Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Larry and Danny Ranes: Serial Killers in the Same Family

Abuse & Abusers

Gary Gilmore
Gary Gilmore

A comparison between Nevada killer Gary Gilmore 's family of four siblings, an equally abusive and tyrannical father, and similar economic circumstances (as well as a colder mother) shows that of four boys, only Gary became a killer.  In fact, another brother was the victim of a homicide and the youngest son went on to be an award-winning writer. That both Ranes boys committed serial murder, selecting entirely different types of victims and showing much different patterns, cannot be attributed solely to poor parenting or economic conditions.  Unfortunately, the psychiatrists who testified about insanity for Larry offered only weak ideas about his motives.

A Violent Heart, by Gregory Moffatt
A Violent Heart, by Gregory Moffatt

Gregory Moffatt, in A Violent Heart, says, "Even though there are a few rare exceptions, violent individuals are not born that way.  Instead they become violent through the process of cultural and sociological interaction, individual physiology, and psychological development."  He points out that a person's worldview, whether it's positive or negative, exhibits things said or not said, or done or not done by parents, even well-meaning parents.  In addition, cultural influences affect the way people think and behave.

Debra Niehoff
Debra Niehoff

A researcher who lays out these influences more precisely is Debra Niehoff, a neuroscientist, who studied twenty years of research before she wrote The Biology of Violence.  In her opinion, the decision to commit violence is unique to each individual. "The biggest lesson we have learned from brain research," she says, "is that violence is the result of a developmental process, a lifelong interaction between the brain and the environment." 

The Biology of Violence, by Debra Niehoff
The Biology of Violence, by Debra Niehoff

The brain keeps track of our experiences through chemical codes, Niehoff states. Each time we experience an interaction, we approach it with a neurochemical profile influenced by attitudes that we've developed over the years about whether or not the world is safe and whether we can trust our instincts.  The chemistry of our feelings about any situation is translated into our responses. "Then that person reacts to us, and our emotional response to their reaction also changes brain chemistry a little bit. So after every interaction, we update our neurochemical profile of the world."

We may turn a normally appropriate response into an inappropriate response by overreaction or directing it to the wrong person.  In other words, a person's ability to properly evaluate the situation may become impaired.  "If a person has come to believe that the world is against them, and they are overreacting to every little provocation, these violent reactions get beyond their ability to control, because they are in survival mode."

Niehoff indicates that some aggressive people are over-reactive, in part because they are physiologically hyperactive, with a short attention span.  Under-reactive types have trouble developing empathy; have lower galvanic skin responses and a lower metabolic rate; and fail to attach emotion to their behavior.  This appears to related to both Danny and Larry, at least as Hilberry describes them. Yet not everyone with a similar interplay of psychological and physiological factors will become violent: it requires other factors as well.

The Scarred Heart, by Helen Smith
The Scarred Heart, by Helen Smith

In The Scarred Heart, about kids and violence, psychologist Helen Smith indicates that violence comes from the accumulation of many distorted thoughts and stressors that finally send a person over the edge.  People who use violence to solve a problem have already had a number of violent thoughts.  They perceive their situation in such a way that violence seems the best mode of action, because they believe they must bring their situation to some dramatic conclusion.  Violence builds over time, and those children exposed to it in the home on a frequent basis may feel stimulated by it as a means for affirming something in themselves.

Trying to understand how this all worked was the task that Dr. Hilberry had set for himself when he received the unique opportunity to interview the Ranes brothers.

 

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