What drives young men who commit horrific crimes? It may be a simple lack of basic morality.
ately, when I see a scowling teenage boy walking through my suburban town, skateboard clutched under one arm, a starscape of acne across his forehead, I experience a quiver of anxiety. The same apprehension clutches me when a cluster of young teen boys hoots extra loud and drops F-bombs when I pass them sucking down Slurpees in front of the 7-Eleven.
You see, I’m the mother of a son, too, and I have to admit some fear at the thought of his eventual turning from boy to teen, changing from sweet to surly like many teens around me, as though victims of an overnight virus. My son is six and a half, an age that makes babyhood seem almost a memory, though a ghost of it lingers in the swell of his cheeks, in his belly that juts forward when he prances around the house to Minecraft cover songs in his Spiderman pajama bottoms.
When I first found myself pregnant, I was relieved that I carried a boy inside me. In the innocence of my first-time-mother’s imagination, raising a boy seemed simpler than shepherding a daughter through the gauntlet of debilitating body issues and pervasive rape culture that girls face from kindergarten through adulthood.
I am determined to raise a boy as sensitive as the man I married. My husband is a psychologist who has taught me more about how to communicate than any woman ever did. We talk about feelings and demonstrate physical affection in our family. Now, my son still kisses me goodbye in front of his friends, and holds my hand to cross the street. He can put words to his feelings (sometimes too well when he wants to argue), and seeks comfort in both his parents. Yet I sometimes worry about raising too sensitive a man-to-be in a culture that shames and bullies sensitive boys and men. Raising a boy no longer seems at all simple.
A news story with the sensationalistic headline “This Guy Took Molly, Stole An Ambulance And Masturbated In A Police Station” recently popped up in my Facebook feed. Granted, MTV.com is no major news outlet, but I clicked on the link. I expected to find an older man, face lined from too much time spent in pursuit of perversions. Instead I saw a soft-cheeked, boyish 18-year-old with a trace of pimples who reminded me of friends’ sons and the loud, gangly-limbed buddies of my younger brother at that age. Though the one-liners peppered throughout the piece were meant to incite laughs (“The combination of drugs gave Sortland seizures, but somehow he recovered enough to attempt grand theft auto.”), not one detail in the story struck me as funny.
First, I imagined his parents’ fear when they learned their son took cocaine and Molly (the nickname for the active ingredient in Ecstasy), a combination potent enough to induce seizures and even death. Then I envisioned their shame and maybe anger, the question Where did we go wrong? or perhaps the thought I’m going to kill him when he comes home for Christmas.
Sortland’s antics may have provided fodder for click-bait headlines, but he’ll face charges including aggravated vehicle theft, obstructing EMS, reckless driving, hit-and-run, criminal mischief, and unlawful possession of a controlled substance — along with assault charges for attacking two deputies at the Larimer County jail.
Every time I hear news of a boy who has participated in something horrific — sexual assault, violent crime, murder, or just one bad drug trip — my anxiety over my son’s future as a teen turns to a cold chill. In a society that discourages boys and men from expressing their feelings, where dangerous drugs are all too available, where gun violence is rampant, and where “helicopter parenting” is now an overused pejorative, how can I trust that my son will make good choices? I can’t help but worry that his own limbic brain, geared to be impulsive and one with the pack, will at some point lead him to do something awful that can’t be undone.
Rene Denfeld’s 2014 novel The Enchanted is set in a prison with an active death row. The book includes the story of a thin, blond, 16-year-old boy who, after being tried as an adult, enters the prison and meets the same fate we’ve all heard that grown men face in prisons.
“One day he was in math class, and then he was in jail, waiting for trial on auto theft charges… The door clangs open, and the white-haired boy is pushed inside… The cell coagulates with an acrid smell that the boy doesn’t know but instantly recognizes. It is the smell of terror, and it is coming from him.”
Yet the white-haired boy is more child than man. Unprepared for the rape and abuse that greet him, he is traumatized into silence. Having spoken with Denfeld, a journalist and death penalty case investigator, I know that this fictional vignette is a very real scenario that happens to boys too young to understand the life-altering consequences of momentary lapses in judgment. Boys like the one my son will be in ten years. I went into a cold sweat reading the pages, thinking: No matter what my son ever does, don’t let him go to prison.
I know intellectually that adolescence is as natural as the changing of the seasons, and that I shouldn’t gear myself up to resist this necessary and inevitable passage. My son will need me just as much then, though he may be loath to admit it. Still, I can’t stop myself from dreading it. I know I can’t live in a state of constant fear, fear that will be conveyed in subtle cues to my extra-sensitive boy. Yet I also don’t want to be that mother so convinced of her quality parenting that I ignore the signs or think: That won’t happen to my boy.
