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Getting On : Literature Reviews

Guilty By Reason of Insanity

from Seismograph - Wednesday, November 16, 2005
accessed 1392 times

I recently read a book titled “Guilty by Reason of Insanity,” by Dorothy Otnow Lewis, M.D. The book discusses what she learned while studying the minds of violent killers during the course of 25 years of work. At the risk of failing to convey the full import of her work, these are some passages that struck me. They are presented here in an entirely disjointed fashion and interspersed willy-nilly with my stream-of-consciousness ramble about some associations they provoked. I apologize in advance to those of you who you read it for not writing a smoother dissertation. I am not sure when I’d get around to that and I wanted to go ahead and post in case anybody was interested.

Please note that because of the material it discusses, some might find the book (and this article) disturbing. I also want to clarify that this is a look at the dark end of the spectrum. I understand that there are different shades of the color and that the canvas is not a solid or uniform block. The parts of my childhood the book evoked are the spots that bear the deeper shades, rather than those where I might say the "Magic Painter" failed to notice that his brush was low on paint.

The page numbers below refer to the paperback edition (Ivy Books, May 1, 1999, ISBN: 0804118876), which I got at:


The author, a psychiatrist, grew up asking herself questions much like one that I have also pondered. Especially since this January, I have tried to understand, as she puts it, “why one person cried out in pain while another lashed out in response to it.” [74] For me, a third part of this question is why some people lash out, but not at others -- at themselves.


The passage of time distances me in some ways from the abuse I endured as a child in the Family. But something else also happens that is strange, the more rooted I am in this world, and the less disenfranchised. I wonder if this has happened to others. It seems that the further I move from having been used to that treatment and from knowing nothing else, the harder it is to fathom the subjugation I was under. The harder it is, emotionally or intellectually, to grasp that that was me but this is me and not to become utterly dizzied by the contrast. Am I the only one who has felt this? That in some ways it becomes harder, instead of easier, to reconcile current existence and enjoyment of the full attributes of personhood with the indignity of circumstances then? Unlike what the cult likes to say, this difficulty arises more keenly the better my life is now.

Recently Montel Williams called Caryn’s experience, which she recounted on his show, a “Tale of Two Lives.” I think that is a fitting thought.


The author puts it eloquently:

“I frequently admit to my young patients -- children who are presently enduring the casual maliciousness of their classmates and siblings -- that I would not be a child for anything in the world. The pain is too intense as a child, one is helpless to do much about it. My patients look at me suspiciously. You mean you were picked last for the team? I nod yes. They feel better. [17] The older we are, the more control we have over our lives, the less buffeted we are by the casual or deliberate maliciousness of those around us. I guess as we mature we also don’t need to be loved by everybody -- one or two people will do. Still, the question had been planted and remained: Why do some people when hurt or angry, just lose it while others don’t?” [21]


If I am able to access some equanimity when the memories and the contrast seem too hard to bear, it seems to come from reminding myself that I now have control over so many aspects of my life over which I used to be powerless (though this fact is more easily known than felt). By this time, years away from my escape, I have discovered a number of things that I enjoy.

The trick is accessing the well-being when the feelings -- sadness or other painful emotions -- become too strong. Sometimes it is not as simple as just going to an ATM of relief. But I find that with effort, I can console myself by thinking of the good things I have found and reminding myself that they are there and will still be around tomorrow. When I am in the thick of it, I may be unable to make the right now any better. However, sometimes I am better able to take right now’s rotten feelings when I know that I will have those good things -- even if it must be later. And WILL have the great “moments of reprieve” again, even though I may not know when they will come. I have a degree of control over my own life now, and between the stretches of doing what I have to do, I can seek out those things that I want to do, unlike before.


