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Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill? Paperback – June 17, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Pincus explores the biological, psychological and social influences at work within the minds of contemporary murderers in this collection of case studies. Chairman emeritus of Georgetown University's Department of Neurology, he notes that although he spent years as a "regular" neurologist studying violent criminals, his prejudices (and those of his colleagues) colored his study of criminal cognition and behavior. His longtime collaborator, Dr. Dorothy Lewis, helped him develop a new theory: "It is the interaction of childhood abuse with neurologic disturbances and psychiatric illnesses that explains murder." He presents several cases from the approximately 150 murderers he has examined, detailing the subtle interrelations between these three elements, which often go unnoticed because of violent individuals' denial of their own past victimization. Pincus delves into how the disparate group of killers arrived at a similar condition of extreme paranoia and instability. In each case, he depicts upbringings devoid of love and nurturing, which disposed these individuals toward violence. He concludes by discussing options for prevention and treatment, acknowledging that "tough on crime" measures receive support over more complex intervention proposals, like Hawaii's Healthy Start program and similar efforts in other areas, which target at-risk families with the goal of "parenting the parents" and have produced surprising decreases in reported abuse and neglect. This is an excellent book for all those concerned with addressing the root causes of violence and one that should be read by those who favor punishment over prevention. (June) Forecast: Pincus is a recognized expert on the mind of a killer who has received prior media attention, including coverage by the New Yorker. For this book, the publisher plans author appearances in D.C. and New York and expects major media interest.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


An urgent wake-up call for the nation...a must-read for every professional engaged in the administration of criminal justice. -- Samuel Dash, Georgetown University Law Center

[A] rigorous, troubling, and profoundly humane book. -- Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic

[A] significant contribution to the national debate about violent criminal behavior. -- Senator Joe Lieberman

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (June 17, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393323234
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393323238
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #473,931 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Charles R. Braun on June 18, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In this newly-published book (2001), an experienced neurologist tackles the difficult question of "what makes killers kill," an issue usually addressed by different specialists like psychiatrists and lawyers. Although this book does not answer this question to the point of making either murder or serial murder predictable, it does provide new evidence, new insights, and and new recommendations, from a novel standpoint, on both the causes and prevention of violence in our society. The book's novel thesis is based on the author's unique experience, which the book in part recounts, examining numerous convicted murderers and serial killers for neurological and other impairments that might be relevant to their sentencing. The book also discusses the making and motivation of mass murderers like Hitler.
Commendably, the book is succinctly and clearly written, and mostly free from medical and other technical jargon. Detailed footnotes are inobtrusively provided, however, in the text, and at the end of the book, for readers wishing to see or pursue the author's technical references and reasoning. Also at the end of the book is an appendix that explains how the author conducted his examinations. The book thus can be readily and quickly understood by the general reader, without medical or neurological training, including persons who have not previously explored the issues which the author addresses. The book is made even more readable by well-written passages which are exceptionally witty, interesting, or exciting.
Readers should be cautioned, however, that some of the book's descriptions of actual crimes, and the abuse that certain criminals apparently suffered as children, are sufficiently detailed and specific to be unsuitable for the faint of heart. Otherwise stated, I highly recommend this book, but not for bedtime reading.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Mark K. Mcdonough VINE VOICE on October 1, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The point of this fairly slim volume is to convince the reader that many (perhaps the vast majority) of our most dangerous criminals have neurologic impairments, and that brain dysfunction, along with child abuse and paranoid thinking, is at the heart of much violent behavior. This is not an entirely new message, but it is one Pincus approaches with a great deal of authority -- he's a professor of Neurology at Georgetown, was formerly at Yale and has studied dozens of death row prisoners along with his colleague Dorothy Ortnow Lewis.
Dr. Pincus clearly decided not to risk alienating readers with scientific terminology or complex explanations of brain physiology. The book follows the familiar "casebook" true crime format used by various ex-FBI profilers, coroners, and cops. Most chapters focus on a particular criminal Pincus had dealings with (many of them in his role as an expert witness) and what that criminal's life story shows about the origins of homicidal violence.
The coversational writing style (and oddly cheery alliterative chapter titles) stand in contrast to the horrific nature of much of the material. The crime scene details will be familiar to any reasonably hardened reader in the literature. What really stood out for me was the descriptions of childhood abuse endured by many of the perpetrators Pincus has studied. As a former inner-city teacher, I taught kids from pretty screwed up homes, and had some friends from abusive families while growing up. But the stories Pincus recounts (corroborated by siblings and others) remind us that there is almost no downward limit to the depths of human depravity.
What's rather odd about all the better works in the study of violence and homicide is the sense that this field is under-funded, under-appreciated and obscure.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By jtm on July 15, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a well written, well researched book that should be required reading for all professionals involved with adults and children who exhibit anti-social behaviour. It will be invaluable to educators, psychologists, attorneys, police officers,psychiatrists and more. Why wouldn't anyone who can do so not want to be aware of new findings that could lead to identifying, intercepting and possibly changing the course of a future serial killing or classroom tragedy? Take the time to read the book. It's worth it.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Russell A. Rohde MD on July 22, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
"Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill?" by Jonathan H. Pincus, MD, ISBN 0-393-32323-4 pbk, Norton & Co. 2001: a 225 page disquisition plus 13 pages of notes by a NYU Professor of neurology & psychiatry and graduate of Columbina CPS who investigated some 150 murderers over a 25-year period and tenders his unified theory that "killers kill for the same reasons," regardless of their classifications (single, mass, serial, & perhaps genocidal).
Pincus observed that killing arises in the milieu and troika of disturbances which generally discloses (1) childhood abuses (sexual, verbal, physical), (2) frontal lobe damage (birth trauma, chromosomal, genic, infectious, toxic as alcohol & drugs), and (3) a medley of mental (neuro-psychiatric) impairments e.g. bipolar depresssion, paranoia, ADHD, CD, ODD, etc. He hypothesizes that single, mass, and serial killings have similarities with the Nazi/Hitler's paranoid anti-Semitism, Gaza Strip atrocities and various terrorist factions of more recent vintage.
He opines the only feasible remedy would be prevention of child abuse and cites pilot studies underway, and also specifies factors impeding implementation of other remedies including treatment of convicted murderers. He details his basic neurologic testing format including specific tests directed at eliciting impairment of the frontal lobes, the latter being somnething he states most/many neurological examiners fail to do. Dr. Pincus has worked successfully on a number of defense cases aimed at getting death sentences switched to life without parole.
The treatise is not overly technical, the writing style is a bit wordy, and very minor detractions were noted (i.e.
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