What made Berkowitz kill? Can his childhood explain his murderous intentions? Is it because he lacks empathy or because of an unstable personality? He was obsessed with death and with a gun in his hand, he acted out something that we might call narcissistic rage. We try to understand Son of Sam with self-psychological theories.
Within a self-psychological approach, it is of importance to look into the childhood and earlier experiences to understand the behavior that is later present. For this reason, the following that are aimed at understanding why D.B. committed the destructive actions will, to a large extent contain analysis of D.B.’s background.
2.5.1. Experiences of selfobject failures and the three dimensions of D.B.’s self
Selfobject failures in childhood
D.B. was adopted in June 1953, when he was three days old. Pearl and Nathan Berkowitz became parents for the first time and took the little boy, who back then had the name Richard David Falco, with them to their home in Bronx in New York. He was told at age three or four that he had been adopted and that his biological mother had died when she had given birth to him (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 44)4. Whether D.B. somehow had been aware of the separation with his biological mother is speculative. Kohut does accept the unconsciousness and such it is likely that D.B. has at some level felt this separation. Anyhow, he was familiar with the adoption at a very young age, and it is possible that the knowledge of the “loss” of and separation from his biological mother can have been experienced as the first failure of an important selfobject in D.B’s life. This can be supported by Philip D. Jaffe (1997), who has studied the relation between adoption and murder, as he states that it is not to be avoided that an adopted child will have the feeling of having been “abandoned” by the biological parents.
(4 The information about D.B.’s background and childhood is primarily from the interviews Abrahamsen had with him, which is published in “Confessions of Son of Sam” in 1985. Abrahamsen made extensive analysis of his quotes and statements, but for now these interpretations are neglected and the focus is exclusively on D.B.’s own story that he told in these interviews.)
D.B.’s adoptive mother was not able to get pregnant and it is therefore likely that she was very happy when she got the opportunity to get a son, and adopt D.B. This can explain why, as D.B. explains, he could get everything he wanted from her, and that she overindulged him. But D.B. also describes other behavioral characteristics of her. When he was a child and his mother was having her female friends on visit, he always had to meet them, even though he had other things to do. He also states that every time a photo was taken, she forced D.B. to wash himself and to change clothes and that she cherished the pictures and had them with her when she was visiting people. He also tells about another episode from when he was about 5 years, and he had been playing in a sandbox. Some girls had put sand in his hair, and when his mom saw all the sand, she slapped him (Abrahamsen, 1985, pp. 34, 54). By the stories D.B. tells about his mother, one can get the impression that she had a substantial need to be acknowledged herself. She might have thought that one of the ways for her to be the center of attention and gain admiration was to be a mother of a perfect son. This is why she might have wanted to show her son off in front of her friends and why she wanted him to appear perfect, both in real life and in pictures. When he had sand in his hair, he was not as perfect as she wanted, which might have motivated her to slap him. If the assumption of her grandiosity and narcissistic traits are right, the consequences for D.B. are, within selfpsychological terms, considerable. If a child is exposed to significant selfobjects that are occupied with fulfilling its own selfobject needs, it will naturally be at the expense of the child’s needs for being empathically mirrored and recognized (Kohut, 1998). This might have characterized as a failure of a significant selfobject in D.B.’s life.
D.B.’s adoptive father has told in an interview with Abrahamsen (1985, p. 169) that he worked a lot during D.B.’s childhood. This is also something that D.B. frequently mentions in the interview. It is likely that D.B. had a need to be both recognized from his father and also a need to idealize his father and be a part of his perfection. But because of the regular absence of his father, D.B. might have experienced selfobject failure not only from his adoptive mother, but also from his adoptive father.
In addition to this, D.B. claims that he slept in his parents’ bedroom, and often in their bed, until he was 10. He says that his presence in his parents’ bed annoyed his father and in relation
to this D.B states in the interview: “I always resented him quite a bit because he wanted to be with my mother. I resented my father because he had my mother (p. 169). “He made me leave the room when they wanted to be alone. I resented it.” “I felt deprived.” (p. 170). This way, it can be seen that even when D.B.’s father was present, he failed to function as a selfobject for D.B. This is as D.B. might have felt that his father made him leave his mother, and thus causing D.B. to lose the attention that he would otherwise have received from his mother.
