Why do some men, women and even children assault, batter, rape, mutilate and murder? In his stunning new book, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes provides a startling and persuasive answer. Why They Kill explores the discoveries of a maverick American criminologist, Dr. Lonnie Athens - himself the child of a violent family - which challenge conventional theories about violent behavior. By interviewing violent criminals in prison, Dr. Athens has identified a pattern of social development common to all seriously violent people - a four-stage process he calls "violentization": - First, brutalization: A young person is forced by violence or the threat of violence to submit to an aggressive authority figure; he witnesses the violent subjugation of intimates, and the authority figure coaches him to use violence to settle disputes. - Second, belligerency: The dispirited subject, determined to prevent his further violent subjugation, heeds his coach and resolves to resort to violence. - Third, violent performances: His violent response to provocation succeeds, and he reads respect and fear in the eyes of others. - Fourth, virulency: exultant, he determines from now on to utilize serious violence as a means of dealing with people - and he bonds with others who believe as he does. Since all four stages must be fully experienced in sequence and completed to produce a violent individual, we see how intervening to interrupt the process can prevent a tragic outcome. Rhodes supports Athens's theory with historical evidence and shows how it explains such violent careers as those of Perry Smith (the killer central to Truman Capote's narrative In Cold Blood), Mike Tyson, "preppy rapist" Alex Kelly, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Why They Kill challenges with devastating evidence the theory that violent behavior is impulsive, unconsciously motivated and predetermined. It offers compelling insights into the terrible, ongoing dilemma of criminal violence that plagues families, neighborhoods, cities and schools.It is important to start from posing the question - 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.The news that Richard Rhodes brings in his fascinating new book, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist," does not seem particularly arresting at first. "Not poverty or genetic inheritance or psychopathology ... is the cause of criminal violence," Rhodes sums up midway through his book. It is instead conditioning that trains people to maim and kill.So it is back to nurture prevailing over nature, and all the tiresome arguments over the death penalty and society's responsibility for producing killers. Moreover, you suspect Rhodes of special pleading. Because both he and Dr. Lonnie H. Athens, the sociologist he writes about, were victims of violent abuse as children, you suspect the two of generalizing from their own experiences. You even smell over-identification when Rhodes writes of President John F. Kennedy's assassin: "We are culpable for these killers. A hand extended to that happy, bright, observant, pleasant child might have spared us Lee Harvey Oswald's terrible swift sword."
Yet once you get into the details of Why They Kill, you find yourself both surprised by some of its conclusions and mesmerized by its narrative. The book is not so much a summing up of the theories of Athens as maverick criminologist as an account of his stormy voyage of discovery.The story begins with Athens' own violent childhood in Richmond: how he was beaten and terrorized by his brawling Greek-peasant father until he learned to fight back and menace his own contemporaries. But he was bright and inquisitive. He began to think about violence, and he took up the study of sociology when against all odds, considering his unstable background and crude demeanor, he got to college and went on to graduate school.At first he was enamored of statistics and the quantitative school of sociology. But with a teaching assistantship at the University of Wisconsin he fell under the influence of the qualitatively oriented Chicago School, which held that people, unlike atoms and molecules, found meaning in their experiences and that social phenomenon could not be measured.He was led to go beyond statistics, to interview violent criminals and ask them what they thought about and experienced when they committed their violent acts. Surprisingly, he learned that they invariably made plans to commit violence, decided consciously to act and felt wholly responsible for what they had done. This was consistent with his childhood observations that violent people rarely seemed crazy (on the contrary, crazy people were nonviolent), and contradicted the prevailing theories that murderers killed in bursts of unconsciously motivated passion and in spite of themselves. These discoveries went into his first book, Violent Criminal Acts and Actors.His next project was to work out how violent people got that way, in particular why so many of his subjects seemed once to have been frightened children. Through further interviews with hard-core criminals, he defined a process he called "violentization." He theorized that this broke down into stages he named "brutalization," "belligerency," "violent performances" and "virulency," the last of which was often highly satisfying to the individual committing violence. This formed the material for his second book, The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals.Athens' work apparently won him few rewards, writes Rhodes, whose best-known books are The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun. The dissonance of his ideas combined with his unpolished conduct cost him tenure on his first teaching job. His academic career then foundered and wallowed for years until he eventually washed up at Seton Hall University, where Rhodes discovered him.Why They Kill details his theories in compelling detail, applies them to well-known figures like Mike Tyson and Lee Harvey Oswald, among others, examines them in the perspective of history, and asks how the process they describe might be reversed. You find yourself skeptical at moments. Athens' theory is over-schematic in places, particularly for a description of emotions. Its terminology can be clunky: "violentization"; "frustrative-malefic" (the fourth and most extreme type of criminal orientation to reality), and "personal horrification" ("the second component of brutalization"). You wonder about the variety of his evidence, whether his theory really embraces a complete enough range of criminal types. And you find it depressing to learn that the process of violentization, once completed, seems irreversible, an argument in favor of capital punishment. Yet in Rhodes' summary the theory offers a commanding perspective on human violence. It provides a coherent explanation of human development, one that can be seen to dovetail with both psychoanalysis and anthropology. Wherever you look, it explains things. It surprises you not unpleasantly with its promise that "violentization has nothing to do with race - or with poverty, for that matter." And it makes a lot of useful if scary sense.As Rhodes concludes: "One prejudice that has comforted us is that violent criminals are categorically different from the rest of us - mentally ill, or brain damaged, or monstrous, or anomic, or genetically or subculturally determined. Lonnie Athens demonstrates to the contrary that violent people come to their violence by the same universal processes ... that carry the rest of us to conformity, pacifism, greatness, eccentricity or sainthood - and bear equal responsibility for their choices." The way Rhodes has combined biography, theory and intellectual history makes his presentation irresistible.
