Base instincts : what makes killers kill? /
Jonathan H. Pincus.
New York : W.W. Norton, c2001.
239 p. ; 25 cm.
More Details
New York : W.W. Norton, c2001.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references.
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Jonathan H. Pincus, M.D. is chief of neurology at the Veteran's Administration Hospital, Washington, D.C., and professor of neurology at Georgetown University School of Medicine.
This item was nominated for the following awards:
Edgar Awards (Edgar Allan Poe Awards), USA, 2002 : Nominated
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Theory of

Violence as Taught

by Louis Culpepper

    On a pleasant Sunday morning, two correctional officers led Louis Culpepper to meet me in the medical office of the Augusta, Georgia, jail. The jail had been Culpepper's home for fourteen months while he awaited trial for sexually molesting his six-year-old stepdaughter.

    He wore sneakers and an orange jumpsuit with short sleeves that revealed his biceps, defined sharply by hours of exercise with prison weights. He was a ruggedly handsome thirty-year-old man with a neatly clipped moustache. He demonstrated social grace in greeting me. When introduced by his lawyer, he looked me in the eye, smiled, and grasped my extended hand and shook it, warmly. In appearance, he resembled the actor Burt Reynolds. The outer man was fine. What horror could have so deformed the inner man?

    I had been engaged by his lawyer to answer that question, to uncover facts that might explain and mitigate the loathsomeness of what he had done. The purposes of the defense team and mine differed but the paths to them coincided. The defense wanted him to receive the shortest possible sentence and sought mitigating factors. I wanted to understand the pathogenesis of violent crime. I was an expert for the defense. As a neurologist, a medical specialist in diseases of the brain, I evaluate not just motor and sensory functions but cognition and behavior as they are major outputs of the brain.

    A few weeks before he began to molest his five-year-old stepdaughter, Culpepper had been badly injured in a near-fatal motor vehicle accident. He was driving home, after work, when an intoxicated driver crossed the median divider and struck Culpepper's car, head-on. Not wearing a seat belt, Culpepper was catapulted through the windshield, head first. Unconscious, he was rushed to the hospital. A CAT scan of his brain showed hemorrhages with large clots in his right and left frontal lobes, the portion of the brain that lies behind the forehead and in front of the ears. There was severe swelling of the brain adjacent to the clots--a very dangerous situation. Because the brain is soft and the skull around it is hard, the pressure of the clots and swelling in his frontal lobes was transmitted backward and downward, like toothpaste in a squeezed tube, toward the part of the brain that is behind the nose and the mouth. That is where the vital centers that control breathing and heart rate are located. His life was hanging by a thread. A neurosurgeon operated on him that night, removed the clots, relieved the pressure, and saved his life.

    Culpepper made a gradual but steady recovery over the course of a few weeks and was discharged from the hospital having no motor or sensory deficit, except that he had lost the sense of smell. His ability to read, write, speak, and remember were unimpaired, though he had no recollection of the accident or of the two weeks following it, when he had been in the intensive care unit.

    Culpepper told me that during the period of recuperation at home, before his doctors had permitted him to return to his job, he had been left alone with his young stepdaughter while his wife had gone out to do the grocery shopping. He dozed off on the living room couch and he developed an erection in his sleep. His stepdaughter was standing next to the couch when he awoke. He thought that she showed sexual interest in him by staring at the bulge in his trousers, and he became excited. He unzipped his pants and placed her hand on his genitalia and directed her to stimulate him to orgasm.

    This was the first of many sessions with the little girl that extended over the course of the following year. He taught her to stimulate him orally and he touched her genitalia with his fingers but did not penetrate her. After he climaxed, he would kneel on the floor with the child. He led her in prayer, begging the Lord for forgiveness.

    Ultimately, his wife came home unexpectedly and witnessed her child stimulating him. His wife was distraught and told her minister, seeking his guidance. He called the police. Culpepper was arrested and charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minor and endangerment of a child. He faced ten to twenty years in prison for this, the first arrest in his life. While he was in jail awaiting trial, his wife divorced him.

    When I examined him, he was calm, collected, and apparently rational, except that he thought his six-year-old stepdaughter had made sexual advances to him. He was certainly not psychotic or depressed. He spoke about his likely incarceration in prison without anxiety. He said that his appetite for food and his ability to sleep while he was in jail were normal, unaffected by his circumstances. He knew that child molesters are targets for other prisoners who beat and kill them. Yet, he was not agitated or trembling at the prospect of a long term in prison.

    He discussed his behavior and urges without expressing shame and fear. He said, "What I did was wrong but modern society makes too much of sex with a child. I did not abuse her. I did not force her to have sex with me, and I did not hurt her. If my wife had not told the minister, I could have straightened things out. I could have gone to therapy, and I would still be married."

    He suggested that his young stepdaughter had initiated the whole thing by looking at him in a "sexy" manner, thereby indicating her desire to be sexually involved with him. When I told him that it was impossible for a six-year-old to initiate sex with an adult, he argued the point. He had no concept that he might have harmed the child. He did not see himself as others saw him and did not seem to care about the consequences for himself or the child. He did not express verbally, with facial expression, or body language the emotions that should have accompanied what he said. The flatness of his affect reflected his lack of emotional feeling.

    Culpepper's lawyer had told me that when Culpepper was a child he had been sexually abused by his father and grandfather and some of their friends. He had been beaten, penetrated, and forced to perform fellatio. His abuse had ended in his early adolescence, long before he began to abuse his stepdaughter but extended through most of the formative period of his brain's development. He had finished high school, worked at the same job for eight years, and married a woman who had a daughter by a previous marriage. His wife told investigators that their marriage had been stable, warm, and nonviolent. He had been reliable and caring to her and to her young daughter. They seemed to be an ordinary family.

