Considering the popularity of crime fiction, true crime and TV detective dramas – we certainly seem obsessed with “the criminal mind”! But is there such a thing? And if so, how many individuals in our own neighbourhood harbour murderous intentions?
Carl Jung suggested that we all have a ‘dark’ side and most of us spend our lives promoting the ‘good’ and downplaying the ‘evil’ tendencies in our personalities. Few of us would claim to be capable of murder, but is this truly the case?
The British public loves a good murder mystery – why is that? Research suggest it’s because we’re curious about what lurks beneath the surface. We want to replicate the drama of fear and jeopardy from the safety of our own sofas – the chemical reaction itself from tension to resolution, is addictive. On the one hand, it reinforces our sense of wellbeing when the good guy wins. On the other, it allows us to inhabit our darker side for a while; to see the world through the eyes of a killer and gain vicarious gratification for our hidden impulses and fantasies.
According to experts, psychopaths are all around us, in the office and on the Tube; because they are competent and manipulative, they blend in. ‘After 40 years…’ says Robert Simon, a forensic psychiatrist, ‘I am absolutely convinced there is no great gulf between the mental life of the common criminal and that of the everyday, upright citizen.’ More chilling than this, he believes anyone has the potential to kill, but most of us choose to pummel the car horn, slam doors or find private ways to let off steam.
As a psychotherapist, I have worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, including Broadmoor and Rampton hospitals. The main conclusion I’ve come to is that there are numerous factors that contribute to an individual committing murder; biological, genetic, psychological, social, and that all forms of human behaviour exist on a continuum.
Dr Michael Stone, professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, USA, interviews convicts on death row and claims that more than ninety per cent of serial killers are psychopaths and most are sadists. These are the calculating murderers (Hannibal Lecter is probably the most famous psychopath in fiction); cunning and callous without remorse. But what makes them this way?
The nurture argument explains a great deal. A dog, for example, neglected and badly treated is likely to develop an aggressive streak. A dysfunctional upbringing can have the same result in a human. Stone believes that revenge is one of the strongest motives for murder. He has spoken with Tommy Lynn Sells, a killer of around seventy victims, mostly women, about his feelings for his mother. Tommy was appallingly abused by her as a child, but he has always remained disproportionately protective of her. Stone believes Tommy acted out his anger towards his mother symbolically by killing others, repeatedly paying his mother back for what she did to him in a disassociated manner.
Professor Adrian Raine, a neurocriminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, believes biology plays a more important role than we think. In 1994, he took a sample of murderers and found the prefrontal cortex of the brain was significantly underdeveloped in comparison to non-offenders. ‘Psychopaths…lack conscience, remorse, and guilt. They just don’t feel feelings the way we do,’ he says. ‘It’s as if they don’t have the feeling for what is right and wrong.’ According to Raine, dysfunction in the prefrontal cortex can bring about less control over emotions such as anger, rage and risk-taking, and leads to poor self-control and problem-solving skills, all traits that could predispose a person to violence.
Head injuries can also cause changes in personality – often swift and dramatic. A disturbingly high proportion of serial killers have sustained head injuries at some stage in their lives. Fred West is a case in point. He suffered two serious head injuries; one, through a motorcycle accident, the other when falling from a fire escape, both of which left him unconscious. His subsequent behaviour is well documented!
My own experiences of the criminal mind have been sad, rather than disturbing. I largely met individuals from dysfunctional backgrounds who were struggling to cope in dire circumstances. Caught up in domestic violence, drug abuse or poverty, they felt they had no other course of action open to them, other than to lash out. Some made a fatal decision – seeing it as the only way out of debt or a damaging relationship. Others claimed they were protecting their children. Many chose a passive-aggressive approach, resorting to arson or poisoning, rather than physical attacks. Setting a fire meant they could walk away and let fate decide what happened. These individuals didn’t know how to communicate or contain their feelings and found themselves so deeply entrenched in unmanageable situations that they felt they had no escape.
I also came across people for whom crime was part of everyday life. These men or women had grown up with stabbings, shootings and muggings; they had mental health problems, a fragile personality-type, were easily led and got involved with criminal activity through the influence of others. They were anti-establishment; seeking leadership, gang-culture, excitement, risk-taking -often simply looking for a sense of ‘family’ and belonging. They knew no other kind of life.
As an author of psychological thrillers, I enjoy writing about fully-functioning individuals who make terrible mistakes under duress. They could be you or me. They make matters worse by covering up their wrongdoing with another blunder – and they could get caught at any moment. It can start with a small secret or lie – we’ve all been there – but, as panic sets in, the situation escalates into a serious crime…
The criminal mind, therefore, comes in many forms with complex biological, psychological and emotional triggers. One question remains: faced with overwhelming jealousy, hurt, rage, resentment or threats to loved ones – what would you do?
AJ Waines writes psychological thrillers. Both her debut novels, The Evil Beneath and Girl on a Train have been Number One bestsellers in ‘Murder’ and ‘Psychological Thrillers’ in the UK Kindle Charts. Girl on a Train has also been a Number One Bestseller in the entire Kindle store in Australia (2015).
A psychotherapist for fifteen years, AJ formerly worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, giving her a rare insight into abnormal psychology. She is fascinated by secrets and lies, crimes of passion, devious motives and anything hidden under floorboards. Her first two standalone novels feature strong intrepid women compelled to solve sinister mysteries – with twists and turns that drag them into serious jeopardy.
AJ Waines has traditional publishing deals in France and Germany (Random House) and lives in Southampton, UK, with her husband.
Find out more at AJ Waines profile