Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bob Berdella: The Kansas City Butcher

What Makes Them Do it?

Dr. Robert Hare
Dr. Robert Hare

Dr. Robert Hare, internationally noted researcher on psychopathy, believes it is unlikely that we will ever have a unified theory about the causes of violence in general, but he does claim that we are moving toward greater understanding of certain predatory types of violence that we can attribute to psychopaths. The answers lie not within sociological or environmental factors but within the individual.

As Berdella demonstrated, psychopaths are arrogant, narcissistic, shallow, manipulative, and grandiose. They have no regard for the suffering they may cause and they generally form no strong emotional attachments to others. The disorder appears in every culture and manifests early with conduct disorders, callous disregard, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders. While not all psychopaths break the law, many do commit antisocial acts such as lying, emotional manipulation, aggression, and cruelty. What drives their actions is the need for power and control. They view the world in terms of givers and takers and feel justified being the takers. Their violence, as serial killer Arthur Shawcross once said, is just "business as usual." In other words, their aggression is instrumental, not reactive, and is intended for some dark gain.

In terms of treatment, Hare notes that sexual offenders who are psychopathic present special problems.

"The offenses of psychopathic sex offenders," he says, citing the literature, "are likely to be more violent or sadistic than are those of other sex offenders."

They also recidivate more, diversify their crimes, and fail to learn from punishment. "Psychopaths appear to suffer little personal distress, see little wrong with their attitudes and behavior, and seek treatment only when it is in their best interests to do so."

They apparently fail to process emotion the way ordinary people do, and that means they have no empathy. Thus, the typical socialized emotional inhibitions on aggression are weak.

When Berdella was asked about his intent after the second murder, he said that he didn't really have one, at least not consciously. It was more a matter of not being caught the first time, so what difference did it really make if he killed again?

Adriane Raine, from the University of Southern California and long interested in the neurological correlates of psychopathic behavior, has found brain deficits in several areas that appear to contribute to violence—specifically the limbic system (the emotional center) and the prefrontal cortex. These deficits may make psychopaths impulsive, fearless, less responsive to aversive stimulation, and less able to make appropriate decisions about aggression toward others. They may also seek out sensation-stimulating activities. Predatory murderers are lacking in affect and are much more likely to attack a stranger than those whose violence is more reactive or emotional.

In evaluating the emotional processes in the true psychopath, Patrick Christopher echoes both Raine and Hare when he says that the predatory behavior of the psychopath is related to weakness in the brain's defensive system. Emotions are thought to activate one of two basic processes in the brain, aversive and appetitive, or avoidance and approach. "In psychopaths," he says, "unpleasant stimuli have to be highly intense for defensive action to activate and interrupt goal-seeking behavior." In other words, it's not long-term ideas about imprisonment that will deter, nor their victim's pain or distress, but rather immediate personal punishment to themselves. They have a goal in mind and they will use force and violence to achieve it—unless it may harm them somehow, such as stabbing someone much larger who might fight back and win.  

But even more profound, serial killers use the string of murders as a way to give meaning and purpose to their lives. Candice Skrapec, from California State University at Fresno, tries to learn what it is that drives them and she finds basic human needs, albeit exaggerated. From interviews, she discovered that male serial killers of the predatory type feel like victims and strike back in anger to make others pay. In short, they feel both exempt from even their own moral codes and entitled to do whatever they are doing. They fuel their momentum with dark fantasies that make them feel larger than what they actually are and seem to complete them. Enacting the fantasy protects them by challenging their self-image of powerlessness and making them feel special—they are doing something that few people can do.

The killing thus increases their sense of vitality, which produces euphoria that is followed by a sense of calm or relief from pressure. When their murders are covered in the media, it affirms their sense of power. It isn't difficult to sexualize the aggression, even if sexual predation is not the original motive. They express the sense that killing involves something larger than mere death—the urge to fully destroy. Given their limited range of evaluation—everything is black or white with no in between—their acts must be all or nothing.

The killings "reconstitute" a fragmented sense of self into an integrated whole. "In the end," says Skrapec, "what appears outwardly to be offensive behavior is essentially defensive." Serial killers experience anger as emptiness and so they act out to feel better, even to devise a sense of meaning within their lived experience.

Regardless of just how Berdella's brutality might be explained, he ranks with John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Dennis Nilsen, and others who believe they need to dominate a vulnerable person and make him do their bidding—even unto death.

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