Search Box

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

That all-important childhood

Whenever I read about serial killers or other obvious sociopaths, I always find myself wondering about their childhoods.

In virtually every other aspect of personality, the weight of evidence over the past few decades has pointed more and more towards biochemical (i.e., genetic) causation. As recently as the 1960's, psychologists used to actually talk about a "schizophrenogenic" mother, i.e., the type who would tell her child she loved him but then push him away. This type of confusing behavior was thought to promote schizophrenia in a child. Now, of course, psychologists know better, and schizophrenia can usually be controlled with drugs. In fact, when a schizophrenic has an episode, it is usually because he is off his meds.

Intelligence, to the extent that it can be considered a single "trait," is now widely thought to be mostly a matter of genetic inheritance. Depression is known to have a biochemical cause, although of course there is also situational depression, to which we can all succumb depending on the circumstances of our lives. Even traits such as shyness are now known to be largely inherited.

Fifty years ago the phrase "tabula rasa" was in vogue. Literally translated as "blank slate," it referred to the theory that a newborn infant was but a blank slate upon whom his environment would bestow a personality. The world has since shifted to E.O Wilson's view of human nature. He has likened newborns to undeveloped (but already shot) film, which need only be exposed to developing fluid in order for their innate personalities to emerge.

Despite all this, there is one aspect of personality which still seems to be primarily environmentally determined: character. The one thing that almost all sociopaths seem to have in common is that they never really bonded with a parent when they were very young. (Such bonding usually happens with the mother, since fathers are often absent a good portion of the day if they're working.) If it doesn't take place early on, usually during the first year of life, then the child loses the ability to ever bond with anyone else. That child may become very adept at counterfeiting the appearance of affection and love, but he never really feels those two emotions himself. Voila, there's your sociopath. (This is why so many of the loving and decent parents who adopted children from Romanian orphanages in the 1980s had such trouble with them later on.)

Reading about Philip Markoff these past few days has brought this dynamic to mind again. When I hear about a particularly loathsome criminal, I always wonder, what were the parents like? Markoff was said to have come from a well to do family; his father was a dentist. But worldly success is not necessarily accompanied by a rich emotional life. Markoff, an obvious sociopath, was certainly good at faking affection, if the protests of his fiancee are to be given any credence. (And given her innocence about the way a sociopath operates, one would have to assume that she herself is actually an honest, if not overly intelligent, person.)

Those sociopaths who don't come from orphanages usually come from emotional orphanages.

When I worked on Wall Street, I got to know one very successful sociopath quite well. (You could say I was doing involuntary field work.) He would often complain, "I've never met a woman who wasn't a pain in the ass....." He would always wait a couple seconds, long enough for his audience to think, gee, you'd talk about your own mother that way? Then he would add, very bitterly, "Not one." I found out later that his mother's mother had died when his mother was but a few months old (so she never got a chance to really form a lasting bond with her). After that his mother's father had remarried, then had died himself when she was just six, leaving her as the unwanted stepchild. Imagine the effect that would have on a young girl's psyche. It must have left her very bitter, for she evidently did her best to make her three sons feel like unwanted stepchildren themselves. The three sons' father, by the way, had been forced to pay rent to his own parents from the time he was ten years old, which undoubtedly shaped his own outlook on humanity. (Imagine the atmosphere the three sons grew up in.) The two sons I knew (one quite well) both grew up to achieve great worldly success, but also to be sociopaths.

Whenever I read about a serial killer, I always try to find out about their own family backgrounds. Most accounts don't give many details, but occasionally some do.

The worst cases often come from parents who not only neglected them, but abused them as well. Charlie Manson was born to a 16 year old prostitute who had no idea who his father was; she once tried to sell him for a pitcher of beer. Manson's uncle made him dress up as a girl for his first day of kindergarten. When I heard this, all I could think was, no wonder. Upon further thought, I concluded that his mother and uncle must have come from the same sort of background.

