Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Childhood Abuse

Edmund Kemper
Edmund Kemper

"I have several children who I'm turning into killers. Wait til they grow up" - message scrawled on David Berkowitz's apartment wall, with an arrow pointing to a hole in the wall. Are some children just born "bad"? Some serial killers are precociously demented, fascinated by sadistic violence at a very early age. As a child, Ed Kemper was already beheading his sister's dolls, playing "execution" games, and once told his sister that he wanted to kiss his second grade teacher, but "if I kiss her I would have to kill her first."

One of first places our society looks to for an explanation is the serial killer's upbringing. "So many of us wanted to believe that something had traumatized little Jeffrey Dahmer, otherwise we must believe that some people simply give birth to monsters," Ann Schwartz has written.

In some cases, the abuse of children by their parents is barbaric, and it seems little wonder that anything but a fledgling serial killer would come from such horrible squalor. As a child, the "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo was actually sold off as a slave by his alcoholic dad. Many sadistic murderers portray their childhood as an endless chain of horrifying sexual abuse, torture, and mayhem. Some stories of torture may be exaggerated for sympathy (it is always to the killer's advantage to concoct wicked parents as an excuse) but some have been corroborated by witnesses. Even families that appear healthy on the outside may be putting on an act. Children can learn the "Jeckyl and Hyde" routine from parents who are outgoing and social with neighbors and co-workers, but who scowl at their kid's inadequacies when they get home.

As we examine childhood abuse as a possible key to the serial killer's behavior, we must remember that many children have suffered horrible abuse at the hands of their parents, but did not grow up to be lust murderers. Childhood abuse is not a direct link to a future in crime. And while many girls are victimized as children, very few grow up to be sadistically violent toward strangers. Childhood abuse may not be the sole excuse for serial killers, but it is an undeniable factor in many of their backgrounds.

In his book Serial Killers, Joel Norris describes the cycles of violence as generational: "Parents who abuse their children, physically as well as psychologically, instill in them an almost instinctive reliance upon violence as a first resort to any challenge." Childhood abuse not only spawns violent reactions, Norris writes, but also affects the child's health, including brain injuries, malnutrition, and other developmental disorders.

Some parents believed that by being harsh disciplinarians, it would "toughen" the child. Instead, it often creates a lack of love between parent and child that can have disastrous results. If the child doesn't bond with its primary caretakers, there is no foundation for trusting others later in life. This can lead to isolation, where intense violent fantasies become the primary source of gratification. "Instead of developing positive traits of trust, security, and autonomy, child development becomes dependent on fantasy life and its dominant themes, rather than on social interaction," writes Robert Ressler, Ann Burgess and John Douglas in Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives. When the child grows up, according to these authors, all they know are their fantasies of domination and control. They have not developed compassion for others. Instead, humans become flattened-out symbols for them to enact their violent fantasies.

In looking to the parents for explanations, we see both horrifying mothers and fathers. The blame usually falls on the mother, who has been described as too domineering or too distant, too sexually active or too repressed. Perhaps the mother is blamed more because the father has often disappeared, therefore "unaccountable." When the father is implicated, it is usually for sadistic disciplinarian tactics, alcoholic rants, and overt anger toward women.

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