"Why They Kill" goes deep into the difficult realm of motivation, free will, and the effect of upbringing on the creation of the psyche itself. If you want to write abnormally violent characters, I think it's a must-read.
That's a telling point in just why he began his studies into criminology, and why he has had a success in discovering common risk factors overlooked or just plain misconstrued by researchers who had never been close to what they studied. Athens could, because of his own experience, develop a rapport with criminals, because he understood how to speak the same language and idiom.
And he has developed a theory of violent criminality that stems, much like Douglas's dissection of the serial murderer, from common factors in upbringing.
But he goes further, to look more deeply into just how we see the world, how we discern our own relationship to it, and what informs our decisions in that world.
Most significantly, he points to definite reasoning that makes me believe, as he does, that there is hardly ever such a thing as a true "crime of passion," something psychologists, pop- and otherwise, always try to make us believe is the basic key to violent behavior.
How many times have you heard the expressions, "in a moment of passion," "just lost control," "senseless crime..."
We want to believe that criminals are out of control, and it cripples our ability to understand why crimes happen.
Athens talks about his own observations, from interview after interview with violent offenders of both sexes, all classes and levels of education and privilege, that people DECIDE to be violent. It's the way that decision is made, the interpretations leading to it, that creates a violent response as opposed to some lesser, more socially acceptable means of answering a situation.
For example, Athens uses the example of a young man who is beaten up outside a liquor store. He returns with a weapon and ends up shooting and killing one of the gang, and wounding others.
Under Athens's questioning, he recreates his thought process leading up to the assault. It begins, strangely you might suppose, with the feeling that the people who beat him up deserve to be punished for their violence.
And it grows from there, as he works his way through a series of judgements about which gang members deserve punishment more than others, and how badly they deserve to be hurt.
This is scary stuff, not because it's so alien to the way you or I would approach a situation, but because it is just so similar. What is alien is the conclusions a criminal prone to violent response comes to as opposed to what we might choose.
I might walk away, or call the cops, or cry, or go into shock.
Beat me up enough times, though, and I might want to fight back.
Athens traces the process that can lead, for example, from a child who hears his mother being raped and tries to pretend it's a dream, to a man who rapes.
It's too easy and too tempting to make criminals either far too stupid or far too calculating. The real fascination for me is to get far enough into what really makes people commit violent acts to build characters who have a layer of truth underlying them. The more you understand about real crime and real criminals the better you will write them.
And the more you can tie criminal behavior to the behavior of human beings generally, and your target audience in particular, the more powerfully you'll affect them.
"Why They Kill" is scary because it shows how narrowly you and I may have missed becoming exactly what we fear most.
"Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist" - Richard Rhodes
"Violent Criminal Acts and Actors Revisited" - Lonnie Athens
"Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit" - John Douglas