November 1999

 Table of Contents

Why They Kill:
Exploring the Thought
Behind Violence

by Woody Arbunkle

Why They Kill
Richard Rhodes
Alfred A. Knopf
372 pp.
$26.95 order now logo

In Why They Kill: The Discoveries of A Maverick Criminologist, Richard Rhodes has produced an odd hodge-podge of a book--part biography, part criminology primer, part history, part true-crime thriller with an intellectual twist. The transitions between the disparate parts can be a bit clumsy, but each is in itself interesting. And at times, it's absolutely fascinating.

The central theory advanced by Rhodes's biographical subject--Lonnie Athens, the 'maverick criminologist' of the book's title--is certainly arresting, though it's not the sort of thing liberals like to hear. Violent criminals, Athens claims, know what they are doing and act violently because they have decided to act violently. That is, while many defense attorneys and psychologists (as well as the media) often portray violent acts as spontaneous, unpremeditated moments in which the perpetrator simply 'lost his mind,' Athens's violent criminals make deliberate, rational (albeit wrongheaded) decisions to commit their crimes. And they commit their crimes, Athens says, because they've been taught to.

Athens calls this educational process violentization. It begins in childhood and can be broken down into four stages: 1) brutalization, 2) belligerency, 3) violent performances and 4) virulency. Brutalization, Athens writes, involves "people undergoing coarse and cruel treatment at the hands of others that produces a lasting and dramatic impact upon the subsequent course of their lives." (By "others," Athens means individuals with whom the subject has "regular face-to-face interaction"--e.g., a family or a gang.) Belligerency, the second stage, is marked by the subject deciding to respond with the sort of violence he has witnessed and / or been subjected to. "It is as if," Athens writes, "the subject had earlier been partly deaf and has only now heard what his coach had been telling him all along: Resorting to violence is sometimes necessary in this world."

Of course, many people resolve to act violently and then back down. But the individual who follows through on his decision and commits a violent act successfully (thus entering Athens's third stage) may find himself positively reinforced by others' reaction: they're scared of him and may even treat him like a local celebrity. The subject then becomes "overly impressed with his violent performances and ultimately with himself in general. Filled with feelings of exultancy, he concludes that since he performed this violent feat, there is no reason why he cannot perform even more impressive violent acts in the future." This leads, in Athens's theory, to the fourth and final stage, virulency: "The subject is ready to attack people physically with the serious intention of gravely harming or killing them with minimal provocation on their part."

Athens based his theory on his own extended interviews with violent criminals, which he began conducting in the late 1960s. The interviews themselves defied sociology's penchant for quantifiable data; indeed, Athens's analysis of lengthy conversations rather than statistics made him a maverick of sorts, as Rhodes rightly argues. In some sense, though, Athens's theory was made possible by his willingness to listen to his interview subjects' extended answers when he posed his two key questions:


1) What were you thinking when you committed the violent crime?

2) Why did you do it?


Naturally, the particulars of Athens's theory are significantly more complicated than a brief summary might suggest, but Rhodes's extended explication is gratifyingly clear-headed, intelligent and precise. Athens's two published books (The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals and Violent Criminal Acts and Actors Revisited) are not themselves easily digested by a popular audience, and Rhodes has done a great service in explicating them so well. Indeed, the section of Why They Kill that deals directly with Athens's theory is an excellent primer in criminology, and it's the best part of his book, by far.


The biographical parts of the book (roughly, the first sixty-five pages) are less interesting, if only because Rhodes narrates them in a somewhat uninspired, stiff (and at times even distant) voice. Partly, this may be because Rhodes relies too heavily on Athens's own memories of his childhood, rather than doing more extensive research among Athens's family and friends, as a full-fledged biography would have required. And the burden on Rhodes to assimilate his research into a completely new and independent voice--separate from Athens's--would have been more obvious as well, in a full-length biography.

But there may be another reason for the stiff voice: like Athens, Rhodes grew up in a violent family, and he may be consciously downplaying his tone to enforce objectivity on his text. (The brief passages where Rhodes describes his own violent stepmother seem barely--but forcibly--contained in their anger.) Aside from Rhodes's rather pedestrian approach, the biographical material is notable chiefly for its hagiographic qualities. In the context of his otherwise muted voice in the biographical sections, Rhodes's praise seems overstated at times. The general effect is odd, given the fact that Athens is so young, much less still alive. (He's fifty years old.) Rhodes's sort of enthusiasm is usually reserved for the biographies of dead Nobel laureates, rather than little-known, middle-aged criminologists.

Of course, an argument might be made that the biographical material is useful because Rhodes is treating Athens as a case study. To understand a theory, he implies, we need to understand the theorist. And to some extent, he's right: it's easier to make our way through the primer material if we can humanize it with biographical background. But justifying its utility in the abstract doesn't make the actual telling more engaging a priori, unfortunately.


More troubling are Rhodes's attempts to apply Athens's theories to a number of well-known popular-culture cases of crime: Cheryl Crane (Lana Turner's daughter; convicted of killing her mother's lover), Alex Kelly ("the preppy rapist"), Perry Smith (one of the two murderers in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood), Mike Tyson and Lee Harvey Oswald. Rhodes's applications have the ring of armchair psychology to them, and his stated purpose in offering them (to discover whether "violentization [is] evident in cases outside Athens's review") seems a bit self-serving. Surely, Rhodes didn't think he was going to uncover evidence that raised serious questions about Athens's theory. Nor could he have believed that Athens's theory needed just a bit more proof.

At heart, Rhodes seems merely to be capitalizing here on the repetition of well-known, sensationalistic stories. Far from demonstrating the limits of Athens's theory or even drawing out unexpected, subtle nuances with the tabloid true-crime cases, he too often seems to be stating what has become obvious to popular audiences through constant press attention: Lana Turner manipulated her daughter; Alex Kelly's parents provided him an environment that failed to punish violent acts satisfactorily; Mike Tyson was a street thug and always will be; and so on. Relying on previously published retellings seems the work more of a writer than a sociologist (particularly one like Athens, whose own groundbreaking work lay precisely in interviewing criminals personally over an extended period of time).

Rhodes's examination of historical cases of violence is decidedly more interesting, if only because the material isn't as well-known. (His chapters on the history of childhood and the shift from civilian violence to the European monarchy's monopoly on violence in the 1500s and1600s are particularly intriguing.)


While Rhodes's book is a somewhat odd hybrid of genres (no novelty, really, in these postmodern days), it's far from experimental because the individual sections (biography, criminology primer, etc.) are resoundingly traditional. Thus, he makes no attempt, within the biographical sections, to do something unusual to the biography genre; nor does he put a spin on the primer or celebrity-crime sections. It's something of a disappointment, I suppose, that he didn't try to find a more novel way to couple the disparate sections, but then again, Rhodes isn't an experimental writer. He's a patient, thorough sort, who manages large chunks of information well. And that, perhaps, is all we should ask of him.

In the end, Why They Kill is an interesting, often challenging and immensely informative pastiche that never gets that extra push that makes it all come together as one masterful, unified effort. At its best, though, it can be riveting. Click here to find any book!


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