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Killer Instinct in Women

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It is estimated that only 10% of all murderers have been females. This is probably because women have a natural (probably hard wired) instinct to protect, care for, and nurture. How is it that some women have lost this instinct?

Severe child abuse, neglect, maternal rejection, and exposure to violence as a young child can interrupt the development of this instinct. It can delay the development of skills needed for appropriate social relationships including the maternal instinct for child care.

The ability to harm others comes from another path. When most of us harm others we can feel empathy for the person we have injured and remorse for our actions. Harming others makes us feel “bad.” Thus, we are inhibited from purposefully taking an action to harm another person. We don’t want to feel “bad,” so we avoid harming others.

Additionally, empathy is at Stage III of moral development (ages 7 – 11, Kohlberg). If either trauma or a lack of opportunity for pro-social skill building takes place in this stage or earlier, empathy for others does not develop. Women who lack this skill and are not given the opportunity to develop it, are at risk to harm others, especially their own children.

Some propose that lesions in the prefrontal cortex of the brain cause lapses in judgment that result in “bad” behavior. In fact, Dr. Robert Hare, recently, has shown that psychopaths have poorer brain function resulting in an inferior capacity to reason, especially when it comes to activities that involve emotion. The source of this immature brain development has also been linked to severe, early childhood abuse and neglect.

So, if a woman lacks empathy and has poor judgment due to immature brain development, she is at even higher risk to harm others. So, if a woman with the skills and maturity of a 4 or 5 year old is trying to manage job, relationships, family responsibilities, and stress as an adult, the functioning of this person’s system is going to fail.

The following women display some of the characteristics and family background traits described above. No diagnosis is made of any of the women discussed here and none is implied. The goal of this article is to understand the common precursors among women exhibiting antisocial behaviors in order to prevent their recurrence in others.

In the news:
- June 20, 2001. 36 year old Andrea Yates drowns her 5 small children. Mrs. Yates had a history of mental illness. She reported that she had thoughts of hurting her children for two years.

- Sept. 14, 2009. A Grant County, Washington woman confessed to a plot to kill her husband after years of alleged abuse. She allegedly asked her son to help get the pills and knife to help kill her husband.

- Westminster. Sept. 16, 2009. 38 year old Thuy Le confesses to attempting to stab her two small daughters to death and then attempting suicide.

Historical Figures
Elizabeth Bathory (April 24, 2007; Jeanne Marie Kerns) lived in 1600 Hungary. Raised by and married to family members steeped in traditions of black magic and cruelty, she became convinced that she could remain young by bathing in the blood of young women. She invited local women to her castle as servants, but then tortured, drained them of blood, and killed them. Six hundred bodies were found in her castle when she was finally discovered. Having gone completely insane, she spent the rest of her life alone, boarded up in her castle.

Myra Hindley lived her early life with her alcoholic and abusive father. She was eventually sent to live with her grandmother, but the damage to her psyche, social functioning, progress of coping skills, and brain maturity had been done. In her teen years, she did not do well in school and suffered the death of a close friend. As we all do, she needed to be close to someone.

Lacking the skills for a pro-social relationship, she became devoted to Ian Brady and his life of sadism, pornography and Nazi admiration. Lacking the skill to find satisfaction from a deep interpersonal relationship, they sought ever more excitement through the adrenalin rushes found in risky and horrifying behaviors.

Together, they sexually abused, tortured and killed 5 children and teens in the 1960′s and became known as the Moors Murderers of England. Like an addiction, each horrible act had to be followed by a more awful act to generate the same level of rush. Soon, nothing mattered but the “rush.” Having no empathy or remorse, they recorded the pleas of at least one of the children as she was tortured. This was likely to re-experience the rush or high at a later time. Myra was finally captured by the police and received a life sentence. She died in jail.

Aileen Wuornos was rejected by her mother, who was also a child, her sex offender father, and her grandmother, who died when Aileen was in her early teens. She went on a killing spree from 1989 to 1990. She claimed self defense, but was convicted of murder. It is believed that she was psychopath and killed for pleasure and money. Again, it can be hypothesized that the addiction to the rush or the high of risky and horrific behavior substituted for the satisfaction most of us find in normal relationships.

Aileen did not have the capacity to find satisfaction in a normal relationship, so she substituted the “rush” for relationship. This was despite the fact that she had a superficial relationship with a young woman at that time.

Rosemary West’s mother suffered from depression and received ECT while pregnant with her. Additionally, Rosemary’s father sexually abused her. She was a moody teenager who did not do well in school. Rosemary married Mr. West and was a prostitute while her husband watched. They were arrested and released in 1973 when a victim escaped. Her father was a frequent prostitution customer. Additionally, Rosemary had 8 children, one of whom she killed.

Rosemary West and her husband tortured and killed 12 women between the years of 1973 and 1979. The skeletal remains of the couple’s victims were found under their house in 1994 and she was convicted of 10 counts of murder. Her husband committed suicide in jail before his trial. The motive appeared to be one of sadomasochism mixed with sexual deviance. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. West were capable of a normal, mature relationship with any level of satisfaction or depth. Their chaotic upbringing did not allow the development of that capacity.

Yet, all of us have the need to connect with another. When one has the need, but lacks the skill to fulfill the need, a person looks in strange places to find satisfaction. Deviant activities, lead to further deviant activities, but never lead to true social satisfaction and human relationship. Lacking in this, the horror goes on.

Many female murderers had histories of chaotic upbringing, rejecting, substance abusing, or absent mothers, or sexual abuse. This injury to the early attachment bonds cannot be underestimated. It delayed social and personal development to the extent that they were unable to cope with everyday life. In the never ending search for connectedness and belonging, they found the “thrill” of risk, deviance and the adrenaline rush. Their lack of empathy and remorse allowed them to harm others in their addiction to the next bigger “rush.” Only incarceration could stop them, as they could not stop themselves.

It is too difficult to stop the out of control train going 500 miles an hour down the hill. We must make the train with sufficient brakes and mechanism to maneuver the tracks safely.

How do we restructure a safer train with good brakes and controls? We must see that families have the capacity to adequately care for their children and help them grow up in healthy ways. When parents have been raised in chaos, they lack skills to provide this for their children and must have someone provide it for them. Intergenerational violence and neglect, then, must be stopped at its roots by strengthening and supporting families that need maintenance and skills.

Sometimes children must be removed from extremely abusive, violent and neglectful homes, but supporting the families with services can be tried first. When children are well cared for, they are able to develop skills in a normal progression, including empathy, reasoning, logic, social relatedness, and coping. This is the path for preventing future violence among women.

We’ve all experienced the shock of watching stories like these on TV, but have you ever wondered why some seemingly ordinary people commit violent crimes? Would you be amazed to know that many of them could have been predicted and prevented if someone had seen the warning signs and intervened before it was too late? Would you like to know how you can protect your children from becoming either the victims or perpetrators of a violent crime? Do you need some way to measure youth violence risk?

Dr. Kathryn Seifert is a psychotherapist with over 30 years experience in mental health, addictions, and criminal justice work. Dr. Seifert has authored the CARE 2 and a parent and professional version of “How Children Become Violent.” The parent version has an orange cover and a kindle book on Amazon. She speaks nationally on mental health related topics and youth violence. She is an expert witness in the areas of youth and adult violence and sexual offending. Get her free email newsletter at She has appeared on EBRU TV’s Bullying in America and appeared on the Discovery Channel ID Program, Wicked Attractions.

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