January 2, 2017

Dylann Roof: How to make a rampage murderer

As the penalty-phase trial of young white supremacist Dylann Roof gets underway this week, reporters have asked me to explain the psychological dynamics that trigger deadly rampages like Roof’s at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. My answer: Although the specifics such as locale and target shift, the broad contours of such spree killings remain remarkably constant. Here is my recipe of key ingredients:

1. Alienation

We humans are tribal animals. For millennia, we lived in tightly knit, cooperative societies where individuals were rarely alone. As author Sebastian Junger explores in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, tribal identity motivates individuals to sacrifice for the collective good. In stark contrast, modern society deprives people of that essential sense of connection or belonging. Our current technological atomization is “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit,” writes Junger. Cast adrift, people feel meaningless and superfluous. Social alienation is producing epidemic rates of depression and suicide. But it is in spree killings that we see the ultimate expression of malignant alienation: Embracing nihilism, the killer finds meaning via symbolically destroying not just himself, but also the social order that rebuffed and humiliated him.

Mark Ames, author of the meticulously researched Going Postal, goes so far as to argue that mass shootings are a form of doomed rebellion against a toxic culture: Otherwise normal people snap when pushed to the breaking point within decollectivized, militarized and ruthless settings. Workplace sprees occur in oppressive institutional settings rife with surveillance, mandatory unpaid overtime, and humiliating and degrading layoff rituals. Sites of school shootings, meanwhile, are often brutal places where students undergo chronic torment. The more endemic alienation becomes, the more people will snap.

2. Failure

This is perhaps obvious, but setting the stage for a spree killing is cataclysmic failure. Except in warfare, satisfied people don’t suddenly morph into killing machines. The killer has failed a life-stage transition, and his life has gone off track. Dylann Roof had a troubled childhood, marked by abuse, neglect, severe anxiety and academic failure, according to published accounts. He dropped out of high school. As a young adult, he couldn’t get a job or even a driver’s license. He coped by drinking heavily. The lives of other recent mass killers were similarly catastrophic, marked by failures on academic, vocational and/or relationship fronts. Adam Lanza (Sandy Hook) and Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista) had autism-spectrum conditions that left them incapable of forming intimate relationships. Omar Mateen (The Pulse nightclub) was a socially awkward loser: he flunked out of police training, got fired as a prison guard, and ended up doing lowly security work; his wife fled after he beat her.

3. Entitlement

Dylann Roof posing in his bedroom.
Failure alone is insufficient. The failure must be perceived as unfair. Like Roof, whose grandfather was a prominent attorney, the killer often has middle-class roots, inculcating the American mythology of success. Mass shooters often have higher aspirations than are realistic for their station in life. In Hunting Humans, pioneering anthropologist Elliott Leyton argues that the modern mass murderer tends to be especially socially conservative, class-conscious, and obsessed with power and status. Yet in our increasingly fragmented, alienating and high-stress world, a high-quality life is difficult for many a young American to achieve. Recognizing that he is on a dead-end trajectory and that his class aspirations will not be realized produces profound disappointment, personal shame and – ultimately - despair. To reduce cognitive dissonance, he needs someone to blame.

4. Projection

By the time he explodes, the spree killer has amassed an enormous reservoir of bitterness. He feels unfairly victimized. Through a scarcity lens, he perceives less deserving people as stealing away his opportunities and robbing him of his right to happiness. Those perceived as undeserving typically include lower-status or socially stigmatized groups such as people of color, women, sexual minorities or immigrants. This is the politics of resentment that Trump milked so effectively.

Also feeding into the potent fury of many mass murderers are childhood histories of being bullied and socially rejected. In Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, Katherine Newman and colleagues chronicle the tormented lives of infamous school shooters. Many were incessantly harassed, with antigay epithets a common refrain. In high school, Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) was relentlessly bullied over his social awkwardness, speech impediment and immigrant background. Dylann Roof was described as a “bug-eyed boy” with a bowl haircut who struggled academically; we can only guess at his social travails.

5. Masculinity

Spree killings are exceedingly rare (making them impossible to predict). Not every alienated, bitter loner picks up an assault rifle. But those who do are invariably male. Women are more likely to blame themselves for their misery. As journalist Jamie Bartlett reveals in The Dark Net, hundreds of thousands of young women ages 13-25 flock to the myriad “pro-cutting” and “pro-ana” (anorexia) Internet sites that have sprung up in response to demand from alienated young women.

In contrast to this turning inward, many young men regard violence against others as a way to gain status and respect. Our cultural glorification of male violence is evidenced by the enormous popularity of first-person shooter and warfare games. It is evidenced by the lack of meaningful protest over our government’s modeling of murder as a solution to problems: U.S. military drone strikes in the Middle East have slaughtered many hundreds of civilians, with little fanfare. After all, we are the good guys, protecting the world against evil. As boys grow up, writes masculinity scholar Michael Kimmel, “they learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.”

