What do abusers and murderers look like?

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William Lash III, a former Bush aide, killed his autistic son and then himself after police came for him because he’d apparently either hurt or threatened to hurt his wife. I haven’t quite known how to post about this, hence the delay in posting. It hurts every time I read one of these things. And the odd thing to me about it is that everyone is saying he showed no sign of either abusive or murderous intent.

I’ve seen things like that before, in fact it’s almost a cliché, and I’m not talking about just when it’s an autistic person abused or killed. It seems that when things like this happen, people expect only a certain “type” of person to do this, often a person who matches their prejudices (“poor”, or “mentally ill”, or “bad temper”, or “ugly”, or any of a number of other ideas of who does these things). Maybe this is out of a human need for predictability, but from what I have seen, there is little of that.

I’ve known a number of people who have either killed people or tried to kill people. I’ve also known a number of people who have abused people physically or sexually. Very few of them fit any particular stereotype. Moreover, many of the people who fit the requisite stereotypes of “creepiness” haven’t actually done anything.

It is probably comforting to believe that you can predict these things, but in my experience they’re just not all that predictable, at least not to casual friends or neighbors. That “creepy” guy down the hall might just be harmless and autistic or something else that makes him seem unusual. That “sweet” elderly man who seems totally harmless may just be a murderer. Then there are the people who seem creepy and are creepy, and the people who seem harmless and are harmless. There just isn’t much of a pattern there. And people who kill or abuse love (in the emotional sense) their victims as often as not, love is no predictor either.

When Christopher DeGroot was killed, a lot of people online talked about how creepy his parents, who allegedly set his apartment on fire with him inside it, looked. I was uncomfortable with this. I have known a lot of people who look just like his parents and have done absolutely nothing wrong. And when William Lash killed his son, people were talking about how they couldn’t see it coming. That makes me just as uncomfortable. It’s as if, by both of these things, people are saying that people who look a certain way, maybe come from a certain kind of background, are more predictably killers or abusers, and people who do not, are not. This is one more way that people make themselves believe in safety that isn’t there, to the expense of all the people they are mistaken about. People like to believe they can “sense” these things, but very few really can.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Physically and cognitively disabled. Anything you hear in the media or gossip is likely to be oversimplified at best and wildly inaccurate at worst, the only way to get to know me is to actually know me. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died a couple years ago and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

19 responses »

  1. Yes, very true. That is something I needed to hear today, thanks. I have been the victim of abuse by both an “evil beast” and by “upstanding members of the society”. The stereotypically evil one (an umeployed black man with a long criminal record)is doing time in prison (which he deserves), but the other cases are simply dismissed by the police and ignored, or else people try to persuade me the incidents never happened and are all in my head.

    It depends on the victim’s status too. A woman patient in the State Hospital was raped by a male patient, but when she asked to be transferred to another ward, it was written in notes (that I happened to see) that her request was based on “amorous delusions” towards this man and her request was denied. There was no investigation to see if she was telling the truth.

    When I lived in a group home which did not have a constant staff presence, there was bullying by 2 tenants against the other 3. The victims were not take seriously and were told that if they had a problem, then they should stay in their rooms. It meant we were unable to use the kitchen and sometimes unable to used the bathroom. I complained again, but was told to see my psychiatrist. I complained to the police but they would not get involved. In the end I felt so unsafe that I moved out. The others were not so lucky: one who had virtually stopped eating as she couldn’t access the kitchen, became so malnourished that she collapsed unconscious and had to be taken into hospital; the other was found dead in his room. It was all put down to natural causes, because the bullies and the support workers seemed like nice people.

  2. Yeah, in one institution I was at there was a girl where staff explicitly instructed each other not to believe her when she said she was raped. But they were supposed to “act as if they believed her” and then do nothing.

    Something similar happened to me with bullying in a group home, except that there was one staff who saw me trying to run away and insisted that I and the other target be moved to a second house the company owned. (I ran off when they pretended to kill the cat and threatened to kill me. Our shrink said that the other target of bullying (my roommate) was “delusional” and should not be believed.) The bullies started rumors about that staff person that, along with what I suspect was racism, eventually resulted in him getting fired. Even though he was by far the best staff.

  3. I think this all comes down to Hannah Arendt’s observation, at the Nazi war-crime trials, of the “banality of evil.” Most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust came off looking not like sadistic monsters, but like dedicated bureaucrats who approached the murder of 10 million people the way they’d approach, say, a major public-works project. Whenever a teenager gets charged with a hate crime, everyone around him is shocked because he almost never fits the public stereotype of a “Nazi skinhead”; most hate-crime perpetrators actually better fit the “boy next door” stereotype. If there’s a school shooting, everyone who knew who the shooter was will remember that he was a “loner,” but the investigation will usually reveal that he had a fairly large circle of friends. We seem to try to force the darker side of reality into pre-existing narratives that aren’t real at all.

