Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph Blog The Psychology of the Violent Person – Dr. Ellen's Blog

The Psychology of the Violent Person

Posted on December 19, 2012 By

As an experienced mental health professional and Bowen family expert, I abhor the traditional approach to mass shooters by the media, by the police, and also even by mainstream mental health professionals; all of whom myopically fixate on the individual shooter. Broadening their lens to include a family systems approach is far more productive and useful in such cases, but these professions are not knowledgeable about how to do this, nor are they trained to think systemically.

You would think that Freudian theories of ID, EGO and SUPER EGO would be passe by now, given that Freud was born in 1856 and emanated from what is now known as the Czech Republic; an era and place that is hardly reflective of the Western world today. His system of thought originates in nineteenth century biology and physics; and it still predominates even though no other modern sciences are stuck in such antiquity. Freud’s ideations are akin to Marx’s theories of a similar by-gone era. Both are social critics, and both are Jews exiled form their Germanic homelands.

Both redefined human nature and human consciousness at that time, but to what end?

The study of the family emotional system is extremely critical understanding today’s psychopaths, yet mainstream, Freudian-based psychology still serves as the GO-TO profession for media and police answers. This is despite the fact that it has never fulfilled its mission by helping us to better understand mass murderers so as to allow Society to better assess and predict their explosion into our midst.

The expertise of family professionals is critical to understanding these pathological individuals. And I offer my current professional commentary to you as an example of how to think more productively about this societal plague.

There are many things that Americans need to have a serious national dialogue about but, in the aftermath of continuing strings of mass shootings, none are more pressing than the question of violence.

The questions we are all asking ourselves today are these:

What is violence;
What provokes violence;
Why do some people become mass murderers;
What is the psychology of the violent person; and
What can society do to prevent it.

The first thought, of course, is more stringent [gun control] so that we can stop these madmen. And to many this is a logical first step.

Yet, if we were to try to control everything that kills people we would no longer have a free society. It would be a society stripped of individual liberties. Our precious individual liberties must be protected at the same time that we find ways to prevent future such massacres.

Besides, many more deaths in this country are caused by people driving recklessly in automobiles on our public roadways, or as a result of errors of judgment in our hospitals, or by accidents. The top fifteen causes of death in the United States (in this order) are as follows: (1) heart disease, (2) cancer, (3) stroke, (4) chronic lung disease, (5) accidents, (6) Alzheimer’s disease, (7) diabetes, (8) influenza and pneumonia, (9) kidney disease, (10) blood poisoning, (11) suicide, (12) liver disease, (13) hypertension, (14) Parkinson’s disease, and (15) homicide.

Note that homicide is last on the list

The effects of biological aging are by far the leading cause of death. What’s more, there are many preventable causes of death that are directly related to how people live their lives: these include stress, hypertension, tobacco smoking, drug-induced death, firearm injuries, high-risk behavior, malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, poor diet, obesity, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption, indoor air pollution, unsafe water, poor sanitation.  The list goes on.

Annual causes of death in the United States are available here. Do you know? Homicide rates are actually declining in the U.S.

Still, it is not a particularly safe world we live in and every day could be our last for any number of reasons, self-induced or not. We face inevitable threats whenever we leave the safety of our homes.

The question is, how do we cope with such knowledge?

The Context of Violence

Let me start with this observation: there are no ‘random acts of kindness’ and there are no ‘random acts of violence.’ In both cases the randomness is purely in the eyes of the beholder.

The person who performs an act of kindness does so with deliberation. They do it because they want to and, typically, the person is not looking for public acclaim or recognition. Their behavior is driven by a strong desire to express benevolence and good will towards others. They select the recipients of their kindness based on conclusions they have drawn beforehand about those who may be especially needy at the time.

The person who performs an act of violence also does so with deliberation. They do it because they want to and, typically, the person is not looking for public acclaim or recognition. Their behavior is driven by a desire to harm others. They select their unwitting targets based on conclusions they have drawn beforehand about them.

Human behavior is emotionally driven. Observed behavior in any person is a literal snapshot of the person at a given moment in time that speaks to the entire trek through life that the person has taken.

But we have to know what we are looking at, not unlike the archeologist who looks at a precisely dug hole in the ground and sees the past when you and I see nothing but a pile of dirt.

It has been said that we ‘die of our whole life’ and I agree with that statement. It means that ultimately we die of the things we consume, the risks we take, the behaviors we engage in, the relationships we have with others, how well we care for ourselves and educate ourselves — and how all that plays out over the course of a lifetime.  We die, in other words, of the choices we make and the associations we keep.