Mass shootings are a quintessentially American theatrical production, the ultimate display of alienated hypermasculinity inside the world's leading imperial power. The production is carefully planned and staged, often accompanied by websites, online manifestos and photos that will help it propagate and endure in the cultural imagination. Embittered young men seize upon the restorative potential of violence, which enables them to extract vengeance for a litany of wrongs both real and imagined. Even more powerfully, violence offers the lure of immortality: Rack up enough dead bodies, and you become infamous. You are no longer a nobody; you are a warrior.

6. Ideology

To become a warrior, one needs a cause. There is no shortage of alienated young men like Roof, reared on a diet of masculine entitlement and believing that they have been treated unfairly. In another time, they might be like dying trees in a parched forest, standing alone and unnoticed until their eventual collapse. But in the age of the enchanted Internet, such men can simultaneously retreat from humanity yet plug into like-minded online communities where their diffuse rage can find a focus.

Elliot Rodger (Isla Vista) in pre-production selfie: "I am gorgeous"
Take Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista killer. A flop with women despite his self-described “gorgeous” looks, he immersed himself in the misogynist realm of the “manosphere,” where “men’s rights” proponents and “pickup artists” rail against power-mad feminists who are denying men their natural-born right to supremacy (and sex). Such insular communities are like echo chambers, validating and amplifying warped ideologies. Within the manosphere, Rodger transformed himself from an invisible nobody -- a "beta male," in man-speak -- into a “true alpha male,” in his words, a heroic warrior standing up for oppressed “incels,” or involuntary celibates.

“Women are like a plague,” he repeats several times in an online manifesto. “The mere sight of them enjoying their happy lives was an insult to me, because I deserve it more than them…. They don’t deserve to have any rights. Their wickedness must be contained in order to prevent future generations from falling to degeneracy. Women are vicious, evil, barbaric animals, and they need to be treated as such.”

Like Rodger, Dylann Roof retreated into the Web. But instead of the manosphere, his search for meaning led him to the white supremacist channel. Specifically, the Council of Conservative Citizens, aka the “uptown Klan,” which devotes a lot of energy to disseminating propaganda about the menace of black-on-white crime. The atomization of culture into discreet identities has left many white men feeling abandoned and scapegoated, and racist ideology is quick to fill this vacuum. Roof eagerly soaked up the ideology of a white race under siege; like Rodger, he also grew frustrated with the preponderance of rhetoric over action. “[S]omeone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me,” he wrote. “I have no choice.”

Reducing the world to a stark black and white furthers the killer's self-image as a heroic warrior battling the forces of evil. In Terrorist’s Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning, fascism scholar Roger Griffin calls this “heroic doubling”: fanatics deploy violence as a call to arms to defend an idealized in-group against perceived threat by a demonized Other. Ideologically motivated killers like Roof, Rodger or the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik may act alone in the moment, but they see themselves as soldiers in a larger movement. The growing popularity of online manifestos – Roof had one, too, although at four pages it paled in comparison to Rodger’s 141-page tome – attests to the narcissistic fervor with which spree killers cling to their adopted ideologies as rationale for bloodshed.

What makes the ascendancy of extremist rhetoric so dangerous is this capacity to activate the alienated loner. A direct cause-and-effect relationship is readily observable: Donald Trump spews anti-Muslim vitriol, and in short order attacks on U.S. Muslims spike. Public figures can produce random lone-wolf violence via repeatedly demonizing an out-group, while maintaining plausible disavowal of responsibility. This practice -- most well-known for its contribution to abortion clinic bombings -- has a scholarly term, "stochastic terrorism.” In Roof's case, the Council of Conservative Citizens whose message Roof parroted in his manifesto was quick to issue a statement deploring the massacre, even while defending Roof's racist belief system as correct.

7. Contagion

In late-18th century Germany, groups of young men could be seen strolling about in identical outfits of blue tailcoats, yellow trousers and high boots. They were imitating Werther, the romantic hero of the sensational novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which the idealistic protagonist kills himself over unrequited love. Blamed for a rash of copycat suicides among the impressionable and mentally ill, the novel was banned in Italy and Denmark.

This so-called Werther Fever is an early example of what we now refer to as a cultural meme – an idea, fashion or behavior transmitted like a virus from person to person, often via mass media, that takes on a life of its own as it propagates.

Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech) poses in pre-production selfie
Spree killings seem to have morphed into just such a cultural meme. Especially with the spread of social media, they often go viral, tempting the next angry and alienated man with the tantalizing promise of infamy and immortality – especially if the body count is high enough.

