DEFINING DEVIANCE DOWN: MAD OR JUST BAD?

Deviance has been on my mind quite a lot lately. Law and disorder, crime and punishment, deviancy and normalcy – it’s a weedy garden this Eden I inhabit. Not surprising I suppose. I have probably spent too much time starring into the Abyss.

Some people are fascinated by extreme deviant behavior such as Karla Homolka’s -(see earlier posts “Finding Karla”(PT 1,2,& 3) or my book “Karla: A Pact with the Devil” now for sale in the States for the first time.)

Something a bit strange to me is how desperately everyone wants a cogent explanation for incoherent acts. We want to know why someone who is ostensibly just like us could commit such heinous acts.

As I wrote in the first chapter of “Karla,” “There are abiding mysteries in Life such as who cleft the Devil’s foot or what songs the Sirens sang?” It has always been my considered opinion that extreme deviancy is just that kind of mystery – abiding.

As people familiar with this particular case know, by 2003, Karla had been examined by at least sixteen psychiatrists and psychologists, the majority of whom diagnosed her as a battered woman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. (That is the official explanation, the one the Justice system accepted but spparently few laypersons concur.)

I continued: “A few contrarians diagnosed her as a psychopath.” Now that’s something many people readily accepted, except technically, by the definition of this so called extreme “personality disorder” as delineated by the DSM-IV-TR and the Hare Checklist (which was administered Karla at least three times by three different “experts”, Karla is not a psychopath.)

“One honest man described her as a ‘diagnostic mystery.’(No more satisfying a concluson than abiding mysteries.) Regardless, the more Karla is studied the more mysterious and inexplicable her past behavior becomes.”

This statement remains as true today as it was when I wrote it. After all, Karla is now a mother of three young children with a thriving online business and a doting husband who divides her time between Montreal and Guadeloupe, a French protectorate in the Caribbean. (Nice life if you can get it.)

The other day I stumbled across an old article I had clipped years ago that comes at deviancy as though it is possible to explain. (Deviancy takes many forms and shapes not just the most extreme such as Karla’s crimes manifest.)

Written by Charles Krauthammer “The Indictment of Ozzie and Harriet” was first published in The New Republic in 1993 and one of the things it strongly suggests is professional explainers such as the psychiatrists and psychologists who tried to explain Karla are at the very root of a much larger conceptual problem than whether Karla was mad or just bad.

In the article Krauthammer, an American Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, political commentator, and physician, also sometimes classified as a Neocon, starts by ruminating on an essay he read in The American Scholar” by Daniel Patrick Moynihan entitled “Defining Deviancy Down.” This article is all the more interesting because Moynihan was a life-long influential Democrat and scholar.

Monyihan’s essay argued that deviancy had become an epidemic.

Deviance had reached such incomprehensible proportions that we adopted a unique form of denial that significantly lowered the threshold for what we were prepared to call normal. This in order to keep “the volume of deviancy within manageable proportions.” Obtuse, perhaps, but interesting.

For example: In the thirty some odd years between 1960 and 1993 the incidence of single parenthood had tripled. Almost 30 percent of all North American children in the early 90s were born to unmarried mothers.

“The relationship of fatherlessness to poverty, welfare dependency, crime and other pathologies points to a monstrous social problem” in both Monyihan’s and Krauthammer’s opinion. Obama was born too late. Those were the days when Democrats and Republicans took each other’s ideas seriously.

Moynihan’s second example was crime.

According to Moynihan “we” have become totally inured to levels of criminality considered intolerable in 1960. He gave the example of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre even though it only involved four thugs killing seven other thugs it became the iconic definition of atrocity for an earlier generation.

Whereas in 1992 seven to ten homicides were the tally on an average weekend in Los Angeles.

Monyihan’s last example was mental illness. In the 1990s there had been no noticeable increase in mental illness; that rates of schizophrenia had not changed, but the rate of hospitalization for schizophrenia and other psychoses had dropped – dramatically. In 1955 there were 93,000 diagnosed patients in New York State asylums, in 1992, 11,000.

Where did the remaining 82,000 inmates “and their descendants” go? In one generation a tsunami of mentally ill people flooded the streets of North American cities.

These refugees from the asylum have been systematically redefined as “the homeless”. Today, we routinely step over them sleeping in doorways and over warming grates in the middle of the street. They are now accepted as part of the cityscape, but universally described as folks who lack affordable housing.