This is as true for violent twenty-somethings (who murder others then kill themselves) as it is for septuagenarians taking their last breath of life from a hospital bed surrounded by loving family members.

Some of us die well, others of us die badly, and in both cases the death is reflective of the life that was.

What can this tell us about violent perpetrators?

What We See is Not Always What We Get

This means that we have to start asking better questions.

Ballistics, crime forensics and law enforcement cannot be the only focus when investigating the kinds of violent episodes we have witnessed since Columbine. The police have a critical role to play but so do mental health professionals, especially the role played by professionals trained in analysis and treatment of the multi-generational family. The primary theoretical domain in this regard is the Bowen Theory of Family Emotional Functioning. I am fortunate to have had Dr. Murray Bowen as a mentor and his wisdom deeply informs how I think.

NOTE: You should be aware that the dominant mental health systems  in this country focus exclusively on individual functioning. Some individually trained mental health professionals do see families in their practices but they tend to view these families as a collective of individuals that happen to be related. Family members are used, in this context, merely to gain information about the “identified patient.”

They are trained to think in terms in individual motives, mental illness, or individual temperament and personality traits that typically characterize violent people. THESE ARE INTERESTING CONCEPTS BUT THEY ARE FREUDIAN CONCEPTS that are not useful for understanding something so major as mass murder violence or the sheer complexities of families.

We have, in essence, an institutionalized approach to the delivery of services to the mentally ill.

On one level it is a useful approach that standardizes how we see dysfunctional people and it provides a quick way to diagnose and label them. This system speeds up treatment, it provides useful information to the courts, and it allows for some degree of consensus among a broad range of health and police professionals. Even more importantly, perhaps, it has mainstreamed the use of prescription drugs to treat dysfunctional people.

However, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is not without controversy. There has been a battle going on for some time to actually define mental illness, and Allen Frances has been at the center of it.  Frances was the lead editor of the 4th edition of this standard manual of mental disorders.  I encourage you to read the telling link above.

The DSM manual gives psychiatrists and certain other health professionals the authority to diagnose suffering and treat it with drugs.

The problem is, and the claim that Frances is now making, is that the psychiatric establishment is making diseases out of everyday suffering when, in fact, there is no credible way to differentiate so-called mental illness from everyday suffering.

In other words, we have a system in place that we rely heavily upon –but is it really fixing our problems? It has certainly not taught us very much about the true nature of the violent person.
The perspective of family dynamics professionals like myself is this: if we want to learn what provokes a person to violence then we have to know everything there is to know about the family relationships of the violent person, and the dominant relationship patterns that have engulfed that person from birth forward. It certainly makes sense, doesn’t it?

This means that whenever violent acts are involved the families of the violent perpetrators also need to be properly analyzed, right along side the perpetrator and at the same moment in time.

Yet this is not being done, although generic questions are certainly asked of the families by police and mainstream, individually focused health professionals.

Their questions to the family are primarily about the character of the violent perpetrator and his activities, interests, thoughts, machinations, associations outside of the family, and about any mental illness or other medical or learning problems or violent history he may have. Unless they are also considered suspects in the case, family members are pretty much considered peripheral to the investigative process.

FACT: the criminal mind comes from a family that has most assuredly aided and abetted the formation of that mind.

FACT: loners have something to hide and the families they come from have something to hide.

FACT: a child does not kill parent(s) for petty reasons.

FACT: nearly every violent mass murderer in this country in recent history has been prescribed anti-depressant drugs for several or more years preceding their violent outburst.

FACT: anti-depressant drugs have a long and documented history of triggering suicide and episodes of violent behavior in those taking the drugs.

FACT: in highly publicized proceedings, Peter R. Breggin, MD in 2010 testified before the Veterans Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The title of his expert testimony: Antidepressant-Induced Suicide, Violence and Mania: Implications for the Military. Download his written statement here.

FACT: With regard to the prescription of anti-depressants to soldiers during or after deployment, Dr. Breggin says this:

“The newer antidepressants frequently cause suicide, violence, and manic-like symptoms of activation or over-stimulation, presenting serious hazards to active-duty soldiers who carry weapons under stressful conditions. These antidepressant-induced symptoms of activation can mimic post-traumatic stress disorder and are likely to worsen this common disorder in soldiers, increasing the hazard when they are prescribed to military personnel. Anti-depressants should not be prescribed to soldiers during or after deployment.”