In truth, however, this immortality is illusory, as the very ubiquity of the mass shooter meme is numbing the public; one killer’s fame lasts only for the brief interval until another pushes him aside. Dylann Roof will have his moment in the spotlight this week, and then it will be on to the next case.

Instead of just dissecting each individual act in this never-ending drama (and emphasizing singular elements such as untreated mental illness, gun accessibility, social media, violent video games, bad parenting, law enforcement failures of prediction, and the like), we might do well to regard young men like Roof as canaries in the coal mine. It is only when the air in the mine is poisonous that the canary will die.

In the award-winning TV show Mr. Robot, there are these ninja assassins who, when cornered, put a bullet in their own brain. A computer-crimes detective refers to this as “erasing their histories.” In orchestrating a dramatic last stand, mass shooters like Roof are doing precisely this, erasing their heretofore empty and meaningless lives and replacing them with a meme.

Related blog posts:

Dylann Roof's full manifesto is HERE; Elliot Rodger's is HERE.

October 22, 2016

“In the Dark” shines brilliant light on bungled Jacob Wetterling case

Long-dormant case spawned today's sex offender registries. But would these laws have made a difference? 

Twenty-seven years ago, a perfect storm struck a small town in central Minnesota, when a stranger jumped out of the shadows and snatched an 11-year-old boy out bicycle-riding with friends.

It was the rarest of crimes. But the Oct. 22, 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling struck at a pivotal moment in U.S. history, igniting a conflagration that still burns today. Stranger-danger hysteria was sweeping the nation. Day care providers were being rounded up and accused of Satanic ritual abuse of children. And in that potent milieu, an unprecedented national manhunt came up empty.

Embarrassed by their failure, law enforcement spokesmen claimed they were hamstrung by lax tracking of known sex offenders. Jacob’s distraught mother, Patty Wetterling, led a successful crusade that culminated in the Wetterling Act of 1994, requiring all U.S. states to collect and publicly disseminate information on convicted sex offenders.

But 27 years later, with an estimated 850,000 Americans on public sex offender databases, Patty Wetterling is no longer enamored of the opportunistic missing-child movement and its crass media stars, who used her to promote their own agendas. In an interview with award-winning investigative reporter Madeleine Baran, she said she regrets her role in creating a public registry that is counterproductive, in shaming and ostracizing individuals rather than helping them reintegrate into society.

That interview is just one of many remarkable segments in the serial In the Dark, a nine-part podcast from American Public Media that forces us to rethink everything we thought we knew about both the Wetterling abduction and the broader landscape of how police investigate serious crimes.

Danny Heinrich today and sketch of abductor in 1989
Coincidentally, Episode One of the meticulously researched series was just set to premiere when police announced last month that they had finally cracked the case. Daniel Heinrich, who lived about half an hour down the road from his victim, had confessed and led police to Jacob’s remains, in exchange for a plea deal in an unrelated child pornography case and an admission that he abducted and assaulted another boy nine months before killing Jacob.

Baran set out to answer the question of why it took the local police more than a quarter of a century to catch a small-town pervert who was right under their noses the whole time. But in the process, she learned something far more troubling: that police across the country lack any meaningful oversight, and inept agencies with crime-solving rates as low as zero percent face no accountability.

Baran reached this shocking conclusion after more than nine months of painstaking digging. In a monument to investigative reporting, she and her colleagues delved deep into archival records, conducted contemporary interviews with dozens of witnesses and experts, and reconstructed events to determine what went wrong.

What Baran found was missteps at every turn. Police didn’t thoroughly canvass the neighborhood immediately after the crime. They glossed over a rash of stranger molests of preteen boys in the nearby hamlet of Paynesville where killer Danny Heinrich – already known to police – resided. Ultimately, in the type of tunnel vision that we see all too often in cases of wrongful conviction, they set their sights on the wrong guy altogether, a quirky local music teacher, and hunkered down to build a case against him – destroying his life in the process.

Diving deeper, Baran found more systemic problems.

At the time of Jacob’s abduction, the media portrayed Stearns County, Minnesota, as an idyllic place where crimes like this didn’t happen: indeed, went the narrative, that’s why the local sheriff’s department was caught off guard.

But that wasn’t true. The Stearns County Sheriff’s Department had investigated crimes even more heinous, and had botched it every time.

There was the case of the Reker sisters, ages 12 and 15, who disappeared one day in 1974. Police shrugged it off as girls on a lark, until the bodies were found in a quarry a month later with multiple stab wounds. The case was never solved. And there was the mass murder of a woman and three children, shotgunned to death in their beds in 1978. Police questioned the killer, Joseph Ture, but released him to wreak carnage across Minnesota; he ended up raping numerous women and killing at least two before he was finally apprehended by Minneapolis police.

