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Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist [Hardcover]

Richard Rhodes
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)


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Book Description

September 14, 1999 0375402497 978-0375402494 1
Why do some men, women and even children assault, batter, rape, mutilate and murder? In his stunning new book, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes provides a startling and persuasive answer.

Why They Killexplores the discoveries of a maverick American criminologist, Dr. Lonnie Athens -- himself the child of a violent family -- which challenge conventional theories about violent behavior. By interviewing violent criminals in prison, Dr. Athens has identified a pattern of social development common to all seriously violent people -- a four-stage process he calls "violentization":
-- First, brutalization: A young person is forced by violence or the threat of violence to submit to an aggressive authority figure; he witnesses the violent subjugation of intimates, and the authority figure coaches him to use violence to settle disputes.
-- Second, belligerency: The dispirited subject, determined to prevent his further violent subjugation, heeds his coach and resolves to resort to violence.
-- Third, violent performances: His violent response to provocation succeeds, and he reads respect and fear in the eyes of others.
-- Fourth, virulency: Exultant, he determines from now on to utilize serious violence as a means of dealing with people -- and he bonds with others who believe as he does.

Since all four stages must be fully experienced in sequence and completed to produce a violent individual, we see how intervening to interrupt the process can prevent a tragic outcome.

Rhodes supports Athens's theory with historical evidence and shows how it explains such violent careers as those of Perry Smith (the killer central to Truman Capote's narrative In Cold Blood), Mike Tyson, "preppy rapist" Alex Kelly, and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Why They Kill challenges with devastating evidence the theory that violent behavior is impulsive, unconsciously motivated and predetermined. It offers compelling insights into the terrible, ongoing dilemma of criminal violence that plagues families, neighborhoods, cities and schools.


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (September 14, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375402497
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375402494
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #884,300 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant January 3, 2000
By RBH
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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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb New Work by a Superb Reporter 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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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Maverick hits the mark... May 3, 2000
By Caz
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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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, timely, and urgently needed January 17, 2001
By C. Colt
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book of the last 50 books I have read
This book imho is a must read for every thinking adult. It is the best of the last 50 books I have read. I learned a lot that isn't available elsewhere. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Paul G. Joseph
3.0 out of 5 stars this was ok
I hoped to read of some ground breaking study and insightful information. The book talks about the well covered aspect of nurture and how a bad childhood and youth situation is the... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Lov2read
4.0 out of 5 stars A solid edition to a professional library on violence
I am a law enforcement officer who spends a fair amount of time associating with truly violent criminals. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Just a guy
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read.
I read this book a long time ago and then I gave it away. I decided to purchase it again, read it and then keep it in my little library.
Published 8 months ago by Robert A. Berge
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading on violence
One of the most important books on violence I've read. Highly recommended for anyone working in this field. Rhodes is top notch!
Published 9 months ago by T. Schneider
3.0 out of 5 stars The book is both a biography and an explanation of violence.
I am an admirer of Richard Rhodes but the book is too long and repettious. The two examples of personal violence are arbitrary and too wordy. Read more
Published 11 months ago by arthur gale
4.0 out of 5 stars What I Expected
God information and scholarly work. Ties in with other things I've been reading. In short a good book. Enough said.
Published 13 months ago by Eugene J. Brady
2.0 out of 5 stars Fulsom, Obsequious Praise and Second-Hand Ideas
I read most of the book in a single afternoon. I teach in the field, not only of sociology and criminology in general, but on the social context of violence specifically. Read more
Published on February 17, 2012 by N. Dubeski
5.0 out of 5 stars This will fascinate you
Rhodes follows the career of a "maverick criminologist" named Lonnie Athens, who developed a theory that can explain how persons develop the capacity to kill. Read more
Published on August 28, 2009 by George I. Chandler II
5.0 out of 5 stars Gives a human face to violence
This book is fantastic. Technically accurate, but at the same time a good read. Had this book existed in the late 70s, when I was a sociology undergrad, I am certain it would... Read more
Published on January 5, 2009 by John Condron
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