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A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

The Critical Need For the Psychological Evaluation of Inmates

No psychologist likes working in a prison since even those with supportive congenial colleagues contain difficult characteristics: being unable to keep a personal phone within the institution, and having to exit multiple locked gates before rejoining the normal world. Yet these psychologists play a critical role.
While a county chief psychologist I often evaluated inmates at the local jail. An experience which, perhaps contrary to popular belief, they valued and even enjoyed. An inmate's life in a local jail lacks the treatment and educational facilities of larger state prisons. Thus receiving the undivided attention of another person is a gift not to be spurned. Moreover comprehensive psychological testing, which includes intelligence and personality instruments, is inherently interesting and provides exhaustive information. So much that my reports were nicknamed "magic" though their creation reflected the lengthy psychometric research and study of others.
By helping judges make better informed decisions, my reports always aided these. One young man who violated parole was released when my testing revealed that he was intellectually limited. Another, handsome and charming except when pressed, had much unconscious rage toward women which had already erupted in attempted rape.
Society would be safer and more just if psychological testing played a greater role in the judicial system. 

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Shooting Atrocities and Politician Response

While guns should certainly be kept from children and the mentally disturbed, behaving simplistically, as politicians tend to do following public distress, accomplishes little. The cause of the recent shooting atrocities is mental illness, virtually all deriving from lack of a "good enough" parenting during earliest childhood when the basic ego capacities governing control of thinking and behavior, modulation of mood, development of a sense of self, and the ability to separate fact from fantasy are formed. Yet no politician spoke this, doubtlessly because few know it since knowledge of child development is minimal even by doctors. What some seem to fear, even more greatly than guns, is awareness of the fearsome power of the unconscious. Can that a gun symbolizes this explain why it goes unspoken following shootings? Hmm...

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Explaining Apparently Incomprehensible Murders

This week's "murder most foul" was done by a Los Angeles mother who killed three of her children. Being apparently psychotic, she was unlike romantically fanciful Vicky White, the Alabama prison official who ran off with her imprisoned murderer-lover. Psychotic behavior, no matter how horrible, is easier to understand than the self-defeating act of a clearly sane person. While inmates are manipulative, what could have motivated a woman with a stable, established life to run away with a six-foot nine-inch prisoner for whom disguise is impossible. Instead of the suicide-by-cop which a lawman predicted, Vicky shot herself to avoid arrest.
The same week, in my area, Sean Armstead, a ten-year veteran of New York City's Police Department, tracked his wife to a meeting with her lover, then killed him and himself. Why, for if a marriage goes bust isn't divorce the smarter option?
Yet Vicky's and Sean's behavior have (possible) ready explanations: a hunger for love, and the hurt and wounding of self-esteem when it is denied.
Through evolution, humans have become increasingly conscious and deliberative. But the unconscious is powerful and one should not risk ignoring its power.

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The Lessons From The Netflix Documentary "I Am A Killer"

The extraordinary Netflix documentary, "I Am A Killer," evidences several truths: the powerful effect of childhood experience on adult behavior which can later go awry with tragic consequences; the critical importance of having good legal counsel; the destructiveness of alcohol and drug use; and the great power of the unconscious over behavior, particularly when substance abuse affects self-control.
The criminal behavior that sent these interviewed prisoners to Death Row may be said to be as heinous as the childhood ordeals which predetermined their commission.

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The Murderers Among Us

The Killer Across The Table, by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker describes the interviews of noted serial killers during which childhood and psychological similarities were found.
All had a troubled childhood, having experienced a far from "good-enough" parenting with much cruelty and/or sexual abuse and, often, a particularly damaging relatioinship with their mother. Which is not surprising since the mother-infant interaction is paramount when the basic ego capacities governing impulse control and thinking are formed.
These killers had a remarkable ability for psychological "splitting," separating and walling-off one aspect of their thinking and emotional life from another. Thus they could murder and bury a young child but later volunteer to join a search party while being concerned that their child get to school.
Rage and power were the domineering factors even in killings with a sexual element. The killer of a young girl from a neighboring home, who came to the killer's house to deliver Girl Scout cookies, knew from the moment he opened the door that he would kill her. This man, a high school teacher who lived with his mother, was told that she would refuse to see him and cut him from her will if he married. This caused him to break his engagement and added to his two types of rage. One that he could control, as when a driver cut him off. But the second he could not, as when the unlucky girl came to his house.
Another killer repeated his crime after being paroled following his rape and murder of a young woman. That these killers are not insane (which is a legal term) is evidenced by the care they took during the murders and in disposing of the bodies to avoid being caught.
This book evidences: the crucial need for more accurate assessment of those who are arrested; to consider even such unlikely suspects as family friends and loving relatives as the potential culprit; and to take reported suspicions seriously since many killing sprees would have been ended earlier had this been done, particularly those in hospitals by medical staff.
According to the authors: all serial killers have psychological conflicts between grandiosity and inadequacy; a sense of personal entitlement causing them to feel that they need not follow society's laws; and the ability to choose, making them deserving of capital punishment.

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Pentagon Police Officer Killed or, Dangerous With Any Bail

The recent murder of a Pentagon police officer was made more shocking upon learning the prior behavior of his killer. In April, twenty-seven-year old Austin W, Lanz was arrested for trespassing and burglary after breaking into a neighbor's home where security cameras recorded him leaving inappropriate pictures and messages in their mailbox. He took nothing but spoke of police aircraft flying over the neighborhood and his phone being tracked.