Dr. Otnow Lewis says something that I wish the cult understood, and which I might summarize for the benefit of their dense propagandists as “anger at being mistreated does not equal violence”:

“As a child, I wished to get even, to destroy my tormentors. At the same time, I wondered what kept me from acting on those homicidal wishes and fantasies. How come some people punched out their enemies, even killed them, while others --like me-- walked away, went home and cried?” [18]

During the course of her training, Dr. Otnow Lewis observed court proceedings involving juveniles. Her initiatives eventually led to the founding of a Juvenile Court Clinic in Connecticut, where she became familiar with juvenile delinquency and its attending circumstances. “Gradually,” she writes, “during my years at the Juvenile Court Clinic, a constellation was beginning to emerge of the different vulnerabilities and experiences that, interacting with each other, created violent children. I was gathering clues; I was discovering why one person cried out in pain while another lashed out in response to it.” [74]

What the author found, after years of studying killers and the “seemingly senseless” murders they committed, is probably best summed up as follows:

“Normal people can’t do things like that. Most of us are too squeamish to kill another human being, except in self-defense. It seems to take intense, repeated, intolerable pain in early life, and some sort of organic impairment or psychotic thinking to overcome that taboo.” [321]

Or as she said in a 90-second sound byte she was given on CBS Morning News (“little time for little children, I figured”), “children were not born assassins, and that even in the case of young children, neurologic and psychiatric problems coupled with a violent, abusive upbringing often bred violence.” [84]


The case of one of her young patients comes way too close to my childhood memories for comfort, in describing the effects of prolonged abuse and neglect punctuated by a coup de grâce of sexual violation. “[I]t was the relentless assaults of father number three, not just upon his body but also on his very soul, that fractured forever whatever had made Johnny a whole person.” [218]

I doubt I am alone in thinking, when I hear that phrase, of some who have slipped away. Friends going, going… and then one day they are gone. My own painful truth is that the “relentless assaults” of the Family’s child raising methods I knew (the ‘70’s to early ‘90’s) definitely fractured “whatever had made [me] a whole person.” The only question is whether “it” is “fractured forever.” I know that I work very hard at repairing “it”; maybe that in itself is an indicator of hope. I guess that by hanging in there another day I am actually operating on the assumption that it is not fractured beyond repair. Soon, weeks become months and eventually years; hard work turns into a degree, a job; experience teaches me how to make and maintain friendships. One day I notice that a decade has passed, and on I still go.

And maybe it doesn’t actually matter whether it’s reparable or not, but only that I have not entirely foreclosed the possibility of repair. Maybe that is what makes the difference between a hurt, damaged person going on to “lose it” altogether and others mustering all the dignity we can to live in civilization on an ongoing basis.


The author’s position, as the title suggests, is not that the people she studied are innocent of the crimes for which they are being tried. Although her work on killers was done on behalf of their defense and not the prosecution, and she points out some true disconnects in the legal system, she does not maintain that the violent people she studied should escape without consequences.

The author writes that her research partner, neurologist Dr. Jonathan Pincus, had “few misgivings” about the death penalty (and at the outset of their collaboration, “no qualms” at all). She, on the other hand, was “haunted by the prospect of condemning to death a person whose upbringing and brain function have made it hard, if not impossible, for him to control his acts,” while granting that “the person may be a menace” and that she has “no problem locking him up forever and throwing away the key. Until we know how to treat such individuals, the public must be protected.” [11, 12]

At the same time, the author is sensitive to what I might dub the “there but for the grace of God go I” factor -- I might even say humbly so:

“The brain is not as resilient as we might wish. It’s not just the batterings that take their toll, or the car accidents and brain infections. We now know that intense, ongoing emotional stress can change the very structure of our brain, much less its function. No one is immune. It could happen to any of us.” [323]


There are some brain problems, it turns out, that can be more easily identified with a scan or a neurological examination, or that are pretty clearly linked to specific injuries. But not all of the brain problems that affected the killers she interviewed were as amenable to attribution.

The Dr. asks: “How does one tease out the psychological consequences of being tortured, or sodomized, or neglected, from the physical consequences? What does chronic terror do physiologically to the growing brain? It can’t be good. There is some evidence that severely traumatized animals pour out hormones that actually alter the anatomy of their brains. Too much cortisol seems to damage the hippocampus, that part of the limbic system where scientists think long-term memories are processed and stored.” [290]

What she says next was counterintiuitive. “Forensic psychiatrists to the contrary notwithstanding, crazy people can plan diabolical acts. In fact, we have found that the grisliest murders are plotted, planned and perpetrated by the most psychotic killers. Delusional thoughts and beliefs can give rise to carefully orchestrated homicide.” [290, 291]

