Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist

by Richard Rhodes

Paperback, 2000




Vintage (2000), Edition: 1st Vintage Books Ed, 384 pages


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 narrativeIn Cold Blood), Mike Tyson, "preppy rapist" Alex Kelly, and Lee Harvey Oswald. Why They Killchallenges 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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member drneutron
In the introduction to Why They Kill, Richard Rhodes describes a pretty horrific episode in his childhood where he as forced to confront the violence that so many have experienced. Many of his books deal with different aspects of violence, and he uses these works to understand his experience. In
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Why They Kill, Rhodes focuses on ultraviolent criminals - why they do what they do and how they become so violent in the first place.

Why They Kill is really two books in one. The first is a biography of Lonnie Athens, the maverick criminologist of the subtitle. He's a product of the world of the ultraviolent criminal, but managed to escape into a rather unwelcoming academia. The biographical section also includes a detailed explanation of Athens' theory of violentization, the process he proposes by which ultraviolent criminals are made. The second book is a series of tests of Athen's theory, for example against famous folk such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Mike Tyson.

Criminology is well outside my area of expertise, but Athens' theory seems sensible to me. It appears to explain the process by which people become violent and the mitigations discussed at the end of the book are in line with successful intervention programs. I suspect that the situation, however, is more complicated than presented here. Genetic factors are ignored, and the possibility of mental illness or learning disabilities in violent offenders are dismissed out of hand. Rhodes, and by extension, Athens, claims that the theory explains every violent person, however cases which don't appear to fit the theory are assumed to be cases where the person (or the researcher) are not telling the whole story and so the argument becomes somewhat circular.

All in all, I think the book was worth reading, although Rhodes was a bit drier in this one than in others of his that I've read. The ideas should be taken with a grain of salt, but are well worth thinking about.
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LibraryThing member allthesedarnbooks
This was an interesting book that I picked up after reading about it on LT. Richard Rhodes writes about Lonnie Athens, a criminologist, and the theories he has developed about the nature of human violence. I'm not sure that Athens' theories explain all violence EVER, as Rhodes seems to, but the
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book is certainly food for thought. I had some problems, as an anthropology student, with the chapter on violence in "primitive" societies, in particular. Some of the sociology chapters were very dense--- I'm not sure I'll ever understand Athens's theory of the self, as explained, let alone the earlier theories that were merely referenced. The most interesting chapters to me were the ones on medieval history and on modern warfare. Overall, an intriguing read, and I came away thinking about the nature of violence and also impressed, once more, with the need to curb child abuse and other forms of violence, particularly against children. Well worth reading, if not without its flaws.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Richard Rhodes is one of my favorite authors. I first encountered his work when I read The Making of the Atomic Bomb. His book, Why They Kill, is unique in my experience, in that it is a blend of both biography and sociology. It is the biography of Lonnie Athens who lived a violent life as a youth
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and later dedicated his life to the investigation of the source of violence in criminals. It is also a presentation of Athens' findings and an examination of the results of applying those findings to criminals who Athens had not studied. The result of this, due greatly to the writing skills of the author, is a fascinating and unique story of the sociology of criminal life and the pathology of violence. This is a challenging book for those readers interested in why some humans kill.
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