 

While being booked into jail and without provocation, he attacked and seriously injured two sheriff's deputies, then asked that his restraints be removed so he could fight the deputies one-by-one. After being charged with aggravated battery on police, making a terrorist threat, and rioting in a penal institution, he was released on $30,000 bail, ordered to submit to a mental health evaluation, and barred from using alcohol or drugs and possessing firearms. For all the good this did!


While hindsight has 20/20 vision as the adage insists, one can't help wondering why Mr. Lanz wasn't hospitalized or jailed since the failure of court restraint against impulsive, disturbed people is countless as evidenced by the killing of the divorced by their former partners and road rage and street assaults on strangers though these can't be wholly stopped. A psychiatrist once told me of a colleague eating in the cafeteria who had been attacked by a patient with whom he had no prior contact.


The only possible explanation for these frequent crimes is that many still don't believe that some people are, perhaps temporarily, inherently dangerous. Failing to respect the power of the unconscious over behavior despite its continuing reminders.

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Crime: Murder, Mayhem, and Evil

During my first job, as a psychologist at a psychiatric hospital, I told my psychoanalyst/supervisor my adolescent patient's statement. "That's psychotic," the doctor replied. Though able to define "psychotic," until that moment I hadn't grasped the power of this condition.

 

Similarly, when the latest horrors become public, the perpetrators are usually viewed with surprise since they look so normal, lacking the twisted features of horror film characters and speaking coherently though of bogus beliefs. Columnists then ask the usual question of "why," and provide their usual answer that "no one knows" but this is not true. While predicting violence cannot be certain, it correlates highly with several factors: failure in life; substance abuse; the psychological (ego) capacities governing thinking and behavior being inadequately developed; and having a fragmented "sense of self" (sense of who they are).

 

The killer's frequent decision, to suicide in "glory," is considered preferable to their continued painful existence.Though their act is horrendous, these individuals are not often considered "insane" which is a legal term determined by state statute. Most usually whether a person can distinguish "right" from "wrong" and, contrary to popular belief, rarely succeeds as a defense.

 

But to describe these individuals as sane does not imply that they possessed normal control over their behavior. Still, except for those possessing extreme psychological limitations, this should not influence their punishment. There is evil in the world and some succumb to its temptation. Yet even for others, the unconscious is very powerful and one must respect its power.

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Confronting Adolescent Evil

The recent attacks by bicycle riding teenagers on two cars in mid-town Manhattan, a taxi driver (causing him thousands of dollars in damage) and another containing a terrorized family, were shocking but unsurprising during these days when society's expectation of personal responsibility has diminished. Yet even more surprising was mere official call for "consequences," and a victim's hope that the perpetrators aren't jailed.

 

The psychological capacities enabling a person to distinguish reality from fantasy, modulate mood, develop a secure identity or "sense of self," and to control their behavior and thinking develop within the first three years of life. For their healthy growth a "good-enough" parenting is required which some lack, this reducing their likelihood of successfully achieving adolescent goals (to provisionally separate from parents; to construct realistic educational and vocational goals; to explore intimacy through dating). This failure produces frustration and anger and, in some youth, acting-out behavior though only rarely like these teenagers which, according to local shopkeepers, was not their first outrage.

 

As has long been known, exemplary adults can arise from the most impoverished families since it is parenting that counts. The famed, recently deceased, Black economist, Walter E, Williams, credited his achievements to having had a demanding mother and teachers "who didn't give a damn about my self-esteem." His mother must have taught him values too.


No matter how greatly distressed, destructive behavior should not be engaged in and cannot be tolerated. All, including parents who do their best, are the product of an imperfect childhood and will make mistakes though some are inexcusable.


A school's structure and rules enable psychologically damaged youth to function better, and society relies on the police and law to do this in the larger society. Yet regardless of personal inadequacies, evil cannot be tolerated and must be condemned and punished since no desirable society can exist which lacks this.

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Murder, Mayhem, and Evil

During my first job as a psychologist at a psychiatric hospital, I told my psychoanalyst/supervisor my adolescent patient's statement. "That's psychotic," the doctor replied. Though able to define "psychotic," until that moment I hadn't grasped the power of this condition.

Similarly, when mass murder horrors become public, the perpetrators are often viewed with surprise for these men had seemed so normal. They lacked the twisted features of horror film characters and spoke coherently though of bogus beliefs. Columnists asked the usual question of "why," and provide their usual answer that "no one knows." But this is not true!

 

While predicting violence cannot be certain, it correlates highly with several factors: failure in life; substance abuse; the ego capacities governing thinking and behavior being inadequately developed; and having a fragmented "sense of self," sense of who they are. The killer's frequent decision, to suicide in "glory," is considered preferable to their continued painful existence.

 

Though their act was horrendous, these individuals are not often considered "insane." The legal definition of insanity is determined by state statute, most usually whether a person can distinguish "right" from "wrong," and rarely succeeds as a defense. But to describe them as sane does not imply that they possessed "normal" control over their behavior though, except for those with extreme limitations, this should not influence their punishment. There is evil in the world and some succumb to its temptation. Yet even for the rest of us, the unconscious is very powerful and one must respect its power.

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Is Barnard College Responsible For Their Student's Murder?

The recent murder of eighteen-year-old Barnard College student, Tessa Majors, during an armed robbery in a nearby park at nightfall was shocking but unsurprising. Common sense is that one should not walk alone (or even with someone) at that time in that place. My statement is not meant to place blame on the unfortunate victim but rather to assert that Barnard should have educated its students, many of whom are new to New York City, about City ways. Or, in other words, given them "street smarts." Would doing this have saved Tessa's life? Perhaps not since teenagers can be impulsive. But, having done so, Barnard's administrators might now sleep more easily.

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