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Happy 159th, Sigmund

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This May 6th marks the 159th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology.

Sure, many of his theories about human nature seem just plain ludicrous today, but one aspect of his work has had a lasting impact on humankind’s study of the mind: the concept of the subconscious. Freud posited that people are driven by unconscious desires, and that as adults our behavior is determined by the events we experience in childhood.

Freud spent a lot of time thinking about the traumatic. In a way, it’s amazing to believe that there was a time (as in the preceding thousands of years of human civilization) when people did not appreciate how much an individual could be forever altered by how they were treated as children.

Former FBI agent Robert K. Ressler is considered the father of modern criminal profiling—deducing traits about a killer from the evidence of the case, and then basing the search for the killer on that “profile.” He wrote a book called Whoever Fights Monsters, in which he details some of his most notorious cases. Being a profiler, he obviously looks for patterns not only in a single killer’s behavior, but also among those monsters he helped lock up.

Here are a particularly insightful pair of paragraphs:

A common myth is that murderers come from broken, impoverished homes. Our sample [of serial killers] showed that this wasn’t really true. Many of the murderers started life in a family that was not desperately poor, where family income was stable. More than half lived initially in a family that appeared to be intact, where the mother and father lived together with their son [nearly all serial killers are men]. These were, on the whole, intelligent children. Though seven of the thirty-six had IQ scores below 90, most were in the normal range, and eleven had scores in the superior range, above 120.

Nonetheless, though the homes seemed to outward appearances to be normal, they were in fact dysfunctional. Half of our subjects had mental illness in their immediate family. Half had parents who had been involved in criminal activities. Nearly 70 percent had a familial history of alcohol or drug abuse. All of the murderers—every single one—were subjected to emotional abuse [author’s emphasis, not mine] during their childhoods. [pg. 74]

Gary Gilmore, the Utah killer who in 1977 chose a firing squad over hanging as his preferred means of execution, was a perfect example of a person filled with what I call “random anger”: he was so full of rage over what he experienced as a child—Gilmore’s brother wrote a book about their childhood called Shot in the Heart—that killing a stranger was an acceptable outlet to him.

And he wasn’t a sexual deviant/control freak like Dennis Rader—a.k.a. the BTK killer—either. Control had nothing to do with it, apparently. He was just a bundle of hate.

How did he turn out that way? Well, for starters, he witnessed, on numerous occasions, his father beat his mother violently. In the face. It was not rare in the Gilmore household for the mother to be walking around with a face full of bruises. The kids witnessed the beatings, and were beaten themselves. Nice, huh?

But when you see mass media coverage of some horrible crime committed by a depraved person, the press will never, ever ask its audience, “Just what kind of upbringing did this person have that he grew up to do such things? What the hell kind of parents did this guy have, anyway?”

(Before that happens, you’ll hear Michelle Malkin ask, “Alright, if there were no ties to al Qaeda and no weapons of mass destruction, and the Bush administration knew that all along, then just why did they want to invade Iraq in the first place?”)

In fact, parenting and its lasting effects on children may be a subject on which both liberals and conservatives can easily arrive at a consensus: “Hey, It’s not our fault our kids turned out like that!”

See? There are values around which this country can unite!

How does this relate to cynicism? Because a big barricade to doing anything about abusive parents is the ancient and universal assumption that anyone who outwardly is a model citizen must be a good parent. We can be so fooled by a friendly smile and the trappings of economic success. Throw in a little church-going (conservatives) or charity work (liberals), and the person is essentially unassailable as a parent.

But ignoring this veneer can literally save lives. In Rader’s case, the police identified him as a possible suspect midway through his killing career, but he was quickly taken off the list. After all, he was a Cub Scout leader and active in his church.

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