Baran’s delivery is masterful. In a pleasant and measured cadence, she methodically weaves together the micro strands of the flawed Wetterling investigation with the macro threads of an entire police system gone wrong, to create an eye-opening tapestry with profound implications for all Americans.

* * * * *

It’s hard not to be dubious about the prospects for any expose, even the most brilliant, to produce genuine systemic change. On the other hand, there is no question that podcasts can change the fates of those lucky few whom they spotlight.

Take Adnan Syed. Many will remember the viral popularity of Serial's debut season in 2014, with host Sarah Koenig recounting Syed's prosecution in the killing of his former high school girlfriend. Syed’s conviction was subsequently overturned and he was granted a new trial, much to the dismay of Maryland state attorneys, who are protesting that the appeal is "meritless" and a product of "sensationalized attention" that gave a legitimately convicted murderer the status of international superstar.

That was certainly the case for convicted killer Steven Avery after Netflix’s Making a Murderer, which spawned a large and vocal fan base insisting that he is innocent despite substantial evidence to the contrary. As I noted in my critical review of that spectacle, by cherry-picking which facts to air, a producer can energize an ignorant populism fueled by illusory knowledge. 

So, podcasters walk a fine line between educating the public about the realities of the criminal justice system -- as In the Dark does so well -- and pandering to the prurient, devolving into true-crime entertainment spectacles like “48 Hours Mystery." Or worse. The dangers of true-crime populism were perhaps best illustrated by the 2013 murder trial of Jodi Arias, where media corporations intent on audience titillation fomented a digital lynch mob.

Hewing to the educational function is Breakdown, an Atlanta Journal Constitution podcast that unabashedly acknowledges itself as a Serial knockoff. In Season One, “Railroad Justice in a Railroad Town,” reporter Bill Rankin plays on his experience as a senior legal affairs reporter, using the case of a small-town meth-head convicted of arson to illustrate how an underfunded public defense system is set up to fail poor Americans.

Season Two of Breakdown, Death in a Hot Car -- Mistake or Murder?, swings more toward the sensationalist side, presenting the case of a man who was so distracted by his sexting obsession that he left his toddler son strapped into a car seat on a hot June day in Georgia. The boy died. Justin Harris's case is generating major media interest, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution hosting a dedicated web page with "minute-by-minute updates," and another site live-streaming the trial.

The PTA mom who was framed
Again going for the high road, some reporters are also adapting the popular serial format to the quaint, endangered medium of print journalism. A nice example is the recent L.A. Times series Framed: A Mystery in Six Parts, in which award-winning reporter and author Christopher Goffard tells the fascinating story of a PTA mother who was framed by a high-powered professional couple. Whereas most such series aim to expose justice gone wrong, Framed does the opposite, showcasing a refreshing example of a police investigation that went above and beyond the call of duty to get it right.

As you can see, there’s a lot out there to sample. But if you’ve only got time to check out one podcast series, I recommend In the Dark. It’s the cream of the crop, an edge-of-your-seat thriller and a compelling cautionary tale that deserves the ear of every American.

August 14, 2016

Hebephilia flunks Frye test

Photo credit: NY Law Journal
In a strongly worded rejection of hebephilia, a New York judge has ruled that the controversial diagnosis cannot be used in legal proceedings because of “overwhelming opposition” to its validity among the psychiatric community.

Judge Daniel Conviser heard testimony from six experts (including this blogger) and reviewed more than 100 scholarly articles before issuing a long-awaited opinion this week in the case of “Ralph P.,” a 72-year-old man convicted in 2001 of a sex offense against a 14-year-old boy. The state of New York is seeking to civilly detain Ralph P. on the basis of alleged future dangerousness.

State psychologist Joel Lord had initially labeled Ralph P. with the unique diagnosis of sexual attraction to “sexually inexperienced young teenage males,” but later changed his diagnosis to hebephilia, a condition proposed but rejected for the current edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Under the Frye evidentiary standard, designed to bar novel scientific methods that are not sufficiently validated, a construct must be “generally accepted” by the relevant scientific community before it can be relied upon in legal proceedings.

Judge Conviser found that hebephilia (generally defined as sexual attraction to children in the early stages of puberty, or around the ages of 11 or 12 to 14) is being promoted by a tiny fringe of researchers and in practice is used almost exclusively as a tool to civilly commit convicted sex offenders. Under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such offenders must have a mental disorder in order to qualify for prolonged detention after they have served their prison terms.

“It is not an accident, as Dr. Franklin outlined, that hebephilia became a prominent diagnosis only with the advent of SVP laws,” the judge wrote in his 75-page opinion. “It is also not a coincidence that each of the three expert witnesses who testified for the State at the instant hearing either work or formerly worked for state [Sexually Violent Predator] programs.”