When D.B. was 14 years old, his adoptive mother died of breast cancer. D.B. described her as the anchor of his life and as the person who raised him (Berkowitz, 2005). Understandable, this must have been difficult for D.B. Her death is probably experienced as a loss of a substantial selfobject in his life. This is despite, as has earlier been mentioned, she might have been engaged with her own needs of recognitions, when she was giving D.B. attention, D.B. states that he couldn’t deal with the pain of losing her and that he also was struggling with guilty feelings over his few short visits at the hospital, when his mother lived there the final weeks of her life. But not only did D.B. lose his mother. He was also left with his father, who he says that he had felt neglected of, for many years. According to D.B., his father continued to be frequently absent and he states that he was alone all the time (Berkowitz, 2005; Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 60).
Kohut (1984, p. 18) describes, with an oxygen-metaphor, how dependent all individuals are on an empathic selfobject. Just like one cannot physically survive without oxygen, one cannot psychologically survive without responses from empathic selfobject, he states. To sum up on the lacks of responses that D.B. can be seen to have had in his life is the separation and failure of his biological mother, his exposure to his adoptive mother’s self-assertive needs, his adoptive father’s absence and his neglect of him at home, and also the loss of his adoptive mother. The consequences of the failure from selfobject to meet the fundamental needs of being recognized and mirrored and also to be a part of others perfection, is that these needs are likely to continue to be present as he grows up.
Selfobject failures as a grown up
Until D.B. was 22, he had thought that his biological mother was dead and he stated the following: “I always believed she had died, I had that feeling constantly, that I somehow caused her death”. (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 71). This bad guilt had, according to D.B., followed him for years. But when he was 22, he found out that his adoptive parents had lied about the circumstances of the adoption. His mother had not really died. When this fact was disclosed to D.B., he probably felt it like a substantial disappointment that his adoptive parents had lied to him.
At the same time as D.B. found out the truth about his biological family, he got a message from his father, concerning his decision about moving to Florida with his new wife. These two incidences might have been an essential element in D.B.’s decision about finding his real family (p. 70). However, it was not only joy connected to his decision. What D.B. gradually started to realize was that not only had his caregivers lied to him for all these years, but it also occurred to him that: “Mother didn’t really die. She just couldn’t take care of me”. “I was an accident, a mistake, never meant to be born-unwanted.” (pp. 71-72). Based on this quote, it seems likely to assume that D.B. felt that the adoption was associated with feeling neglected, rejected and worthless. However, he still intended to meet his mother. But the reunion with his biological mother did not turn out the way he hoped:
“I think my first reaction was one of disappointment. I don’t know what I expected. She was a nervous and frightened little woman. I felt sorry for her.” “No, I wasn’t shocked, I wasn’t scared. I was disappointed.” (p. 77). “I still, to this day, have negative feelings for my mum, Falco. Despite her nice and friendly ways, I don’t have it in me to totally forgive her. I told her when I first met her and a great many times afterwards that I forgave her. But this isn’t really the case…” (p. 78).
It does not seem like a surprise that D.B. was not able to accept and forgive his biological mother. This is at it is likely that she got the role as an archaic selfobject for D.B. What is characteristic for the person, who gets this role, is that he or she becomes a slave for the other individual’s demands and expectations (Schluter & Karterud, 2002, p. 85). This way, it is likely that she would never have fulfilled the expectations that D.B. has about her.
Further, D.B. also gets to know that he had a biological sister that his biological mother had kept, in opposition to what she had with D.B. (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 76). As his grandiose self might already be vulnerable, because of the failures from selfobjects earlier in his life, the fact about his sister having been taking care of by his ‘pother was probably experienced as an additional neglect. It is possible that he felt that he was not good enough and that his sister was better than himself.
Even though selvobject failures are most critical in the childhood, the need for them is forever present. However the experiences of losses of selfobjects when one is grown up, will, if the coherent self is not developed, possible represent archaic selfobject failures from childhood. In the case of D.B., the narcissistic injuries that he is likely to feel in relation to his experiences with his biological family, might feel more intense for him than they would for others. This is because they are likely to have triggered regression and hence what he now experiences, are archaic feelings of being rejected (Kohut, 1978).
