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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Abused Childhood and Killers

Q. I have read somewhere that most/all serial killers were abused as children and would like to know if this is true. I'm covering the child abuse side of things for a research project, and am curious how abuse may be linked to further criminal behavior. Any information you would be willing to give me, or books you could refer me to, or websites, would be greatly appreciated.

A. That's a tough question for at least two simple reasons: (1) The total number of serial killers whose childhood histories are known is very small (probably under 60 in the U.S.); and (2) It is very hard to know whether a person's retroactive report of childhood abuse is entirely accurate, especially when he is in a forensic setting. That said, there is a good research literature on the relationship between early childhood abuse and later (adolescent or adult) criminal behavior.

For example, a study by Maxfield & Widom (Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 1996 Apr;150(4):390-5) found that childhood victims of abuse or neglect were more likely than controls to have a juvenile or adult arrest for any nontraffic offense (49% vs. 38%) and for a violent crime (18% vs. 14%). Victims of physical abuse and neglected children were more likely to be arrested for violence (odds ratios: 1.9 and 1.6, respectively), after controlling for age, race, and sex.

Another study by Widom & Ames (Child Abuse Negl 1994 Apr;18(4):303-18) suggested an association for males between physical abuse and arrests for violent sex crimes (rape and/or sodomy). On a more ancedotal level, there certainly are some indications that serial killers come from a background of physical or sexual abuse during childhood.

In his book, "Bad Men Do What Good Men Dream" (American Psychiatric Press, 1996), Dr. Robert Simon details some of the chaotic childhood experiences of serial killers like John Wanye Gacy, who was "...terrorized by a harsh, alcoholic, disciplinarian father" (p. 297). Gacy was also sexually abused by a neighbor. But then, Simon cites the case of Ted Bundy, who denied he had ever been physically or sexually abused. I think you will find much food for thought in Dr. Simon's book, but keep in mind, the numbers are too small to reach secure conclusions.

March 2001

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