Conviser’s ruling analyzed both the practical problems in reliably identifying hebephilia and the political controversies swirling around it: Without any standardized criteria, “clinicians are free to assign hebephilia diagnoses in widely disparate ways, many of which are just plainly wrong.” Using age as a proxy for pubertal stage is no guarantee of reliability because pubertal onset is highly variable. Ultimately, he concluded, whether erotic interest in pubescent minors is deemed "pathological" is more about moral values than science.

APA secrecy faulted

The judge was harshly critical of the American Psychiatric Association for its refusal to publicly explain why it rejected hebephilia from the DSM-5 in 2013. The diagnosis was aggressively promoted by a Canadian psychologist, Ray Blanchard, and fellow researchers from Canada’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), who dominated the DSM-5 subcommittee on paraphilias.

Blanchard rewrote the DSM section on paraphilias (sexual deviances) in a broad way such that virtually all sexual interests other than a narrowly defined “normophilic” pattern became pathological. However, the APA rejected Blanchard’s proposal to expand pedophilia to pathologize adult sexual attractions to pubescent-aged (rather than just prepubescent) minors.

“The proposal was apparently rejected because it was greeted with a firestorm of criticism by the sex offender psychiatric community, which was communicated to the APA board…. As best as this Court can surmise, the APA rejected the pedohebephilia proposal because it was opposed by most of the psychiatrists and psychologists who worked in the field.”

“[S]trikingly,” wrote Judge Conviser, “the process through which proposed new diagnoses are approved or rejected is shrouded in a degree of secrecy which would be the envy of many totalitarian regimes…. With respect to hebephilia, the APA board’s actions will have a direct impact on both public safety and the fundamental liberty interests of hundreds or thousands of people.”

The APA forces those involved in the DSM revision process to sign nondisclosure contracts. That policy came in the wake of a series of published exposes – including Christopher Lane’s Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, Jonathan Metzl's The Protest Psychosis, and Ethan Watters’s Crazy Like Us (to name just a few of my favorites) -- that embarrassed the world’s largest psychiatric organization by shining a light inside the often subjective and political process of diagnosis creation and expansion.

“Overwhelming” opposition

Blanchard and his CAMH colleagues’ 2009 proposal to expand pedophilia into a new “pedohebephilia” diagnosis in the DSM-5 spawned a massive outcry, which mushroomed into at least five dozen published critiques.

In preparation for my testimony at this and similar Frye hearings in New York, I expanded on my 2010 article in Behavioral Sciences and the Law tracing hebephilia’s rise from obscurity, to produce an updated chart containing all 116 articles addressing the construct. If one tallies only those articles that take a position (pro or con) on hebephilia and are not written by members of the CAMH team, fully 83% are critical as compared to only 17% that are favorable. This, Judge Conviser noted, is strong evidence against the government’s position that hebephilia is “generally accepted” by the relevant scientific communities.

“The thrust of the evidence at the hearing was … clear: there was overwhelming opposition to the pedohebephilia proposal in the sex offender psychiatric community,” he wrote. “There is overwhelming opposition to the hebephilia diagnosis today.”

Courts scrutinizing nouveau diagnoses

With the APA’s rejection of hebephilia as well as two other proposed sexual disorders (one for preferential rape and another for hypersexuality), government evaluators continue to shoehorn novel, case-specific diagnostic labels into the catchall DSM-5 category of “other specified paraphilic disorder” (OSPD) as a basis for civil commitment.

Under a 2012 New York appellate court ruling in the case of State v. Shannon S., upon a defense request, a Frye evidentiary hearing must be held on any such attempt to introduce an OSPD diagnosis into a Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) case. That has triggered a spate of Frye hearings in the Empire State, affording greater scrutiny and judicial gatekeeping of scientifically questionable diagnoses.

Ironically, although the Shannon S. court upheld hebephilia by a narrow 4-3 margin, Shannon S. would not have met diagnostic criteria under the narrower definitions presented by the government experts at Ralph P.’s Frye hearing four years later, because his victims were older than 14.

“Assuming hebephilia is a legitimate diagnosis, Shannon S., like many SVP respondents, was apparently diagnosed with the condition not based on evidence he was preferentially attracted to underdeveloped pubescent body types but because he offended against underage victims,” Judge Conviser observed in his detailed summary of prior New York cases.

The three dissenting judges in Shannon S. were adamant that hebephilia was “absurd,” and an example of “junk science,” deployed with the pretextual goal of “locking up dangerous criminals” who had committed statutory rapes.

The opening of the Frye floodgates has led to a flurry of sometimes-competing opinions.

