by Thomas Gruner

Tuesday March 01, 2005

Childhood, Hatred and the Compulsion to Kill: Jonathan Pincus’ “Base Instincts – What Makes Killers Kill?”

Alfred Hitchcock, Hollywood’s famous film director, called his last movie “Frenzy” – a title pointing to the protagonist’s personal kind of madness which forced him to strangle women. The entertainment industry often presents us human beings who deny and live outside of ethical rules and, seemingly without any reason, commit crimes in an extremely brutal way. The movie “The Silence of the Lambs” proves to be another example of this kind: it presents Hannibal Lector, the murderer who devoured his victims. The public’s enormous interest in this topic reflects our strange fascination with “maniacs”, people we commonly call “nuts”. Obviously, the existence of these human beings is trying to tell us something that deeply concerns us, but what exactly this is remains a mystery.

The American neurologist Jonathan Pincus interviewed numerous violent criminals and serial killers who were imprisoned and had received the death sentence. In most cases he tried to find evidence in the hope to have the verdict changed into a life sentence. From the beginning of his career, Pincus was interested in revealing the roots of violence. He did not focus on a determined result or on the inmates’ family history. And only gradually did he discover to what degree these people had been mistreated as children and what the long-term consequences had been. The author published his conclusions in his book “Base Instincts” (2001).

Without any doubt and with no exception the inquiries regarding serial killers and their relatives proved the following:

1. every perpetrator had been exposed to extreme physical and sexual childhood abuse at the hand of their parents;
2. each homicide reflected the very kind of brutality the murderer had suffered as a child;
3. the control of hatred and aggression accumulated in childhood is generally not being erased by genetical defects but by brain damage, usually as an after-effect of the toddler’s brutal mistreatment or the mother’s drug abuse during pregnancy;
4. poverty does not cause aggressive impulses, but enforces the urge to act them out (many serial killers are of white middle-class origin, meaning that every social class is involved in generating hatred and perversions);
5. former parental cruelty gets directed at others as a form of retaliation;
6. none of the perpetrators dared to incriminate their abusive parents, even in the case of being consciously aware of what had happened to them as children;
7. the perpetrators’ perversions were identical with the perversions their parents had inflicted on them as children;
8. the biographies of the murderers represent hermetic systems of terror which get directed back at society: even previously non-involved members of society are being hurt and consequently have to suffer the very same way the former child suffered.

Pincus argues outside of any psychoanalytic or ideological dogma. His questions are basic and clear; they unearth unambiguous answers that are easy to comprehend. I do not know how the book was received by the American press or the American public. No doubt, it has been considered a provocation, since it debunks the American myth of the intact and happy family; it reveals the fact that the destruction of society takes place right at its very heart: the family. Almost nothing is intact or sane in a country which pretends to be the paradise of democracy and liberty. You might even ask yourself: has paradise gone completely mad? It is possible that the author himself got scared by the result of his research.

Though Pincus’conclusions should be general knowledge by now, they are still for the most part ignored or ridiculed. The inner logic within the biographies he presents is convincing; this alone is proof of how relevant a publication it is. The same logic applies to all life stories of human beings who have been abused and neglected in childhood. Take any life story, biography is the mirror of childhood, as human beings live their lives exactly the way they have been treated as children. The life of an adult literally tells the story of the little boy or girl he or she has once been.

The author recommends treatment of aggressive and perverse dysfunction by way of medication in order to protect the community, as well as their cell mates, from serial killers. The book does not answer the question to what extent mentally disturbed men (and women) could be “healed”. How to handle destructive impulses seems an important question to me, because these impulses not only present themselves through homicide or violence toward one’s own children, but also through patterns of self-destructive behavior which presumably have been established at the very beginning of our lives. It is impossible to clearly remember our very first months and years. Thus we are in the early stages of solving the problem whether those persistent imprints are modifiable or not. Certainly it is essential to identify ourselves with the child we once were. However, we cannot simply forget or erase the patterns that were adopted and forced on us from early on.