The assumptions that D.B. might have experienced several failures of selfobjects in his life, would in the self psychological perspective, be seen as potentially causing fragmentations in the self. A fragmented self is occurring when the different parts of ones self (the grandiose, idealising and twinship-seeking self) has not been integrated into a meaningful and coherent self (Schluter & Karterud, 2002, p. 64). The following is an analysis of how D.B.’s experiences can be seen to have affected the different parts of his self, hence possible having eliminated his potential for developing a coherent self.
D.B.’s grandiose self
According to D.B., his adoptive mother was sometimes overindulging him. If he smashed toys, she replaced them, and when he went with her to the groceries, he would take a bit of some food he wanted and her mother paid for it and gave him the rest (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 53). The claimed overindulgence of D.B.’s adoptive mother might be seen as a contra-indication to what has earlier been understood about him. But however, it is plausible that she can have spoiled him at some times. Whether the spoiling is motivated by her own narcissism is not to be known, but it can be a possibility. The spoiling and overindulgence of D.B. that he claims to have happened at some times might have encouraged his grandiosity in an exaggerated manner. But also on the other hand, the sudden absences of recognitions from her, where she for example slaps D.B., and the absence and lack of attention from the father, might have forced D.B.’s grandiose self to fantasize about being admired and praised instead (Kohut, 1998, p. 71). The consequence of a failure in being balancing mirrored is as has earlier been mentioned (part 2.4.3.), that exhibitionistic and grandiose fantasies of being almighty, perfect and admired will endure, and that the individual will continue to be dependent on being acknowledged and confirmed by others.
According to D.B., however, acknowledgements did not occur for him when he grew either. At the time of the killings, when he was 24 years old, he had never had any girlfriends and had barely any sexual experience. In relation to this, he states:
“I’ve always fantasized about being close to young girls with whom I was sexually attracted to. However in reality I never had sex with them, much less talked with them. I was too shy to talk with them nor was I handsome or popular enough”. “All my childhood playmates were girls who existed in real life. But, as I said before, I never even talked with them. In my relationship, though, my imaginary one, I had a wonderful relationship with them. I talked with them, revealing my innermost desires, thoughts and secrets. I also made out with them often.” (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 35).
This absence of relation with peers and girls is likely to have affected D.B.’s twin-seeking self, but this lack of love from others can probably have affected the grandiose self as well. This is because he claims that he did attempt to hook up with girls, but only to find out that they didn’t find him attractive, and that they had no sexual interest in him. If his grandiose self is immature, as has been hypothesized, it will have the character of seeking exaggerated almightiness and attention. If this is the case, it is not a surprise if his grandiose self is experiencing a substantial reject. In relation to this he states: “It was just too much.” “Never would I have a real girlfriend and intimate companionship to share my life with. I wanted these things so much but they seemed unattainable. I couldn’t please a woman or make her love me. It was all hopeless.” (p. 208).
There are several incidents where the immature archaic grandiose self can be seen as being manifested in D.B.’ behavior. Referring to when he was a child, he states: “I wanted to have praise. Praise for heroism.” (p. 49). He also claimed, when he was interviewed by Abrahamsen, that: “I do feel more important to God than other people” (p. 173).
During D.B.’s adolescence, he frequently set fires: “Many of them were not serious (fires in vacant lots), but the Fire Department had to be called. I also did this myself I had no motive except I loved to cause the excitement. I NEVER got caught.” (p. 40). Setting all the fires and call the fire department, can indicate a grandiose need in him to appear as a hero. First he is, in an indirect way, “recognized” as being the person who set the fire and got away with it. Second, he is the person who gets help by calling the firemen.
In relation to the murders, he states that: “…I also realized I was doing something that was not only illegal but also dangerous. I, too could have been killed or wounded” (p. 102). As this was a concern of his, it might look like he perceived himself as unique and almighty and as more worth than the other people. He also claims in relation to the sixth incident, that it was his best job, since it resulted in two deaths. This was probably experienced as a success for D.B. He has further stated that “I believed that I had every moral right to slay a chosen victim.” (p. 93). According to Kohut (1998, p. 71) the feeling of having “the right to” can be seen as a narcissistic demand of the grandiose self.
