Last Updated September 5, 2023.
When he set out to try to understand the reasons that some human beings kill others, as well as committing other violent acts, Richard Rhodes acknowledges that he was in part motivated by his experiences as a survivor of psychological and physical abuse in childhood—an experience so severe that he and his siblings were moved into foster care. He determined to cast a wide net in his research, drawing on numerous disciplines and primary and secondary sources that had addressed the problems he wanted to understand, which “stubbornly resisted explanation.”
When he found the work of Lonnie Athens, especially his 1992 book, The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, it seemed to cover almost all the territory he had set out to explore. Athens also had childhood experiences surviving violence. Rhodes met with Athens in person and decided to modify his project and focus on this man and his work. Rhodes’s book includes biographical information on Athens, especially as relevant to his chosen field, as well as analysis of his works. He sees the importance in a range of applications beyond the individual criminal’s actions after the fact.
As I interviewed him, studied his work, and extensively reviewed the criminological, psychological, and historical literature of violence, I realized that his findings might have far wider understanding of violent behavior. . . . Athens’s discoveries might be applied to interrupt and thereby to prevent the development of violent criminality.
One common feature that Athens identified in murderers was their conviction that they had been victimized or brutalized and that extreme violence against other human beings was the only way they could prevent being further brutalized. Such an individual has often been subjugated to violent behavior, what Athens called “violent coaching,” which encouraged them to accept violence as a normal part of life. When they make the switch to inflicting violence, they experience it as a revelation. Rhodes interprets Athens’s findings.
The subject understands clearly for the first time that he must find a way to stop people from brutalizing him. He also understands clearly for the first time the full import of the violent coaching he has received. It strikes him with the full force of a revelation.
Athens’s personal experience with an abusive father propelled him not only to understand violent offenders but also to write about psychological transformation among those who do not move down a homicidal path. Rhodes offers a synopsis of the “soliloquy on self” in which Athens outlines steps toward self-awareness and change. These include acknowledging the important mental influence that people who are no longer in one’s life continue to exert; these “phantom companions” together form a “phantom community” whose approval one constantly, and most often unconsciously, seeks. Bringing them into conscious awareness is a key step in removing them and replacing them with others who could have a positive influence. Rhodes quotes Athens:
As their phantom companions vanish from consciousness, the prism [through] which they now refract their social experiences is simultaneously lost from sight. Thus, people once again take for granted the viewpoint with which they approach the world, as they did prior to starting the process of dramatic self-change. The vanishing of phantom companions from their conscious purview signals that their new selves have become almost fully consolidated.