Legions of professional helpers, intellectuals and most egregiously, Moynihan and Krauthammer say, “the mass media,” ubiquitous colluders in all degeneration, have defined deviance down by describing it’s manifestations as “lifestyle choices” The homeless are not crazy or sick they’re just very poor – “as if anyone crazy and sick and abandoned would not end up very poor.”

Here’s his point that remains relevant. With what Krauthammer and Moynihan describe as “the moral deregulation of the sixties,” we had an “explosion of deviancy in family life, criminal behavior and public displays of psychosis. “We have dealt with it by redefining deviancy to make “normal” what a more “civilized, ordered and healthy society would have labeled – and did label – deviant.”

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6 thoughts on “DEFINING DEVIANCE DOWN: MAD OR JUST BAD?

  1. I’m not sure, by this article, if I’m confused, you’re confused, or we both are. I’m not certain whether – or where – you agree with Moynihan &/or Krauthammer, or disagree.

    (The following appears to be ‘lecturing at’ instead of ‘responding to’, for which I apologize; it’s my own attempt to think this through.)

    I will say – coming from my own perspective here whereby instead of “staring into the abyss”, I spent my childhood ‘staring out of it’ and have spent the remainder of my life trying to extricate myself – that I believe you’re mistaken about some of the fundamentals. Not many of the fundamentals, but enough that it causes you angst when you stare at it. And perhaps gives a lack of clarity, where clarity is required.

    Inside the abyss is the hell that ‘normal’ people, who haven’t been forced by circumstance to stand up to it, must contemplate. They’ve seen enough evidence to know that it exists, and know they don’t know enough about it to protect themselves should they accidentally fall in. And it’s true – lots of people accidentally fall in when they’re caught unawares. Some of them are better equiped for that journey than others: “Some things are worth dying for.”

    On the other hand, in my own particular circumstance and those of many others like me, inside that abyss – in that hell – is a childhood growing up with a sneering, snarling, salivating, sexually abusive, sadistic, savage mother like Karla, and a lifetime of indifference and betrayal by those who had more than enough opportunity to intervene, but for various reasons chose not to. Many of whom chose instead to latch onto the barest pretense of decency that my mother carelessly donned as justification for their inaction. Who looked at the figure draped in white curly wool, with big grey ears, a long grey tail, and fangs dripping with blood peeking out from underneath and still said: “Look! See? Lamb.” Who saw the blood and instantly jumped to the ‘knowledge’ that she was a victim who needed rescue and assistance. And who proved all too willing to extend the hand of retribution to those who would disturb their peace by making untoward accusations of evil intent to the woman in the lamb cape.

    Now that I’ve had enough time and distance to know that I’m well and truly physically out of the abyss (or at least far enough removed from it that it is no longer a daily physical threat from the outside) I’m left to deal with the emotional and psychological aspects that stick to you like slime, pollute your insides like a persistent fungus or bacteria, and rot your life like a bad apple left in the barrel.

    For those of us coming from similar backgrounds to my own, unless you are one of the ‘born bad’ or ‘born mad’ contingent you spend your life spending vast reserves of energy just trying to be good people. To live decent lives that positively contribute to our concentric circles of influence. Unfortunately, to do that we have to keep up with those who’ve had the good fortune to have been raised and trained for ‘normal’ existance. We don’t have to do that for their sake (the ‘normal’ ones – by which we mean ‘healthy and pro-social’), we must do that so that we are no longer targeted, stalked, attacked, and then discarded by the anti-socials that walk amongst the normals. The ones who pick up on and then take out the disadvantaged. The ones who gain societal advantage by convincing the unwitting ‘normals’ to “define deviance down”.

    Believe it or not, staring back into the abyss through the eyes and words of courageous people like you, who are willing to look evil straight in the face and try to figure it out (as much as you seemingly disparage those who want to do likewise: “Something a bit strange to me is how desperately everyone wants a cogent explanation for incoherent acts”) and then tell the rest of the world about it, helps. From that safe physical distance we can take your words and try to figure out just what the hell we were all dealing with. Because figuring that out is the key to whether or not you’re able to cast it out of your life; you have to figure out where the hidden ‘hooks’ are first. Same thing applies regardless of whether evil hooks onto you from your childhood, or whether you stumbled into a nest of it as an adult. Figuring it out so you can unhook it and cast it off is the secret to getting away from it.

    “We want to know why someone who is ostensibly just like us could commit such heinous acts.”

