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Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist 1st Edition

48 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0375402494
ISBN-10: 0375402497
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Editorial Reviews Review

In Why They Kill, Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes traces the life and career of criminologist Lonnie Athens, a man who took his own sad and squalid life and turned it on its head to make a groundbreaking career as a criminologist. Athens grew up in a violent, angry world. Rather than absorbing the sickness and violence around him, though, he studied it, and eventually developed a theory about how violent criminals are created. Rhodes's critical examination of Athens's work forces readers to consider how violent our society really is, how it became that way, and what might be done to change it. When applied to well-known criminals such as Michael Tyson and Lee Harvey Oswald, Athens's ideas become concrete and take on an urgent tone: it's easy to discuss theories and predictors in the abstract, but these stories are real, and they repeat themselves in our society at an alarming rate. Rhodes's approach to this disturbing subject stands apart from many other crime books in its intelligence, humanity, and empathy. These are not just descriptions of "scumbags" and their brutal crimes, but intensely personal stories that reveal how a culture of violence propagates itself. --Lisa Higgins

From Publishers Weekly

What transforms an ordinary person into a violent criminal? Not genetic inheritance or low self-esteem or coming from a violent subculture, answers Pulitzer PrizeAwinning author Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, etc.), but rather a process of brutalization by parents or peers that usually occurs in childhood. In this provocative study, Rhodes focuses on the work of criminologist Lonnie Athens, who teaches at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. Athens believes that violent crime results from "social retardation," a process whereby an individual who was abused in childhood guides his or her actions by recourse to a "phantom community" of the internalized voices of caregivers and others. Rhodes tests Athens's theory against specific cases, including those of boxer and convicted rapist Mike Tyson; Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner, who at age 14 stabbed to death her mother's lover; and Lee Harvey Oswald. The author champions Athens as a pioneering genius battling a criminological establishment that ascribes violent crime to psychopathology or antecedent social conditions; yet he overestimates the originality of Athens's work (the "phantom community" in some ways resembles Freud's superego), and his well-intentioned study is at times belabored. Both Rhodes and Athens suffered through horrifically abusive childhoods, which adds a compelling personal note to this study but may also color their views. Rhodes strongly endorses Athens's call for school-based prevention programs to break the cycle of domestic and societal violence. Agents, Morton Janklow and Anne Sibbald, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 14, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375402497
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375402494
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.7 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,238,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Rhodes is the author of 25 works of history, fiction and letters. He's a Kansas native, a father and grandfather. His book The Making of the Atomic Bomb won a Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He lectures widely on subjects related to his books, which run the gamut from nuclear history to the story of mad cow disease to a study of how people become violent to a biography of the 19th-century artist John James Audubon. His latest book is Hell and Good Company, about the people and technologies of the Spanish Civil War. His website is

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 42 people found the following review helpful By RBH on January 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Richard Rhodes is an outstanding writer as anyone who has read "The Making of the Atom Bomb" can attest. His writing is well researched, clearly written and often hard to put down.
His latest book, " Why They Kill : The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist" is an eye opener. Criminologist, Dr. Lonnie Athens new approach to understanding violence in humans turns some psychiatric theories upside down. His discoveries originated from his own extremely violent background. Athens claims that rapists, violent killers (including serial killers) know what they are doing and why. To the majority of us it is incomprehensible that anyone would commit such heinous acts with what appears to be little or no provocation. He shows, by example, how those who have gone through what he calls the four stages of violentization, think and react.
Athens states that if an individual is interrupted at any stage before he or she has gone through the fourth stage of violentization, the individual can be reformed. However, once the fourth stage has been completed, there is no hope of redemption.
What lends a particularly reactive note on the part of the reader is the inclusion of well known personalities and their individual stories of violentization. Athens describes the backgrounds of Mike Tyson, Alex Kelly, Lee Harvey Oswald and other infamous characters. He also points out how and why soldiers were affected by the violence during the Vietnamese war and its aftermath.
Toward the end of the book Athens suggests how the cycle of violence can be broken. The cycle was broken in time for Athens and for Rhodes, who was also on his way to a violent outcome. Their redemption was serendipitous. For the majority of those who are on the road to violentization and are not so lucky, society must intervene in order to prevent the terrifying result.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By jack olsen on September 16, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I regard WHY THEY KILL as the most important book on the mind of the criminal since Dr. Hervey Cleckley's monumental study of psychopathy: THE MASK OF SANITY. Unlike self-ordained crime guru and speed-writer Joyce Carol Oates, who damned this book with her customary hauteur in the New York Times, I have been studying violent criminality at close range for 50 years, and Richard Rhodes showed me something valuable and new on every page. His ability to explicate and illuminate the most complex processes is in the tradition of great journalists like John McPhee, Gail Greene, Norman Mailer, Joseph Mitchell, Shana Alexander, James Stewart and Fox Butterfield. I hope this book gains Richard Rhodes another shelf of well-deserved awards.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Maginot on January 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This book contains the criminologist, Lonnie Athens' compelling new argument about the process that creates violent criminals. The media frequently portrays criminal violence as senseless or inexplicable, while psychology explains it with theoretical models that are incomplete and often incorrect. Athens explores the creation of violent criminals from a sociological perspective but avoids the traditional method of statistical examination. Instead, Athens takes an analytical approach by interviewing convicted violent offenders and extracting common modes of thought and behavior from their testimony. The result is a compelling theory of "violentization", which is the term Athens uses to describe the socialization that ordinary people experience before they become violent criminals.
Violentization is a process that involves several steps. Generally a person experiences brutality, humiliation, helpless exposure to someone else's victimization (personal horrorfication), violent coaching, and a violent personal revolt against real or perceived aggressors. By the time a person goes through this process the person's violent socialization is largely complete. Athens explains that socialization isn't so much a response to one's community but a response to a perceived or "phantom" community that is based on the person's experiences, memories, and recurring conversations from the past. When individuals experience violentization they develop a violent phantom community which influences their response to events in their lives. When these people resort to violent behavior they are not doing so in a senseless or medically deficient fashion, they are simply responding to a different moral framework and set of rules than individuals who haven't experienced violentization.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Caz on May 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I've read a fair share of the latest crop of books on the topic of violence and the criminal mind, and this book is in the top five. Rhodes has done a stellar job in presenting the theories and findings of criminologist Lonnie Athens. I'm in contact with some of the country's worst criminals - those that sit on Death Row. This book has been most beneficial in understanding the hows and whys that landed these people there. If you're interested in understanding how the criminal mind works and want to read a book that you can actually understand and process, this is the book for you. Written for both the professional and the layman, this is a wealth of insight into what makes a mind go criminal, and why violent actions result. Excellent work, Dr. Athens - you have my highest praise. Oustanding writing, Mr. Rhodes. I look forward to your next work.
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