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In the introduction to Why They Kill, Richard Rhodes describes a pretty horrific episode in his childhood where he as forced to confront the violence that so many have experienced. Many of his books deal with different aspects of violence, and he uses these works to understand his experience. In Why They Kill, Rhodes focuses on ultraviolent criminals - why they do what they do and how they become so violent in the first place.Why They Kill is really two books in one. The first is a biography of Lonnie Athens, the maverick criminologist of the subtitle. He's a product of the world of the ultraviolent criminal, but managed to escape into a rather unwelcoming academia. The biographical section also includes a detailed explanation of Athens' theory of violentization, the process he proposes by which ultraviolent criminals are made. The second book is a series of tests of Athen's theory, for example against famous folk such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Mike Tyson.To write a mighty book, Herman Melville declared, you must have a mighty theme. Few works of American nonfiction of our time have been mightier than Richard Rhodes's Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986) and Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995). These are magisterial books, richly detailed and mesmerizing narratives in which history, science, politics and the life stories of scientists, theoreticians, politicians, engineers, military men, traitors and spies are skillfully woven together; the making of ever more lethal nuclear weapons in the service of defending good against the enemy's evil would seem to be the century's great scientific achievement, a tragic and irrevocable communal action. In 1990, Rhodes published A Hole in the World, a painful memoir of his and his brother's mistreatment (beatings, semi-starvation, psychological terrorization) by their father's second wife, from whom they were finally taken when Rhodes was 12, and placed in a boys' home. The traumatic experiences of such a childhood can never be wholly overcome, but Rhodes has made a distinguished career out of a ceaseless probing into the nature of violence and evil.'Why They Kill is a hybrid, part profile of Lonnie H. Athens, a professor of criminology at Seton Hall University, part a history of violence and part advocacy of a familiar, idealized sort. ''Criminal violence,'' Rhodes writes, ''emerges from social experience, most commonly brutal social experience visited upon vulnerable children, who . . . return in vengeful wrath to plague us. If violence is a choice they make, and therefore their personal responsibility, . . . our failure to protect them from having to confront such a choice is a choice we make.''It's understandable why Rhodes would have been drawn to the beleaguered life and career of Athens, who also survived a childhood of abuse in Richmond (at the hands of a violence-prone father, ''Pete the Greek,'' who used both his fists and a gun to terrorize his family and others), and went on to earn a Ph.D. in criminology at the University of California, Berkeley, at 26, in 1975. Athens, a streetwise and somewhat combative young academic with a mission - the demystification of crime and criminals - persisted in his unorthodox research into the nature of violence against the tide of the prevalent mental illness model. Like many victims of violence, Athens isn't sentimental about criminals, arguing in The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals (1992) and Violent Criminal Acts and Actors Revisited (1997) that psychologizing criminals allows them to escape legal responsibility, encouraging further violence that affects succeeding generations in an infinite regress. ''Not poverty or genetic inheritance or psychopathology but violentization is the cause of criminal violence,'' Athens writes, unavoidably employing sociologese: ''violentization'' means a social process occurring over a period of time, a kind of apprenticeship into brutality in which the budding criminal is complicit.An alternative title for Why They Kill might have been The Myth of Senseless Violence, in homage to Dr. Thomas Szasz's controversial and influential book The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), in which Szasz argues that ''mental illness'' is a mythological concept employed by the state to control deviate behavior. In this iconoclastic work and others, Szasz posits an extreme libertarian view: since mental illness doesn't exist, all lawbreakers should be prosecuted equally under the law. Though Szasz isn't listed in Rhodes's lengthy bibliography, the parallels are striking: just as Szasz dedicated his professional career to the repudiation of the psychiatric, or medical, explanation of madness, so Athens has dedicated his to the repudiation of the psychiatric, or medical, explanation of violence. In Rhodes's admiring terms, Athens is a ''rugged genius'' who has exposed the ''gears