The Missing Rooms of Yad Vashem - A Review of Dr. Jonathan Pincus’ Base Instincts: What Makes Killer
Updated: Dec 19, 2018
What “motivates” violent killers? What determines their behavior?
One of America’s deadliest mass shootings occurred this weekend. Everyone, I suspect, is tired of being sick when we hear about mass shootings. The loss of human life is awful; may all those who lost someone or were injured in the violence find healing. That a person could commit such a heinous act has all of us wondering about the fabric of our society in a time where it seems like things are generally starting to unravel. The implication from the popular discourse that inevitably ensues after every mass shooting is something like “some people are just crazy and dangerous, therefore the best thing we can do is either a) keep these people away, b) limit their access to weapons, or both.”
For a view of possible "more upstream" solutions, let's turn to Dr. Jonathan Pincus. He was an impressive neurologist with an impressive array of titles who examined over 150 extremely violent individuals and children. Most of his neurological interviewees had been on death row; it turns out he’s one of the people defense lawyers called to see if there are any mitigating legal factors that might help their clients avoid the death penalty. Over the decades he dedicated to the practice of neurology, he came to a basic conclusion about the origins of violence, and masterfully illustrates it in his book Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill.
But before I dive in, a caveat. I’ve made a habit of not shying away from potentially dark material, and of all the books I’ve read and films I’ve seen, this is one of the darkest. It is not for the faint of heart. Insert your own trigger warnings here if that’s your thing.
In terms of its quality as a structured piece of text, the worst part of this otherwise great book, hands down, is the title. What makes killers kill cannot satisfactorily be described as “instincts.” In fact, showing that “evil” doesn’t exist and is (tragically) explainable is one of the main purposes of the book. The quality of the title and its relation to the rest of the content is poor enough to suggest that some editors were desperate to make a book not destined for mass markets slightly more appealing. It doesn’t help that the first part of title of my copy is in bright red and all-caps.
Issues with the title aside, Base Instincts is a profound work that successfully addresses some of the largest questions that one can ask. It turns out that only about 6% of the population is responsible for about 70% of the violent crime, and Pincus dedicated a considerable amount of time to understanding an extreme slice of that 6%.
Early on, we readers get acquainted with an individual Pincus calls “Cynthia Williams,” the first murder Pincus interviewed and examined. When Cynthia was in middle school, she got into an argument with “Mona,” a slightly older girl, which ended in threats. The next day, Cynthia felt terrified about going to school and the prospect of having to face Mona, recalling that she had a distinct sense that something awful was about to happen. Cynthia and Mona were on the same bus coming home from school; and after a vague threat from Mona, Cynthia lost all recollection of what happened next, reporting that right before this moment of amnesia, people’s faces changed size. The other children on the bus saw her stab Mona in the chest. Pincus reports that Cynthia was then in a sort of stupor, unable to account for the next two hours.
Following this account, Pincus gives us a narrative version of Cynthia’s tragic medical history. She was abused as a child; and went to the emergency more than thirty times for various physical traumas. This, Pincus informs us, is a characteristic of abuse, wherein parents of abused children will bring them in for medical treatment but will hide the true reasons for why the treatment is needed in the first place.
Case-study after case-study, Pincus goes on to detail his conclusion: that childhood abuse and trauma generate an impulse towards or urges towards violence. In the overwhelming majority of cases, however, these impulses are kept in check by the brain’s inhibition and societal conditioning. However, should the same individual also have neurological deficits or brain damage (caused by a concussion, or a car accident, etc.) then they are much more likely to be violent. Throw in a tendency towards paranoid thinking and you are left with, in the worst possible sense, a potent trifecta.
(Actually, from my point of view, this point requires even more nuance — the potent trifecta is much more potent if a person who has been abused or traumatized hasn’t found some sort of psychological help and healing, either through a therapist or less established methods of internal exploration, introspection and growth (e.g. Buddhistic meditation, therapeutic friends, some would even argue psychedelics, etc.))
In telling us the story of Cynthia, as well as throughout the whole book, Pincus is careful to make rather precise points. There are many people who survive childhood trauma and abuse that don’t turn into violent killers; and Pincus rightfully can explain why. Pincus goes on to explore aspects of his conclusion and further nuance his point via other illustrative neurological interviews he’s conducted. In one particularly moving chapter, he relates the story of a violent murderer with dissociative identity disorder -- it turns out many individuals with D.I.D. often recall hearing the sound of a baby crying; they seem unable to recognize that the baby they heard was themselves.
Across all chapters, he seamless weaves neurology, psychopathology, and biographical details to paint a decently detailed picture of the etiology of violence.
One of the issues that Pincus repeatedly comes up against is that the medical professionals who treated his interviewees as children seemingly did not notice the signs of abuse at the time. (I don’t know if this aspect of medical education has changed, but I think it’s likely.) Though Pincus does his best to disguise his frustration; it’s apparent, as it should be. Another issue that Pincus comes up against is that most of the people he interviews initially report no abuse; they have no memory of it. (Although I’m not currently aware of the precise neurological mechanism, I’d bet money that the brain can learn to predict which memories are too traumatic and then prevent them from being consciously accessed.)
The main questions I had while reading was about the differences between brain damage, the effects of psychological trauma, and other types of mental illness. Perhaps the answer to this is too technical; but as a person with no neurological training, it seems to me that both “brain damage” and “abuse/trauma” could be construed to mean “non-organic, externally induced physical changes to the brain.” From a lay perspective, it would seem that psychological trauma and brain-damage refer to different types of the same thing, in different places. I would have loved a technical appendix, of sorts, which dug a little more into the details of what the different types of injuries Pincus describes means for the functioning brain.