In November 2014, 15-year-old Andrew Fryberg died of gunshot wounds sustained two weeks earlier when his cousin Jaylen Fryberg, also 15, opened fire in the crowded lunchroom of their Marysville, Washington school. The day of the shooting, Jaylen invited his victims to his lunch table by text messages, then shot five of them before killing himself.
The photo accompanying the article about Andrew’s death is a cellphone mirror selfie. His face is boyishly handsome, all teeth and goofy smile, a face I can picture in its 6-year-old form, like my son’s now. The details of the shooting are chilling to me because Jaylen Fryberg was not a geeky loner. He was a homecoming prince, outgoing and well-liked.
Do otherwise “good” boys sometimes do very bad things? Perhaps irresponsibility is more biological and developmental than we care to admit. Studies including fMRI imaging have revealed that youthful brains are not fully developed until the early to mid 20s, particularly in the frontal lobes where information is synthesized and organized, the areas responsible for considering consequences and deterring impulsive behavior. Or as Harvard research scientist Judith Edersheim puts it, “That, in a nutshell, is the teenage brain, designed to respond to the ‘siren song’ of the world’s temptations.”
The science seems to recommend precisely what everyone — teens and parents alike — doesn’t want: more oversight, more hovering. When our children are still under the confines of our roofs, we have the power to influence and inform their behavior, to offer punishment and consequence, to bring to bear the weight of our approval or disapproval. But what can we do when our children leave home, brains not fully prepared to make good choices, brains as unique as the children themselves? How can I continue to help my son grow to be a good man when he’s no longer with me?
have a brother who is 14 years my junior. I was actively part of his first three years. I fed him mashed green peas and changed a few diapers, brought him a bottle in the middle of some nights and drove him to daycare when our sister was born two years later. In my own son I often recall my tiny towheaded sibling.
As my brother moved into his teens, I was married and long since out of the house. Raised in a wealthy California community where kids have the means to buy drugs and alcohol, he got into trouble. I know my brother to be a thoughtful person of above-average intelligence, none of which stopped him from making self-destructive and potentially fatal choices in those early years, and in his first years of college freedom. Granted, his parents had gone through a very messy, very public divorce that was awful for him and our younger sister. I don’t blame my brother for coming apart at the seams, when the people who should have been most aware of what was going on with him were too caught up in their own personal chaos to pay attention. Relief and anger grapple inside me, because the best we can say is that he survived it — and his substance abuse caused harm to no one but himself.
In August 2012, students from high schools in and around Steubenville, Ohio, gathered for a night of drunken partying that kicked off at the home of a Steubenville High School volunteer football coach. By morning, several students had shared Twitter posts, videos, and explicit photographs suggesting that an unconscious girl had been sexually assaulted over the course of several hours while others watched. Two Steubenville High football stars, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, both 16, were arrested and later convicted of rape and distributing images of a nude minor.
Unlike my brother, Mays and Richmond did harm someone other than themselves. I could empathize with the boys’ parents — proclaiming their sons’ innocence, fearing their lives would be ruined. Yet many residents of Steubenville insisted that the two star football players with promising futures were being unfairly persecuted, that they’d simply made an “alcohol-fueled” mistake, that the victim was also to blame because she was intoxicated. Even CNN’s Poppy Harlow, reporting on Mays’ and Richmond’s reactions to their convictions, said, “It was incredibly emotional — incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me…Very serious crime here. Both found guilty of raping this 16-year-old girl at a series of parties back in August, alcohol-fueled parties. Alcohol is a huge part in this.”
But how significant a role does alcohol play in whether one behaves morally or aggressively? According to psychologist and Stanford University substance abuse researcher Dr. Adrienne Heinz, not much. Says Dr. Heinz, “Very few people when they drink actually become aggressive.” The small minority who act aggressive when drinking tend to have certain personality traits when sober: irritability, poor anger control, and lower levels of empathy towards others. What’s more, men are more likely than women to be aggressive when drunk. And since the region of the brain that is responsible for reigning in impulses is not fully developed until the mid-20s, teen boys who drink and become aggressive, sexually or otherwise, are those who lack anger control and empathy when sober. In other words, personality plays a greater role than simply drinking to excess.
Not everyone in the Steubenville community jumped onboard in rationalizing the boys’ actions, or the inaction of other students present. Police chief William McCafferty said, “The thing I found most disturbing about this is that there were other people around when this was going on. Nobody had the morals to say, ‘Hey, stop it, that isn’t right.’” Here, McCafferty nails it. It wasn’t just alcohol; it was a moral failure of Mays and Richmond and those who did nothing to stop them, including everyone present that night, and those who defended them afterwards.
hen young men — especially white men — commit horrible crimes like mass shootings, we often rush to the conclusion that mental illness is the culprit. (This not-so-subtle racism is a symptom of deeply entrenched white privilege. More on that later.) But does mental illness cause violent behavior any more than alcohol does?
