“I am capable of what every other human is
capable of. This is one of the great
lessons of war and life.”
Maya Angelou

Before I was thirteen, I saw a man shot, I saw another beaten and kicked to unconsciousness, I saw a friend struck near lethally in the face and head with a steel rod, I saw my mother become a heroin addict, I saw my sister beaten, and I was myself a veteran of beatings that had been going on for more than half my life. The stakes of my predictions back then were just as high as they are today—life and death—and I viewed it as my responsibility to be sure we all got through those years alive. We didn’t, and for a long while I viewed that as my responsibility too, but my point in telling you all this is not about me; it is about you. It is about you because, though triggered by different occurrences, you felt the exact same emotions that I felt. While some were painful and some were frightening, no experience of mine had any more impact on me than those of yours that had the greatest impact on you.

People sometimes say they cannot imagine what a given experience must have been like, but you can imagine every human feeling, and as you’ll see, it is that ability that makes you an expert at predicting what others will do.


You want to know how to spot violently inclined people, how to be safe in the presence of danger. Well, since you know all about human beings, this expedition begins and ends in familiar territory. You have been attending your academy for years and to pick up your diploma in predicting violence, there is just one truth you must accept: that there is no mystery of human behavior that cannot be solved inside your head or your heart.

Nicholas Humphrey of Cambridge University explains that evolution gave us introspection specifically so we could “model other human beings and therefore predict their behavior.” To succeed at this, we have to be what Humphrey calls “natural psychologists.” We have to know, he says, “what it’s like to be human.”

Way back when she was still anonymous, I assisted a young prosecutor named Marcia Clark on her brilliant prosecution of assassin Robert Bardo. Bardo had killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer, and Clark sent him to prison for life. When I interviewed him there, his relative normalcy took me out of the safe realm of US and THEM—experts and assassins—and into the world of our shared humanness. It may be unwelcome news, but you and I and Bardo have much more in common than we have in contrast.

Distinguished psychiatrist Karl Menninger has said, “I don’t believe in such a thing as the criminal mind. Everyone’s mind is criminal; we’re all capable of criminal fantasies and thoughts.” Two of history’s great minds went even further. In an extraordinary correspondence, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud explored the topic of human violence. Einstein’s letter concluded that “man has in him the need to hate and destroy.”

In his reply, Freud agreed “unreservedly,” adding that human instincts could be divided into two categories: “those which seek to preserve and unite, and those which seek to destroy and kill.” He wrote that the phenomenon of life evolves from their “acting together and against each other.”

Proving the opinions of Einstein and Freud is the fact that violence and homicide occur in all cultures. In their book on the origins of violence, Demonic Males, Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson say that modern humans are “the dazed survivors of a continuous, 5-million year habit of lethal aggression.” Those scientific explorers who set out to find communities that would disprove man’s universal violence all came home disappointed. South Pacific islanders were romanticized as nonviolent in Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa. The Fijians, correctly perceived today as the friendliest people in the world were not that long ago, among humanity’s most violent. The Kung of the Kalahari were called “the harmless people” in a book by the same title, but Melvin Konner, whose search for the answers took him more than once to study hunter-gatherers in Africa, concluded that “again and again, ethnogrophers have discovered Eden in the outback, only to have the discovery foiled by better data.”

Though we live in space-age times, we still have stone-age minds. We are competitive and territorial and violent, just like our simian ancestors. There are people who insist this isn’t so, who insist that they could never kill anyone, but they invariably add a telling caveat: “Unless, of course, a person tried to harm someone I love.” So the resource of violence is in everyone; all that changes is our view of the justification.

Studying and interviewing those who use violence to reach their goals, I long ago learned that I must find in them some part of myself, and, more disturbingly at times, find in myself some part of them. There must be a place to hook the line before I drop down into the dark mine of some dark mind; there must be something familiar to hold on to.