Also, when all the US was searching for the multiple killer, D.B. says that he had difficulties with not telling anybody that he was the killer: “There were so many times that the temptation to share my hidden secret became overpowering.” “I often stared at my telephone, my hands were trembling…as I thought of picking up the receiver, dialing, then saying to the party at the other end: Hello, is this the Son of Sam Task Force? Well, guess who this is? (Abrahamsen, 1985, pp. 99-100). This can be an indication for the exhibitionistic trait that is characteristic in a grandiose self, and for a wish to be seen as a hero and being recognized for having accomplished to kill so many without being captured (p. 104).
D.B.’s idealizing self
Not only can D.B.’s grandiose self be seen as having been injured, but it is possible that also his idealizing self has been ruptured. Idealizing others is about winning strength through the fantasy of others perfections and this way, be a part of the others perfection. D.B.’s adoptive father’s frequent absence might not only have caused some failures in mirroring D.B.’s grandiose self, it might also have caused a failure in the optimal development of an idealized self. Especially after D.B.’s adoptive mother’s death, it is likely that D.B. needed a flawless father that he can seek strength from. However, D.B. states that his father, also at this time, was usually absent (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 60; Kohut, 1990, pp. 22-24; Schluter & Karterud, 2002, p. 80).
After the things D.B. had experienced in his life, he probably saw the ability to meet his biological family as an opportunity to find someone infallible that he could lean himself to. But the reality of the meeting with them did not turn out to match his fantasy about it: “I had fantasized a beautiful woman. But all I found was a totally ordinary person. There is nothing about her which stands out.” (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 77). This experience might have caused further injuries in his idealized self.
D.B.’s twinship-seeking self
D.B. says that he, in most of his life, had trouble with establishing and maintaining relationships with other people, and also to identify himself with others. He also states that he was chubby when he was a child and had a hard time fitting in (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 70; Berkowitz, 1999). With reference to this, he adds: “I always begged my parents to get a brother or sister”. “I always wanted someone”. (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 53) This, in addition to not having any real friends, suggests that his twinship-seeking self has not developed optimally. This might have influenced the feelings D.B. had of being so alone and like an outsider and also caused him to have so many (alter ego) fantasies about girls.
2.5.2. Lack of empathy
D.B. describes his behaviour as a child as generally destructive and states that he had behaviour problems. He claims that his behaviour was often out of control and that he destroyed property at school and broke furniture at home (Berkowitz, 2005). What can be seen related to his destructive behavior: “…I hit Lory (a female friend. My remark) over the head with the butt of [apparently a toy] gun. I almost split her head open. It was one of the most vicious things I ever did during my childhood. I was about five or six years old.” (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 35). Also the following confession is relevant in this context: “I was destructive, I killed and tortured animals. I killed my mother’s parakeet Pudgy. She loved the bird with a passion. I killed thousands of bugs, tortured them, burned them glued them with rubber cement. I was killing maiming and destroying since 1 was a child.” (p. 40). Causing serious injuries to another child, torturing animals and killing the mother’s pet does seem to bear the stamp of a lack of empathy. Further, he also states that: “I stole from my parents often. Just nickels and dimes mostly. I’d rifle their piggy bank and my mom’s purse.” (p. 40). Again it does not seem like he had any considerations of what his adoptive parents felt and one might say that empathy was absent at this early time of life.
D.B. states that his acts of real vandalism started after his adoptive mother’s death. At this time he started to set the fires. This interest of his might also be characterized as a lack of empathy for the damages he potentially could cause other people and the economical costs for other people (p. 40). D.B. signed for the army when he was 18 years old and stayed there for 11/2 year. When he got home again he continued to do fires. At this point of life, he says in an interview, that he couldn’t stay away from doing evil, in which he among other things meant fires (Berkowitz, 2005).
The possible lack of empathy in D.B. seems to be connected to other antisocial behavioral tendencies in him:
“I got to stay at home a lot when I was in public school. Most of the time, however, I wasn’t sick. I just played sick. You see I had this trick of pressing my head against the radiator before I went over to my mother with my ‘sickness’ complaint”. “1 loved staying home. My mother, Pearl, thinking I was sick, would wait on me hand and foot. I felt like a king. Staying home was great. But I laugh when I think about it. Boy, what a con artist I was”. (Abrahamsen, 1985, pp. 38-39).