and levers of the very apparatus of evil itself.''Of course, it isn't fair to hold Lonnie Athens to account for his admirer's uncritical enthusiasm and rhetoric. His vision of himself is more modest, tempered by a wry humor in acknowledging how as a young man he'd hoped to solve the riddle of violent crime: ''I saw myself, foolishly, becoming the Darwin of criminology.'' A qualitative and not a quantitative social scientist, Athens interviewed prisoners in maximum security prisons in Iowa, California and elsewhere, predominantly men. Dangerous men. His hope was to bypass inmates' typical narratives and get to ''what they actually thought and felt when they assaulted or raped or killed.'' He claims to have had no preconceived ideas: his goal was to acquire what he calls beautiful narrative. ''I was looking for an authentic story,'' he writes, ''and once they hit authenticity it was like a high for me. Because I knew when it was authentic.'' (His subjects thought his enthusiasm bizarre: ''They'd say, 'Man, what . . . is wrong with you? You're sicker than we are. . . . You ought to be in here instead of us.' And I would laugh.'').Appealing in their no-nonsense, law-and-order directness as Athens's theories are, his fieldwork doesn't seem to even a sympathetic layman altogether scientific. Athens did not use a tape recorder, and relied upon his difficult-to-read handwritten notes; in this way, the inmates' firsthand accounts have been lost. (In fact, these inmates all sound alike.) One would expect a capable journalist to be respectfully skeptical, yet Rhodes seems to accept without hesitation Athens's findings as if he'd been present at the interviews himself. Surely these violent criminal subjects hoped to impress their interviewer with their boastful accounts of criminal exploits; much is made of Lonnie Athens's resolutely nonacademic appearance, his long hair, his headband and jeans and leather boots, and his predilection for what might be called American street vernacular, laced with macho obscenities. Another interviewer, for instance a nun, would surely have been told other narratives, equally ''authentic'' so far as verifiability is concerned.More disturbing, the inmates' tales are mostly summaries of experience many times processed in memory; they fail to suggest the immediate, impressionistic fluidity of speech that might have been designated ''beautiful narrative.'' They are recycled tales, and some of them are so wildly implausible as to undercut our faith in Athens's (and Rhodes's) professional judgment. Repeatedly, inmates recount how victims provoked violence against themselves by brash statements like ''You wouldn't shoot me'' (put to an infuriated young man wielding a gun). The most unlikely accounts involve female victims. In one, a rapist follows a middle-aged woman into her apartment, hits her on the head with a pipe and inspires her to say, ''Well, if that's the way you want to be about it, then you are going to have to take my clothes off yourself.'' When the rapist is insufficiently aroused, she helpfully urges him to seek out another, younger woman in the building. ''What you need is a taste of that young stuff, not me.'' (Naturally, the rapist follows this advice and assaults the other woman.) Have female victims of male violence, outside of cartoons or pornographic fantasies, ever talked like this? These are battered, terrified women. One can understand why violent criminals would confabulate such tales, months and even years after the episodes, but not why any criminologist or journalist should believe them.Why They Kill contains brief, somewhat perfunctory profiles of celebrity violent criminals (including Lee Harvey Oswald, Mike Tyson, Perry Smith and Cheryl Crane, the daughter of Lana Turner, acquitted on charges of killing her mother's abusive gangster lover), analyzed in such a way as to seem to support Athens's theory of violentization. More persuasive are well-researched chapters on the history of violence in Europe and in so-called primitive cultures, violence in childhood and the tragic, chaotic conditions of violence in Vietnam. Again, these chapters would seem to support Athens's theories.Why They Kill is a fiercely polemic, sure-to-be-inflammatory work of advocacy, a conservative, old-fashioned, ''common-sense'' solution to the mystery of evil; a reductive position banishing psycho-physiological and social contingencies of the kind liberal humanists have struggled for decades - or centuries - to introduce into draconian criminal justice systems. Though American prisons (and death rows) are reported to contain a high percentage of delusional, mentally ill and retarded prisoners, Richard Rhodes feels confident that after Lonnie Athens's findings ''it is possible to argue that some people are violent and mentally ill, but it is no longer defensible to argue that people are violent because they are mentally ill.'' If only the human predicament, and the wellsprings of what we call evil, were so clear cut.