A friend of my brother’s went off to college a cheerful, well-liked, normally performing kid. He was a pot smoker during his freshman year — until he suffered a psychotic break. Beset by hallucinations and voices, he was unable to cope with college and had to return home. (Schizophrenia, which tends to onset between ages 18-25, can lie dormant in the genes of a young person, only to be triggered by marijuana use.) The first Thanksgiving after that, he joined our family meal at my brother’s urging. He stared at us across the table as though we sported horns and third eyes, still in the throes of his mental illness. He was able to recover with the help of medication, though he did not return to college. He had never been violent, but what if, far from home, his illness had gone unchecked?
In May 2014 in Isla Vista, California, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people including himself. For months he had been posting hateful videos on YouTube detailing his rage toward young women who had shown no interest in him. After the killings, Rodger’s childhood friend Philip Bloeser said in an interview with the Daily Mail, “Elliot was incredibly shy and awkward his entire life and it was clear he had issues, but there was never anything to suggest he was capable of this. He never displayed anything even bordering on violence or aggression.” Interviewees including Bloeser claimed that until they received his troubling 140-page manifesto in their email boxes just minutes before his killing spree, they wouldn’t have considered him dangerous.
Some boys do show early signs of mental illness. Bloeser may have thought his friend harmless, but many people close to Rodger’s family knew he was troubled. He began receiving psychiatric care at age eight, when his parents divorced and used their son’s psychological problems as leverage in a battle over child support. Rodger saw multiple therapists over the years and at times took antipsychotic medication, but he was never officially diagnosed as mentally ill. After the shooting spree, Rodger’s parents issued the following statement: “It is now our responsibility to do everything we can to help avoid this happening to any other family — not only to avoid any more innocence destroyed, but also to identify and deal with the mental issues that drove our son to do what he did.”
While Rodger’s parents were quick to blame mental illness for their son’s actions, research suggests that most violence is not attributable to poor mental health. According to Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, “People with serious mental illness are 3 to 4 times more likely to be violent than those who aren’t. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent and never will be. … Most violence in society is caused by other things.”
As with alcohol use and violent behavior, the risk factors for mass shooters have more to do with traits other than mental illness: gender, youth, isolation, and disordered mental processes. But Dr. Swanson points out that those risk factors are shared by many young men who will never become violent. So what causes the minority of mentally ill teenagers to commit horrific crimes while others do not? The answer, says Swanson, is most often rooted in violent abuse early in life (as a victim), and ongoing exposure to a violent environment.
ho, exactly, is responsible when a teen behaves badly? Here we enter the sticky territory of accountability. We Americans like to cite personal responsibility when it’s someone else’s kid. He didn’t get enough discipline, or His parents were too strict. We love to blame mothers for the failures of children, as if the seeds of violence can be found in the walls of the uterus. Some people, like my cousin, point to a culture dependent upon technology, a culture that keeps us from experiencing the wilderness — and wildness — of the natural world. As the mother of a boy, I can say from experience that boys need room to be wild (all children, really, but perhaps especially those in whom testosterone bellows its primal need). By “wild” I mean running through the woods, bracken and twigs crackling satisfyingly underfoot, big dead branches turning into walking sticks and weapons.
As I said before, I worry about raising my son to be too sensitive. Perhaps it’s partly this legacy of gender stratification that causes some boys to become emotionally dysfunctional young men. We shame boys for expressing their feelings (Man up. Don’t be a sissy. Boys don’t cry.), and then shame them later on when they can’t access those same feelings in relationships (Why won’t you talk to me? What are you feeling? Don’t you love me?). We criticize them for being “weak” early in life, and then criticize them for being too “strong” later on. Not that this causes or justifies physical violence toward anyone, but is it any wonder these boys, at least heterosexual ones, become confused in their feelings for and about women?
In May 2005, Natalee Holloway, 18, disappeared while on a high school graduation trip in Aruba. Joran van der Sloot, 19, was arrested twice as a suspect in her disappearance but was released due to lack of evidence. During the investigation, Van der Sloot made contradicting statements but ultimately denied having harmed Holloway. Five years later — five years to the day of Holloway’s disappearance — Stephany Tatiana Flores Ramírez, 21, was reported missing in Lima, Peru. She was found dead three days later in a hotel room registered in Van der Sloot’s name. Van der Sloot confessed and was sentenced to 28 years in prison.
Holloway vanished before I had a child, and my first reaction upon reading the news coverage was simply a head-shake of disgust, and sorrow for the victim’s family. I was also interested in the behavior of Van der Sloot’s mother, who insisted her son had nothing to do with Holloway’s disappearance.
Then, between the time Holloway disappeared and Flores was murdered, my son was born. Suddenly I looked at Van der Sloot through the eyes of a mother, not just a rubbernecking media bystander.
