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Guilty by Reason of Insanity: Inside the Minds of Killers

60 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0804118873
ISBN-10: 0804118876
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"We met no Jimmy Cagneys or Robert Mitchums among the inmates in the prisons we visited. We found ourselves, rather, in the company of a pathetic crew of intellectually limited, dysfunctional, half-mad, occasionally explosive losers. Long before these men wound up on death row, their similarly limited, primitive, impulsive parents had raised them in the only fashion they knew.... These brutish parents had set the stage on which our condemned subjects now found themselves playing out the final act. It was a drama generations in the making."

Psychiatrist Dorothy Otnow Lewis, working in a professional partnership with neurologist Jonathan Pincus, has been steadily accumulating and publishing (in medical journals) evidence that almost all vicious criminals have some combination of (1) a childhood of abuse and/or neglect, (2) brain injuries through accident or abuse, and (3) psychotic symptoms, especially paranoia. This fascinating and well-written book, aimed at a wide audience, takes the form of a memoir in which Lewis tells us about the events that led her to study violent patients and about some of her more interesting cases, especially those on death row. Far from being another shallow "oh wow" book about conversations with horrifying killers, this is a thoughtful, humane examination of the horrible experiences that most murderers have endured, and a penetrating analysis of how subtle signs of brain damage in these people have been missed by other researchers. Lewis has an engagingly humble and personal way of writing about her experiences, which makes her findings all the more credible. --Fiona Webster --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

New York psychiatrist Lewis, whose "curiosity about differences between us" caused her to change career paths and study homicidal criminals, offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of psychiatry and violent crime. How the mild-mannered Radcliffe College graduate found herself face-to-face with death row inmates and testifying in well-publicized trials is most intriguing. Lewis rationally explains her findings that violent crimes often are perpetrated by persons with abusive childhoods or organic brain impairments or both. A humanizing factor in her memoir is her psychiatrist's ability to reflect on her own shortcomings and miscues in diagnosing disorders. Lewis concludes that "given certain neurologic and psychiatric problems, any of us could be a killer," which is frightening, perhaps controversial, and always interesting. Sue-Ellen Beauregard --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Ivy Books (May 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804118876
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804118873
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 1 x 6.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #744,359 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Jim on December 30, 2002
Format: Mass Market Paperback Verified Purchase
I read the reviews-pro and con-of this book before purchasing it from Amazon. I agree, it's a mixed bag of scientific observations and Dr. Lewis' own moral issues. The former are quite interesting and make the book worthwhile, the latter are open to ethical debate. Both science and personal issues are intermingled in her writing. Too bad about that. Her book has an engaging style-I'm not put off by conversational writing-and her years of professional experience require she be listened to. When she quotes verbatim from interview transcripts with a minimum of moralizing--as she does for long stretches--her writing is truly worthwhile.
Dr. Lewis believes that murderous, insane acts must posit either a damaged brain or a psychotic, disassociative mind. All death row inmates she interviewed who were guilty of senseless violence had one condition or the other, or both. Giving such persons death sentences--her argument goes--is unacceptable. Killers who meet the psychiatric definition of illness should not be executed. Since all killers she met meet that criteria, none should be executed. She does not accept the reciprocal aptness of the death sentence for horrible crimes. Dr. Lewis is a New York City liberal who (she writes) still bemoans the deaths of the Rosenbergs. Near the end of her book she suggests that U.S. government may have had a hand in creating some infamous serial killers by experimenting on their brains while they were in the army. Hmmmmmm.
Dr. Lewis cannot account for many in the population with similar physical conditions and life histories of abuse who never kill or maim. She is perplexed on how someone like Ted Bundy fits into her theory. Bundy was not repeatedly sexually traumatized during his childhood, and left no evidence of brain injury behind.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful By David J. Loftus on August 22, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I find the biases and filters with which other reviewers came to this book amusing and not very helpful. The fact is, Dr. Lewis's book is neither as great nor as bad as many of them make out.
Yes, she does speak as a feeling person as much as a professional, and yes, she sometimes makes herself seem far more naive than I suspect she must have been. Also, of necessity the book parades a rogues gallery of killers -- male and female -- and their gruesome crimes before us.
On the one hand, this is not a scientific paper, it is a popular book for the lay reader. And nevertheless, Dr. Lewis has several very important points to make. Most and perhaps all of the death row inmates she has studied not only came from horrid socioeconomic and psychological backgrounds, but they appear to have suffered brain damage before birth, at birth, or in accidents or due to abuse since. Some appeared to suffer genuine seizures and mental blackouts; others, much as Dr. Lewis's training and inclination led her to resist the notion, genuinely appeared to have multiple personalities. Her conversion on this point by flesh-and-blood evidence is an instructive process.
These facts raise interesting questions about criminal responsibility and culpability, ones the legal system is not anywhere near prepared to acknowledge and weigh in its decisions. The conclusion is not that society should free these damaged souls, but perhaps that the nature of their punishment and treatment could be better informed. Dr. Lewis voices strong if not terribly coherent criticisms of these failings.
So I found the book engrossing and thought-provoking. Unfortunately, my hardbound copy suffers from the growing plague in contemporary books of computer spell-check-dependent typos.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By E. Begody on January 4, 2005
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Though I'm a proponent of the death penalty, reading this book in the last 24 hours, I have reasons to question it, especially in the context of abused criminals who reenact their abuse onto others. Lewis has made me question my cut and dry attitude and has shown me the gapping hole in my bag of logic, truth, and criminology. Guilty By Reason of Insanity leaves me with more questions than answers. Though this isn't a genre that I read, Lewis's writing has me hungering for more answers.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By "tcme" on July 29, 1998
Format: Hardcover
I wanted to like this book, and was hoping to learn something from it. Unfortunately, neither of those things resulted. I have spent almost a quarter of a century in forensic psychology as a federal probation officer and clinical social worker and was stunned and appalled by the tone of this book. Lewis frequently alludes to how she was once naive, but has since overcome her naivete. I don't think she has. Either that, or she is so blinded by her own philosophical prejudices, that she is incapable of objectivity. At one point she boasts that Td Bundy said to her, "you'r the only person who asks me why I did these things," not what he did. Give me a break. Does Lewis really not know that Bundly used this line on every clinician to interview him?
Certainly, there are some offenders who suffer from devastating psychiatric disorders which somehow predicated the offenses. Weston, the Capitol Building shooter, certainly seems to be one. But he is not in the same c! ategory as Bundy and others that Lewis talks about.
Ressler, Douglas, and Burgess have a much more objective perspective than Lewis, who seems freeze-dried in deterministic and neo-Freudian Kobblygook.
And Southernors beware. You talk laak this, and just cain't abide these liberal yankess comin' down south to save these boys from certain death. I'm surprised there were no allussions to Klan membership. maybe I just missed it.
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