    His lawyer thought that the history of Culpepper's abuse in his childhood was not relevant to the case. After all, he pointed out, it had ended without Culpepper's having committed any offenses for the next fifteen years. He thought that Culpepper's brain injury was the cause of his crime because the brain injury had occurred shortly before Culpepper first molested the young girl.

    I suspected that causation was not so clear-cut. I discovered that the injury did not initiate Culpepper's pedophilic urges. Culpepper confided to me that he had fantasized about having sex with a child for years but, before the accident, he had never acted on his impulses.

    Culpepper was one of the first criminals I had seen whose damage occurred in adulthood, had a clear date of onset, a cause, and a well-defined location in the brain. My examination indicated that he had sustained two kinds of damage: developmental and physical. His mind had been damaged by a horrible childhood, and his frontal lobes had been ruined in an automobile accident.

    Culpepper crystallized for me two of the disparate elements I had regularly found in violent individuals. The sexual abuse he suffered in his childhood was necessary to establish his pedophilic urges but had not been sufficient to set them off. Having been a victim of childhood sexual abuse imprinted on him the urge to sexually victimize children. He had carried this imprint and the impulses it generated throughout his life. Until the car accident, those impulses had been inhibited by the frontal lobe of his brain.

    Absent the prior abuse, Culpepper, like the vast majority of people who have sustained brain damage, might have been emotionally blunted, impaired in his concerns about the consequences of his acts, limited in the capacity to be self-critical, and may have even had reduced sexual inhibitions. He would probably not, however, had the specific desire to sexually abuse children. By interacting with each other, his sexual abuse in childhood and this traumatic brain damage had transformed him into the perpetrator of a sexual crime against a child.

    This case and cases like it led me and my colleague, Dr. Dorothy Lewis, to develop a new theory, one that has the capacity to explain violent crime. According to this theory, the elements we had found in other murderers interact in the same manner as they had in the case of Louis Culpepper. It is the interaction of childhood abuse with neurologic disturbances and psychiatric illnesses that explains murder. Abuse generates the violent urge. Neurologic and psychiatric diseases of the brain damage the capacity to check that urge.


Excerpted from Base Instincts by Jonathan H. Pincus Copyright © 2002 by Jonathan H. Pincus. Excerpted by permission.
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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-05-28:
Pincus explores the biological, psychological and social influences at work within the minds of contemporary murderers in this collection of case studies. Chairman emeritus of Georgetown University's Department of Neurology, he notes that although he spent years as a "regular" neurologist studying violent criminals, his prejudices (and those of his colleagues) colored his study of criminal cognition and behavior. His longtime collaborator, Dr. Dorothy Lewis, helped him develop a new theory: "It is the interaction of childhood abuse with neurologic disturbances and psychiatric illnesses that explains murder." He presents several cases from the approximately 150 murderers he has examined, detailing the subtle interrelations between these three elements, which often go unnoticed because of violent individuals' denial of their own past victimization. Pincus delves into how the disparate group of killers arrived at a similar condition of extreme paranoia and instability. In each case, he depicts upbringings devoid of love and nurturing, which disposed these individuals toward violence. He concludes by discussing options for prevention and treatment, acknowledging that "tough on crime" measures receive support over more complex intervention proposals, like Hawaii's Healthy Start program and similar efforts in other areas, which target at-risk families with the goal of "parenting the parents" and have produced surprising decreases in reported abuse and neglect. This is an excellent book for all those concerned with addressing the root causes of violence and one that should be read by those who favor punishment over prevention. (June) Forecast: Pincus is a recognized expert on the mind of a killer who has received prior media attention, including coverage by the New Yorker. For this book, the publisher plans author appearances in D.C. and New York and expects major media interest. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
This item was reviewed in:
Publishers Weekly, May 2001
Reference & Research Book News, November 2001
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Bowker Data Service Summary
In collaboration with a forensic psychologist, neurologist Jonathan Pincus probes into the lives of serial killers and violent criminals to find out what triggers the violent instinct.
Publisher Fact Sheet
JEFFREY DAHMER, Ted Bundy, Andrew Cunnanen--these notorious killers shocked the world with horrifying stories of rampant murder & abuse. Neurologist Jonathan Pincus probed the lives of numerous serial killers & other violent criminals to find out what triggers the violent instinct. Working with psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis, he investigated their family backgrounds & medical history, discovering that virtually all the murderers themselves suffered severe abuse as children, which permanently damaged their developing brains. In these gripping, terrifying stories, Dr. Pincus finds that violent criminal behavior cannot be attributed solely to genetics--rather, it is the catastrophic product of a brain that may be predisposed to violence by neurologic damage & mental illness coupled with an abusive environment. Focusing on these critical factors, how can we identify potentially violent persons from a young age before the damage becomes irrevocable? How can we rehabilitate violent criminals & at the same time safeguard against their committing future crimes?
Table of Contents
Acknowledgmentsp. 7
Prologuep. 9
The Theory of Violence as Taught by Louis Culpepperp. 15
Murder on the School Busp. 20
Murder by Abusep. 35
Genes, Geography, and the Generation of Violencep. 56
Wrath: Repression and Release--The Effects of Frontal Lobotomyp. 70
Immaturity, Mania, Mistreatment, and Miscreancyp. 87
Toxins and Turmoilp. 104
Nature, Nurture, and Neurologyp. 117
Anatomy of Evilp. 128
Did You Ever Hear a Baby Cry?p. 157
Hitler and Hatredp. 178
Prevention and Treatmentp. 194
Tools of Diagnosis: History, Physical Examination, and the Role of Testsp. 211
Notesp. 227
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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