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Guilty by Reason of Insanity: Inside the Minds of Killers by Dorothy Otnow Lewis published by Ivy Books (1999) Mass Market Paperback – May 1, 1998
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Readers interested in the specifics of the cases will probably be bored by Lewis' focus on her own life, family, and personal aspects, but I appreciated the reminder that psychiatry is, ultimately, one person evaluating another, and the humanity of the evaluator is also relevant information.
I will dock Lewis points for the constant breadcrumbs about Ted Bundy, a name she drops repeatedly without providing the same coverage as her other examples. She is clearly aware of the immense interest in this man, but she ultimately provides virtually no assessment of him. Outside sources suggest she decided to maintain his confidentiality posthumously, but she does not assert this in her own work. As such, it's an enormous tease. It's also something of a clinical outlier:Ted Bundy had no neurological conditions. Her failure to adequately address her most famous subject is the downfall of this work.
I've been trying to contact Dr. Lewis for quite a while now.
I know sometimes authors read their own reviews here so this is my last ditch effort.
If you are to read this Dr. Lewis, I'm a month away from marrying Robert Lee Yates.
I'm interested in learning about your evaluation of him, your opinions, your observations.
I realize it's been 20 years or so since then, I would like to connect with you if at all possible. Thank you.
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. She asserts, however, that he just could not stop himself from murdering.
Two-thirds of her book is enthralling. She may, indeed, have discovered a statistically verifiable connection between injury to the brain, coupled with horrific childhood abuse, and later eruptions of purposeless murder by some individuals. Doctor Lewis' observations on the ineffectiveness of lawyers to present adequate defenses, and on the blindness of courts to acknowledge the truly horrible childhoods of some who kill, are wonderfully illustrated by her personal anecdotes.
Some interviews are heart-rendering, from obviously damaged and deranged persons who from babyhood never had a chance to live a normal life. She quotes three brothers, for example, who were given over to foster care on a farm, and forced to bite the testicles off of lambs with their teeth. It is startling how vicious part of humanity is to its own young. But then there are instances like Chapter 19, where Dr. Lewis interviews a state executioner to prove he is secretly psychotic, too. She interprets his inarticulate explanation of why pulling the switch on convicted killers doesn't bother him as the bottled rage of childhood abuse. A couple of times while reading this chapter I actually winced: "His serial executions [!] were but the latest manifestations of his paranoid rage. The line that separated him from Lucky Larson and Johnny Garrett [two executed murderers] was thin indeed." She should be ashamed of herself for that sort of stuff.
Dr. Lewis is at her best when recalling her cases with a minimum of personal intrusion. There are large sections in her book where she does this, and her writing becomes notable and truly worthwhile.
She asks and gives answers to let wee like why society isn’t more interested in the causes of violent behavior.
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There is a real sense of injustice that pervades the book, from the treatment of the youths who grew up to be crazed killers by trusted parents, siblings and guardians to the startling cognitive dissonance of the executioner at the end.
I'm not really sure what this book taught me. I have always preferred recommending a rehabilitative penal system and I'm a strong opponent of the death penalty in any country. In those beliefs, this book has strengthened my resolve to always be an outspoken critic... but it defeats my idealism in other ways. Though I feel now, more than ever, that human evil is acquired and not innate, I'm at a loss to explain an effective way to prevent it. When a human being is so fundamentally damaged by unchecked physical, sexual and emotional abuse that it becomes the norm or a fantasy to do that to others... how do we prevent others from suffering the same?
I guess it has taught me to be pensive.
The key component in this text is one woman (and her neurologist friend, Dr Pincus) and her desire to 'rationalise' crime and its consequence. She manages this in two simple steps:
First analyse the life and experiences of the criminal.
Second analyse the after effects of the crime on the criminal.
In doing this, she takes away the label that so many writers of 'true crime' seem desperate to attach to their subjects: evil. Having read Dr Stone's treatise on the nature of 'evil' in crime, I realised what was added to his text that was lacking in Lewis'. Stone attaches his personal view to his text. While he is a highly respected author (with good reason), I feel that this opinion, this bias, detracts from the analysis of the criminal. How can we possibly amend the wrongs in the world and change negative behaviours merely by attaching the label "evil" to everything we disagree with? Lewis does not judge her subjects, she studies and learns and theorises. She pronounces no sentence (as most of them have the ultimate legal one hanging over them anyway!)but lifts away the label and delves into the cause of the behaviour.
I have no doubt that this text will bring little peace to anyone who has suffered at the hands of a violent criminal...but it offers reason, understanding and maybe even a new way to view human beings.