Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Stewart Wilken

The Psychology of Stewart Wilken

The first six years is one of the most important periods of human development. It is a critical period for psychosocial development, in particular forming attachments to other human beings (Louw, Van Ede & Louw, 1998). A critical period is a specific span of time during which a child is biologically ready and susceptible to develop specific skills, behaviours and/or capacities, provided that she or he is exposed to the appropriate environmental conditions and stimulation (Berk, 2000). A critical period does not repeat itself; if a child should fail to develop those characteristics which fall in a critical period, it may forever be too late.


Attachment is a psychological term referring to the emotional bond which develops between people, particularly between the child and his or her primary caregiver, which is usually the mother (Louw et al., 1998). This emotional connection is visible in the child's positive feelings when near the mother, as well as going to her in times of uncertainty and fear. Although researchers initially believed that feeding was important in the formation of attachment, studies indicated that warmth, comfort and social interaction were the real significant factors (Berk, 2000).

Child Development, by Berk
Child Development, by Berk

John Bowlby (in Louw et al., 1998) studied the development of attachment between child and mother, and distinguished four stages in this process. During the third stage, from 6 months to 2 years, the normal child becomes firmly attached to her or his mother. This is precisely the time when Stewart Wilken was abandoned by his mother. Instead, he came to be with a cruel man who showed him no love.

How these four phases proceed is highly significant for the child's development. A mother who is generally unresponsive and unaffectionate toward her child will not mediate the formation of healthy and secure attachment in her child. Children with healthy attachment will be able to use their mother as a secure base from which to venture out into the environment and explore, happy in the knowledge that they can return to her in the face of anxiety. The child thus develops the belief that the mother will be there in times of stress, which creates an internal working model for all future intimate relationships (Berk, 2000).

Stewart Wilken did not have this. He had a caregiver who abused him, hurt him and humiliated him. He could not develop the trust that there would be someone he could count on. Research has repeatedly found that emotional deprivation during the early years of life has a permanent effect on the child's personality (Louw et al., 1998).


This is also the stage during which the foundation of socialization is laid (Louw et al., 1998). Socialization refers to the acquisition of the values, rules and moral standards of a particular culture (Reber, 1985). In the early years of life, this task falls mainly on the parents' shoulders. They have to teach the child which types of behavior are acceptable and which are not. Initially, it involves basic manners, such as keeping quiet while others are speaking and toilet training. As the child gets older, the content of socialization becomes more complex. Two important ways in which parents act as socialization agents are: (1) directly, by teaching their children how something is done; and (2) indirectly, by acting as models (Louw et al., 1998). Parents who behave in a loving and caring manner will generally evoke similar behaviour in their children.

It is obvious that Stewart Wilken did not receive proper socialization at the hands of Doep. He was not taught to respect other people, that others should not be harmed. At the core of socialization lies the realization that we live in a world filled with people who should be treated with respect. How could Stewart Wilken learn this from a man who abused him and treated him like a dog? Instead, the boy learned that your own feelings and needs are paramount, regardless of the consequences on the lives of others.

Although the physical abuse decreased significantly when he was adopted, it does not appear as if his emotional world improved to the same degree.

Absent Father

An aspect which is apparent in almost every serial killer's childhood is the absence of a proper father figure (Ressler & Shachtman, 1993). Stewart Wilken's biological father abandoned him. His next father figure, Doep, abused him. Apparently, Mr. Wilken was good to him and Stewart had affection for him, but his stepfather died when Stewart was 9, just the time when the father becomes very important in a boy's life. As a result, Stewart was left with no role model. He could not identify with a male figure to learn how he should be a man. Instead, he was sodomised by a deacon from the church. Again he was confronted with the message: Men are abusive and take what they want from others.


As children get older, friendships become increasingly important. Not only is friendship pleasant to the children involved, but it provides a situation in which many socially oriented behaviours are learned and practised. Children gain a deeper understanding of other people, and become aware of different viewpoints. It moves them away from an egocentric point of view and helps with the development of empathy and helping behaviour (Berk, 2000). Their social skills improve and they become better at dealing with people. Friendship can also be invaluable in coping with stressful situations.

Social Psychology, by Baron & Byrne
Social Psychology, by Baron & Byrne

Stewart Wilken did not have close friendships as a child. Part of the reason may lie in the attachment style he developed. Children with secure attachments are much more proficient in developing friendships later in life than children with insecure attachments (Baron & Byrne, 1997). Stewart was mocked and ridiculed by his peers.

In such a situation, the child tends to become isolated and withdraws into his own world. He develops feelings only towards himself.

To compound the situation further, his stepmother sent him to a reformatory. Again he was rejected by his mother. Again he was abused by others. Again he was sodomized by older, more powerful males.

The crimes of serial killers are fuelled by their fantasies (Douglas & Olshaker, 1997, 1998b). Their fantasies are central to their beings. Unfortunately, we know nothing of Stewart Wilken's fantasies. Still, it would be logical to assume that he fantasized about revenge, about him being the one with the power. Fantasies find especially fertile soil in the tortured and the isolated.