Ostracism: Sowing the Seeds for Spree Killers

Imagine you are a member of a Neanderthal tribe, but for some reason, you have been ostracised – you no longer have access to shared resources such as shelter, – you have to sleep outside, exposed to the elements, you have no access to food – hunters do not share their meat with you and gatherers do not share berries or plants with you – you have to scavenge for whatever you can find – you have to search for water, but when you find it, you have no vessel to fill to drink from.  You do not have access to fire, to warmth. You do not have the protection of the tribe against predators or hostile tribes. On a physical level, you are exposed, vulnerable and your basic survival as a human is threatened.

On a psychosocial level, you no longer are part of a family, there is no one to care for you if you are young, infirm, wounded or old. You have no-one to talk to, to socialize with, to laugh or cry or express and exchange emotions with, to procreate, to love, to groom, to share human touch and caring, even to bicker with.

Ostracism reverberates on a primal cellular level in the collective subconscious human psyche, triggering existential primitive life-threatening fear.

When the worst aggressive criminals are acting out and need to be kept in control in the worst prisons, or prisoner of war camps – they are kept in isolation cells – deemed one of the worst punishments.  In a previous video we saw that South Africa’s Thabo Bester, convicted rapist and murderer, who was re-arrested after he had escaped from a private security prison, and was then incarcerated in State owned C-Max – a maximum security facility reserved for the most dangerous criminals – complained to the judge that the only people he could see for months were his prison guards, that he had no human contact for months and was only allowed telephonic contact. After a few months, this isolation from humans took its toll from the usually over-confident megalomaniac Thabo Bester.

If being ostracised, banned, shunned and exiled is considered being one of the worst punishments for aggressive adults, just imagine what it does to the psyche of vulnerable children?

Ostracism through the ages

For homo sapiens (and other species) being ostracised from a tribe meant ultimate death.  A tribe provides protection against the elements, protection against dangerous predators or hostile tribes and shared access to secured resources such as shelter, food.

At the time when the concept of godly forces or deities was internalized in the human psyche, people had little control or knowledge about natural disasters or causes of illnesses and plagues and they believed these to be the whims of the gods.  Later when urbanized civilizations were flourishing, being a member of a community provided some protection as priest-kings would act as interlocutors between the populace and the gods. Not having an intermediator meant the individual was in direct striking line of being smote by the gods.

During the Medieval Age and the Renaissance, a pillory – a device made of a wooden or metal framework erected on a post, with holes for securing the head and hands – was used as punishment by public humiliation and sometimes facilitated further physical abuse. Stocks are feet restraining devices that were used as a form of corporal punishment and humiliation, as the public were allowed and encouraged to slur and throw objects at the enclosed person.  Victims may be insulted, kicked, tickled, spat on, dowsed with excreta or subjected to other inhumane acts. Clearly the aim here was to shame the person.

In the North American colonial settlements of the 17th and early 18th centuries, branding was a common punishment for those found guilty of crimes. The type of brand differed from crime to crime. Men and women sentenced for adultery were branded with an A letter on their chest, D for drunkenness and B for blasphemy or burglary, T on the hand for thief, SL on the cheek for seditious libel, R on the shoulder for rogue or vagabond, and F on the cheek for forgery.  

Women’s hair were shaven and some were branded after World War II for being suspected of collaborating with the enemy. Branding was only abolished in Russia in 1983. These extremities were later watered down to a child wearing a Dunce-hat and exiled to a corner in a classroom – the effect of the humiliation and shame is the same.

Reactions to ostracism

Professor Kipling D. Williams of the Department of Psychological Sciences at Purdue University in West Lafayette, globally noted for his research on ostracism, indicates how individuals in their initial reaction attempt to recover from the effect will try and re-enter the group through pro-social behaviour. Others may react through anti-social behaviour such as aggression and violence to draw attention to themselves and establish their power over those who ostracised them – this is called a power/provocation response.  They may even respond aggressively towards any other person, regardless if that person ostracised them or not. Chronically ostracized individuals whose attempts at recovery have been continuously thwarted become resigned to their fate and face extreme negative consequences, such as feelings of alienation, depression, helplessness and meaninglessness. 

In adult life, when this childhood wound is even remotely triggered it can set of a damaging catastrophe and result in violent outbursts.  