In 2015, in State v. Mercado, Judge Dineen Riviezzo ruled against “OSPD--sexually attracted to teenage females” as a legitimate diagnosis. However, she declined to rule on the general acceptance of hebephilia because it was not specifically diagnosed in that case.

A year later, relying on similar evidence, a judge in upstate New York ruled in State v. Paul V. that hebephilia was generally accepted, in large part because it was backed by the APA’s paraphilias sub-workgroup. Judge Conviser found that reasoning unpersuasive, pointing out that the subworkgroup was dominated by the very same CAMH researchers who were hebephilia’s primary advocates; it was therefore “not a valid proxy" for the scientific community.

In July, another court rejected both hebephilia and “OSPD--underage males” as valid diagnoses, in the cases of Hugh H. and Martello A. The court noted that hebephilia is inconsistently defined, was rejected for the DSM-5, and is primarily advanced by one research group; further, attraction to pubescent minors is not intrinsically abnormal.

Cynthia Calkins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, echoed those points in her testimony at Ralph P.'s hearing. She noted that in the United States, the main psychologists advocating for hebephilia are government-retained evaluators in SVP cases, who make up only perhaps one-fourth of one percent of psychologists and psychiatrists in the U.S. and so cannot be a proxy for “general acceptance” in the scientific community.

The government’s choice of experts illustrated Calkins’ point: Testifying for the government were Christopher Kunkle, director of New York’s civil management program for sex offenders, David Thornton of Wisconsin’s civil commitment center, and Robin Wilson, formerly of Florida’s civil commitment center and a protégé of Ray Blanchard’s.

The third expert called by Ralph P.’s attorneys was Charles Ewing, a distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo Law School who is both an attorney and a forensic psychologist and has authored several books on forensic psychology.

Defense attorneys Maura Klugman and Jessica Botticelli of Mental Hygiene Legal Service represented Ralph P. Assistant New York Attorney General Elaine Yacyshyn represented the state.

Ultimately, New York State’s highest court may have to weigh in to resolve once and for all the question of whether novel psychiatric diagnoses like hebephilia are admissible for civil commitment purposes. But that could be years down the road.


The ruling in State v. Ralph P. is HERE.

A New York Law Journal report on the case, "judge Rejects Diagnosis for Civil Confinement," is HERE.

A search of this blog site using the term hebephilia will produce my reports on this construct dating all the way back to my original post from 2007, "Invasion of the Hebephile Hunters."

July 5, 2016

The Trauma Myth, Revisited

The Trauma Myth may be one of the most misunderstood books of the past decade. Based on its regrettable title, pedophiles erroneously believe it minimizes the harm of child sexual abuse; in the opposite corner, some misguided anti-abuse crusaders have demonized the Harvard-trained author as a pedophile apologist. As guest blogger Jon Brandt explains in this review -- first published in the Summer 2016 issue of The Forum, the newsletter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (ATSA) -- both fans and detractors of Susan Clancy have gotten the courageous researcher all wrong.

The Trauma Myth

by Susan Clancy

Book review by Jon Brandt, MSW, LICSW*

As a former child protection social worker, and now working with both victims and offenders, I was drawn to The Trauma Myth because of both the title, and subtitle: “The Truth About the Sexual Abuse of Children – and its aftermath.” When I first read Susan Clancy’s book, in 2010, nearly every page confirmed my professional experience with victims. I’m offering this review some six years after the book's publication because I believe most experienced professionals will agree that Clancy’s thesis is not just well-researched, but articulate and luminously persuasive.

Dr. Clancy is a Harvard-trained experimental psychologist. Her expertise is not in the field of sexual abuse; it is in the field of memory. This information is important in understanding how Clancy endeavored to interview adults who had been victims of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) – in part, to further understand the role of memory in how adults recalled traumatic experiences. Clancy acknowledges that her career had a rocky start – not only investigating adult memories of childhood sexual abuse, but to understand why some people seemed to believe in alien abductions. Clancy writes about the challenge of having to reconcile her research with two deep concerns: first, she had to abandon some of what she had been taught about the ‘trauma’ of sexual abuse, and second, she had to try to save her reputation and career.

After Clancy interviewed more than 200 Boston-area adult victims of CSA, she came to recognize that most victims’ memories were consistent with previous research – the vast majority of victims knew, liked, and/or trusted their abusers. And she confirmed another finding – that most CSA was tricked and manipulated, not the product of threats, force, pain, or injury. Even young children intuitively understand that when an older person inflicts pain, injury, or fear (elements of trauma), something is very wrong. But when sexual violations occur in the absence of violence and in the presence of trust, most victims reported being confused by the encounter, rather than traumatized. Less than one in ten adults that Clancy interviewed described being sexually abused as “traumatic.” Clancy considered that perhaps CSA is so traumatic that adults had repressed their memories, but that hypothesis ran counter to research that: (1) discredits repressed memories and (2) indicates that the more powerful life experiences are to an individual, the more the events are both strongly embedded and vividly recalled. Clancy goes on to articulately detail how children are indeed harmed by sexual abuse – in the aftermath.