A man kills a cow with an ax, cuts open the carcass, and then climbs inside to see what it feels like; later he uses the ax to kill his eight-year-old stepbrother. Another man murders his parents by shooting out their eyes with a shotgun. We use the word inhumanto describe these murderers, but I know them both, and they are not inhuman—they are precisely human. I know many other people like them; I know their parents and the parents of their victims. Their violent acts were repugnant, to be sure, but not inhuman.

When a bank robber shoots a security guard, we all understand why, but with aberrant killers, people resist the concept of a shared humanness. That’s because US and THEM is far more comfortable. In my work I don’t have that luxury. The stakes of some predictions require that I intimately recognize and accept what I observe in others no matter who they are, no matter what they have done, no matter what they might do, no matter where it takes me in myself. There may be a time in your life when you too won’t have the luxury of saying you don’t recognize someone’s sinister intent. Your survival may depend on your recognizing it.


Though anthropologists have long focused on the distinctions between people, it is recognizing the sameness that allows us to most accurately predict violence. Of course, accepting someone’s humanness does not mean excusing his behavior. This lesson is probably starkest when you spend time with the world’s most violent and dangerous people, the ones you might call monsters, the ones who committed acts you might think you couldn’t have imagined. Many of them are locked up at Atascadero State Hospital in California. I founded and fund a program there called Patient Pets, which allows patients to care for small animals. Many of these men will be locked up for life without visitors, and a mouse or bird might be all they have.

I recall the way the patients reacted to the death of a particular guinea pig who had been one of the first pets in the program. When they noticed the old animal was sick, they wanted to find a way to keep her from dying, though most knew that wasn’t possible. The program’s coordinator, Jayne Middlebrook, sent me this report:

One patient, Oliver, made it his job to be sure the ailing animal had everything she needed. Oliver asked to keep her in his room, “so she won’t be alone at night, just in case she decides to die then.” Eventually, the old guinea pig was unable to move and her breathing was labored. Oliver gathered several patients in my office, and the guinea pig died in his arms, surrounded by an unlikely group of mourners. There was not a dry eye in the ward as the patients said their good-byes and silently left the office.

I have often shared with you the effects these events have on the patients, some of whom, moved by the death of one of the animals, cried for the first time about the harms they had committed on others. Now I want to share some of my own feelings. As I sat in my office watching the patients, all felons, many guilty of brutal crimes, most lost in a variety of addictions (you choose), mental illness (pick one), and regarded as the bottom of the barrel, I saw a glimmer of compassion, a bit of emotion, and the glimpse of humanity that society believes these men lack (and in most situations, they do). It is true that the majority of these men are exactly where they belong; to unleash them on society would be unthinkable, but we cannot disregard their humanness, because if we do, I believe, we become less human in the process.

So, even in a gathering of aberrant murderers there is something of you and me. When we accept this, we are more likely to recognize the rapist who tries to con his way into our home, the child molester who applies to be a baby-sitter, the spousal killer at the office, the assassin in the crowd. When we accept that violence is committed by people who look and act like people, we silence the voice of denial, the voice that whispers, “This guy doesn’t look like a killer.”

Our judgment may classify a person as either harmless or sinister, but survival is better served by our perception. Judgment results in a label, like calling Robert Bardo a monster and leaving it at that. Such labels allow people to comfortably think it’s all figured out. The labels also draw a bold line between that “wacko” and us, but perception carries you much further.

Scientists, after all, do not observe a bird that destroys its own eggs and say, “Well, that never happens; this is just a monster.” Rather, they correctly conclude that if this bird did it, others might, and that there must be some purpose in nature, some cause, some predictability.

▪ ▪ ▪

People who commit terrible violences choose their acts from among many options. I don’t have to provide a list of horrors to demonstrate this—you can find the proof in your own mind. Imagine what you believe is the worst thing anyone might ever do to another human being; imagine something worse than anything you’ve ever seen in a movie, or read about or heard about. Imagine something original. Pause in your reading and conjure this awful thing.