Pointing out the activities of a Social-Health-Organization in the Federal State of Hawaii, Jonathan Pincus demonstrates that the development of violence and abuse can indeed be prevented. In the cases he describes, intensive support was offered to parents who were at risk to becoming abusive. Thus, over time, the children’s already existent dysfunctional behaviour underwent significant change. Parents learned to handle their own aggressions and how to meet their children’s needs. Obviously this in no way profoundly psychological support already allowed substantial change. I suppose society could help itself in very efficient ways, if only we would admit the existing knowledge regarding the devastating consequences of child abuse, as well as design and finance adequate measures of support. It is obvious that our current political systems do not have any interest in this; they rather continue to waste the accumulated wealth.

The public and the media respond to bizarre sexual offenses with an amazing lack of understanding. There are spectacular reports of atrocious crimes which most people immediately put aside and forget. It is unfortunate that nobody pays attention to the fact that these crimes occur and present themselves with their own kind of inner logic.

I would like to present in extracts the biography of the “prostitute killer” Whitney Post (Chapter 6: “Anatomy of Evil”, page 128 to 156, paperback). It takes no analysis or interpretation to understand this particular case that Pincus examined. Post’s story serves as a fleshed-out example of the eight bullet points I mentioned above. With the exception of giving short captions, I will proceed without any personal comments.

Post invited the prostitutes into his truck and repeatedly took advantage of their sexual services. Thus he established mutual trust, and the women gradually made concessions in regard to their sexual interactions with him. Because some of them survived the assaults, there exists precise testimony of Post’s perversions.

The women were tied up as part of a meticulous ritual: they were not able to face their offender, their arms were tied up behind their backs, and their legs were shackled as well. Post’s special sexual interest was aimed at their feet. Later he beat them, with his belt, for instance, until they were bleeding. The louder a woman screamed, the more she panicked, the more brutal Post became. He bit and mutilated his victim’s feet, killed the woman, and at last amputated her feet. In one case he amputated her breasts.

The survivors are in agreement that they lost consciousness while being tortured, or that they dissociated because of their agony. They remained completely mute and motionless and thereby presumably saved their own lives. After the sexual assault was completed, Post apologized to some of his victims, tried to comfort them and drove them back into town.

How hatred erupts; Post’s first victim, the prostitute Miss Griffith, on the witness stand:

“Then when I asked him not to bite so hard, … he did the opposite. He kept biting harder. And instead of biting just my feet, he moved from my knees back down to my feet, biting … both calves. It was intense, and the more I screamed, the harder he bit me. … I was screaming, squirming, … asking him why. I told him he could have his money back. I can remember getting hoarse. I can’t remember if I couldn’t hear myself scream anymore or if I was opening my mouth and nothing was coming out anymore. … he bit me on the right side of my breast. … He had something that was sharp enough to cut the bottom of my feet. … I couldn’t see it clearly, but … it looked like the box cutter … He cut up the bottom of my feet. … he had bit my legs and feet for a period of time. And started cutting up the bottom of my feet. And told me that he was going to either cut up my breasts or my bottom and gave me the choice of which I preferred. I chose my butt. … I was trying to get away but … I was losing my energy … . I was tied up too tight. I remember I was wringing wet from trying to break loose. I remember totally losing my energy. And actually feeling myself separate. I remember being very quiet at one point where I couldn’t say or do anything anymore. And that’s when he stopped. …He … turned me loose … and stepped outside of the truck. I got dressed as fast as I could. I noticed my feet were bleeding, and I didn’t have anything to stop the blood. I just put my shoes and socks on. … then I asked him, >Why did you do this after all this time? Why did you let me go?< And he said, >I never killed anybody before in my life.< … He took me all the way back to where I asked to be dropped. And then, as I was getting out of the truck, he kissed me on the cheek good-bye.”

Whitney Post’s origins are white middle-class; at the time of the inquiry he is 32 years old; he was married and self-employed. He killed six prostitutes and attacked several other women. All the other facts are reported by himself or his siblings.