American serial killer David Berkovitz alias Son of Sam made the following inscription in his diary: “There is no doubt in my mind that a demon has been living in me since birth.  All my life I’ve been wild, violent, temporal, mean, sadistic, acting with irrational anger and destructiveness” (H.P Jeffers, Profiles in Evil,1993).

Norman Simons, arrested as the Station Strangler in Cape Town South Africa, wrote: “I am nothing, I am dirty, I am filthy and not worthy. I am sorry for letting you down…”

When I asked the serial killers whom I interviewed what was the worst thing that had happened to them as a child, despite some severe physical abuse in some cases, all of them gave the same answer: “The fact that my parents told me I was useless hurt me the most.”

Neurological effects of ostracism

The pain-overlap theory basically means that emotional pain registers along similar neuropathways in the brain as physical pain. Neuroscientists have established through fMRI functional magnetic resonance imaging that social pain and rejection impair the structural integrity of the anterior cingulate cortex – the ability to develop a moral code based on empathy and caring is compromised. What this means in layman’s terms is that the emotional pain of ostracism, registers the same as severe physical pain in the brain – research has shown that teenagers that are being ostracised by their peer groups, may experience this emotional pain to the same degree as third degree burns and it numbs the capacity to feel empathy.

So, if a child has had a low-self esteem instilled by the parents in his formative years, when that child enters a peer group, such as a school setting, the child already has a default, setting them up to be bullied. Bullying behaviour has significant implications for the onset of anti-social behaviour patterns and major depressive disorder. And as the neurological research shows, their ability for empathy and caring is compromised.  The stage is set for aggressive acting out in an explosive event.

Ostracism erupts in murder

In April 1999 I was in Los Angeles, attending a course on threat assessment and stalkers, presented by Gavin de Becker and I remember lying on my bed in the hotel room one evening, watching as the horror of the Columbine High School Massacre played out live on my tv screen. The perpetrators, 12-grade students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered 12 students and one teacher and 21 additional people were injured. Many theories have been proposed as the motive for these killings and one of them is ostracism.

By 1997 both Columbine killers, Harris and Klebold had expressed disturbing tell-tale signs of what was to come, in their writings. They clearly expressed their wish to exterminate their society – which was school at that time. 

Harris wrote: “All I want to do is kill and injure as many of you as I can, especially a few people..” Klebold expressed his wish for suicide and private despair at his lack of success with women, which he refers to as an “infinite sadness” and his final remark in the Basement Tapes, shortly before the attack, is a resigned statement made as he glances away from the camera: “Just know I’m going to a better place. I didn’t like life too much.

Harris and Klebold’s writings clearly indicate they experienced themselves as outcasts who had been isolated from their classmates. Harris’ last journal entry reads, “I hate you people for leaving me out of so many fun things“, and Klebold wrote “The lonely man strikes with absolute rage.” This reflects feelings of loneliness, inferiority, insecurity and  words such as “hate” and “rage” indicate a power/provocation response.  Other authors have in retrospect argued that they did have friends – perhaps within an outcast community. Despite the differences in expert opinion, the outcome remains the same – they killed 13 people in a spree killing.

As children, were serial killers ridiculed by authoritative persons like teachers? Were they teased, mocked, bullied, were fingers pointed at them by other children, whose parents did not teach them compassion? Were they the ones whom no-one else wanted to play with? Perhaps their ostracism was more insidious, so chronic that they resigned to it becoming a slow festering wound that did not erupt as a punctured boil in one massacre, but rather an intravenous poison that eventually manifested in periodical, concealed murders which provided secret moments of omnipotence, which ironically, they could not share with anyone, since they were alone. Did they finally feel included in some community after decades of incarceration in a prison, and if they are paroled, would they not be ostracised by a community again, who will point fingers at them? Will their default fragile ego’s be threatened again and how long will it take them to act out again?

Many people were neglected, and at some stage in their childhoods felt ousted, rejected and their self esteems were injured by parental figures, siblings, teachers and peers, yet they do not kill.  For a more in-depth insightful article and video on ostracism, please join my Patreon Community.

Top image: A man in stocks experiencing shame (Public Domain)

H.P Jeffers, Profiles in Evil,1993