Now, by virtue of the fact that you could conceive it, rest assured it has likely been done to someone, because everything that can be done by a human being to another human being has been done. Acts of extraordinary horror and violence happen, and we cannot learn why they happen by looking at rare behavior as if it is something outside ourselves. That idea you just conjured was in you, and thus it is part of us. To really work toward prediction and prevention, we must accept that these acts are done by people included in the “we” of humanity, not by interlopers who somehow sneaked in.

One evening a few years ago, legendary FBI behavioral scientist Robert Ressler, the man who coined the term “serial killer,” visited my home for dinner. (Ressler wrote the book Whoever Fights Monsters, the title of which comes from a Nietzsche quote I have often considered: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. For when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”) Having just read an advance copy of The Silence of the Lambs, I was discussing its fictional (I thought) character who killed young women to harvest their skin for a “woman suit.” Ressler matter-of-factly responded, “Oh, the Ed Gein case,” and he described the man who stole corpses from cemeteries, skinned them, and cured the skin in order to wear it. Ressler knew that nothing human is foreign. He had learned enough about so-called monsters to know that you don’t find them in gothic dungeons or humid forests. You find them at the mall, at the school, in the town or city with the rest of us.


But how do you find them before they victimize someone? With animals, it depends on perspective: The kitten is a monster to the bird, and the bird is a monster to the worm. With man, it is likewise a matter of perspective, but more complicated because the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognized by the naked eye.

The blind eye, of course, will never recognize him, which is why I devote this chapter and the next to removing the blinders, to revealing the truths and the myths about the disguises someone might use to victimize you.

I’ll start with a hackneyed myth you’ll recognize from plenty of TV news reports: “Residents here describe the killer as a shy man who kept to himself. They say he was a quiet and cordial neighbor.”

Aren’t you tired of this? A more accurate and honest way for TV news to interpret the banal interviews they conduct with neighbors would be to report, “Neighbors didn’t know anything relevant.” Instead, news reporters present non information as if it is information. They might as well say (and sometimes do), “The tollbooth operator who’d taken his quarters for years described the killer as quiet and normal.” By the frequency of this cliché, you could almost believe that apparent normalcy is a pre-incident indicator for aberrant crime. It isn’t.


One thing that does predict violent criminality is violence in one’s childhood. For example, Ressler’s research confirmed an astonishingly consistent statistic about serial killers: 100 percent had been abused as children, either with violence, neglect, or humiliation.

You wouldn’t think so by the TV news reports on the early family life of one accused serial killer, Ted Kaczynski, believed to be the Unabomber. They told us that his mother was “a nice woman, well-liked by neighbors,” as if that has any bearing on anything. Neighbors usually have only one qualification for being in news reports: They are willing to speak to reporters. Don’t you think something more than the neighbors knew about might have gone on in that home when Ted and his brother, David, were children?


Just look at a few facts about the family: The Kaczynski’s raised two boys, both of whom dropped out of society as adults and lived anti-social, isolated lives. One of them lived for a time in a ditch he dug in the ground—and that was the sane one, David, who didn’t end up killing anybody. If prosecutors are right, then the “crazy” one, Ted, grew up to become a brutal remote-control serial killer. Yet neighbors tell reporters that they saw nothing unusual, and reporters tell us the family was normal, and the myth that violence comes out of nowhere is perpetuated.

I don’t mean here to indict all parents who raise violent children, for there are cases in which awful acts are committed by people with organic mental disorders, those the National Alliance of Mental Illness correctly terms “No-fault Diseases.” (It is also true that many people with mental illnesses were abused as children.) Genetic pre-dispositions may also play some role in violence, but whatever cards are dealt to a family, parents have at a minimum what Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence calls “a window of opportunity.”