But it turns out that the killers she and her colleague met “usually would rather be thought bad than nuts.” [129]


I am not sure that the following will come as a surprise to this audience, but I do wish a good journalist would put the following to the MyConclusion audience or a Family spokesperson: compare the Family’s assertion that “[…] acts of violence are virtually unheard of in Family communities” ( with the documented treatment of second-generation children and youth in Victor programs (see, e.g., When they tout the wonderful childhoods they provided to their “most precious possession,” ask them what they think about the following, and whether it causes them to reflect at all on their demand that we all just “forget the past” (indeed, when you live with the sequelae daily, how is it all in the past?):

“What fascinates me most is the fact that brain concentrations of substances like serotonin are not immutable. They are not simply genetic givens -- experience affects them. Certain kinds of stressors can decrease brain serotonin levels and thereby change behavior. For example, if you isolate young animals at crucial developmental stages, if you keep them caged all alone, their serotonin drops. What is more, if you then release them and put them in contact with other animals, they are fiercely aggressive. Pain and fear also reduce serotonin levels and promote aggression. That’s how pit bulls are trained to fight. Heat, crowding, discomfort and upbringing by aggressive members of a species also increase animal aggressiveness.” [326, 327]

“A certain amount of fear is necessary for survival,” she notes. “On the other hand, too much can make us dangerous.” [325]


Early on in the book, the author recounts one of her first interviews with a juvenile killer whose name was Lee Anne Jameson. Although the psychiatrist was there to help her, she wrote that trying to interview Lee Anne “reminded me of the war movies I had seen as child, of the Nazis interrogating American prisoners. Lee Anne volunteered nothing. She limited her responses to “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am,” making me feel that each of my questions was an assault on her inalienable right of privacy. […] Perhaps she was afraid of me. Whatever the explanation, Lee Anne had secrets and was not about to relinquish them to me.” [40]

The social workers and doctors that met “me” when I was in the cult as a minor would have realized something similar -- if they had known anything at all about childhood in a “high-demand organization.” Of course, had they realized that they may still not have cared about my fate.

Later, the book recounts the psychiatrist’s interview with the girl’s mother. “Wanda Jameson sounded to me exactly like those accounts in the New York Post of neighbors interviewed the day after a child has slaughtered his entire family. ‘Mrs. Jones, who lived next door, described the boy as a quiet lad, a good boy. He always took the garbage out for his mother.’” Then I read something that hit me in the gut:

“I was frustrated and angry. Why wouldn’t this woman help her own daughter? It just didn’t make sense. Years would pass, and Jonathan and I would evaluate many more Lee Annes, before we would come to appreciate how much the families of children who murder have to hide. Only after Jonathan and I had evaluated a group of juveniles condemned to death, after we had tried to talk with their parents, their brothers and their sisters, struggled in vain to reconstruct their pasts, would we understand that many of these families would rather see their children put to death than reveal what happened behind the closed doors of childhood. What is more, we would find that many of the adolescents themselves preferred death to exposing their abusive parents. And even after having recognized this peculiar phenomenon, it would take us years to develop ways to penetrate or get around the ingenious barricades to communication that young murderers and their kin instinctively know how to erect.” [42, 43]

She tells the story of parents who say everything was fine in their daughter’s childhood, but then let slip histories of violence, testifying against their daughter in the end. Or the story of three brothers of a jailed killer. One, who the author nicknames “preppy” and who is struggling mightily to have a normal life, claims not to remember anything, until the other two brothers recount their memories and it comes flooding back. The brothers were so distraught they were unable to show up for the next day’s appointment at the jailhouse. One, who had previously quit drinking, had fallen spectacularly off the wagon that night. Another had a disabling bout of asthma.