    Milgram’s obedience-to-authority experiments and Zimbardo’s “prisoner” experiments demonstrated that given the “right” circumstances, perfectly normal people (Zimbardo’s subjects, for example, were screened for personality disorders) will behave in truly horrible ways; most of the subjects were in fact apalled at how they had behaved.

  4. “Something similar happened to me with bullying in a group home, except that there was one staff who saw me trying to run away and insisted that I and the other target be moved to a second house the company owned.”

    The phrase ‘the company’ caused my ears to prick up. I don’t know if you know this or not, Amanda, but were all the institutions you were in privately-owned, that is, owned by private corporations?

  5. I felt the same. I further don’t think his being a Bush aide is of much relevance. He worked in the Trade Commission and so maybe his life there has more relevance. ??? I like how you pick up on the core issue here. That is, the highly unusual nature of the media finally treating a killer as someone who didn’t seem out of the ordinary. They did this a bit with Ted Bundy. He was a handsome man actually. I know some women who would find Tim McVeigh to be a cutie badboy type and there were some people who I showed his face to that were unfamiliar and they are shocked if you say, “this ugly person donated their kidney their little sister” and “this person blew up a federal building”. The times the stereotypes become true to any degree becomes a bit scary for me. I don’t feel I’m a “pretty person” by any means. Anyone who saw me IRL would think I’m the fatassed balding hairy nerd with much the same stigmatization George from Seinfeld gets. At least, that’s about where my self-image has often lied. Which brings up the point. The “crazy” people images are taught to us in media of various sorts and society as they discuss them. Things have never been very good though. Throughout all time, this has been an injustice. The book and the cover issue.

  6. rocobley: Some were private, some were public.  I didn’t know a better word than “company”, I meant the group home was actually split into two houses.  That particular one was a group home owned by… I don’t know who, a few people? (I don’t know what a corporation is, don’t try to explain, the meaning of the word never sticks in my mind).  It was owned not by the state.  But at the same time not a chain.  (I’ve been in chain-owned places too.  And then publicly-owned places.  Then one-of-a-kind-owned places.)

  7. So much for the vaunted NT ability to “read” other people.

    Some people are deemed to be non-people; corporations are non-people that are deemed to be people. Go figure.

  8. I suspect that the son’s autism had nothing to do with this, and the key factor is what you described as “because he’d apparently either hurt or threatened to hurt his wife”. A few weeks ago, we had a case in Miami: a doctor and family on vacation from Illinois, marriage was in trouble, doctor without any apparent warning took his two young sons, threw them to their deaths from the balcony of their hotel room, and then immediately jumped to his death. There was no hint of anything unusual about the kids in any way. The husband just wanted to get at the wife in the worst way possible.

    It does not mean it’s any less horrible, but it does mean that autism was not really a factor in the Lash case.

  9. A certain person in my family is referred to, by those who know him only casually or know one aspect of his character, as delightful. A distant relative — who had never lived with or known him more than for a few hours at family gatherings — called him saintly in front of me. I almost spit my drink on myself. A year or so later, she moved in with him for a month while looking for work in the area. Now she knows why I reacted the way I did.

  10. “So much for the vaunted NT ability to “read” other people.”

    Having a phonestheme attack here. (tic) ;) Vaunted sounds a lot like lauded, flaunted, haunt, daunt, taunt, saunter and gawdy and dozens of other similar sounding words. But it is an actual word. All relatives of boast, brag, bribe and flout, flash. Pretty much word association meaning “putting out in the open”

    All of which are nearly substitable in that sentence but it’s been a while since I’ve seen vaunted as a word but I think it’s the brain grabbing the phonestheme. Phonesthemes, searchable in web-engines, are basically a theory that some words are not outright onatomatopoetic but carry some hidden archetypical morpheme or meaning quality by virtue of sharing similar sounds.

    I’m perseverating. Not sure if apology is in order. Not quite on topic here, but still wanting to express what I often suppress even if it’s tangential.

  11. Lordalfredhenry: Didn’t understand any of that. I’ll have to look up phonestheme on the net.

    Amanda: OK I asked because the fact that you were in institutions that tortured you and were privately owned kinda chimes in with my prejudices about private enterprise. However, abuse is probably as likely to happen in publicly owned institutions as private ones. Indeed, in Britain a report was issued outlining widespread abuse in homes in Cornwall, and now I understand *all* the institutions in the UK are to be audited.

  12. Just a list of the various ideas that went through my head regarding this, in no particular order:

    -Social ideas of “the kind of people” who abuse and kill others are often a very polite fiction that allow everyone to attribute such actions to random psychopathy, and direct the blame away from social attitudes towards children, autistic people, etc, which hold that treating certain people in certain ways is natural and understandable, and murder and “extreme” abuse are actually logical extensions of those attitudes. (People will often say, for instance, “Certain kinds of behavior require drastic measures!”, but if you ask them to draw a line between reasonable “drastic measures” and abuse, using concrete, not abstract examples, they very rarely can.)