That window was slammed shut during the childhoods of most violent people. To understand who these mistreated children become, we must start where they started: as regular people. One of them grew up to rape Kelly and kill another woman, one of them murdered Rebecca Schaeffer, one of them killed a police officer just after Robert Thompson left that convenience store, and one of them wrote the book you are reading. Difficult childhoods excuse nothing, but they explain many things—just as your childhood does. Thinking about that introspectively is the best way to sharpen your ability to predict what others will do. Ask and answer why you do what you do.

▪ ▪ ▪

When assassin Robert Bardo told me he was treated at home like the family cat, fed and left in his room, it occurred to me to ask him to compare his childhood with his current life in prison.

Bardo: It’s the same in the sense that I’m always withdrawing within myself in my cell, just like back at home.

GdeB: Are there any differences between what you do here and what you did when you were a child?


Bardo: Well, I have to be more social here.

GdeB: Didn’t you have any requirement at home to be social?

Bardo: No, I learned that in prison.

As long as there are parents preparing children for little more than incarceration, we’ll have no trouble keeping our prisons full. While society foots the bill, it is individual victims of crime who pay the highest price.


In studying Bardo’s childhood of abuse and neglect, I could not ignore the similarity of some of our early experiences. I was also struck by the extraordinary intersection of our adult experiences, both drawn as we were to opposite sides of assassination.

The revelation reminded me of Stacey J., a would-be assassin I know well. For years, my office has prevented him from successfully encountering the client of mine with whom he is obsessed. I came to know his family through the many times I had to call and ask them to fly to Los Angeles and take him home, or the times they called our office to warn that Stacey was on his way to see my client, or that he had stolen a car, or was missing from a mental hospital. Once, I found him slumped in a phone booth, clothes torn, bleeding from a wound on each leg, wounds all over his face, and completely crazy from a week off medication. On the way to the emergency room, he described the origins of his interest in assassination: “When John Kennedy was killed, that’s when I knew; that’s when it all started.” Stacey and I had both been profoundly affected by the same event, each of us sitting at ten years old in front of a television at the exact same moment in time. In part because of what we saw back then, we now found ourselves together, one of us stalking a public figure, the other protecting a public figure.


In the fifteen years my office has monitored his behavior, Stacey has mellowed some, but from time to time he still requires our attention or the attention of the Secret Service (for threats he has made to kill Ronald Reagan). When I see him, some years doing well, other years doing terribly, overweight and damaged by the side-effects of medication, I think of him at ten, and I wonder about the paths of people’s lives.

▪ ▪ ▪

Though I did not end up a violent man myself, I did become a kind of ambassador between the two worlds, fluent in both languages. I’m able to tell you something about how many criminals think because it’s similar to how I thought during much of my life. For example, because my childhood became all about prediction, I learned to live in the future. I didn’t feel things in the present because I wanted to be a moving target, gone to the future before any blow could really be felt. This ability to live in tomorrow or next year immunized me against the pain and hopelessness of the worst moments, but it also made me reckless about my own safety. Recklessness and bravado are features of many violent people. Some might call it daring or bravery, but as you’ll see in the chapter about assassins, “heroism” has two sides.


As a child, I was left with the pastimes that cross time: worrying and predicting. I could see a vision of the future better than most people because the present did not distract me. This single-mindedness is another characteristic common to many criminals. Even things that would frighten most people could not distract me as a boy, for I had become so familiar with danger that it no longer caused alarm. Just as a surgeon loses his aversion to gore, so does the violent criminal. You can spot this feature in people who do not react as you might to shocking things. When everyone else who just witnessed a hostile argument is shaken up, for example, this person is calm.

Another characteristic common to predatory criminals (and many other people as well) is their perceived need to be in control. Think of someone you know whom you might call a control freak. That person, like most violent people, grew up in a chaotic, violent, or addictive home. At a minimum, it was a home where parents did not act consistently and reliably, a place where love was uncertain or conditional. For him or her, controlling others became the only certain way to predict their behavior. People can be very motivated to become control experts because an inability to predict behavior is absolutely intolerable for human beings and every other social animal. (The fact that most people act predictably is literally what holds human societies together.)