Are You Aware of This?

You can see, I am sure, that the implications extend far beyond the realm of the military.

Do you know that the shrinking number of mental hospitals in this country are staffed for the most part with foreign-born, Freudian-trained doctors whose primary language is not English.

It is extremely difficult today to admit a person to a psychiatric facility because of all the regulations and legalities associated with hospital admission procedures.

Even mental health professionals avoid admitting patients because of insurance companies dogging them to release the patient.

You can imagine, then, how difficult if not impossible it is for a family trying to admit one of its own family members. Not only that, the stigma of mental illness in general and the added stigma of psychiatric hospitalization is a weighty thing to deal with. The stigma alone causes families to conceal their dysfunctional family members or risk, like the Connecticut shooter’s mother did, the wrath of her dysfunctional son when she initiated hospital admissions procedures.

[Families do not tell all, trust me.]

We use the term “Mental Health” to describe services for the mentally ill. However nice and prevention-oriented the term might sound, this institutionalized mental health delivery system is not about prevention services.

Mental Health services deal with therapeutic treatment modalities: things like  prescription drug treatment, outpatient psychotherapy, inpatient hospitalization, group therapy, alcoholism and drug treatment, and more — for already dysfunctional patients.

The fact is, professionals have too much to do trying to mop up the steady stream of mental illness in our midst to have the time to seriously think about trying to prevent illness. (Some jobs would be lost, too, hmmm?)

Psychiatric inpatient programs deal exclusively with the mentally ill patient, not their families.

Families are rarely, if ever, involved in the treatment process and often they are not even held financially responsible for the family member who has been admitted to the psychiatric hospital. This is not true in all cases but it is mostly true.

Social Security Disability covers a majority of long-term psychiatric inpatient hospitalizations, are you aware of that, too?

Even though the patient need for psychiatric hospitalization is now far greater than the supply of available treatment facilities, we don’t collectively talk about the mentally ill; we feel anxious around the mentally ill; we put as many of these individuals as we can behind closed doors; and we really don’t give them much thought until some horrific event literally forces us to think about them again.

Today’s View of ‘Mental Illness’ is a Freudian Throwback From the 19th Century

The term mental illness assumes that the person so labeled lives in an emotional vacuum, which is ridiculous. But that’s how Freud conceptualized it in his day.

However, all violent perpetrators were born into a family and lived as a daily member of that family for a number of  years, typically for as many as 18 years or more. And within that extended family structure there were parents, stepparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, step-grandparents, half-siblings, cousins, you name it. Each and every one of those family members had an emotional impact on the perpetrator, as did the culture that surrounded the family.

But because a family is far more than the mere sum of its parts, any anxiety-driven pathways have a way of fusing generations together to form what Dr. Bowen referred to as “an undifferentiated amorphous mass.”

In a healthy family relationship system individuals can relate to each other without such self-defeating fusion.

But in a dysfunctional family system, relationships become blurred, generational boundaries become confused, anxiety escalates precipitously between family members, and rage builds then eventually erupts. These kinds of families have an emotional lid on them that keeps the world out. The only way today we can really find out what is going on in such entrenched and reclusive family systems is to enforce regular scrutiny by outside child-care agencies, schools, medical facilities and the like — any where family members may have some connection.

In dysfunctional families couples marry and divorce, sometimes multiple times; they make babies in and out of wedlock; they fight; they physically abuse each other; they scream in rage at each other; they triangulate children into marital conflicts; they suffocate children with over-focus; they force themselves sexually on children or others; they emotionally cutoff from one another; they lie and cheat on each other – the list of abuses within families is endless, not to mention any additional stresses of poverty or drug and alcohol addiction or chronic unemployment, or even medical impairment.

Imagine a child growing up in any one of those circumstances. They are indelibly scarred by such experiences. and they bring those scars with them into adulthood in the form of enraged and dysfunctional attitudes and behavior.

Contrast this to a child born into an intact, nurturing family. The family surrounds them with a sense of community and a sense of belonging. They celebrate the child’s growth and development and every small step towards future emancipation. In healthy families their members tend to remain in nurturing emotional contact throughout their lives.

The two children described above may look similar on the outside but they are nothing at all alike on the inside.

The ‘Leaving Home’ Era of Family Life is Critical

A critical period in the life of any family is the point at which a child leaves home. It is at this juncture that parents should joyfully and benignly let go as the young adult takes tentative steps into the world to form their own differentiated life and relationships. But it is a two-way process.

