In Why They Kill, Richard Rhodes has written a hybrid book that combines social science and biography. The book is made all the more profound in that it has autobiographical elements as well. Rhodes has previously authored sixteen books, including The Making of the Atom Bomb(1986), which won a Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, a National Book Award, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. Rhodes also wrote A Hole in the World: An American Boyhood (1990), an autobiographical account of the child abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepmother. It was this personal experience that, in part, inspired Rhodes to take an interest in the life and work of “maverick criminologist” Lonnie Athens. More specifically, Rhodes puts much of his focus on the vital link between Athens’s violence-soaked childhood and his groundbreaking work on the social-psychological dynamics and root causes of criminal violence. In doing so, Rhodes raises the reader’s awareness that truly insightful social science sometimes comes from deep emotional concerns and personal experience rather than book learning and dispassionate number crunching. In addition to explaining Athens’s research and theories in the light of his (Athens’s) upbringing, Rhodes tests Athens’s ideas by applying them to several notorious murder cases and using them to examine historical patterns of violence. He also looks at the phenomena of war and military training in the light of Athens’s work. Rhodes concludes with a brief chapter suggesting some possible solutions to the problem of violence.
Lonnie Athens was born in 1949 in Richmond, Virginia, to Petro (Pete) and Irene Athens. The Athens family was lower middle class, blue collar, and, during one particularly harrowing stretch, borderline transient. They often made do in tough neighborhoods where males especially had to be handy with their fists—or worse. However, the main threat of violence to Lonnie came from his father. Pete Athens was a rugged man who never shrank from a fight outside the household and who, though he did not engage in spousal abuse, did use disproportionate and brutal physical force to discipline both Lonnie and his older brother Rico, born in 1945. Lonnie watched his brother take the brunt of the violence but often shared in the victimization. Lonnie was deeply affected by this violence. Both he and Rhodes believe that he would have replicated his father’s violent pattern if not for the intervention of several softening forces: his grandfather on his mother’s side, a good friend in school (and the friend’s family), and some teachers and professors. In line with his own theory, as readers shall see, Lonnie was saved from playing out the legacy of violence received from his father. Instead, goaded by his deep personal concern and experience, and also by the inadequacies of the accepted scholarly wisdom, he applied his powers of intellect to the task of better understanding violence. More specifically, through a somewhat checkered but ultimately successful career in academia, he tried to come up with more detailed and precise answers to questions such as the following: What do violent people think during the time leading up to their violent behavior, while they are behaving violently, and afterward? How do some people become inclined toward violence while others avoid such an inclination? What can be done to reduce the volume of violent behavior in a society?
Lonnie Athens pursued answers to these questions through a relatively small number of in-depth interviews with prisoners incarcerated for serious violent crimes. This methodology presented a number of problems. Prison authorities were sometimes uncooperative. Prisoners were sometimes threatening or less than candid. Scholars scoffed at the qualitative rather than quantitative nature of the work—that is, they doubted the relevancy of work that did not aim primarily at statistical significance drawn from a large sample of subjects. Luckily, on the other hand, some prison authorities were highly cooperative. Many prisoners welcomed a chance for their true feelings to be heard, and some academics saw the unique significance of Athens’s work. As such, Athens was able to plunge on, producing a number of seminal books and articles. (Unfortunately, Athens’s first marriage does seem to have been a casualty of his often-rocky academic career.)
In Violent Criminal Acts and Actors (1980; published in 1997 as Violent Criminal Acts and Actors Revisited), Athens presents his findings based on fifty-eight in-depth interviews with convicted violent criminals. Athens argues that, based on his research, violence is based on a conscious, reconstructible thought process, or “plan.” This contradicts previous research that has described most seriously violent acts as being relatively unreflective acts of impulse (the “I just snapped and the next thing I knew he was dead” explanation). Rhodes quotes long passages from Athens’s...
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