In sharing these few features, I do not mean to say that all men who are reckless or brave, who are calm when others are alarmed, and who seek to be in control are likely to be violent; these are simply three small pieces of the human violence puzzle to more fully inform your intuition.

Another is that murderers are not as different from us as we’d like to think. I’ll protect the anonymity of the friend who told me about an experience she had in her twenties. She was so angry at an ex-boyfriend that she fantasized about killing him, though she knew she’d never really do anything like that. As she was driving to work one morning, an amazing coincidence occurred: her ex-boyfriend was crossing the street directly in the path of her car. His being there seemed like a signal, and as her anger welled up, this woman pushed the accelerator to the floor. The car was going about fifty miles an hour when it struck him, but having moved enough at the last moment to save his life, he was hit in the leg only. Were it not for the loudness of her car, this woman would be marked today as a common killer. Instead, she is among the world’s most famous and admired people, someone you know of whom you certainly wouldn’t have pegged as being like a murderer.

You probably know more people who’ve tried to kill someone than you realize, as I learned again when Mark Wynn told me a story about his violent (now former) stepfather: “My brother and I decided we’d had enough, but we didn’t have a gun to shoot him with and we knew we couldn’t stab him. We had seen a TV commercial for Black Flag bug spray and since it was lethal, we found our father’s wine bottle on the night-stand and filled it with the bug spray. Later, he came into the living room with the bottle and started kicking it back. He didn’t realize he was drinking poison and he finished every drop. Then we just waited for him to roll over on the floor and die.”

What makes Mark Wynn’s story doubly interesting is that he is Sergeant Mark Wynn, a founder of Nashville’s Domestic Violence Division, considered the most innovative in the nation. Solely because his father survived, Mark is not a murderer, and though he attended “crime school,” as he puts it, he did not grow up to be a criminal. (More on why some do and why others do not in chapter 12.)

I assure you, you’ve sat next to someone sometime whose history, if you knew it, would amaze you. They might even have committed the kind of crime we see on the TV news, the kind of act about which we ask, “Who could do such a thing?” Well, now you know… anyone could do it.

▪ ▪ ▪

Though our experiences as children will affect much of what we do, a violent history does not ensure a violent future. There is a story about playwright David Mamet, a pure genius of human behavior: When told about the complaints of two famous cast members in one of his plays, he joked: “If they didn’t want to be stars, they shouldn’t have had those awful childhoods.”

It is not an original revelation that some who have weathered great challenges when they were young created great things as adults. From artists to scientists, even to President Clinton (who, when he was a small boy was shot at by his stepfather), people with secret childhoods can make the most public contributions. The boy who suffers violence and sees preventable death might grow up to help people avoid violence and preventable deaths. The boy whose father is killed by robbers might grow up to be a Secret Service Agent protecting the president (father). The girl whose mother dies of Alzheimer’s might become a world-famous neurologist. The boy who escapes chaos by going into his imagination might grow up to enrich millions of filmgoers with that same imagination. These people are in their jobs for more than the paychecks. There are reasons we all do what we do, and those reasons are sometimes displayed.

Unfortunately, many children of violence will contribute something else to our nation: more violence—against their children, against their wives, against you or me, and that’s why the topics of childhood and our shared humanness appear in a book written to help you be safer.


When you can find no other common ground to aid in your predictions, remember that the vast majority of violent people started as you did, felt what you felt, wanted what you want. The difference is in the lessons they learned. It saddens me to know that as I write these words and as you read them, some child is being taught that violence has a place, learning that when it comes to cruelty, it is better to give than to receive.

Had it not been for the reminders in my work, I might have cared about none of this, but I’ve met too many people who were brutalized as children and gave it back to society tenfold. They may have grown up looking like everyone else, but they send subtle signals that can reveal their intent.




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