A mind can be evil without being abnormal.

— Dennis Nilsen
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Traumatic Childhood Experiences


“Serial murderers are frequently found to have unusual or unnatural relationships with their mothers,” notes Steven Egger in his book The Killers Among Us. In our culture, the imposing image of “Mother” looms large in our collective psyches, and some writers easily accept that these killers are lashing out at maternal tyranny. If these murderers are still dominated by Mother (Hitchcock’s Norman Bates is the archetype), then it is easy to dismiss them as “mama’s boys” who never fully matured. Perhaps we find comfort in this cliché – the mother is a readymade excuse, particularly in our contemporary era of obsessive parenting. Yet, as we look at some of the techniques of the serial killers’ mothers, we are inclined to see a deadly link between the womb and the tomb.

In an effort to keep their children chaste, some mothers have linked sexuality with death. Ed Gein’s religiously fanatical, notorious mother convinced her son that women were vessels of sin and caused disease. In some sort of twisted misinterpretation, Gein made literal vessels out of women, using their skulls for bowls, and other domestic objects. Ed’s body may have escaped from sexual disease, but his mind was clearly contaminated.

Some serial killers had their sexually uninhibited mothers to blame. These mothers overstepped the boundaries, exposing their children to inappropriate sexual behavior. Bobby Jo Long killed women he characterized as whores and sluts, who he said reminded him of his own mom. She had frequent sex (according to him) with men in the same room where Bobby slept. According to Long, he shared his bed with his mother until he was 13 years old.

As we examine childhood abuse as a possible key to the serial killer’s behavior, we must remember that many children have suffered horrible abuse at the hands of their parents, but did not grow up to be lust murderers. Childhood abuse is not a direct link to a future in crime. And while many girls are victimized as children, very few grow up to be sadistically violent toward strangers. Childhood abuse may not be the sole excuse for serial killers, but it is an undeniable factor in many of their backgrounds.

In his book Serial Killers, Joel Norris describes the cycles of violence as generational: “Parents who abuse their children, physically as well as psychologically, instill in them an almost instinctive reliance upon violence as a first resort to any challenge.” Childhood abuse not only spawns violent reactions, Norris writes, but also affects the child’s health, including brain injuries, malnutrition, and other developmental disorders.
In looking to the parents for explanations, we see both horrifying mothers and fathers. The blame usually falls on the mother, who has been described as too domineering or too distant, too sexually active or too repressed. Perhaps the mother is blamed more because the father has often disappeared, therefore “unaccountable.” When the father is implicated, it is usually for sadistic disciplinarian tactics, alcoholic rants, and overt anger toward women.

If a person is severely maltreated from his earliest years-subjected to constant psychological and physical abuse-he or she will grow up with a malignant view of life. To such a person, the world is a hateful place, where all human relationships are based, not on love and respect, but on power, suffering, and humiliation. Having been tortured by his earliest caretakers, he will, in later life, seek to inflict torture on others, partly as a way of taking revenge, partly because he has been so psychologically warped by his experiences that he can only feel pleasure by inflicting pain-and, in the most extreme cases, only feel alive when he is causing death.