Already at an early age, he seems to have figured out a manipulative way to get it as he pleases. Additionally, in the way he tells about these things, there does not seem to be any feelings of guilt or regrets in him. A diagnostic evaluation of the issues of conduct behaviour, empathy, guilt and regrets can possibly imply an antisocial PD. Additionally the assassination in 1976-1977, does seem to, per definition, involve a presence of an antisocial PD. This is because of the lack of empathy, lack of guilt, failure to conform to social norms, disregard for safety, recklessness and deceitfulness that can be seen in the killings. Abrahamsen (p. 37) states that D.B.’s intelligence was found to be superior, which excludes that his antisocial behaviour is based on retardation.
2.5.3. Unstable personality
Based on the investigations of D.B.’s self, it does seem like he has defects in different parts of his self. It does seem clear that the most serious defect is in the grandiose self, but that he also shows some defects in his twin-seeking and idealising self. Defects in both the grandiose and idealizing self are what might result in unstable emotional PD (borderline) (Schluter & Karterud, 2002, p. 55).
Individuals who have a prominent grandiose self will often react to failures from selfobject with shame or anger and make desperate effort to gain the selfobject back or take revenge. On the other side, individuals with a prominent idealizing self, will typical react with disappointment, withdrawal, and depression.
One side of D.B. seems to be the worthless and abandoned self in search for an ideal other to seek comfort in. This can be seen in his reactions of disappointment, depression and guilt (the meeting with his biological family and in relation to his adoptive mother’s death). The other pole, which appears as the most prominent side of D.B., is characterized with the opposite. Here can his idea of being a flawless individual be seen. This side typically devalues others and reacts with anger and vindictiveness (Schluter & Karterud, 2002, p. 55; Kohut, 1998, p. 110).
It seems like D.B.’s unstable behavior and emotional life can be found in an early age. When he was 11, a teacher of him stated in an evaluation of him that he is a moody child (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 16). Also in relation to David’s stealing when he was a kid, there can be seen a prominent ambivalence in his emotional life: “I feel bad about this. Sometimes, I felt good when I got away with it and I always did.” (p. 41). There are also several incidents in D.B.’s confessions that points in the direction of unstable emotions. Regarding his relation to his adoptive father, he once stated: “We didn’t get along that good, but we didn’t get along that bad”. (p. 18). In relation to his adoptive mother’s death, he stated: “I was both happy and sad”. “It was freedom. She was a pest sometimes. She was nagging” (p. 19). This does perhaps underline the lack of empathy in him, but it can also imply ambivalences within him. This ambivalence is likely to be related to the ambivalent relationship he has claimed to have had with his adoptive mother. But also, it might be because of the injuries in his grandiose and idealizing self. His grandiose self might have made him invulnerable and almighty and able to be indifferent and happy, which can have had the function as a necessary defense against the anxiety that would otherwise have occurred. The idealizing self, on the other hand, that is in need for an idealizing other is what can have caused him to feel the deep depression after her death. This way, he might appear as emotional unstable.
D.B. himself makes the claim that he has two sides, in which one of them is his “evil sadistic and homicidal side” (p. 42) and the other is the good side: “I often gave to charity an amount larger than what others would give.” “Doing this made me feel very good.” “I did favours for several of the elderly tenants of my old Bronx building, such as carry out their garbage or go to the store for them” (p. 43). He stated, to point on his ambivalences: “Its been said that 1 have a split personality like Jekyll and Hyde.” (p. 187). These two different “sides” of him can be seen as being anchored in respectively his grandiose and idealizing self. But his helping behaviour might also be a manifestation of his grandiose self. This is because this behaviour is making him feel good, and is thus helping him to uphold his grandiose fantastic representation of himself. But the split in him can also be seen in how he was ambivalent in relation to the murders. One part of him, he claims (presumably his grandiose self) was enjoying the power and the pleasure of having so much attention, even though it way in an indirect way, but the other part didn’t receive any joy over the things he did (possibly the idealizing self). Maybe this side of him realized that what he really needed was someone that could take care of him. And thus, that, the killings would make this even more impossible (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 92; Berkowitz, 1999). In relation to this he stated: “I wanted to take a life, yet I wanted to spare a life. I wanted to and I didn’t want to” (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 92).
