, going around Florida all summer looking for a new place, looking for a beachhead."

They lived in the station wagon, slept in the station wagon, lined up outside gas station rest rooms to use the toilet and to wash. For driving-around money Pete would organize a tent and a table at roadside, and they'd sell trinkets and souvenirs, Lonnie and Rico flagging down cars. They lived like dogs. Pete at least was happy. According to Athens, that was how his father wanted to live. " 'No bills,' he'd crow. 'No fucking bills. No water bill, no heat bill, no electricity, no fucking mortgage.' " They ate bologna and peanut butter every day. Pete tried to get a job as a chef in Boca Raton. Then he got a job running a small gas station. It was his big plan: "This is how we can make it. We don't have to pay any rent, we can live out of the car. Park the car in the back. Make Rico the pump boy." Lonnie and his mother set up the table with souvenirs, hung up a sign. They rang a little bell to get people's attention while Rico was pumping gas.

Going unwashed, eating bad food and hustling to survive was exhausting and humiliating, and finally Irene had enough. "I don't know what happened," Athens says. "He smacked her around for complaining, smacked us all. But school was coming, and she put on the pressure. 'We can't keep living like this. We've got to have a home for these kids. They've got to go to school. You're crazy. This isn't working.' So he relented. North to Richmond. So this was the famous idiotic trip to Florida."

Much later Athens would write scornfully of academic criminologists who present themselves as experts on criminal violence without ever having had personal experience of such violence or contact with violent criminals. Their usual rebuttal to his challenge, he noted, was that "one need not actually have heart trouble or some other terrible disease to discover a cure for it." That was true, he agreed, "but [one] must at least see, touch, smell and examine actual diseased hearts if he ever hopes to know anything about them." Athens had certainly seen, touched, smelled and examined more than enough violence in his tumultuous childhood to know what he was talking about.

Settled in Richmond once again, Pete found a job at the Standard Paper Company racking up cardboard, and rented a marginal house in the north end. Factory wages didn't put enough food on the table. Pop came around regularly to visit the kids and slip Irene some money. When he saw how badly they were living, he intervened, telling Pete, "You're not going to feed all these kids like that. You should get a restaurant. Find a place and I'll set you up." Pete found a place downtown called King Joe's Restaurant. It seemed to be a sweet deal, but in fact the neighborhood was once again transitional. Lonnie designed the sign, a majestic crown with "King Joe's" spelled out in glowing neon tubing. He worked there after school, rinsing beer glasses in blue water, filling beer boxes.

At King Joe's one day, lounging in a booth and looking out the big front window, Lonnie witnessed stark horror. An empty street. Afternoon light. A woman runs into view, panic on her face. A man appears, chasing her with a knife. She dodges into a doorway, scrambles to open a glass storm door, wedges herself in full view behind it pulling it against her by the handle, screaming for someone to let her in. The man smashes the storm door glass, gashes his arm, the wound spurts bright red in the afternoon light, the man raises the knife high, ignoring the blood gushing from his arm, and stabs and stabs the woman through the shattered door frame as Lonnie watches, petrified. Blood everywhere -- the man's blood, the woman's blood. She slumps and collapses. A beat, then the man swivels around, looks across at Lonnie, bolts across the street, bursts into King Joe's bleeding and brandishing his knife, shrieking, demanding that Pete tourniquet his arm. Lonnie's eyes are wide watching as he trembles in the booth by the window.

Pete jumped to it; he'd been a medic in the army. He tied off the man's arm, and the man ran out. The police and an ambulance arrived on the scene while Lonnie frantically explained to his father what the man had done to the woman who was dying in the doorway outside. All these years later, telling me the story, Athens still shudders when he remembers what he saw.

King Joe's was another bust, another big dream that wasn't working. One day when Lonnie was there two black men came in. One of them was agitated. Abruptly he pulled a gun and put it to Pete's head. Pete was midway along the counter and couldn't reach his pistol holstered beside the cash register down at the end. The gunman started reciting all the reasons he hated white people. "You motherfuckers done us wrong. Why shouldn't I kill your goddamn ass? Blow your fucking brains out all over you. You been fucking us over for years. You made us slaves, you bred us like animals, I'll blow your motherfucking brains out." While he ranted he clicked the trigger at Pete. It made Pete's hands tremble and he started to sweat. Lonnie was terrified.