Dr. Clancy has expressed some regret about the title of her book, but does not back-peddle from her findings – that CSA is not universally traumatic. She asserts that many professionals don’t really understand how, why, and when CSA is harmful, and imputing trauma when it’s not present might actually introduce secondary harm. Clancy expresses that children clearly do not have the developmental capabilities to understand interpersonal sex, that acceding to sexual touching is not the same as sexual consent, and that naïve cooperation is not complicity. In the absence of veritable trauma, the harm of CSA comes not from sexual touching, per se, but from relationship violations – a sense of betrayal, shame, and misplaced blame. Clancy explains that as a CSA victim begins to sexually and socially mature, and comes to understand what motivated their abuser, they feel duped and exploited. As victims try to reconcile how and why someone of trust would use them for sexual purposes, the ‘harm’ evolves. Clancy’s message is clear: if we don’t talk to kids about sex, we leave them vulnerable; if we don’t listen to kids who have been sexually abused, we re-victimize them; when we truly listen to child victims, we empower them to guide their own recovery – that helps to turn victims into survivors.

Dr. Clancy uses the controversies around her book to illustrate how difficult it is for professionals to navigate the nuances of CSA, and that it is incumbent on adults to protect children until they are mature enough to navigate the world of interpersonal sex. Clancy acknowledges that she was perhaps naïve in believing that rigorous science would protect the integrity of her research. What she was not prepared for was that CSA is virtually unspeakable – so abhorrent that, even among the educated, it was difficult to separate legitimate research from prevailing public opinion, or simply the politics of sex.

In 1998, psychologist, Bruce Rind and colleagues published an article on CSA in the American Psychological Association journal Psychological Bulletin. It was peer-reviewed, sound research, but so contrary to conventional beliefs of CSA that it resulted in an Act of Congress condemning his work. In 1981, Professor Alfred Kadushin (one of my graduate school advisors at the University of Wisconsin) published a book titled Child Abuse, an Interactional Event. He spent the rest of his career explaining that he was not blaming children for being abused.

The truth is, there has never been any time in history that sex could be separated from politics, or that science hasn’t waged an uphill battle against public opinion. The Socratic Method, or the applications of logic and scrutiny to understanding complex problems, is a predecessor of the Scientific Method, and one of the most important legacies of Socrates. It is ironic that Socrates could not survive the politics of his own time – he was condemned to death as a heretic. Nearly two millennia later, perhaps Galileo had taken note of the fate of Socrates. When Galileo found himself charged with heresy, to avoid being executed, he recanted his theory of the heliocentric solar system, and lived out his life under house arrest. It took another 350 years for the Catholic Church to acknowledge that Galileo had been right all along.

Susan Clancy wasn’t charged with heresy, at least not formally, but by her own admission, after a firestorm of controversy over The Trauma Myth, she fled the US to work in Nicaragua for several years. If Clancy was flattered by a favorable book review in the NY Times, she must have been horrified by a book review by NAMBLA [the North American Man/Boy Love Association]. Clancy’s book, and her story, are a testimony to professional courage in the face of deeply held, widespread, long-standing beliefs about the sexual abuse of children. Apparently, Clancy no longer writes or teaches about sexual abuse, based on a Google search, but she is still professionally active in research and education about the functions of memory.

There is so much right about The Trauma Myth that I am hesitant to be critical, but I think Clancy missed the mark on a few points. In my experience, some victims of CSA have the internal constitution to avoid both the trauma and the harm of sexual abuse. Other victims seem to have the resiliency and tenacity, with or without professional help, to truly earn the moniker of ‘survivor.’ Clancy views CSA as dichotomous – if there is a victim, there is an offender, who must be punished. If Clancy understood offending with the same verve, complexity, and nuances with which she understands victims, I think she would forgo the black and white, victim-offender paradigm in favor of the complex dynamics of offending, and the range of uniquely tailored interventions that serve victims, offenders, and their families. With a focus on the etiology and aftermath of CSA, it might not be obvious that Clancy was also advocating for both more prevention and better public policies.

The Trauma Myth is well researched, with endnotes in APA format. With just over 200 pages, and still professionally sound, it is easy reading. Most individuals are likely to approach the book with the same skepticism with which Clancy pursued her research. In the end, I think most professionals are likely to agree with many conclusions that Dr. Clancy found unassailable: that the popular, one-dimensional understanding of ‘trauma’ caused by child sexual abuse is largely a myth – a vestige of the 20th century.