If the need to be admired and recognised is not met, the fantasies of this can be repressed from the consciousness. This is the “horizontal split”, and it is the same defence mechanism as Freud is considering. Kohut also describes another type of split, where the grandiose fantasies are not repressed to the unconsciousness but instead, the grandiose fantasies and ideas are split from the rest of the self with a so-called “vertical split”. This causes the grandiose and unrealistic fantasies to be present in the conscious behaviour of the individual. The individual, like in this case D.B., will then potentially appear as emotional unstable, as the self contains of, on one side, the idealized self and the grandiose self on the other (Schluter & Karterud, 2002, p. 55; Kohut, 1998, pp. 110-111). This split can be illustrated with the following figure, based on Kohut (1998, p. 116):
A hypothesis, in relation to this, is that this vertical split is what is accounting for what others perceive as lying. This way, when D.B. states that he wanted to “spare a life”, one might think that it is not true. But, however, for his idealizing self, this might indeed be the truth.
A marked vertical split can be seen as the essential feature with borderline PD. This is as they are characterized with this oscillation between the worthless (idealized) and the invincible (grandiose) states and lack to have these integrated. This is not to suggest that D.B. is suffering from a borderline PD. It can seem like his grandiose pole of the self is much more prominent than the idealized pole, so that the feeling of grandiosity is quite constant, in opposition to the more “unstable” borderline patient. However, the vertical split might still explain some of the ambivalent tendencies in D.B.
Based on the considerations of D.B.’s development and behaviour, the following will specifically be aimed at giving an understanding of why he, at an age of 24, went as far as to kill.
2.5.4. What made David Berkowitz kill?
The separations and losses in D.B.’s life can seem to characterize as failures of selfobjects. The episodes that seems to have effected him is; separation from biological mother straight after he was born, his adoptive father being absent, his adoptive mother often overindulging him and at other times disappointing him with her own narcissistic interests and also her death, the lack of friends and girlfriends and the revolution about his biological family. These incidents have understandably been painful for D.B., but do they qualify as an explanation for killing people? Giving an answer to this question is not simple. But what will be done in the following, is to take D.B.’s development and his experiences of his life into consideration, and make an interpretation concerning why he ended up as a prisoner in a maximum security prison- for life.
Approximating the unmanageable
D.B. states that he never talked to someone about his feelings in relation to being an adoptive child and his belief of having caused his biological mother’s death. He also states that he, in the case of his adoptive mother’s death, had nobody to talk to (Berkowitz, 2005). Pursuant to D.B.’s statements, it seems like all the unfortunate episodes that happened in D.B’s life, was never worked with when they occurred. This way, one can estimate that the fragments that can be seen to have gradually occurred in his self were not attempted repaired, and that the tendency to fragmentations in the self were not being reduced but rather the opposite.
Right before D.B. met his biological family, his father moved to Florida with his new wife (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 65). D.B. claims that he hated this, but that he did not give any indications to his father about his wish for his father to not move so far away. D.B. handled this like he claims that he always handles problematic incidences; with silence. No matter how strong his negative feelings towards his biological mother and her acts of adopting him away, he said nothing about these feelings to her, or to somebody else. He did nothing but telling her that he understood and accepted her choices, even though he later confessed to Abrahamsen that he hated her because of it: “Behind my mask I was filled with anger and rage toward her. With absolute control I managed never to show or verbalize this.” (p. 85).
6 months after D.B. met with his biological family, the murdering episodes started (p. 90). One might suspect that this was not a coincidence. Based on his descriptions of the reunion with his biological mother, it does seem like it made a substantial impact on him, and that it gave rise to a strong emotional revolution in him. He states in relation to this: “I needed family real bad-a mystical and perfect family- a blissful family- a perfect relationship. Of course this wasn’t to be. I guess this was one pathway that eventually led to murder. My dream family didn’t exist. It was my last hope” (p. 78). It is important to keep in mind that this is D.B.’s statement and that it is not necessarily the truth what he tells. However, it does seem likely that both the episode with his father, and the experience of meeting his genetic origins, caused deep fragmentations in his self. As he apparently had not worked with his problems earlier in life, and did not express what he felt in these resent episodes either, it seem likely that the problems had been build up to the border of what he was able to bear. In self psychological terms, his self was now approximating dissolution.