Pete needed his gift of gab that day. He said, "Man, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not from around here. I'm Greek, man, we got nothing to do with that. We weren't even in this country back then. My people came over after the First World War. We haven't done anything to you black people. I'm just trying to run a business here and support my family." And then, thankfully, the second man took his side. "Put that gun away, brother. Don't kill this man. He ain't done nothing to us. Let him go. Drop it." Finally the gunman put his weapon away, and they left. Pete closed up for the day to recover.

They moved to a cramped three-bedroom brick house on the other side of Byrd Park from Irene's parents, across from University Stadium on Maplewood Avenue, another transitional neighborhood. A big, muscular redneck named McCahill, with a Ku Klux Klan tattoo, in his late twenties, lived next door on one side; an older redneck named Seal on the other. The Athenses still spoke Greek at home; Irene called her children to meals in Greek. The neighbors registered the exception and picked at it: Quack-quack-quack, quack-quack. "What're you talking about," Seal would taunt Lonnie. "Quack-quacking over there all the fucking time, talking that quack-quack shit? Let these fucking people in, and the next thing is, they draw niggers." McCahill would agree: "These motherfuckers didn't even fight in the fucking war. We didn't fight World War Two to have these motherfuckers come live in our fucking neighborhood. They didn't even fight on our fucking side. I don't know what the fuck these motherfuckers are. Some kind of Moslems or Muslims? What are you? Are you a fucking Muslim or a fucking Moslem? Don't tell me you're a goddamned Christian. I know goddamned well you ain't no Christian." Lonnie would say, "Greek Orthodox," and McCahill would sneer, "They ain't no fucking Christians. Some fucking type of Jew or Moslem." One thing led to another. Rico took offense. By then he was sixteen but small for his age, like Lonnie. He told Seal, "Fuck you, I'll kick your goddamned ass." Seal pulled a gun and fired a couple of shots at him. He missed Rico, who retreated to the house. Then all-out war started.

Three neighbor women knocked on the door one day. When Irene answered, they grabbed her by the blouse, spit on her, smacked her and tried to drag her outside. Rico happened to be home. He pulled his mother into the hall and chased the women off. "This was an upwardly mobile neighborhood for rednecks," Athens says. "They'd just crossed the transition zone. They thought they finally had their place in the sun. That's why they were hostile. They were xenophobic, full of hate. If you get around xenophobic people, it's dangerous. They want to prove they're tough, and they try to get you. I felt like we were being lynched there."

The Athenses' neighbors -- McCahill on one side, Seal on the other -- built low cinder-block walls capped with brick at the front of their yards to express their aspirations. Pete couldn't afford a full-scale wall. He laid a row of bricks and hooked them into his neighbors' creations. When McCahill discovered the encroachment, he knocked off Pete's bricks. Lonnie knew there would be trouble. It worried him that McCahill was a lot bigger than Pete and had fifteen years on him -- Pete was in his forties by then. Pete came home and silently repaired the damage, hooking his wall back into McCahill's. McCahill saw what he was doing and came out. "I'm not going to put up with this shit," he told Pete. "I'll just call the police to settle this." Pete menaced him. "We don't need any fucking police to settle this. I'll settle this with you right now." McCahill backed down.
Extending the war zone from the family to the neighborhood overwhelmed Lonnie. Pete ridiculed him, calling him a "goddamned runt." "I used to cry all the time," Athens recalls. "I was getting it at school, getting it from the rednecks in the neighborhood, getting it at home. And one day I just couldn't walk. I wasn't faking it. I guess it was a hysterical reaction. I just froze. I told my family I couldn't walk, and I crawled to the bathroom. Pete didn't like to spend money on doctors. I used to go to doctors by myself when I needed medical attention. I'd go down the boulevard and look for the right specialty, go in and give them a false name and address, 'Lonnie Jones' and some big address over on Monument Avenue. I never had any trouble. Some of them must have known." He was brazen enough to ask for samples when the doctors wrote prescriptions.