Ed Kemper, the 6' 9", 280 pounder with an IQ in the high 130's who killed at least six coeds in the Santa Cruz area in the early 1970's, had a monstrous mother. She forced him to sleep in the dark basement next to the noisy boiler as a child while she and his sister slept upstairs. She also accused him of being a homosexual from the time he was eight or nine. At age 15 Kemper shot both of his grandparents dead, but was later released because he had committed the crimes as a juvenile. He started killing again in his early twenties. His first victim was his own mother, whom he decapitated. He then placed her head on his living room mantel, where he threw darts at it for several days before reuniting it with the rest of her body. He also killed his mother's friend before he went on to kill the coeds.

Ted Bundy was born to a young unwed mother in the 1940's, and the family story was that he was his grandmother's child, and that his mother was his older sister. While this story was being concocted, Ted was left in an orphanage for a few months as a newborn. (Interestingly, two other people whose mothers lied to them about their origins were Bill Clinton and Jack Nicholson.) It must have a disquieting effect on a youngster to not even know his origins.

The Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, was given up for adoption at a young age. Kenneth Bianchi, one of the two Hillside Stranglers who terrorized Los Angeles in the 1970's, was adopted. (His partner in crime, Angelo Buono, as a youngster would be dragged along by his mother and forced to wait outside in a car while she enjoyed her various sexual encounters with men. Buono would later refer to her only by epithets.)

But often, there are no such obvious clues to a person's sociopathy. Sometimes his family will be to all outward appearances normal. But there's usually a secret. One correlation I've noticed is that one of the parents, often the mother, will be alcoholic. This invariably results in extremely erratic behavior, and an addiction like that can even mean that the parent loves alcohol even more than she loves the child. This, too, can have a devastating effect.

I can't help but wonder what was going on with Markoff's family.


Anonymous said...

So what about you John? tell us about your childhood.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Not quite sure how to interpret that question. How about this: I had a very boring childhood, which is why I'm so boring.

Anonymous said...

It isn't just the sociopaths that have bad childhoods: many people with other personality disorders do. I was diagnosed with Borderline PD when I was 19, following a drugs overdose. I was raised in a family where both parents were wealthy, but emotionally distant.

My mother was highly narcissistic and would control every aspect of my life, and my father didn't really talk to me. I spent years receiving nothing but criticism for everything I did, even when I was very obedient. There were also no children in the neighbourhood for me to play with, so I would spend every weekend alone and would not see other children throughout the summer holidays. As a result of this, I became very socially awkward - having had so few opportunities to practice talking to peers. As a teenager I had a very unstable sense of self and would often make myself unpopular through saying inappropriate things, simply because I was so socially immature. This ended up with me being clinically depressed and personality disordered.

If emotionally-distant parenting can cause a range of potential personality disorders, why is it that some children end up with BPD and others with sociopathy? Do you think this is something organic in the child - there being a genetic component to sociopathy? If he has the "sociopath gene" and bad parents then he becomes a sociopath; if not, he develops a personality disorder?

John Craig said...

Anon --
The honest answer to your question is, I don't know. A lot of people seem to think there is a genetic component to sociopathy, and that has to do with the prefrontal cortex and/or limbic system. There also seems to be a hormonal component to people being more easily turned in a sociopathic direction: children with more male hormones are more rambunctious and even violent by nature, and also tend to be more fearless, and thus are harder to socialize, and therefore more likely to become sociopaths. (This is why there are roughly three times as many male sociopaths as female ones, although that thinking may be changing now.) And it also has a lot to do with whether or not children were able to establish any sort of emotional bond with their parents; thus, all the sociopaths who grow up in orphanages.

My guess with you is that you didn't become one because you did have a bond with your parents, which, however dysfunctional, was enough to keep you from becoming a sociopath. After all, there had to be some sort of bond there for you to care enough to try to please them, which you evidently did. Having an emotional bond with one's parents does not preclude dysfunctionality in that relationship.

Again, this is an inexact science and I am only guessing. And while I've been a lifelong "connoisseur" of sociopathy, I know very little about BPD.