Another passage reminds me of the some of the adults I was in contact with growing up in Family communes, particularly those who most bought into the folie en famille :

“The parents of children coming through the court had a host of psychiatric and medical problems similar to those of their children. In fact, these very problems often led to their addictions, messed up their thinking, loosened their controls, and in short, made them unable to function as parents. If discipline was a problem for them, as the books said, it was not an issue of too little but rather of too much and the wrong kind. They were harsh. These parents were too enthusiastic about meting out punishments. And again, the most aggressive delinquents I saw tended to have been the most severely disciplined.” [74]

Johnny, a killer raised by his grandparents, muses during a dissociative episode “[h]is grandmother and grandfather put all their love into Johnny. “Too much love, too much love…” [266]

Of her death row patients, the author came to learn that “their similarly primitive, impulsive parents had raised them in the only fashion they knew. They battered them. They used them sexually. They sold their child bodies to buddies in exchange for drugs or food or money” (unlike my parents, who let their children to “shepherds,” “brothers” and “sisters” in exchange for some kind of religious payoff). “They neglected them. […] These brutish parents had set the stage on which our condemned subjects now found themselves playing out the final act. […] But in spite of their efforts to destroy them, the children had lived to adulthood. They had lived to perpetrate on others the violence that had been visited upon them. That’s how traditions get started. Now the state, in loco parentis, was about to finish the job the mothers and fathers had bungled.” [212]


In a class some years ago I learnt that the Latin root of the word “infant” is an adjective that denotes lack of a capacity for speech.

Although for most of us the disability of “infancy” wanes by definition as we grow up, at certain times I seem to relapse. There have been times, when treated unfairly, that I felt like a cornered animal and words failed me just like in the nightmares where I cannot scream. I needed to defend myself (to people who do not necessarily subscribe to Job 9:20) but I was a deer in the headlights. In the same Montel show mentioned above, Don said it very well: “if somebody mistreats you or somebody exploits you, it'll bring you back to that place where you were abused as a child, where you were helpless, where you didn't have any recourse.”

There is even a Biblical reference that comes to mind (here I go again) “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” I am sure the cult did not intend, when suggesting Isaiah 53 for memorization, that I find there a haunting image of certain persecuted “problem case” siblings or peers, or of my own experience.

Even if an abused child were granted permission to speak, in a perilous childhood the experiences have a way of outpacing our development of vocabulary. Dr. Otnow Lewis writes:

“Psychiatry is a funny discipline. Size often dictates diagnosis, and of course, diagnosis dictates treatment. Mentally ill children have a tiny repertoire with which to make known their pain. Even the smartest are not articulate when it comes to expressing feelings. Children do things, they don’t say things. Sometimes they do pretty awful things.” [69]

Another thing I learned is the distinction between signs and symptoms, of which I was not previously aware: “[t]he problem with symptoms is that, unlike signs, you can’t see them. Symptoms must be verbalized. Even then, doctors have to be close enough to hear.” The diagnoses of big, violent patients, she explains, “often rest on signs, not symptoms.” This happens “because we doctors tend to keep our distance from big, violent patients and minimize the time we spend in their company.” [71]


This theme is a very intense subject for me. I have found so far that awareness only wins a part of the battle in this particular arena. Perhaps my greatest fear is of getting tired of swimming upstream (because that’s what it has taken to have a life thus far). Afraid of just going with the flow instead (which is how I would end up as Traumatic Testimony material). I fear the proportion of time I wear the old shoes gaining ground…

“[…] torture and humiliation had become a way of life; for all of them pain and degradation were an old pair of curiously comfortable shoes. Whenever they slipped into them they hurt, and yet they could not bring themselves to get rid of them. Over and over again, unaware of what they were doing or why, they reinvented the only lives they had ever known. [192]

I struggle to be less self-deprecating (yeah, turns out it’s not the best way to impress your capitalist bosses) and self-sabotaging. While I have gotten my feet in the water, and maybe I can even say I have progressed a little past my ankle by now, I still do not feel at home with success. Or even simple steadiness. There are certain areas of life where I have no blueprint for stability, much less happiness. To venture away from subservience is like walking in pitch darkness, it is so unknown.

