One’s childhood has a significant impact on that person for the remainder of their life. But to what extent? I will be addressing childhood abuse & trauma and how that relates too criminal activity and mostly focus on serial killers. There is a trend with abuse and childhood trauma and that correlating into serial killers and criminal activity. Not all abused children become serial killers; also, not all serial killers have a past of childhood abuse or childhood trauma. Still, the correlation between the two cannot be ignored (Nicola, Davies, 2018). Personal trauma, especially from childhood, has a high impact on one’s decision making. According to Dr. Adrian Raine, biological factors and environmental factors contribute to making criminals. There are an estimated 1,500 known serial killers in history, and according to research and interviews, more than half of those were victims of abuse under the age of 18.
Childhood trauma is a significant factor when it comes to future crime as an adult. According to a 2015 Children’s Bureau report, nationally, over 7 million U.S. children encounter Child Protective Services, which is about 37% of American children before the age of 18 (Tikkanen, 2018). Studies show that about 80% of 21-year-olds abused at a younger age became diagnosed or met the criteria for at least one psychological disorder (Tikkanen, 2018). Children introduced to alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and domestic violence at a young age have a higher risk of displaying these same behaviors. Symptoms that can result from children raised in an abusive home, ages 6 to 12 years, include: seductive or manipulative behavior, eating disturbances, distrustful of people, fear of being abandoned, difficulty concentrating in school, temper tantrums, become a bully or have a quick temper. Fortunately, not all children have a negative impact after experiencing trauma despite staggering statistics for outcomes of long-term effects; for others, it can deeply traumatize them into a life of desolation., or worse.
‘Childhood trauma does not come in one single package.’ ― Asa Brown ‘Deeply traumatic experiences, especially during childhood, can have an even deeper impact in adult life’ (Davies, 2018), this leads us to many questions, some of which include; What makes a murderer? Are serial killers born or made, and how does childhood abuse play a factor in this? According to criminologist Dr. Adriane Raine, both biological and social factors contribute to the making of a murderer (Davies, 2018). Studies conducted and involved examining and decoding the criminal mind, which broke down how different types of child abuse can be used to profile serial killers. The results ended with ‘4 serial killer typologies — lust and rape, anger, power, and financial gain — and three categories of child abuse — psychological, sexual, and physical’ (Davies, 2018).
Researchers from Radford University in Virginia conducted a study to and compared the child abuse history of 50 convicted U.S. serial killer against the general population. The results showed significantly higher and more traumatic reports of abuse in the serial killer group. (Guy, 2015). The presence of child abuse in the history of serial killers is not a new topic and draws much attention and perplexes criminologists and psychologists alike to determine what makes one person turn towards killing while another turns tragedy into something constructive. A great quote from Robert Ressler on this topic- ‘Let me state that there is no such thing as the person who at age thirty-five suddenly changes from being perfectly normal and erupts into totally evil, disruptive, murderous behavior. The behaviors that are precursors to murder have been present and developing in that person’s life for a long, long time – since childhood.’ – Robert Ressler, ‘Whoever Fights Monsters’
Fiona Guy wrote in her paper that ‘Psychopathic killers, those who show psychopathic traits in their personalities and behaviors, have become increasingly of interest to scientists and particularly neuroscientists. Along with forensic psychologists and criminologists, they are looking for differences within the brains of psychopathic serial killers as a further way to understand their behavior’ (Guy, 2015).
A 2005 study in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology revealed that the prevalence of childhood sexual abuse among serial killers was 26 percent, while 36 percent had experienced physical violence, and 50 percent had been psychologically abused as children. (Dowart, 2018) There are three notorious serial killers whose childhood was that of nightmares, Manson, Wuornos, and Ramirez. Charles Manson, probably one of the most well-known, had a volatile upbringing. His mother was 16 when he was born and arrested multiple times for armed robbery when Manson was a child. He did not know his father and spent time in boys’ schools, where he claimed to be raped by other students. In and out of jail and juvie centers before he led a violent cult.
Next is serial killer Aileen Wuornos who was sexually abused as a child and homeless as a teen after being thrown out of her home. ‘Wuornos claims she was a victim of extensive sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather and possibly others. At 14, she gave birth to a child—whom she claims was fathered by her brother, Keith—in a home for unwed teen mothers. (Dowart, 2018) She then took to the streets selling her body for sex on Florida’s highways. In 1989 she killed a man who picked her up for sex, which she claimed was self-defense and that the man was a rapist, then continued her killing spree, in the same manner, killing at least six other men.
Richard Ramirez, the ‘Night Stalker.’ Raped and brutalized more than two dozen people killing at least 13. He claimed to have been exposed to toxic fumes when younger and exposure to pollution from nuclear bomb testing. Ramirez and his six siblings were born with multiple birth defects, illnesses, mental and congenital disabilities, which most likely is contributed to the exposure of toxic chemicals, both invitro and through childhood. Aside from toxins, the father of Ramirez was physically abusive to the family, and older cousin Michael exposed Ramirez to photos of women who were mutilated, raped, and murdered. Ramirez also witnessed Michael killing his wife in a brutal shooting and was threatened not to tell anyone. Not long after, as to no surprise, Ramirez joined the world of drugs and crime, which lead him to spend his teen years in juvenile detention centers. As a young adult, he then turned to rape, robberies, and murder. At 29 years old, Ramirez was charged and convicted on 46 counts of murder and sentenced to death.
Is it genetic, hormonal, biological, or cultural conditioning? Do serial killers have any control over their desires? Serial killers have tested out several excuses for their behavior, but one common platform that they all share is that at one time in their life they, themselves were the victims of abuse. According to an article on this topic, ‘identifying a future serial killer isn’t an exact science, there are a few signs that may help to identify people who have the greatest potential to become a serial killer. These traits can typically foreshadow the violent activities the killers engage in later in life but are not linked directly to serial behavior’ (Crime Museum, 2017). That said, not all childhood victims of abuse turn to murder or crime, but anyone subjected to a traumatic event at a young age is bound to have some underlying effect from it. Prolonged exposure greatens the consequences and, if untreated, can condition a once stable, mentally sound child into an unstable adult with severe mental disorders. Any adolescent who displays psychopathic tendencies after being a victim of abuse is at extreme risk of developing into a serial killer when they reach adulthood.
- (2017). Retrieved from Crime Museum: https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/serial-killers/early-signs/
- Davies, N. (2018). From Abused Child to Serial Killer. Psychiatry Advisor.
- Dowart, L. (2018). Manson, Wuornos, Ramirez: 3 Famous Killers with Exceptionally Screwed-Up Childhoods. Real Crime.
- Guy, F. (2015). Serial Killers and Childhood Abuse: Is There a Link? Crime Traveler.
- Tikkanen, M. (2018). Invisible Children. Child Abuse Statistics and the best resources.