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
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
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,
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
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.)
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.