Why They Kill:

Richard Rhodes

Why They Kill: cover



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Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, brings his inimitable vision, exhaustive research, and mesmerizing prose to this timely book that dissects violence and offers new solutions to the age old problem of why people kill. Lonnie Athens was raised by a brutally domineering father. Defying all odds, Athens became a groundbreaking criminologist who turned his scholar's eye to the problem of why people become violent. After a decade of interviewing several hundred violent convicts-men and women of varied background and ethnicity, he discovered "violentization," the four-stage process by which almost any human being can evolve into someone who will assault, rape, or murder another human being. Why They Kill is a riveting biography of Athens and a judicious critique of his seminal work, as well as an unflinching investigation into the history of violence. JoAnn Gutin - Salon No one will ever accuse Richard Rhodes of having writer's block. In the past three years he's written books on mad cow disease and the social effects of technology; in the decade before that, he produced two huge works of history -- one of which won the Pulitzer Prize -- plus several memoirs. He evidently follows the advice he gave aspiring scriveners in yet another of his books, the invaluable How to Write: "Remember, a page a day is a book a year." However, Rhodes' late-Victorian level of productivity has a downside, which brings me to Why They Kill. In this ambitious but unsatisfactory amalgam of biography, sociological theory, psychohistory and social criticism, Rhodes lays out a staggering agenda: He promises to reveal "a fundamental breakthrough in human psychology" that will explain essentially all acts of violence. But you may find, as I did, that the breakthrough is less revolutionary than advertised, that Rhodes leaves fundamental questions unanswered and that Why They Kill is a book sorely in need of more gestation. "I have personal experience of violence," Rhodes notes in the prologue. Between the ages of 10 and 12, he tells us (as he has in many previous books), he and his brother were beaten and otherwise abused by their stepmother while their father stood passively by; this "extended personal encounter with evil" has given him a lifelong fascination with "what causes such violence and how it might be prevented." Rhodes shares his fascination with Lonnie Athens, the criminologist whose life and work form the basis for Why They Kill. Athens, too, had an abusive parent -- in his case, a father who beat him, pushed his head into the toilet and once pulled a gun on him. And Athens chose his career, as Rhodes chooses his subjects, in order to make sense of his own childhood violence. When Athens took his first criminology course, he tells Rhodes, "I thought, Wow, I know something about this...I've got something to contribute here!" His contribution took shape as an idea for a research project. Instead of merely theorizing about the factors that turn people into criminals -- as Rhodes says all other criminologists were doing -- Athens decided to go to the source: to wheedle his way into prisons and ask violent felons why they'd killed, or raped, or maimed. What he found makes singularly depressing reading. As the extended transcripts included here reveal, violent felons are inarticulate, numbingly profane and chillingly offhand about their crimes; their motives are all variants on "He dissed me so I shot him," "He pissed me off so I shot him" and "She wouldn't stop screaming so I killed her." Life is cheap, and evil is banal. But how did these criminals get that way? Athens' conclusion, based on hundreds of interviews and boiled down to its essence by Rhodes, is this: "Not poverty or genetic inheritance or psychopathology but violentization" -- i.e. violent socialization -- "is the cause of criminal violence." Violentization, as laid out in Athens' elaborate taxonomy, is a four-step developmental process beginning with "brutalization" by family or peers, a process that can include, bu