A religious home; the parents’ bizarre sexual needs and the panic of the children:

“His [Post’s] father, Hubert, was a minister at a fundamentalist church. Bible reading and biblical exegesis provided by his father was applied to every area of the family’s life. Respect for parents was a cardinal rule. As a result, Whitney did not like to speak to his mother, Rodina, because if he disagreed with her, it was considered ‘back talk’. This would lead to the imprecation, ‘Go to your room and wait till your father comes home.’ Whitney described his room as a prison in which he would have to await punishment. His father, Hubert, would come in later – sometimes hours later. Meanwhile Whitney shivered in fear of the beating to come.
There was a ritual aspect to the punishment. When his father did arrive, he always positioned Whitney on his bed, on his stomach or kneeling, a rope or belt immobilizing his hands behind his back so that he would be unable to protect himself with his hands. Hubert pulled Whitney’s pants down to his ankles, thereby also immobilizing his legs. Whitney was not allowed to squirm, remonstrate, or cry, as he would risk further lashes if he did. Whitney had to put his face in the pillows as he was forbidden to watch his father deliver the blows with a belt. He was struck ten to twenty times on his buttocks, back, thighs, and the soles of his feet with the belt. These beatings lasted for several minutes and were delivered two to three times a week over a ten-year period when Whitney was five until he was fifteen. …
I interviewed one of Whitney’s younger adopted sisters, Michelle. … She said, >Dad spanked us, and this always resulted in a frenzy. He was always in a frenzy. We were hit with the belt. Not a couple of blows, but many, rapidly delivered … .You would have to kneel down with your hands behind you. … Only the boys had to pull their pants down for Dad, but Mom used her hand or a fly swatter on the bare buttocks and the feet of both boys and girls. He did it to me too, but especially hard to Whitney. To hit somebody that many times you’d think he’d feel bad afterward. But Dad got into it – he enjoyed it. … I used to pray he’d get into a car accident before returning home and get killed. …<”

Confusion between affection and sexual exploitation; abuse as poisonous nutrition; omnipresent hypocrisy:

“Whitney had said that his mother used a coat hanger when she beat him. She used a wire coat hanger … and used it as a whip – a very vicious instrument. On other occasions, his father would discipline him and his siblings by pinching their arms to the point at which … blood blisters and bruises developed. … While doing this, his father had ‘a crazy look in his eye’. Other siblings agreed that Whitney was singled out for the most punishment.
The family culture was very disapproving of anything sexual. No function of sexual organs could be mentioned nor could any name of their anatomy be used. Yet there was considerable seductive behavior, often mingled with punishment. Massage was part of the family culture. No affection or hugging was done in the family, but massage provided an opportunity for some physical closeness, some pleasure, but also some pain that was often sexually charged. Hubert was the masseur for his children … . The massage was really a beating. … Whitney’s siblings said that they enjoyed the massages …, yet they all agreed that the massages were often painful.
In my interview with an older sister, Susan, she said that her parents were very puritanical and very disapproving of sexuality and of the functions of those parts of the anatomy that are above the knees and below the waist. She said that in an attempt to prevent his sons from committing the ‘unpardonable sin’ (masturbation), Hubert put hot sauce on their penises. She also acknowledged that her father’s hands had wandered below her panty line and frightened her during several massages. Susan said she was frightened because she >didn’t know what would happen.< She refused to indicate that her father had ever been sexually abusive toward her. She also told me quite frankly at the beginning of her interview that she would not say anything that would cause pain to her parents. She was intent upon sparing them any further embarrassment.
She acknowledged that her mother characteristically walked around the house and the yard dressed in nothing but a slip, her nipples, buttocks and pubic hair visible through the thin garment. As children, both Susan and Whitney’s other older sister, Sherry, were directed by their parents to walk around the house naked. They were both uncomfortable … with this, but they were not free to disobey.
All the children knew that Rodina refused to have sexual relations with Hubert because sex hurt her. They all knew that Hubert felt sexually unfulfilled. It seemed remarkable to me that such intimate details of the parents’ relationship were the common knowledge of all the children in such a professedly puritanical home.
According to Michelle, after each beating, her father … would leave the house and go outside alone. He would return a bit later. On one occasion Hubert was home for a weekend he spanked several of the children viciously and left the house. Michelle secretly followed him out of the house. Hubert went to a shed in the back and she saw him masturbating. She was about seven years old at the time and went to her mother in amazement. >What is it if a man’s pants are opened and his thing is out and it’s in his hands and he playing with it?< she asked her mother. Rodina replied, >… All men are horrible and ugly and do disgusting things to women and you shouldn’t let them do it to you or touch you.<”