*Jon Brandt is a clinical social worker who specializes in the evaluation, treatment and supervision to sexual offenders. His previous guest posts have reported on the link between pornography and contact sex offending and on an ongoing legal challenge to Minnesota's civil commitment of sex offenders. Many thanks to the editors of The Forum for granting me permission to post Mr. Brandt's review. The original review can be found HERE.

June 1, 2016

Non-testifying consultants: Does attorney-client privilege apply?

Is the work product of an expert who is retained only as a consultant -- not as a testifying witness -- confidential under the doctrine of attorney-client privilege?

With courts around the United States divided, that was the question before the Georgia Supreme Court in the case of Henry Neuman of Georgia, which I reported on back in 2012.

During Neuman’s high-profile murder trial, the trial judge had allowed prosecutors to introduce the notes of two confidential defense consultants, whom they had identified by snooping through jail visiting logs. The notes contradicted the testimony of the defense’s testifying experts, and Neuman was convicted.

In a 6-1 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court came down solidly on the side of protecting confidentiality. The trial judge's error was harmful enough for the state high court to reverse Neuman’s conviction, paving the way for a retrial.

Non-testifying experts serve as “agent[s] of the defense team,” the court held, so all communication between them and attorneys falls under the privacy umbrella of attorney-client privilege. Even when an insanity defense is raised, “the cloak of privilege” only falls away at the point that defense counsel elects to call an expert as a witness, ruled the court.

Such protection is essential so that attorneys can vigorously defend the accused, by obtaining expert advice on evidentiary strategy or by consulting with multiple experts who may hold conflicting views, without worrying that they are creating adverse witnesses against their client, the court explained:

“The attorney-client privilege is vital in cases such as this one where the defendant’s sanity is at issue because the privilege allows the attorneys to consult with the non-testifying expert in order to familiarize themselves with central medical concepts, assess the soundness and advantages of an insanity defense, evaluate potential specialists, and probe adverse testimony…. [W]ithout the protection of privilege, the defendant’s attorneys run the risk that the psychiatric expert they have hired to evaluate the defendant will render an opinion inconsistent with the defense’s insanity theory and the expert will then be made an involuntary witness for the State.”

This is precisely what happened at Neuman’s trial. Psychologist Peter Thomas and forensic psychiatrist Rand Dorney had conducted initial screenings to assist Neuman’s attorneys in assessing the viability of a criminal responsibility defense. After the trial judge permitted prosecutors to subpoena their records, the defense was forced to call the two as witnesses in order to keep the prosecution from calling them as rebuttal witnesses.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruling is HERE. My prior blog post on the case is HERE. A Fordham Law Review article on this topic is HERE.

Hat tip: Denis Zavodny  

April 17, 2016

The Psychology of Arson

Each year, about 60,000 bushfires rage across Australia, wreaking environmental devastation and costing lives and economic losses. An estimated half or more are deliberately set.

Considering arson's devastating toll, surprisingly little is known about who sets fires, and why. Intensive efforts to catch and prosecute firesetters have also done little to douse the flames.

It is no surprise that Australia is the epicenter of efforts to fill that gap, with several ongoing research and intervention programs. Now, two forensic psychologists and a mental health nurse have published a book that brings together cutting-edge theory and practical advice grounded in empirical research.

The Psychology of Arson represents the collected knowledge of 30 experts from around the world. Chapter by chapter, it explores the psychosocial factors underlying arson by children and adolescents (who make up a large share of firesetters), by suicidal and homicidal people, by women, by the mentally disordered and cognitively impaired, and by men who set fires for purposes of sexual gratification.

Forensic practitioners will find especially useful the sections on risk assessment, treatment, and management of firesetters, while researchers will benefit from the concluding chapter identifying research gaps and needs in this understudied area. The organization facilitates digestion: Each chapter starts with a clearly written summary of key points, followed by logically organized subheadings and text.

Particularly innovative is the authors’ attempt to go beyond the simplistic theorizing of early research to offer up an evidence-based theoretical model that can inform clinical interventions and even prevention efforts. Their nuanced multi-trajectory theory classifies arson based on four key factors: fire-related scripts, offense-supportive thoughts, emotional regulation issues, and communication problems.

Forensic psychologists Rebekah Doley
 and Theresa Gannon
The editors and lead authors are highly qualified for this project. Rebekah Doley of Bond University in Australia is an internationally recognized authority on firesetting who co-directs the Centre for Forensic and International Risk Management; Theresa Gannon of Kent University in the UK, Director of the Centre of Research and Education in Forensic Psychology, is similarly renowned, with numerous scholarly publications on firesetting. Rounding out the team is a widely published mental health nursing professor, Geoffrey Dickens of Abertay University in Dundee.