Crimes That Shook Australia

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Is a murderer made?

Matthew Meuleman
Matthew Milat, 17 murdered classmate David Auchterlonie

Matthew Milat was a quiet boy at school. Many of his classmates barely remembered him. His great uncle Ivan, on the other hand, was Australia’s most notorious serial killer who tortured and murdered seven backpackers in the late 80s and early 90s. Though he only knew him as a toddler, Matthew’s obsession with Ivan – the Backpacker Killer – grew over time; he adopted the surname of Milat when he was 14. Three years later, on November 20th 2010, he took David Auchterlonie, one of his oldest friend, into Belanglo Forest – Ivan’s very own killing field – and brutally murdered him.

Matthew was openly emulating his great uncle. But did he have bad blood? Or was he the product of his environment? The Milat family saga is a stark and harrowing chapter in the nature/nurture debate that has preoccupied criminologists for centuries. Was it genetics which led this teenager to follow in his great uncle’s footsteps? Was he infected – traumatised – by his proximity to this much evil from an early age? Or were there other factors which took him down this path?

Childhood trauma

Whatever side you come down on, it is undeniable that murderers often come from disrupted home lives. A study of 50 serial killers found that 68% of them had experienced some childhood trauma, compared to 30% of the general population, and there are sometimes very specific parallels too. Criminologist Steven Egger observed, for example, that Norman Bates was not the only serial killer to have a strange relationship with his mother. Joachim Knychala, the “Vampire of Bytom” was rejected by his mother, who used to have sex with her boyfriends in front of him. Ed Gein attributed his entire killing spree to his “love-hate” relationship with his controlling religious mother. Both Ted Bundy and Thomas Hamilton were brought up believing their mothers were their older sisters. 

On the other hand, the study’s findings mean almost a third of these 50 serial killers had not experienced childhood trauma. A substantial number of killers – even serial killers – appear, to all accounts, to have had relatively normal childhoods.

The successful psychopath

Psychopaths make up a large and distinct subsection of all violent criminals. A 2012 FBI study estimated 15 to 20% of America’s 2 million inmates are psychopaths. With characteristics like fearlessness, impulsivity and a lack of empathy, it is easy to see why.  Many psychopaths are, however, completely law-abiding citizens. An Australian study suggests one in five CEOs are psychopaths… which could go some way to explaining the 2008 crash.

During his work as a neuroscientist, James Fallon stumbled upon the fact that he, himself, was a psychopath. He has attributed the fact he is successful, married, socialised and – most importantly – not a killer, to the fact his positive upbringing. Although, Fallon may be seen as a success story of nurture conquering nurture, he is highly sceptical of the idea that anyone, of any age, can be “cured” of being a psychopath.

Prevention and rehabilitation

One of the most shocking aspects of Matthew Milat’s story was that he committed such a brutal and cold-blooded act when he was only a teenager. Although minors cannot be diagnosed as psychopaths, experts have reported finding early signs in children as young as two. Studies have found treatment of young offenders showing psychopathic tendencies can have positive results in a way that has proven impossible in adult “psychopaths”.

The horrifying murder and torture of toddler James Bulger, 25 years ago, is still highly divisive, today. At its heart are questions of whether his 10-year-old killers were “born” evil, whether they were made that way and whether rehabilitation is possible for someone who has done something so unthinkable before they have even hit puberty. Since both were released with new identities in 2001, one killer, Robert Thompson, has never been convicted of another offence and is apparently leading a settled life. The other, Jon Venables, has been in and out of prison for child pornography offences. Does this mean Thompson was successfully rehabilitated and Venables was not? Depending on what side of the nature/nurture debate you wish to argue, both could be supported by this case. Was Venables naturally “evil” and beyond redemption? Is the fact Thompson did not reoffend, a sign, not only that rehabilitation works, but that if he had received help earlier he might never have gone down that path?

The Sleeping Warrior

Of course, just as many psychopaths don’t kill, many killers are not psychopaths. What most of them do share, according to neurologists, are brains which produce excessive emotion but have diminished ability to control those emotions. A 1993 study discovered a so-called “warrior gene” in 30% of men, which gives them a natural predisposition towards violence. Whether it is triggered or not, the study argues, depends on what happens to you in childhood.

Murderers and other violent criminals have different brains. 

In his book The Anatomy of Violence, psychologist Dr Adrian Raine concluded once again that murderers and other violent criminals have different brains. Raine suggests a melange of possible reasons for this, from shaken baby syndrome, mothers smoking and drinking through pregnancy, poor diet in the womb and early life and child abuse. Fred West suffered severe head injuries on two separate occasions; Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was starved of oxygen at birth. Genetics, Raine argues, is one of many possible reasons for this brain malformation and even when it occurs, children can still be saved with a loving home life, healthy diet, exercise and good education.

There may never be conclusive answers to the question of why some people kill. Everything we know, however, suggests this fate is not set in stone for most people. Raine sees some benefit in pre-emptively scanning children’s brains to treat them before the crime has happened. If this sounds like an Orwellian nightmare – don’t worry. It probably won’t happen just yet. What is clear, however, is governments have yet another incentive to tackle poverty and invest in social care and support for children and young people. It could save lives in many different ways.