    Ahhh, here’s the secret – don’t you see? The people who’ve chosen (and take it from someone who’s escaped the abyss – in many cases, perhaps most, it IS at least partially a choice) to turn to their dark side are NOT “just like us”. They’ve been doing a very skillful job lately at convincing everyone that they are. But they’re not. If you look just a little deeper the answers become obvious. Any ‘conclusions’ telling you that it’s everyone – that you shouldn’t point fingers because you too could be accused – are rigged. There is a finger on the scale somewhere.

    There is a profound difference between people who are too naive or too frightened to withstand the influence to do unethical acts, and those who plan them. And even they are in turn fundamentally different than those who would proactively plan and enjoy the suffering of an innocent other. Those people would have you believe that they are no different than those who would strike back in pain and anger. Believe me – they are. Don’t let anyone convince you that you could do likewise.

    There’s an easy test (but this requires watching over time instead of taking the first impression): put a suffering or vulnerable human or animal in front of someone and watch how they react. With genuine sympathy ? With excitement? With anger or indifference? With fear? You don’t have to actually create the situation, sometimes it works just by describing it. Awful people who embrace horrible things will let you know, if you only ask.

    But there is another angle here – that I believe you’re trying to grasp with your post. It’s not the people who choose to DO evil that are so much the problem here. It’s the people who choose to SUPPORT those who do evil who are the biggest problem. The ones who watch the visible actions which are the tip of the iceberg when someone tortures or torments another, who are then told “It’s none of your business” or “It’s not so bad” and turn around and think “Okey dokey, then.” Or even worse, the ones who say: “Ooh – violence. Let’s get some popcorn.” THOSE are the people who mess with justice and natural law. Criminals get to be criminals because they started small and tested out the limits by doing small unethical acts, and the people around them who should have been protecting and guiding them either responded with “Good for you!” or “Okey dokey then.”

  2. BTW, the only reason Karla isn’t “officially” a psychopath is because Hare is completely biased against the very idea that women can commit evil, and didn’t bother to study violence and aggression in over half the population, and therefore didn’t include female-specific character assessments in his criteria. It would appear that he himself had a loving mother and was all too easily by swayed by our current ‘mother’ mythology.

    He created his definition and criteria by studying violent incarcerated males in maximum security detention. He himself says that he erred, and if he had to do it over again would have started with people (men, of course) in the Vancouver Stock Exchange. Just because Hare himself couldn’t countenance the very thought of pathological women and therefore excluded them from his criteria doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Anyone with a brain who hasn’t been brainwashed by our current cult of ‘motherhood’ and ‘violence against women’ can see that the ‘psychopath’ shoe fits Karla just fine. And I’m not talking Cinderella here. Well, not unless his proper name was ‘Prince’ Jean-Paul Gerbet, and the test was previously worn underwear instead of a previously worn shoe…

    • Hare is a crackpot. And irrelevant. It is the FBI criteria for serial offences that holds sway: Any individual regardless of gender who commits three (3) or more similar crimes is designated a serial offender. Therefore Karla is not a serial killer or “manslaughter” as she was only “convicted” of two counts. That is one proactive thing her lawyer George Walker did for her: make sure that she did not have a 3rd charge of manslaughter added to her record for her sister’s rape and murder rather 2 extra years added to the original 10. This was a big deal. It’s all in the books.

      • (My apologies in advance for the rant which follows, and my arguments which don’t quite connect.)

        As for Hare’s definitions being irrelevant, I agree with you that the FBI criteria is what’s relevant in terms of how we categorize offenders post-conviction. The maneuvering by Mr. Walker to avoid that label for Karla was certainly a feather in his cap, but to the detriment of society. But I understand the considerations used by the FBI to get to that point are, if not dependant on, at least in synch with Hare’s criteria.

        Where those criteria are disturbingly relevant, imo, is in whom the FBI – and in our case Canadian Law Enforcement – decide to focus their investigative and prosecutory efforts in the first place. It’s rarely on female offenders. In fact, I believe that it was largely based on Roy Hazelwood’s work that the rationale for Karla’s deal was made. For another view on that I appreciated Patricia Pearson’s opinion in her book “When She Was Bad”, where she learned to her alarm and disgust that the FBI’s “official” position was that there were no female serial killers prior to recent decades (prior to Wiornos, if I remember correctly – her book is buried in storage boxes in my basement at the moment so I can’t look it up). The truth is that there have always been, and always will be, a large number of female serial killers (and other female offenders) who we never care to investigate. Who, not so coincidentally, average larger kill numbers and operate longer without detection than your average male serial killers – with the exception of HK serial killers who can be either gender. Pearson has documented why they are continually overlooked in the criminology and law enforcement training and literature – including the FBI – partly (primarily?) because they tend to pick ‘low status’ or pre/post/non-verbal victims whose cases are difficult to prosecute.