While fleeing misery might seem the commonsensical thing to do, apparently it is easier said than done for many other fellow humans as well:

“Freud […] described the way we all tend to repeat or perpetuate the relationships we know. He called it repetition compulsion. […] we drag out the old game board, choose the most familiar pieces with which to play, and arrange and rearrange them in familiar patterns. Sometimes we find ourselves playing against ourselves. If we have been tortured as children, we do not merely root for the opposition; we become the opposition. We, the aggressors, try to beat ourselves at our own game.” [192]

Stockholm syndrome is thus taken to new levels. The hostages whose ordeal gave rise to the term “Stockholm Syndrome” had reached adulthood and presumably understood previously the concept of being attacked and that someone who attacks you is, by definition, not on your side. But what if you were taken hostage by your caretakers, your “guardians,” and the people who are supposed to be on your side are “in on it”? What if this happened at birth or in early childhood? And what if it lasted a heck of a lot longer than six days?


Just in case the term is unfamiliar to anyone, a look at the entry on Stockholm Syndrome in Wikipedia (I’m feeling lazy) gives the following information and background:

“The Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response of a hostage, or an individual in a hostage-like situation (e.g. dependent child, battered wife, etc) in which the more powerful person (captor, partner, child molester) (a) has the power to put the individual's life in danger or at least the power to worsen the individual's prospects for the future life, and (b) occasionally exercises this power in order to show that he or she is able to use it, if the victim will not conform to the more powerful person's will. The main symptom of the syndrome is the individual's seeming loyalty to the more powerful person in spite of the danger (or at least risk) that this loyalty puts them in.

The syndrome is named after the Norrmalmstorg robbery of Kreditbanken at Norrmalmstorg, Stockholm in which the bank robbers held bank employees hostage from August 23 to 28, 1973. In this case, the victims became emotionally attached to their victimizers and even defended their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal.”
( as of late afternoon (EPT) of 10/27/05. Underlined terms indicate hyperlinks in the entry.)

A linked Wikipedia entry on “Capture-Bonding” proposes an evolutionary psychology take on the syndrome. The entry quotes from a paper published in Human Nature Review (, titled “Sex, Drugs and Cults” by Keith Henson (who as an aside, has been tangling with Scientology for a while, apparently rather recklessly). In his paper, Henson writes:

“Fighting hard to protect yourself and your relatives is good for your genes, but when captured and escape is not possible, giving up short of dying and making the best you can of the new situation is also good for your genes. In particular it would be good for genes that built minds able to dump previous emotional attachments under conditions of being captured and build new social bonds to the people who have captured you. The process should neither be too fast (because you may be rescued) nor too slow (because you don't want to excessively try the patience of those who have captured you).”
( Full paper:


A while ago I read “The Inner World of Trauma,” by Donald Kalsched, who seeks to provide “insight into how an inner self-care system tries to save the personal spirit.” The book posits that “[t]rauma is about the rupture of those developmental transitions that make life worth living.” [from introduction]

What Kalsched found over and over in his patient’s inner lives, as depicted in their dreams, addictive patterns and such, was an internal figure that seemed to provide “inner meaning […] to the trauma victim when life-shattering events destroy outer meaning altogether.” The problem is that this figure “could play a protective or a persecutory role -- sometimes alternating back and forth between them.” Further, an encounter with this “tyrannical Protector/Persecutor” [63] “can involve either salvation or dismemberment.” [18]

What is meant by “unbearable” in the context of a trauma is that it “overwhelms the usual defensive measures […] described as a ‘protective shield against stimuli’” and often occurs in childhood “before a coherent ego (and its defenses) is formed” [sic ]. [1]

Kalsched says something that describes very well a feeling that I still deal with at times, but which was especially acute right after I took the plunge and ran away from a cult commune into the unknown. It was one of the ingredients of my terror of running into a Family member who could recognize me: “[t]he distinguishing feature of such trauma is […] ‘disintegration anxiety,’ an unnameable dread associated with the threatened dissolution of a coherent self.” [1]

I could too easily go on and on with “The Inner World of Trauma,” so I will cut this detour short. But I refer to this book because the author notes that certain “primitive” or “dissociative” defenses rarely “get any ‘credit,’ so to speak, for having accomplished anything in the preservation of the life of the person whose heart is broken by trauma.” The defenses he lists include: splitting, projective identification, idealization or diabolization, trance-states, switching among multiple centers of identity, depersonalization, psychic numbing, etc.; some of which I have a better notion of than others.
(Book information: published 1996, Routledge, London; see