In dysfunctional families it is a time of grave upheaval. The leaving home process is wrenching as the over-involved parent/child relationships begin to dissolve and children exhibit reactive symptoms of a desired emotional cutoff.

NOTE: the more dysfunctional the overall family history has been, the more impaired the leaving home child becomes. Families can and do literally self-destruct at this juncture. The 20-year old mass murderer in fatigues and armored vest with a thousand clips of ammunition in his pocket is an example of a child entwined in a profound family crisis.

Patterns Repeat

The common denominator of all patterns in nature is that they repeat. It is the nature of the beast. A pattern is a repeating regularity of form or movement that consistently arises under consistent circumstances.

The natural world is filled with familiar patterns that surround us: ocean waves, spirals, wind, dunes, coastlines, river networks, crystals, blood vessel branching, bubbles, even fractals to name but a few examples. Both living and non-living things possess striking symmetries not unlike the snowflake whose structure forms a record of the varying conditions that were present during its formation (called crystallization).

The Bowen Theory shows us that highly anxious human behavior has a definite symmetry about it, too. This symmetry serves as a record of the varying emotional conditions present over generations of family functioning.

Families in crisis are highly anxious. And as the crisis state becomes more and more entrenched,  anxiety in all family members escalates. There is, indeed, a point at which the anxiety becomes so oppressive that thinking and behavior becomes obviously impaired; and all important family relationships become impaired as well.

These entrenched relationship patterns eventually spill over into the next generation where the patterns tend to repeat.

For example: children of alcoholics tend to become alcoholics themselves, or they marry an alcoholic; abused children grow up and tend to abuse their own children; suffocating, over-focusing mothers produce children who tend to grow up to suffocate their own children; divorce gets passed on down the generations as an emotional copying strategy; obese parents tend to produce obese children.

Guns and Violence

As I said earlier, the predictable political response to violence is always to demand more stringent GUN CONTROL. And sovereign U.S. states can clearly choose to limit the sale of assault weapons as a class of weapons, but they vary greatly in their interpretations of that label.

There are very serious 2nd Amendment questions associated with any weapons ban, as we well know.

How do dangerous people get guns?  They certainly do not go through any federally-required legal screening process: (1) they run and stash illegal guns across sovereign borders; (2) they aquire illegal guns through sharing arrangements with gang members or other acquaintances; and (3) they use ‘straw’ purchasers who buy guns for them to make a little money on the side.  But the most likely source is someone known to the offender like a fellow dysfunctional family member who rarely faces any legal consequences for doing so.

But just remember: dysfunctional individuals wanting to purchase guns also drive cars that can become deadly weapons on our roadways, and they abuse their children and spouses with their hands and knives and other weapons including genitalia, all of which can be equally deadly.

Where are the calls to control the sale of automobiles and the sale of knives or sex? Where are the calls to control Hollywood’s propensity for producing violent films? We have long talked about violent television programming, but has anything ever come of it? Even video games and comic books are equally violent today but no one seriously thinks of controlling these things.

Guns become the focus because it seems like a relatively quick and easy solution. We like easy solutions, just as the mental health establishment likes the quick and easy diagnostic tools found in their Manual of Mental Illness.

QUESTION: what will it take for Society to learn how to properly assess the violent families that produce dysfunctional and violent perpetrators?

QUESTION: what will it take to get mainstream mental health professionals to stop practicing a myopic treatment modality that no longer reflects the relational complexities that surround us in the 21st Century?

QUESTION: do you know that police have no duty to protect you? You, and only you, are responsible for your security and the security of your loved ones. This is true even if you have received death threats and the police failed to respond. Police have a duty to protect society as a whole. Read this wake up call:  The Myth of Police Protection

As the author says, “underlying all gun control ideology is this one belief, that “private citizens don’t need firearms because the police will protect them from crime.”

More laws, and more regulations, are not the answer

We cannot prevent emergencies from happening. We can only hope to be prepared with adequate training and the knowledge needed to cope with the emergencies as they arise.

We cannot prevent violence, either. Certainly not with the dearth of information that is currently available to the general public about violence and its familial origins. The public abhors violence yet at the same time it is grossly ignorant of it, and even as it mindlessly aids and abets it.

You have noticed, I am sure.  Neighbors don’t know each other any more. Gone are the inviting and communal front porches and neighborhood sidewalks in residential communities. Gone are the small shops serving these local neighborhoods. We even buy our food today from foreign countries, not from local farm cooperatives.

