Dorothy O. Lewis has dedicated her life’s work to study why human beings murder. Her impressive, excellent book “Guilty by Reason of Insanity: A Psychiatrist Explores the Minds of Killers” is a harrowing read. It is shocking to learn about the actual acts of murder. They are usually seen as nothing but completely senseless evil acts—until the appalling, perverted physical and sexual violence and abuses, which these murderers had endured as children, come to light. Exposed to brutal, merciless whippings, beatings, and abused in abhorrent ways as sexual slaves—some of them through being sodomized—they had to manage to survive their childhoods from hell in a constant state of terror. Many people still want to believe that people are born evil; or that evilness afflicts a person out of nowhere; or that some innate evilness makes a human being kill. But that is not true.
The murderers whom we get to know in this gripping book have been through unspeakable horrors. They have damaged brains and mental illnesses. But the decisive and common factor for murderous acts is the experience of extremely traumatic childhood abuse. In many cases the barbaric, perverted torture caused the mind of the tortured child to split into multiple personalities. Dorothy Lewis, trained at Yale in a traditional, psychoanalytic way, could at first not recognize this devastating reality that helped these children survive and dissociate from their unbearable ordeals. Her interviews, wherein she gains a murderer’s trust so that the split personalities dare to come out and communicate with her—with their own names and characteristics, like a different way to talk, to look, to move—are stunning, shocking, and painfully fascinating.
Why do we look at murderers only as evil, perverted people who just must be put away or even silenced forever through the death penalty? Why don’t we try to gain all possible information about what produced their crimes? To understand what makes a murderer kill does not mean to excuse the crime or to let him or her out of jail. Society has the right to be protected. But we could learn so much from every murderer about the origins of terrible killings and how to prevent them—if we felt the responsibility to find out the reality and truth, and the reasons behind them. Thus, we could create a new, vitally important awareness about the devastating dangers and consequences of permitting violence against children.
It is a great loss for humanity’s growth that society is so blind, deaf and without any compassion for the ordeals of the victims of unfathomably monstrous childhood torture, which these murderers had to endure over and over again. In their interviews with Dorothy Lewis, they shared what happened to them often for the first time in their lives. Many of them could not remember any of it and could not explain why they had scars on their backs, their behinds and other parts of their bodies. Only dissociated parts, formed by their minds to help them survive, remembered the horrific abuses. It was frustrating to read how long it took and how skilled the interviewer had to ask her questions until these harrowingly mistreated human beings would share anything about their past—which they did only when they had come to trust this bright and sensitive psychiatrist.
It was mind-boggling to read that they did not want to reveal what they had suffered as children because they were afraid to paint their parents in a ‘bad light’ and to loose their families if they did so—which they feared especially when they were close to their executions and any information about their own plights might have saved their lives. Their parents were nothing but relieved if the truth remained a secret, hidden away—even if it meant that their child would be executed and had no chance of having his or her life spared through information that would throw light on their violent insanity.
It was moving and interesting to read how Dorothy Lewis describes her path from her confining training at Yale in the ‘Freudian tradition’ to arrive at her realizations, brought about by her experiences through these interviews—that human beings, who suffer traumatic, barbaric abuse in childhood can become violent murderers and people with multiple minds.
Murders are nothing else but the visible final acts of too many acts of agonizing violence inflicted on powerless, helpless, defenseless, innocent children—a reality which society does not wish to recognize. Society only takes note, often in sensational ways, of this final act and how to punish the criminal who committed it—but does not wish to be informed about all the crimes of their parents and other caretakers that led to this crime.
Dorothy Lewis has worked together with Jonathan Pinkus, who has written the book “Base Instincts.” They found three factors that need to come together to entice a murderous act: child abuse, mental illness, and brain damage. As I read about the cruelty and violence committed against these children, on a regular, often-daily basis, I wondered who would think that any adult could survive such ongoing torture, continuing for years, without severely damaging and traumatic consequences for his brain, mind, soul, body and sanity. Adults, tortured like that, would find sympathy and understanding, maybe even help. A child, in the possession and at the complete mercy of merciless, insane parents or other cruel, perverted abusers with power over the child, cannot find help or sympathy in his/her childhood—and rarely in court. Justice is a concept that never even touches these lives.
© Barbara Rogers, February 2006
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Screams from Childhood