Satisfying the grandiose self
It does seem like D.B. had during his life used, what Kohut named “defensive structures”, to avoid dissolution of the self. This structure makes one able to cover the defects in the grandiose self, and is often manifested in exhibitionistic fantasies (Kohut, 1990, p. 45). D.B. has stated that he fantasised a lot and that it was often with girls which he “…had a wonderful relationship with”. (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 35). It can be interpreted that fantasies were no longer enough for him to cover the defects in the grandiose self. As for how the murders affected D.B., he has stated:
“After I killed Donna I felt happy. I felt some peace. Sang songs on my way home after killing Donna. That built up tension dissipated temporarily. While I didn’t have a physical, sexual orgasm, I certainly had a mental one. After a shooting, it was like being on the woods again, I was walking on air.” “I felt powerful and cunning”. (p. 100).
In relation to D.B.’s destructive behaviour in his childhood and adolescence (fires and breaking furniture), he states that he was never caught or even suspected for the crimes and that this made him feel powerful and omnipotent (p. 42). This omnipotence is possibly also a relevant aspect in his murders. He states that he was proud of all the attention that there was upon him: “Now, I was making the papers nearly every day. The chase was on and the public was watching out for me”. In relation to this, there were only one problem; he was the only one who knew who the target of the huge investigation was. It seems like a part of him wanted to be caught. This can be supported as he said it was difficult to not get to share his secret with anyone (part 2.5.1.) and as he signed and left a note after the sixth shooting episode. In all probability, he wished to be caught and recognized as the man behind one of the most feared murderer in the US. This way he would get the attention directly.
D.B.’s murderous acts can be seen as surrounding an attempt to overcome the loneliness and depressions that he had earlier managed with his grandiose and exhibitionistic fantasies. His heroism was now giving nurture to the grandiose self and this might have functioned as a new crucial defence (instead of the fantasies) against the painful and unbearable reality (Kohut, 1990, pp. 18-19).
Acting out on the narcissistic rage
D.B. has stated: “I was determined and in full agreement with myself that I must slay a woman for revenge purposes and to get my back on them for all the suffering (mental suffering they caused me)”. (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 93). If this is a truthful statement, which seems to be likely, the revenge can be seen as a profound motivation for the killings. This revenge aspect can, in self psychological terms, be referred to as narcissistic rage. This form for rage occurs, as a reaction to insults to the self, where this reaction is characterized by an effort to repair the insults by getting back on the offender. A characteristic trait is the total lack of empathy toward the offender, when one is in the narcissistic rage (Kohut, 1978, p. 645). This can explain how D.B. found it possible to take lives, and also without expressing any feelings of empathy or guilt in relation to the victims.
D.B. has stated: “Women- I blame them for everything. Everything evil that’s happened in this world- somehow it goes back to them. I hate them for messing up everything in this world. They’ve really screwed my life up good”. (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 190). What he is referring to, is probably how especially girls/women seem to have disappeared or rejected him. After 23 tears with the experienced neglect from the opposite sex, it seems like what had developed in him, was a narcissistic rage where he had an obsessive need to take revenge on them. It can be understood, that only by acting through his narcissistic rage, was he able to re-establish control and power.
As D.B. probably found it difficult to let his rage go out of anyone in his family or some of the females that he had directly been rejected by, he turned to substitutes. But the substitutes do not seem to have been picked by coincidence. They were young women that he indicates that he felt attracted to (p. 182). This way, they probably symbolised to him, the women that had been important selfobjects in his life and that he wanted attention from: “I wanted to destroy her because of what she represented”. (p. 178). By the action of killing these unknown attractive women, he probably experienced to get revenge against all of them; his biological and adoptive mother who had left him and for the girls that he had seen as potential girlfriends, who had neglected him. This can be seen as the only way for him to relieve and stagger the fragmented self of his.
Human aggression is, according to Kohut, most dangerous when it is related to the grandiose self or the archaic omnipotent object. The aggression in D.B. can be seen as related to
both of these. His grandiose self has been indicated to characterize as vulnerable and fragmented. And what had recently seemed to have affected him to a large extent, was the experience of facing the (archaic) rejection of his biological family. Kohut does also state that the most destructive behaviour is not connected to wild and primitive behaviour, but to structured and organized acts where the convictions of own greatness is presence and also with affection to archaic selfobjects (Kohut, 1978, p. 635). This is what can be seen in D.B.’s behaviour. He planned the killings carefully and the incidents probably made him feel omnipotent (related to grandiose self), and it also seems that he killed in relation to the affections he had to his selfobjects in his life (related to archaic omnipotent object).