    -Since the main criteria for “mental illness” is and always has been simply that someone’s behavior not make sense to those around them, people who can’t understand how someone could kill or abuse their own child often attribute such acts to insanity, and the whole expectation/stereotype comes along with it– dirty/ugly/disheveled, behaving in “bizarre ways,” you can tell them at a glance, etc.

    -The vast majority of the people we know who have been sexually abused or harassed in some way, including us, had it done to them by a “good person”– a nice, honest boy, a loving parent, a well-respected teacher or doctor, etc. Some of them clearly gave off creepy, overly touchy-feely vibes, but a lot of them didn’t, or they only started giving them off once they had the victim where they wanted them, and their public appearance and body language was different.

    -There’s some appearance prejudice going on here, also– good people are attractive and “friendly,” smile, make eye contact, bad people are ugly, act suspicous and sneaky, don’t smile, look away from you, etc.

    -Our mother, who did everything to cultivate the public image of a concerned, involved and loving parent who would never treat anybody badly, gave off lots and lots of overly “friendly” cues (to the point, I think, where many people saw it was fake and found it slightly creepy) and complained about “unfriendly people” who didn’t smile or make eye contact. Obviously, the aim of it was to get people to say “Someone who smiles and makes eye contact all the time couldn’t be a bad parent!”

  13. I think Berke^Amorpha hit the nail on the head. Certain acts are simply incomprehensible to the average person. By average I don’t necessarily mean normal, just if you picked a person off the street without trying to sort them by type, this would most likely be their view.

    Frequently, incomprehensible actions get classed as “crazy”. This word is used in a lot of people’s head as a catch all for several different concepts;

    -abnormal
    -incomprehensible
    -creepy
    -mentally ill

    etc. So acts of violence and abuse that fall outside of that person’t comprehension, are crazy, which mean they’re done by crazy people, which means crazy people are dangerous. That seems to be the thought process, as far as I can tell.

    In my experience, abusers and other violent criminals are no more likely than average to send up noticeably odd social signals. People who’ve been abused, however, are far more likely to behave in unusual ways, partly because of post traumatic stress, and partly because abusers sometimes target people who aren’t considered normal in the hope that no one will listen to the ‘crazy’ or ‘retarded’ person. So the attempt to identify people by their ‘off’ social signals has entirely the wrong effect.

  14. rocobley: The main thing that can make private institutions worse (in America at least) is staffing. There’s more staff. Therefore more potential for control/torture/whatever of any given inmate. Not that it doesn’t go on in public ones but that in public ones (as well as not-as-moneyed private ones) it’s fewer staff to more inmates which creates a different dynamic.

  15. I read about Autism speaks and I find it like Nazi propaganda. I am tired of us being portrayed as ‘useless eaters’. We need to fight this 21st century Naziism. And not only that, but who are they to declare jihad on us?

    Kathy Grant

  16. Kathy,
    Actually “they” are misusing the word “jihad” and incidentally so do we, if we use it in the same way. Jihad is actually an internal affair, an internal “war against evil or impure thoughts, actions, and words” if you will. I had a Muslim friend who told me this a few years ago. It’s a spiritual personal individual issue, generally speaking, and it’s supposed to be peaceful. What fanatic Muslims are doing, is polluting the meaning of jihad. It is not supposed to have anything to do with bloodshed. I imagine that a group could wage a jihad against impure ideas coming into their minds, but it’s still a spiritual thing, and not something one would actually fight man-to-man against someone else for. So I think we are the ones declaring jihad, so to speak. Against the propaganda of Autism Speaks and other things like that. At present I am working on an email to the senior vice president, concerning her comment about her autistic daughter.

    AI

  17. “I read about Autism speaks and I find it like Nazi propaganda. I am tired of us being portrayed as ‘useless eaters’. We need to fight this 21st century Naziism.
    Kathy Grant ”

    I think this is really an interesting point and something that I have been wondering about if you combine the different “fronts” from the Autism Speaks video to the Combating Autism bill and other various articles and websites. If you look at all of this fretful talk about the stress, expense, and cost to society than really doesn’t that point back to the reasoning for the practices of institutionalization and eugenics. I find the coining of the term “Autism Czar” very ominous along with the provisions in the Combating Autism bill for mandatory screening by age 2 and identification of all persons with autism. And they also want to ID at risk siblings (at risk for what – autism?). That makes me wonder if in another 10 years there will be financial incentives or restrictions on parents who choose to procreate – just like in other parts of the world. And then you have a well financed group admittedly putting out a propaganda film for the sole purpose not to educate but influence the public thinking. Since they are demanding all this tax money to take care of things than there is a dark side to that – which allows those paying to decide the rules of the game.

  18. I started to write something really “militant” here, then I thought better of it. I’m a newbie to this blog so out of respect I’d rather not stir up the pot bigtime. Ballastexistenz: do you mind if I email you with questions about blogger and how to link to other blogs? I’m not very computer literate at all. I’ll be away from 7/22 til 7/25 so if you say yes to emailing I’ll send you my questions when I return.

    Thanks.

    AI

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