Lastly, later in the book Pincus describes his theory as involving three parts (trauma, brain-damage, in combination with other types of mental illness like paranoid thinking). He doesn't make a simple transition between this three-part model the simpler two-part one. It’s too bad Pincus wasn’t clearer on this point, but at the same time, this imprecision does very little to take away from the quality of Pincus’ conclusions.
Base Instincts also contains the most concrete, concise, and plausible analysis of Hitler I’ve read to date. Pincus, quoting from older medical reports as well as providing his own analysis (including of passages in Mein Kampf), is able to identify signs that Hitler was abused and traumatized as a child. Pincus also identifies that Hitler likely suffered from neurological damage. For example, Hitler sometimes went into a rage and is “said to have rolled on the floor and chewed on the carpets. But William Shirer, in Berlin Diary, reported that in 1938 Hitler did this so often that his associated referred to him as teppishfresser (carpet chewer).”
The power of Pincus’ framework is such that he can, in four pages, explain the basic tenets of “Why Hilter?” and by extension why the 20th century turned out the way it did.
I should note that I’ve not read any particular biography of the Hitler. But not for nothing, understanding the Holocaust has been an interest of mine for at least six years, if not my whole life. On top of what I learned in my history classes in middle and high school, on top of what I learned about having been raised Jewishly, I’ve seen Shoah, a nine-and-half hour holocaust documentary, considered to be one of the best ever made. I’ve seen one of the followup films about a hero named Jan Karski, who smuggled himself into the warsaw ghetto twice and gave eye-witness testimony to the FDR administration. I also have started (but haven’t yet had the time to finish) Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews. I’ve been to Yad Vashem, the Washington D.C. Holocaust museum, and the Theresienstadt concentration camp. I’ve read Hannah Ardent and Victor Frankl and Anne Frank, and I’ve been to the Anne-Frank house in Amsterdam, as well as the Dutch National Holocaust Memorial.
In other words, I’ve engaged with material about the Holocaust. I am confident that I’ve made a decent attempt.
So you can imagine my surprise at finding out there is another angle on Hitler. That a neurological-psychological picture should offer insight, in hindsight, is not surprising. What is surprising is that very little of what is easily publicly available touches on the subject.
On the whole, Pincus’ relatively short book suggests that Yad Vashem and all holocaust museums generally) are missing a few rooms. In these, people could learn about the origins of violence and the connection between trauma, brain damage, and behavior. Before I lose you, hear me out. Yad Vashem and holocaust museums already ask a lot of their attendants. In addition, moving art can concretely get concepts and ideas across in a way reading about them can’t.
Metaphorically, it’s like how you can spend years studying the brain and realizing that’s pretty complex, and then you realize that it’s more complex than you can comprehend, and you keep having these realizations, and then when you understand Self-Reflected (by Gregg Dunn and Brian Edwards) and what went into it, you realize that you really never understood how complex the brain all the previous times.
So if you ask me, by the time individuals have been through the main exhibit of Yad Vashem, they are likely in a place where communication about the connection between trauma, brain damage and violence can be concretely communicated and understood. Is understanding what likely lead to Hitler being Hitler too much to ask? Isn't promoting empathy one of the main points of Yad Vashem?
As long as Yad Vashem or other holocaust museums include a wing to explain the connections between child-rearing, trauma, brain-damage, and violence, they could take it a step further. Yad Vashem could also make a few of books (including Base Instincts, How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child, some of Allice Miller’s writings, and others) available for $2 each. Call it a take-home starter-pack towards prevention or making a better world. For a museum’s purpose and role in learning doesn’t stop once you leave the museum.
Why, you might ask? Under-informed parenting styles stem from a few things, including a lack of knowledge, and also a lack of introspection and reflection. But I find it likely that these latter skills are also, at the end of the day, teachable and reflect a lack of knowledge about how. (Some of this knowledge can only likely be got across if the person is open to it, and healing from past trauma may be a precondition to this sort of openness. But that’s another story.) That what we are dealing with is fundamentally a lack-of-knowledge problem is a conclusion shared in some form or another by Pincus (pg. 201), as well as two of history’s most celebrated psychotherapists, Virgina Satir (see Satir Step-by-Step) and Carl Rogers (see anything he’s ever written.)
In terms of “what to do,” it seems like it’s much easier to ameliorate the effects of trauma and abuse than it is to prevent that which can cause brain damage. There will always be accidents; there doesn’t always have to be child abuse. We know that the effects of child abuse can be ameliorated with psychotherapy. Furthermore, we also know that people can learn to become better parents, by engaging with structured information about how people work and thereby becoming more self-aware of all of their parts and their effects on others.
If Base Instincts reads like a threaded-together collection of case notes, it’s because that is likely how the book was written. While Pincus’ writing style and prose aren’t, by any stretch “polished” (in the way modern MFA-ed books can be) I don’t think it should be. Not only are the conclusions from Pincus’ book profound, he details how he changed his mind and came to his conclusions over years of study. It’s a book every self-styled scholar of the human condition should read. I don’t know if it is included in the extra training judges receive when they are elected and appointed, but it should be.
With an increasing population, we can expect more variation in people and in life experiences. We can also expect more accidents to befall more people. Thus while the quality of child-rearing advice has improved over the past several centuries, we are in many sense, a race. If we can disseminate the kinds of material that contribute to good parenting as well as the healing from past trauma on a wide enough level, we’ll be just fine in the end. But if we keep inflicting scars on ourselves, we’ll never be free.