Having completed his freshman year of college, Robert eagerly looked forward to a summer trip to Europe with his favorite uncle. After returning home from college to an apartment where he lived with his mother and two sisters, he prepared for his flight to London. He and his uncle were on the phone putting the final touches on their travel itinerary. Distracted by his mother and sisters’ chatter, Robert walked out to a quad that is centered within their rectangular-shaped apartment complex to finalize their vacation plans.
It was not to be. Stanley, a 38-year-old apartment resident, walked over to Robert and stabbed him in the back of the neck, killing him instantly.
Stanley’s defense attorney retained me to conduct a forensic psychological evaluation on his client and offer an opinion on whether Stanley was insane at the time of the killing. The motivation that led to the tragedy was easy to discern. Stanley had a long history of schizophrenia. During the weeks prior to the stabbing, he had been held up in his apartment, tormented by auditory hallucinations. The voices were of the most virulent kind, telling him he was: “Scum, a baby killer.” They commended, “Die! Kill yourself!” He told me that, after days of relentless torment, “I wanted to get it out. To kill somebody like they [the hallucinations] wanted me dead.” Stanley was overwhelmed by a psychosis that decimated his powers of reasoning and judgment.
I did not find Stanley to be insane. He knew what he was doing at the time of the killing. He was psychotic, which is a mitigating factor. He was convicted of second-degree murder.
Often, the motivations behind many homicides appear beyond comprehensible. A father with no psychiatric history shoots and kills his wife and children before turning the Glock on himself. His neighbors were stunned with disbelief. They tell news reporters that the family kept to themselves, but the father seemed normal. The usual explanations offered by the media and law enforcement officials as the drivers behind violent tragedies so frequently fall flat, given the enormity of the event. Unemployment, stress, financial problems, depression—these are all-too-common problems to provide vivid explanations. One is left wondering: How can this happen? What made him do it? He must have been “crazy.”
Consider Salvador Ramos, the teenager who shot to death 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. He had no history of psychiatric disturbance. There were signs of family instability, his parents were separated and he lived with his grandmother. But this is the case with many young men. Yet they don’t wake up one morning, shoot their grandmother in the face, and go on a wanton killing spree. We’re left with the same puzzling question, “Why?”
A Sense of Victimhood
To understand seemingly irrational violence requires a deep dive into the perpetrator’s psychological life, where there is an interior logic born from a thought process and dynamic that is stitched together with distorted assumptions and intense and unmoored emotions. Unlike Stanley, most of these killers do not suffer from a psychotic disorder. But they do have something in common that fueled their violence: that “something” is a sense of victimhood, along with a simmering grievance mentality. Stanley was victimized by his schizophrenia, whereas these other killings, more often than not, are the result of a rage-filled psychological state of mind.
Consider Payton Dendron, another 18-year-old man, who killed 10 African Americans in a Buffalo supermarket. Before the onslaught, he posted an unhinged screed about how white people are being replaced and dominated by minorities. He expressed admiration for the white supremacist Brenton Harrison Tarrant who murdered 51 people at mosques in New Zealand in 2019. He was motivated by an odious resentment powered by the conviction that white Christians are being replaced by Jews and Muslims.
It’s not only high-profile killers who are driven by this sense of victimhood. I evaluated a middle-aged man who felt victimized by the financial and custodial arrangements imposed by the family court. A phone call with his ex-wife left him feeling disrespected and shamed. Already obsessed with the conviction that he has been fleeced and exploited by both his wife and the court system, he decided “enough is enough.” He drove to her house and shot her and her girlfriend to death as they sat having coffee together.
Feeling resentment and slighted are common if not universal emotional reactions. Most of us cope effectively with perceived unfairness. But some among us don’t. Certain personality types perceive themselves as misunderstood victims, and some of them have the potential to descend down a dark and malignant rabbit hole.
Personality Characteristics Associated With Interpersonal Victimhood
Research has identified at least four personality characteristics of those with a tendency toward interpersonal victimhood:
- A penchant to ruminate, These individuals are laser-focused on the causes of their distress and its consequences. Their fantasy life is angry in its content, which could become a prelude to aggression or violence.
- Diminished empathic ability, Individuals with a victimhood style of functioning do not understand how other people think and feel, only how they perceive the world. Such a self-absorbed perspective creates the belief that their suffering is unique. A consequent sense of entitlement develops that can lead to aggressive behavior.
- Entitlement and poverty of empathic understanding breed a sense of moral superiority, This allows one to view others as “less than” and as not fully human, an attitude that is frequently a prelude to interpersonal violence.
- Individuals with this victimhood style have a tremendous need to be recognized and to have the uniqueness of their pain validated by others.
We can see many of these characteristics in the profiles of recent high-profile murders. Ramos, the Uvalde killer, had a social media reputation for being belligerent and misanthropic and for feeling misunderstood. He wanted to be well-known, once telling his fellow teens that someday everybody will know him.
He now lives in infamy.