The son as the “container” of parental perversions and his loyalty that proves to be fatal:

“I was anxious to find out about the origin of Whitney’s interest in feet beyond his being beaten on his legs and feet by both his parents. He told me that it was his job to massage his mother’s feet. I asked him to describe these sessions. He said that she would lie on her stomach in her bedroom, wearing only a slip, and ask him to rub her feet. He hated doing it and tried to do it for as short a time as possible, but she would request a more prolonged massage. She would moan and gasp softly as he rubbed her feet and he felt very uncomfortable massaging them, thinking it was more of her husband’s role. He could not decline to participate as this would have been ‘back talk’ and punishable by beating. Thus, he was helplessly drawn into a very sexually charged, incestuous situation. …
Whitney told me, >… It was an unpleasant effect, not exactly like a woman’s fear of touching a snake, but odd … .< He shivered as he said this.
Whitney told me how he masturbated with prostitutes’ feet. They were naked and would lie on their stomachs across his front seat or kneel on the front seat facing the back of his vehicle. He would straddle them with his back toward their head and would place his penis between their feet.
I told him that I thought there might have been a great deal of sexual abuse in his family that he might not have told me about because he did not remember it. … He said that he, literally, would rather die than let others know the details of what was done to him by his parents. …
Michelle … told me that she witnessed their father sexually abuse another adopted sister, Teresa. >… I came down toward the house. My sister, Teresa, was there, bending over outside the playhouse and Dad was standing behind her. She was crying, and he had his pants down. I yelled. He stopped, pulled his clothes together and then spanked me. He said, ‘No one will believe you.’ He locked me in the playhouse. Then he came back and spanked me again.<”

The innocence of the parents and the “purity” of religion:

“When I told Hubert about Michelle’s story, his response was disjointed. He said, >I don’t believe it. Michelle is not truthful. I can’t believe her. … Some things she might not be intending to lie about. Perhaps I was urinating that time.< …
When I interviewed Hubert, he made it very clear to me that he would rather his son Whitney be executed than he be embarrassed by the ‘false accusations’ made against him, the loving father. … When I told him that Whitney had told me that he would rather be executed than embarrass his father, Hubert wept and seemed relieved of a burden. … When I asked him, >Are you saying that you did not do what Michelle and Teresa say you did?< he answered, >If I had done something like that … I don’t know what was in Whitney’s head when he did that. I have never gone to bed without asking forgiveness for wrong doings during the day. Whitney was under the influence of the devil. He was not following the teachings of the church. …<
… Rodina … began our conversation … by saying, <… My parents were social, respectable people. … My dad had a quick temper. He’d haul off and when I was a baby, I cried. He slapped me across my mouth and my tooth bled. He felt terrible, because he was so kindhearted. He was honest. A man worked for him on the roof and the man urinated up there. … Dad socked him so hard that they had to call an ambulance … . They thought he was dead. … My father was educated and had a good upbringing. …<”

A mysterious urge – or the former child being afraid of its authentic emotions?

