In a quick recap, last week I discussed the nature side behind why certain individuals become serial killers. This week, we will be focusing on the nurture side. As mentioned before, there is not ‘one’ single factor, genetic component or isolated incident that causes someone to become a serial killer, but rather they are created from a wider mix of multiple factors.
One of the most common misfortunes suffered by serial killers if often early childhood abuse or trauma. “over 40 percent of the serial murderers reported being physically beaten and abused in their childhoods. More than 70 percent said they had witnessed or been part of sexually stressful events when young…” (Ressler and Shachtman, 1992) Now, it’s important to realize that abuse comes in many different forms. Psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and other various forms of maltreatment. Though in many of these cases the abuse comes directly from a family member, it can also come from outside parties as well, such as children at school. In the case of Carroll Edward Cole, a notorious serial killer largely from the 70’s-80’s, we see abuse from multiple sources, his mother, and his fellow classmates. Teased for his girlish name, Carroll was an angry child, and his mother had no issues joining in, as she would dress Carroll as a little girl, and force him to serve tea to the neighborhood ladies. In this specific case, the abuse takes a heavy psychological form, and unfortunately, this story is all too common among serial killers. “I was hated all my life. I hated everybody. When I first grew up and can remember, I was dressed as a girl by mother. And I stayed that way for two or three years. And after that was treated like what I call the dog of the family. I was beaten. I was made to do things that no human bein’ would want to do.” (Henry Lee Lucas)
Another theory comes into play when taking a detailed look at serial killers who feel the need to consume their victims The theory goes, that many of these twisted individuals find comfort in eating their victims on a deep emotional level, simply in the fact that now their victims can never leave them. It stems from serious separation and abandonment fears, often created at a young age. In the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, many of his problems began during the time of a particularly nasty divorce, sparking the feelings of desertion and loss of control. “The only motive was to completely control a person and to keep them with me as long as possible.” (Jeffrey Dahmer) It’s important to note though, that abandonment was not the only issue Jeffrey suffered from. He was an alcoholic, struggled with personality disorders, and more. Though this is not always the case with cannibals, it does provide a starting point for the psychological reasoning behind the dark behavior. That being said, many serial killers struggle with abandonment and control issues created early in life, and murder becomes a way to temporarily silence those fears.
The stories of abuse are all too common among these serial killers, some of the more notorious being Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Albert Fish, Charles Manson, Donald Gaskins, and the list goes on and on. So is there really a connection between childhood abuse and serial killers? In a certain sense, yes. While it is true that not all victims of abuse will grow up to be murderers, “there is a heightened risk associated with childhood trauma and anti-social behaviors for personality disorders and criminal activity in later adult life.” (Fiona Guy) In a 2005 study, 50 serial killers were interviewed and asked about abuse in their early years, and shockingly, only 2% reported having suffered no prior abuse. (Mitchell, H., and Aamodt, M.G. 2005) Compared to the general public, the rates of childhood abuse among serial killers are nearly quadrupled in every category (Psychological, sexual, physical), with the exception of neglect where it was found to be almost even with the general population. (Mitchell, H., and Aamodt, M.G. 2005) So can we conclude that abuse within the early years play an important role into development? Definitely, but it would be an unfair statement to conclude that anyone who is abused at a young age will grow up to be a serial killer, a cannibal or a murderer in general. Like mentioned previously, it is a combination of events, both genetic and environmental that mold an individual into creating such a dark future.