Nature vs Nurture: The Role of Childhood Abuse in Making a Murderer

Unsurprisingly, one of the first places society looks to justify murderous behaviour is upbringing. The majority of people struggle to comprehend the fact that perhaps some people are simply born evil.

While the topic of nature versus nurture is widely debated, there are a few theories regarding childhood that hold strong. One of these is the role that abuse experienced during childhood can play in moulding a murderer.

However, it’s important to consider going forward that unfortunately many children have suffered horrific abuse and did not become serial killers. So, while abuse seems to be a common thread and somehow related to criminality, it can’t, and shouldn’t be considered the sole driver for this antisocial behaviour.

Read on as we explore the possible role that childhood abuse, perpetrated by mothers and fathers alike, plays as a possible key to a serial killer’s behaviour.

Dastardly dads

Although a father is, interestingly, often absent in these killers’ youth, there are a few cases where a cruel and harsh dad is a sort of looming, domineering figure. Usually, these men are iron-fisted and sadistic disciplinarians.

The misconception that this discipline will “toughen” a child is often to blame. Instead, this usually results in a lack of love, and means that the child lacks a basic sense of compassion and empathy. Furthermore, this abuse often feeds later fantasies of domination and control.

John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown, killed thirty-three boys and young men in the 1970s. As he was growing up, Gacy faced constant conflict with regard to his sexuality and while he married a woman, he did identify as being gay. During his childhood, he faced severe emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father. He would call a young John a “sissy”, a “queer” and a “failure”. On one occasion, his father beat him so hard with a broomstick that he actually rendered him unconscious. Despite this and the other constant beatings, he always strove to impress his father – however often he failed to do so.

A clear link can be seen between the affect of this abuse and Gacy’s later murders. When he strangled his victims, he would actively encourage them to stay brave in the face of death. According to some, through this ritual, Gacy aimed to reassert the vision of a masculine identity that was crushed by his father.


A mother’s love

Frequently, blame is often levelled toward the mother. In fact, Joyce Flint, mother of the infamous Jeffrey Dahmer even said “we are still blaming mothers”.

Uptight and chaste versus promiscuous and loose — it is on these “motherly” extremes on which the blame for deviant behaviour usually falls.


Modest moms

In a bizarre and controlling tactic to keep their children pure and virginal, some mothers have linked sex and sexuality with death. There are countless tales like these, one of which is Ed Gein (you can read more about his crimes here). His highly-religious mother convinced her son that women were vessels of sin. In a depraved misinterpretation of this warning, he made literal vessels from his victims – for example, making bowls from their skulls.

Another horrific example is that of Joseph Kallinger who killed three people. His victims included one of his own children who he slowly drowned to death after taking out a life insurance policy on him. At the age of two, Kallinger was adopted by Catholic parents. The abuse was so traumatising that at age six, he suffered a hernia and had to have an operation. His mother told him that the surgery was to stop his genitals growing and, having never questioned this, he believed that fact well into adulthood. His mother would also force him to hold his hand over a candle flame for punishment and beat him if he cried. Kallinger later grew up taking extreme pleasure in torturing his victims.


Promiscuous moms

In complete contrast, some mothers overstep the boundaries of appropriate parenting by exposing their children to their own risque behavior.

Bobby Joe Long is a notorious serial killer who abducted, tortured and murdered at least ten women over an eight month period in 1984. He was caught after releasing his final victim who provided the police with enough information to track him down. Growing up, Long had a strange, if not dysfunctional, relationship with his mother. He shared a bed with her and her multiple sexual partners. He was known to resent his mothers frequent short term relationships.

The women he murdered were those he, personally, characterised as “sluts” — they reminded him of his mother. Five of his victims were prostitutes and two were exotic dancers. After her had murdered them, he placed their bodies in unusual and unique positions, as if on display.


A complicated cocktail

While the focus here has been on the influence of early childhood abuse on the development of people into serial killers, there are several other factors that have also been pinpointed. From genetic abnormalities to the potential role of adoption, the search for the roots of evil is complicated and ongoing.

Let us know in the comments if you would like to hear about some of these other factors in a “nature vs nurture” series.

Your turn: Do you think people are born evil? Tell us your thoughts below — we’d love to hear your view on the debate.



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