D.B’s interest in death
D.B. claims in the interviews that he had ideas about death already when he was a child. He referrers to his thoughts from when he was between 7 and 13: “I would look out the window and prey to God to kill me, that I would be hit by lightening. I begged to God for death. I used to sit on the fire escape and thought of throwing myself down, wanting to jump”. After this age, he states that he did not longer think of suicide, but instead: “I still wanted to die, but with heroism, with honour. I wanted to die while saving lives, battling a blaze. This is why I wanted to become a fireman, helping people, rescuing them, and being a hero, or possibly dying in the blaze”. (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 31). What can be seen here is an early and continual interest in death, but also a shift from a prominent idealizing to a prominent grandiose self. This it, as D.B., when he was between 7 and 13, seems to attribute God almighty qualities and where he iritlicates a wish to merge with God’s power and where he later pursued heroism himself. D.B. also claims that he is generally occupied with death (p. 22) and he states:
“I do love death. I’ve always loved it. I’ve wished for it, and tried to understand it. Death is fascinating… its power, its hold; it is wondelful.” (p. 88). “I had homicidal fantasies as far back as I could remember. Sudden death and bloodshed appealed to me. I remember numerous car accidents in which people (young people) were hurt or killed” (p. 30).
Suicide, that is related to death can, within a self psychological frame, be seen as a rescue from humiliations and defeats (Schluter & Karterud, 2002, p. 147). This way it could have been a solution for D.B. to avoid the discomfort of possessing a fragmented self and at the same time letting him practice his death interest. But, if the grandiose self is as prominent as has been suggested, it can make it impossible for D.B. to kill him self, like he dreamed of when he was young. This is as a distinctive characteristic with the grandiose self is that it, in the shadow of feeling spectacular and un-replaceable, denies its mortality (Karterud, 2000, p. 25). As a result of this, one might say that the only way to serve his interest in death and killings is to commit them on people who are not as perfect as he is. Additionally it might be an element in his “unscrupulous” behaviour, that his grandiose self’s denial of its mortality, causes him to be unable to realize the comprehensive consequences of also other peoples’ mortality.
Anxiety, fragmentation anxiety and the avoidance of disintegration of self
D.B. states the following about one of the girls he killed: “A pretty girl, a threat to me, to my masculinity”. (Abrahamsen, 1985, p. 178). “I regard the females as dangerous. If enticed by the female, it may be dangerous. All women are deceitful because I myself was fooled.” (p. 193). This can indicate anxiety in D.B. This anxiety can be seen as related to the substantial impact females and their rejections and unavailability have had on him. As his greatest need seems to have been to be loved by them, the experience that they rejects him, is probably what is scaring D.B. A solution to avoid this can be to attack them and that way get in control of them. He has exclaimed:
“To do it, to kill, had filled me up to such explosive proportions, it caused me such turmoil inside, that when it released itself it was like a volcano erupting itself and the pressure was over, for a while anyhow.” (p. 204). “The tension, the desire to kill a woman had built up in me to such explosive proportions that when I finally pulled the trigger, all the pressures, all the tensions, hatred, had just vanished, dissipated, but only for a short time.” (p. 204).
The killing episode can be seen as having caused D.B. to avoid the disintegration of his self. This is because the possessor of a significantly fragmented self will desperately try to repair the self. The killings can this way have served as a temporarily act that gave nurture to D.B.’s grandiose self, and, helped him keep the fragmented self gathered.
2.5.5. Self psychological understanding is not the only one
As has also been indicated earlier, there will probably be as many psychological understandings of D.B. as there are psychological theoretical perspectives. Self psychology is thus not the only way to understand a serial killer. To investigate and illuminate the case of D.B. even further, the following discussion will be considering another point of view in the interpretation and understanding of D.B. This is to indicate how understandings can differ and how an alternative perspective considers different aspects as relevant. The psychoanalytic perspective of Abrahamsen seems to be the only published interpretation that has been made of D.B. The aim will such be to highlight the differences between self psychology and the theory that it originally derived from.