Understanding the confessions of Son of Sam

Understanding the confessions of Son of Sam

We try to understand the mind of David Berkowitz in particular, and serial killing and psychopathy in general. The question is whether our self psychological analysis of Berkowitz can be valuable in also understanding other serial killers.

2.7.1. Methodological issues with a case study

Using “Confessions of Son of Sam” in the interpretation

Confessions of Son of SamIt is of significance to note that Abrahamsen based his interpretations upon first hand information from D.B. Some of the interviews were with face to face contact with him, and this could be a source of information that one might miss when one is analyzing out of a book, like for example revealing expressions in D.B.’s face or other bodily movements. Additionally, the psychoanalytic angle that Abrahamsen is using might have (un)consciously influenced D.B,, which potentially can have affected him in his understanding of himself, and this way also of the answers and statements that he gave. This way, the use of “Confessions of Son of Sam”, might not be a totally neutral source of interpretation, which can have affected the validity of the study in this work.

Using a serial killer to understand a serial killer

What is also important in a valid qualitative study is that the subject that is being tested has a moral integrity (Kvale, 2002, pp. 236-237). Based on the assumption that D.B. has a psychopathic personality (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 136), one might be critical to whether he is telling the truth. According to Abrahamsen, D.B. was the one who suggested that he could be the subject of a book. In relation to this one might wonder why D.B. wanted the whole world to get to read about his “unpopular” killings. One reason could be that he was interested in being forgiven and potentially get his sentence decreased. But as he was sentenced to 547 years in jail, it does seem unlikely that he was hoping for reduced time in jail. At the same time, his reveals does not either seem to be aimed at getting forgiveness. This is as he in the book tells unconcealed about the murderers. Examples are telling how he was singing and being satisfied after the murders and how he wanted to destroy the girls (Abrahamsen, 1985, pp. 161, 178). A hypothesis could be that the book- idea was an effort to give nurture to the grandiose self.


An important question in relation to the study in this thesis is whether the understanding can be valuable in also understanding other serial killers. In research methodological terms, one asks if the findings are to be generalized. The view of what is objectivity and generalizable, is related to what perspective one have on how to understand the world (ontology and epistemology). Some will claim that the world is a fundamental mathematical universe, where everything exists within a quantifiable order. Consequently, what is viewed as objectivity is when one has quantitative data about the studied objects. This ontological way to consider relations has this way other demands to what is to be considered objective, than if one sees the valuable information as lying in the linguistic, interpersonal constructed social world and thereby use qualitative research methods. The understanding of what is objectivity is also attached to the epistemological demands one have. Natural scientific proponents demand that research data needs to be quantitative to be comparable across theories. This view will also have other demands to objectivity, than if one is using a hermeneutic method (Kvale, 2002, pp. 75, 276). This way, if one is seeing quantification as the criteria for science and legitimation, qualitative methods, like the case study in this work, might appear subjective and non- scientific. But, if one is having the view that information is to be found in the humanistic domain, where the individuals is appearing as a construction of its culture, quantitative research will not be of particular interest or value. In relation to this, the philosopher and sociologist, Jurgen Habermas has argued, that one can seek out norms in the communications (Habermas, 1974; Christensen, 2003, p. 130), meaning that qualitative research can be seen to give normative indications that can also be used in other situations.

Also Hugh Coolican (1999), who has written a book about research methods, states, that is not always seen as a purpose with research to generalize the findings directly to specific populations, groups or contexts. This way, it is not always interesting to find out what is typical, (like with mean and standard deviation) but it can be of substantial value to if, for example, thought processes are similar to the thoughts of other people in similar circumstances (Coolican, 1999, p. 470). This means that, even though case study can be criticized for lack of objectivity and generalizability from a natural scientific point of view, a more humanistic scientific entrance angles sees the natural scientific view on objectivity as irrelevant. This way, it is likely, that the case study is generalizable and valuable, in the sense that it is probable that the findings of the thoroughly and closely analyzed study in this thesis has similarities and shared qualities with other cases. It is therefore to be underlined that the understanding of D.B. can be transferred to other cases.

However, Coolican also indicates that it would be profiting if one can show that the research outcome is related to similar previous research and/or also if one can demonstrate that some of the findings can be transferred in other situations (p. 470). So, even though the case study per se can be seen as having generalizing attributes, it would improve the validity of the study, if further serial killers could be analyzed within the self psychological perspective, to potentially demonstrate that the findings can be transferred to other cases. This has, however, not been the scope of this thesis, but it is a dimension to considerate in a potential later extension of this study.

2.7.2. Critical aspects with the self psychological approach

Kohut’s self psychological theory has been exposed to considerable criticism. His disagreements and break-up with the traditional psychoanalytic drive theory, has been said to have characterized as a “paradigm-replacement within the world of psychoanalysis” (Gorday, 2000, p. 446). This way, it is not unexpected that he received criticism from spokesmen within the perspective that he had earlier been a marked representative for. The most significant differences between these two theories have been discussed in the above interpretation of D.B. Some of the criticism from psychoanalytics is the self psychologies ignorance of inner conflicts and impulses (Karterud, 2000, p. 43). Perhaps, more relevant than the rather natural dissatisfaction among earlier colleagues, is the criticism that has been directed against Kohut’s theory from other fronts.