        In relation to your post “defining deviance down” the more we do that – the larger the pool of victims we consider ‘irrelevant’ and not worth the bother to prosecute on behalf of, and the larger the pool of abusers whose behaviours we excuse – the more we create unjust conditions which can only foster more abusive/assaultive behaviour in society. And the more victims AND offenders we create. This is especially true in the case of Karla, and women offenders like her. How else, for example, to explain the lack of prosecution of this case: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/son-sickened-by-no-charges-in-nursing-home-abuse-case-1.1700283 ?

        That PSW’s behaviour *should be* considered criminal all on its own, but really, if we use our brains, how ‘isolated’ do we really believe her behaviour is? Do we honestly believe that this was not deserving of further investigation? Do we really believe this was ‘just’ a one time occurrence (actually, there were several encounters caught on tape, so we already know it wasn’t)? Do we think that this PSW wouldn’t, or more importantly HASN’T, done this to others before? Do we think that someone exhibiting this behaviour wouldn’t do this to other patients, their own children, grand-children, children they babysit, etc…? Of course we don’t. We just, as a society, can’t be bothered to follow up. In my opinion, to a large degree we can’t be bothered because the abuser is female.

        More disturbingly, do we think that that behaviour WOULDN’T OR COULDN’T be an indicator of worse behaviour that we just didn’t happen to see at this particular moment, on this particular tape? I always hear great weeping and wailing whenever a major criminal is caught – with seemingly anguished cries of ‘How could no-one have known?’, and ‘Why didn’t someone say or DO something?’ THIS is why. Because major criminals DO show small signs (or large signs but to small numbers of people) that no-one with authority wants to hear about and can’t be bothered to follow up on. How do we think Ariel Castro, or Eva Bottineau, or Karla would look in their workplace with a ‘preferred victim’ in hand, when they thought no-one was looking? I’d warrant they’d look a lot like this, and that ANY TIME we see behaviour like this we should take it seriously, prosecute it for what we CAN see, and investigate to see what else may be there that we haven’t seen – yet.

        I’m open to arguments here, but I believe If we would properly prosecute the smaller acts of violence when we see them (by ANYONE regardless of group affiliation, and particularly when they’re associated with humiliation and degradation), we could actually stand a chance of preventing that person’s descent into wholesale acts of horror which victimize entire societies.

      • You seem to come at it from a decidedly uptopian POV. I do not have a POV. POV’s are dangerous. They muddy the waters. Further, you say “the more you define deviance down…” And you use “us” and say things such as “if we would…” It’s not me and certainly not “us” or “we” who have defined it down, probably not even “them”, its societal and psychological forces and the tic, tic, tock of time against which no individual or group has any power that have devolved in the way I (and the two other guys who wrote the article I’m referring to in this post) try to suggest it, and I’m grasping at a description of change and the agents of change that perhaps defies description.

        The Slovenian philosopher Slavoy Zizek writes about “immature utopian expectations”. The word “expectation” is interchangeable with “impulses” or “wishes”. If “wishes were horses… ” How does that old cliche go? Zizek also said “Evil resides in the critical gaze which perceives evil all around it.” Perhaps I’m being unfair. There’s a tail end to this rumination about defining deviance down that I haven’t posted yet. Dylan said it best: “All the tired horses in the sun, how ‘m I supposed to get any writing done?” The ‘bon mot’ always eludes me in the summers.

        Mao said “There is great disorder under heaven, the situation is excellent.” I think that pretty much sums it up. If allegory still worked in my medieval tale Police and Attorneys General would be Mao.

        PS – Who is a PSW?

        PPS – I read something about someone who wanted to urge their fellow citizens to pay more attention to the “increasing tryanny of the police in our communities.” Oh yeah, it was a letter to the editor in the September 2 issue of the New Yorker. It was a comment on an article in the previous months’ issue about “civil forfeiture” and police arrest tactics. I’m afraid that caution is so much dust in the wind. Some one already left the barn door open. We are all thoroughly ensconced in a totalitarian democracy, the subjects of tyrannical policing.

        PPPS – I wrote a review of that book of Pearson’s once a long time ago. I believe it was for the Ottawa Citizen? Maybe I should dig it up and post it.

  3. Interesting. Not that I disagree (I don’t know enough to have an opinion either way, but I have heard vague rumours), but I’m wondering what you mean by “Hare is a crackpot”? I’d be very interested to hear more, if you’d care to elaborate.

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