“I tried to determine what Whitney’s mental condition was at the time of the murders. … He felt hopeless, helpless, and that his existence was worthless. >I was just spinning my wheels, not getting anywhere. My business was doing well, but I felt I had no future. I felt driven to date prostitutes. I wanted to stop. I felt guilty. I was in a frenzy. I was desperate. I felt totally lost.< Whitney had lost thirty-three pounds during the period of the killings. …
He also described periods of … depression that lasted for … weeks, in which he felt discouraged and guilty, hated himself, and thought of harming himself. … Alcohol made him feel ‘loose, bold, brash’, and he could say what he really wanted to and could express himself sexually. …
He had a number of scars, but the origin of most of them was unknown to him. He had a lengthwise scar on his right forearm, a one-inch scar in front of his right elbow, another scar above the left elbow, a deforming posttraumatic lump on his right inner leg, and scars on his right shoulder blade. Horizontal scars on his right and left flanks, his back, his buttocks, and behind his right knee and left knee were likely the result of beatings. …
His sense of victimization increased along with his depression. His perverse urges too became stronger, and he would go to the city to seek prostitutes, sometimes more than once a day. He wanted them not only for sex, but for domination. His ability to control prostitutes relieved his own sense of victimization … He was intensely ambivalent about murdering the prostitutes. He controlled his urge to kill in many of his outings and would debate with himself, sometimes for hours, while the prostitutes lay bound and naked in his vehicle. Their terror fed his desire to torture. …”

I think these paragraphs quoted from the book “Base Instincts” show clearly that rage and destructive urges have a definite cause and can be explained. This does not mean that criminal acts should be condoned or be played down. The men and women whom Pincus interviewed sometimes characterize their parents’ behaviour by stating: “They were in a frenzy.” The mental state of mothers and fathers who are in the process of humiliating their child is like an exact preview of the mental state the future perpetrator will be in. Post and his siblings testify that a state of delusion on the side of the parent is inflicted upon the child, and that this occurs mostly during the first few years of the child’s life. The child’s soul is “occupied territory”, devoid of any individual existence. This explains why only the language of brutality remains as the last possibility to express what has once happened to the child. (Moreover, Pincus also exposes common stereotypes still favored by feminists: no male child is born with hatred toward women. In fact, if there is animosity against women, it is the result of absolutely real and concrete circumstances in childhood.)

At the same time, Post’s biography is the pitiful story of a little boy who was forced to grow up within a closed system of panic, fear and brutal terror. Reading the various life stories documented by Pincus, I thought time and again that there is no cruelty committed against children (also by mothers) which could not be exceeded by an even crueller one. The more extreme the torture once inflicted upon the child was, the more bizarre, abstruse and brutal the adult’s future destructiveness will be. Actually, in order to determine the state of our society, we have to ask ourselves the question: how do we treat our children?

Numerous serial killers are imprisoned in American jails. That’s why it is impossible to speak about rare and isolated cases, not to mention the common and ongoing child abuse that is happening more covertly. America’s society, as Pincus’ book reveals once and again, is traumatized by violence. The immense number of American movies and television series that have a strong hold over Europe is proof of that. The central theme of these productions is the common and every-day brutality the country cannot cope with; it is unable to comprehend its causes and consequences. At the same time, the meanwhile ridiculously empty ideology of “liberty” protects the masses against a very real grasp of what is actually going on. And the same diagnosis, by the way, is valid for Europe, and for the German society in particular.

The extreme and bizarre humiliations that members of “democratic” armies inflicted upon Iraqi prisoners in the year 2004 demonstrated a close correlation between perversion and politics. Often a nebulous evil is held responsible for such atrocities. Here we cannot argue anymore that being in a “frenzy” is nothing but a private affair; we cannot maintain the familiar position: of course this is abhorrent, but the heck with it. What has happened to us that we are so unable to revolt against destructiveness, that we are even willing to tolerate it? The general opinion that perversions and brutality can neither be understood nor explained is still widespread. Jonathan Pincus’ book proves the opposite. It would be the reader’s task to draw the necessary conclusions.

I would like to thank Dorothea Sonstenes for proof-reading the English version of this article.

Pincus, Jonathan H.: “Base Instincts – What Makes Killers kill?”; W.W. Norton & Company, New York 2001 (Paperback 2002)

© Thomas Gruner, Berlin-Germany, March 2005