His hysterical paralysis persisted. Pete tried mustard plasters, to no effect. Lonnie stopped going to school because he couldn't walk. When Pete had to carry his son around, he conceded the virtue of doctors. Lonnie told a parade of specialists that he had a pain in his back. The doctors told Pete, "We don't know, he just can't walk. Something's wrong with him we can't detect; his bones seem to be all right; it must be nerve damage." After about three months of consultations, the doctors recommended placing Lonnie in a state home for crippled children located near Byrd Park. "They took me to look it over," Athens says. "I was just a kid, and here were all these crippled kids. I'll be honest with you, it looked like Frankenstein to me. It scared me out of my wits. So they took me back home and decided to try one more doctor." The doctor examined him and whispered something to Pete. Pete gave Lonnie a look, carried him to the car, threw him into the backseat and drove home. When they got there Pete turned around and said, "You better get up and walk out of this car or I'll put my foot so far up your ass you'll wish the fuck you couldn't walk." Lonnie was cured. "That was the miracle cure. I got up and walked into the house."

When not even paralysis could protect him, Lonnie understood that he had to protect himself. Tired of being pushed around, he resolved to try belligerence.

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Table of Contents

Pt. I The Man Who Talks to Murderers
Prologue 5
1 Bring It On 7
2 Thoughts Filled with Ghosts 18
3 How the System Works 27
4 The Full, Ugly Reality 38
5 Taking the Attitude of the Other 48
6 Beautiful Narrative 59
7 Conscious Constructions 66
8 Phantom Communities 79
9 Academic Crackers and Cheese 96
10 The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals I 109
11 The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals II 125
Pt. II The Civilizing Process
12 Cheryl Crane 143
13 Alex Kelly, Perry Smith, Mike Tyson 156
14 Lee Harvey Oswald 175
15 Murders with Motives 199
16 Monopolies of Violence 214
17 The History of Childhood 228
18 Primitive Violence 251
Pt. III The Self as a Soliloquy
19 Dramatic Self-Change 267
20 Universal Processes 273
21 The Gates of Mercy Shut Up 286
22 Strategies of Prevention and Control 313
Notes 325
Bibliography 343
Acknowledgments 351
Index 353
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 10, 2013

    If I could put this on a reading list for high school students I

    If I could put this on a reading list for high school students I would. I would teach this book in a mandatory social studies class. Not only does it spell out how violence, prejudice, power hungry, bullying behavior is created, it also tells the story of Lonnie Athens who had to stand up to the scholars who had their own vision of where violence came from. This is an excellent book.

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  • Posted June 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Why They Kill is a must read if you want to understand violent behavior!

    "Why They Kill" is the story of Dr Lonnie Athens. Dr Athens now 20+ years ago came to understand that he had written a book "The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals" that described a general theory of violent behavior that was significantly different from any other. As he went back and reviewed his work he saw the process that all of "his" murderers and rapist had gone through to become the violent people they were.

    The process he uncovered is behavioral and consist of four step. First they were all ABUSED. They all became BELLIGERENT. They all tried violence to see if it worked for them and when it did they then chose to us violence to "solve" a specific "problem" that they happened to be having with another person.

    What is critical about this work is that it establishes that ABUSE and BELLIGERENCY are two areas where we as a society can focus our very limited resources to first understand violent behavior and then to resolve the ABUSE because BELLIGERENCY is just a symptom no different than a child's temperature. It is the underlying abuse that must be addressed if the person is to be free.

    The outcomes for our school children would be drasticaly different if our teachers and school administrators would ask just one question of the child in their presence who is really angry and BELLIGERENT. The question is "what is going on or has gone on in your life to cause you this much pain. It is critical that our teachers and school administrators SEE the BELLIGERNT behavior for what IT IS - A CRY FOR HELP - and NOT an affront to their authority. It is a CRY FOR HELP no different from a baby's cry.

    Peace Tom Spellman 414 403 1341

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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