Dr. Otnow Lewis found extreme examples of this dynamic taking place in the case of many of her patients. She started out skeptical, as was the rest of her profession at the time, regarding the existence of “multiple personality disorder.” [225] In hindsight, this changed for her -- at least inasmuch as many of the violent and severely traumatized patients she worked with were concerned. As she explains in discussing the case of Marie:

“I have discovered since then that violent alternate personalities are usually caricatures of evil; they are characters created in the minds of tormented children to take their pain and defend them against real or imagined enemies. They embody the strength, courage and wiliness needed for a tortured child to survive. They also keep the memories. Nevertheless, they are the construct of child minds. But then, in 1984, I saw only a fierce, intimidating young punk, determined to thwart my efforts to help Marie.” [181]

“When Marie did not retreat entirely from painful events and memories, fall into a waking sleep, and allow Billy to handle them, she simply split off the feelings from the events.” [190] “…[P]rotector personalities […] are entities called forth in early childhood by tortured children unable to endure their pain alone. How these beings are created, no one really knows. It looks to observers as though certain chronically abused children self-hypnotize; they remove themselves from the situation. They see what is happening, but do not feel it. It is as if it were happening to someone else -- someone else feels the pain and is strong enough to endure it. In time that someone else becomes a protector. Over the years, we have come to appreciate the ambivalent relationship that exists between protector personality states and the helpless children who created them. These protectors boast “I took the pain.” Then, in the next breath, they threaten to hurt maim, even kill the “wimp” whose pain they endured. They are contemptuous of the child they saved.” [194]

It is not easy to work around these patients’ protector personalities, for whom “Secrecy and safety […] are synonyms.” [193]

Beyond such commonalities, there is infinite diversity in the form of these conjured protectors. “The natures of these inner worlds -- their structures, their complexities -- are bounded only by the limits of human imagination, by the individual’s singular frame of reference.” [195]


The author makes an interesting observation that may be worth keeping in mind for professionals treating abused children who were raised in cults if they are suffering from a mental illness. The era of her medical training coincided with:

“[..] years of increasing awareness, a time when doctors were being trained to recognize ethnic and cultural differences. Unfortunately, some of us were so well trained, or so we thought, that we often dismissed the pathological hallucinations and delusions of many sick African-American and Hispanic children as normal religious experiences or cultural beliefs and we failed to treat them. White children, on the other hand, with the very same symptoms, were referred posthaste to child guidance clinics. So much for cultural awareness.” [56]

On the other hand, I think there is a flip side. At least there might be for children raised in cultures like the one where I grew up, where so much emphasis was put on the spirit world and channeling prophecy and the like. I think a clinician should be aware of the particular pressure that a child can find themselves under in such an atmosphere. For example, I remember being unable to fake speaking in tongues (much less actually speak in tongues), and how when I was a very young teenager this was interpreted as evidencing a lack of “infilling of the spirit” (for any laypeople reading this, that was not a compliment). In my opinion, which is informed by experience although not by any professional expertise, you could have a child who simulates these valued “peak” experiences convincingly, or maybe has even learned to “have” the experiences, but who is not mentally ill. I would be interested in hearing any thoughts on the matter.


Finally, in one particularly spooky chapter, Dr. Otnow Lewis recounts a condemned patient’s revelation of having been forced as a child to appear in pornography. But the producers had been careful:

“[…] the identity of the adults was protected. Only the kids were exposed […] I once heard a lecture by an FBI agent. He talked about how children used in pornography fear for the rest of their lives that their identities and the perverted acts they were once forced to perform will someday come to light. […] Johnny was not the first death row inmate, and would not be the last whom Jonathan and I saw, who preferred death to disclosure of his past.” [220]

I close with a profound bow to my brave fellow survivors who have been speaking out in the media and otherwise wielding bright flashlights to spook the monsters under the bed (hmm, I am trying to remember what was I scared of when I was just sleeping in a mattress on the floor, or a middle or top bunk?), not to mention the monsters who climbed in.

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from anovagrrl
Tuesday, August 29, 2006 - 19:48

Anyone who wants to get beyond the idiotic supersitions they were raised in TF to believe about the mind should take the time to read Seismograph's article, but be warned: This piece on the the brain science of trauma is not for the faint-hearted.
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