Kohut’s way to conceptualize the self is one aspect that has been a controversial issue within his theory. Rom Harr& who is a well known theoretic within the understanding of self, has written books about the self within a psychological and philosophical frame. He criticizes Kohut’s concept of the self, because he states that his definition and understanding of the structure of self, does not contain its dynamic and transient characters (Harr& 1998, p. 74). However, what might be of biggest interest in the views of Kohut, and his theory, is the criticism that has been directed from other psychological psychotherapeutic perspectives. Some ooppositional perspectives to self psychology, criticises, among other things, the focus on empathy in the theory in which they claim is an unfortunate attempt to “cure by love” (Karterud, 2000, p. 13). Criticized is also the lack of empirical research of the self psychological method to collect information, in which introspection is used (Messer & Warren, 1990, p. 388). Kohut has also been referred to as making both “confusions” and “contraindications” in his theory (Strozier, 2001, p. x) and for only paying attention to dyadic relations and not considering the importance of a third party in the development of the self (Gammelgaard, 2003).

A substantial degree of criticism has come from psychologists and psychiatrists that see the value of some of the main concepts in Kohut’s theory, but that are not satisfied with all aspects in it. This has resulted in the development of new self psychological approaches. It has been suggested that one can talk about two main self psychological approaches, in addition to the traditional one (Karterud, 2000, p. 64).

What has been characterized as the most critical approach is the intersubjective self psychology of Robert D. Stolerow, Bernard Brandschaft and George E. Atwood. They are putting considerable importance in searching for an understanding of a personality in the context in which the person is interacting and how the interaction is taking form with the mutual influence an individual and its environment has on one another (Black & Mitchell, 1995, p.167; Messer & Warren, 1990; Stolorow, 1994). Kohut has in some occasions talked about the self as a multiple structure. However, Kohut usually seems to talk about the self as one dimension (Tonnesvang, 2002, p. 21). This can be seen in the way he referrer to the terms; the coherence of the self and the nuclear self. However, Kohut also talks about the self as having two (bipolar) or three (tripolar) dimensions. Stolerow has criticized Kohut for his conceptualizing of the self into the bipolar and tripolar structures, where he sees this as an unnecessary demarcation of the self which causes a mechanistic way of thinking and a view of the self that is restricted to the bi- or tripolar self. Stolorow, however, sees Kohut as viewing the self as being constructed by “multiple dimensions” (Karterud, 2000, p. 61). This emphasis can be seen related to the social constructionistic approach with its focus on relations between individuals and the interactions that finds place. Kenneth Gergen, a representative for this approach, sees, in relation to this, the self as being constituted in the interaction with other individuals, and hence it contains of as many selves as there are social situations. The term “multiple self’ stems from this assumption that the self changes from situation to situation (Christensen, 2003, pp. 71-72).

Joseph D. Lichtenberg and Michael F. Basch were also in disagreement with some of the self psychological aspects, and they developed another self psychology approach with emphasis on developmental psychology and infant research. They based their new perspective empirical and neurological research. This was in opposition to Kohut, who was critical to also consider other theoretical aspects than his already developed theory (Karterud, 2000, p. 64).

It is indeed important to consider, and be aware of critical aspects with a theory. In the highlight of thegiewer and revised self psychological perspective, one might wonder if the traditional self *pychology is an outdated theory. It is however, to be mentioned that Kohut died when he was 68 years, when he had barely worked 10 years with self psychology and simultaneously had been suffering from a severe chronic disease these last 10 years of his life. Due to a limited time to develop the theory it might be a reason for its claimed incompleteness and “confusing” and “contraindicating” character, both in the theoretical and therapeutic manner (pp. 26, 49). This way, it is to be stated that there can be find aspects that are not completed and that can be criticized in the Kohutian theory. How can one then defend using this perspective in analyzing patients (and in this case a serial killer)?

Even though the traditional Kohutian self psychology are seen to have critique leveled at it, the newer self psychologists still tend to emphasis empathy and selfobjects, which is often regarded as the “most central and creative features” of Kohut’s theory (Mitchell & Black, 1995, p. 167). This way, even though one possible can improve theories by including other aspects, the basic elements with Kohut’s self psychology are still remaining in the new theories as well, so whether one is using the traditional theory or the newer theories, one is still concerned with these aspects.

However, one will not come aside from the fact that there are aspects with a traditional self psychological analysis that is not perfect. According to Ornstein (1997), who is one of the prominent “traditional” self psychologists, also Kohut knew that his theory “…were not final’ words, and he trusted that those who adopted his ideas would put them under the high-powered investigative lens of their own clinical work”. (p. 3). In relation to this, Ornstein argues that Kohut gave as good expression of his theory, as he was able to at that time. Ornstein points to the fact that the significant thing is to be able to see the “greatness” in the theory and not be troubled with exact definitions, as they are in fact only guidelines (p. 3). Ornstein and also other traditional self psychologists have the opinion that one does not have to change or revise Kohut’s theory, but instead to further elaborate on, and broaden his theories (Karterud, 2000, p. 202; Ornstein, 1998). This way, there are arguments for both making improvements and changes with the theory on one side, and withholding it on the other. The contribution in this work, have been based on a withholding of the traditional theory, but it is still of importance to be aware of the criticism there exist. By using Kohut’s theory, it is not necessarily claimed that it is better than the newer self psychological theories, but most of all it is used as there are aspects with this theory that seems to be a valuable tool for understanding the case in this work, D.B. For that reason, it was found to be of the greatest value to use the original theory of Kohut as this is where the concepts were originated and not to use “secondary” understandings of his theory. There will be some more critical reflections of the self psychological theory in relation to the therapeutic implications in part 3.3.3.