When Van der Sloot was convicted of Flores’ brutal murder, his mother said he needed mental help but claimed he was not the monster people made him out to be. Yet she had stopped defending him, and said she wouldn’t visit him in prison. “If he did this, he must bear the consequences. I cannot embrace him.”
Perhaps van der Sloot’s mother finally saw her son for what he was: a killer, a likely sociopath. But what if it were my son? I’d stand by him until the end, foolishly or not. I would take his criminality into my very cells, see it as punishment for some failure of my own. I would flagellate myself, and it is unlikely that any amount of consolation or evidence to the contrary would convince me that his actions were entirely his own. I can’t imagine raising and tending and teaching the little human I have birthed only to abandon him in the end. I don’t think I’d be able to separate from the belief that his behavior was forged in the crucible of my own parenting even if it wasn’t.
I was fascinated by Adam Grant’s April 2014 New York Times article, “Raising a Moral Child,” which offered hope, insight, and a framework for fostering morality. Grant explores how, contrary to contemporary beliefs about what builds moral fiber, telling kids they are inherently good or kind (What a helpful friend you are!) goes a lot further than praising their behavior (That was a helpful thing to do.). Could advice suggesting we not tell our children “good job” for fear of artificially inflating their self-esteem have inadvertently warped our young people’s innate sense of goodness? And on the flip side of that coin, Grant goes on to say that shame (You’re a bad kid.) causes more damage than guilt (You did a bad thing.) and can cause young people to lash out in negative ways.
Nancy Eisenberg, a psychologist quoted in the article, says the most effective technique for disciplining children and helping them learn to correct their bad behavior is to simply express disappointment without anger. I’ve seen my son’s first grade teacher do this in the classroom where I volunteer every Tuesday. “I am not pleased to see you make that choice,” she said this week to a child who attempted to cut his friend’s shirt with scissors. “That was not a good decision.” Nowhere in there did she shame the child for being bad, I noticed, and the child took his punishment — being moved to a desk farther from his peers — with very little emotional upheaval.
here are often deep fissures of trouble in families of violent teens. This may help reassure us that our families are healthier, more open, less vulnerable to tragedies other parents go through. Some of my friends raising teenagers tell me that it is no worse than raising a toddler, while other friends kvetch about the impossibly rude and hurtful things their teens spew. And yet I will not be lulled into the belief that it can’t happen to me, or close to home. Just a couple of years ago, a boy in a local school, a peer to sons of several of my friends, shot himself with his father’s gun, which had been locked in a combination-protected safe. More recently, a friend’s teenage son took to running away for a while, terrifying his parents and rallying the community into posting his picture on Facebook. When I see him around town, I find myself assessing the company he’s in, the pallor of his skin, whether or not he appears to be hiding from scrutiny.
Frankly, it’s not the sociopaths and the mass murderers that alarm me so. It’s the “regular” boys who go off to college, pulsing with instinct and sudden freedom. It’s the boys who become part of the hive mind, hazing their fraternity brothers to death. It’s the boys still in high school, like the 16-year-old rapists of Steubenville. It’s the boys who take Molly and steal ambulances, who drug the drinks of girls they meet in bars, who find the combinations to their parents’ gun safes, who say yes to drugs with no anticipation of the consequences.
Perhaps the problem lies in the fabric of media itself — an insidious, low-grade stream of messages like a gas leak making our young men ill. We can’t ignore the reality of entitlement and white male privilege our young sons pick up on long before they become men. Elliot Rodger felt entitled to a level of sexual activity that girls were not offering him. Joran van der Sloot was so sure he’d gotten away with Natalee Holloway’s murder he grew careless in the murder of Stephany Flores. White men get away with murder, rape, kidnapping, and more far too often. Why wouldn’t our young, white men take away the impression that the worst they will receive is a slap on the wrist or a few years of jail time?
I write this from a place of privilege. As a work-at-home mother, I have a leg up on my parents, who were swept up working full-time and with their own addictions. And, of course, my son has unknowingly enjoyed white male privilege since the day he was born. Black mothers teach their children to avoid becoming victims of violent crimes, to be exponentially more law-abiding than their white peers. Black mothers worry about literally losing a child forever to fatal violence for simply walking down the street. For now, I worry about losing my son to his own poor decisions. There is a vast difference between the two, and I don’t take it lightly.
Nor will I ever take lightly the news of any teenage boy in trouble, because I don’t believe it can’t ever happen to my son. I will do all I can to help him develop a moral compass sturdy enough to withstand raging hormones, peer pressure, even alcohol or drug use. I’ll let him know when he’s done a good job, and when he’s disappointed me. I will keep my eye trained on my son as he grows up. Some may call that hovering, but I choose to call it paying attention.