The communities of old embraced us. Neighborhoods today isolate us. It’s no wonder that crime and violence flourish.

The voyeuristic role of the news media

Once a violent episode happens the mainstream news organizations barrage us with endless forensic details about the shooting; about what guns were used, what bullets, when it happened, who was harmed or killed, who did what where. And all of this information comes to us within hours, sometimes even within minutes of the awful event.

Yet this brand of news coverage is largely voyeuristic. It goes way too far. In most cases it also gives the violent perpetrator his ‘five minutes of fame’ whether he was looking for that or not.

The media completely bypasses invaluable opportunities for solid public awareness programming in the wake of such devastating emergencies; not because they purposely do so, but because they don’t have a clue or the skills to do so.  Then who does??

Public Education is Key

Many of my peers and I were classically educated in the 50’s and 60’s. We learned several foreign languages in high school, we studied the arts, and we learned not only to appreciate music but also to make music. We traveled to learn. And we had teachers who taught us how to think without telling us what to think. We explored subjects instead of merely memorizing tidbits of information for tests.

I don’t see much of the classical stuff going on any more.

The focus instead is on memorization and regurgitation, on professorial opinion making, and on teachers salaries and unions, and on their benefits. I know there are some inherently great teachers out there but the educational milieu today is not conducive as it once was for introspection and philosophical inquiry on the part of students or faculty.

The educational system today has little time for such luxuries. Yet, isn’t that what education is all about?

Oh, who cares that the history books have been whitewashed of certain facts to please regional school boards in this country? Who cares that the federal government has slowly been taking over our schools for decades, quietly inserting this fact and removing that fact for the purpose of propagandizing our children? Who cares that we are so often just teaching to the test?

This is not aimed just at public education, mind you: even something like homeschooling has its risks. When taken on by families that are emotionally healthy and intellectually inquisitive, where parents have definable skills to properly educate, students can and do reap great rewards. But homeschooling can also be limiting and socially very isolating, particularly when it serves to protect children from learning things about the world that some homeschooling parents don’t want their children to learn.

Things We Need to Know and Do

We need to know what is going on in families. This means that some local system in each school board district needs to be put in place that accurately  tracks the whereabouts and circumstances of all minor children under their care. We cannot let dysfunctional families continue to churn out dysfunctional young people who turn to violence to vent their rage.

Families must be monitored by the same local and state governments that are given the responsibility for educating children.

We need to learn how to recognize dysfunctional behaviors in minor children and in their families before it is too late to do anything about it.

We need for healthy parents to exert absolute control over what their minor children are reading, watching on television and seeing at the movies that may be violence oriented. This includes all manner of video games and prohibitions to certain kinds of web sites.

We need to learn how to effectively manage anxiety, not only in our children but in ourselves. For chronic anxiety is at the root of all psychological and familial dysfunction.

We need to have a national conversation about prescription drug usage. We are creating a veritable drug culture in this country that will eventually be our undoing.

We need to banish all prescription drug advertisements from television and elsewhere and relegate them to physicians’ offices where they belong. There is a drug for every possible malady today. This just creates ever-new treatment fads that require ever new and costlier designer drugs for them.

FACT: Children are regularly being prescribed anti-psychotic drugs that have unknown and untold ill-effects on a child’s developing brain, not to mention the obesity-inducing propensity of many of these same drugs.

We need to find better ways to protect ourselves from the bottom feeders in our society.

We need to reduce the size of our social systems. Big government breeds engorged social systems. And as our social systems become ever more expansive, increasing numbers of vulnerable people drop out of sight or are simply left behind.

We need to understand that predatory federal expansion into the field of education is not working, and has never worked, even though the costs to taxpayers keeps rising.

We need to understand that we are collectively spending too much energy relying on others for things that we rightly should be able to do for ourselves. For our children’s sake if nothing else, we can no longer afford to wait for those Knights in Shining Armor to rescue us from ourselves.

A Final Note for What It’s Worth

1-  Physicians today are glorified pill-pushers.

2-  We suffer from too many specialists and too few generalists.

3- Medical specialties cause doctors to focus too much on disparate  parts without ever really seeing the whole person.

4- Hospitals are becoming downright dangerous places, as are many nursing homes.

5- Physicians still routinely disavow popular and effective alternative treatment modalities such as those offered by chiropractors and acupuncturists, and others.

6- Medicine has become just another big business as relationships between “Big Pharma” and physicians and the medical research community morph into the same kind of amorphous mass that define dysfunctional families.

Yes, it is one and the same.