Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Marc Lépine's Gendercide: The Montreal Massacre

Build-up of Desperation

"Catathymia" was first used by a German psychologist in 1912 in the context of paranoia. The term is derived from the Greek kata and thymos, which refers to emotions. Accordingly, an emotionally charged idea temporarily overwhelms a person and pushes him or her off balance. Emotion trumps logic.

Dr. Frederick Wertham
Dr. Frederick Wertham

Dr. Frederick Wertham, who applied the term in criminal psychiatry, explained catathymic behavior as occurring when a person acquires an idea that he believes he must carry through to a violent act. The person develops a plan and feels a "tremendous urge" to put that plan into action, imbuing the violence with symbolic meaning. His thinking acquires a delusional quality, marked by rigidity and poor logical coherence.

The eight stages of catathymic crisis play out in the following way, although not everyone gets through to the last one:

  1. Following a traumatic experience, an unsolvable internal state leads to emotional tension.
  2. The person projects blame for this tension onto an external source.
  3. His thinking becomes more egocentric and self-protective.
  4. Violence is perceived as the only way out, so he crystallizes a plan.
  5. To safeguard the personality, the extreme emotional tension culminates in the violent crisis—either acted out or attempted.
  6. The tension is relieved.
  7. Superficial normality occurs.
  8. Inner equilibrium is recovered, with the development of insight.

Sex Murder and Sex Aggression
Sex Murder and Sex

Revitch and Schlesinger mention in Sex Murder and Sex Aggression that after a catathymic homicidal event, the killer's affect is generally flat and he may display a remote attitude when discussing the incident later. These authors also note that besides a triggering situation, a chronic catathymic crisis may arise from a prolonged and conflict-ridden relationship that creates an enormous amount of tension. In either case, it taps a deeper source of emotional agitation in the person than a mere situational reaction. Something has built and it's not going to be easily contained.

Violent Attachments
Violent Attachments

Forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy, author of Violent Attachments, also addresses catathymia, which he calls a build-up of anger and frustration that threatens to undermine someone's fragile sense of self. Fearing the loss of control that life often brings, the person may construct layers of stabilizing delusions. But when realty intrudes, the pressure of having to deal with it threatens to overwhelm him. The sudden flow of desperation and rage crashes through his meager defenses, and he acts out in violence. Once it's done, he often feels better.

Marc Lépine appears to have experienced this phenomenon. Although he did not survive it, the ideas that inspired his rampage indicate a catathymic reaction. That does not excuse his actions, but perhaps it explains how such sudden violence takes place in a way that could help us to prevent it.

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