Rejection: When the Odd-Ones-Out Murder

Some old classmates remember serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer as the one who was clowning around at school. Dahmer was referred to as a “goofball”. Children may defend their fragile ego’s by pretending to be the Fool, when they are already cast in the role of the Fool by others, in order to be accepted, for rejection cuts deeply and persistent rejection can eventually lead to suicide, or murder.

Ostracism and rejection are not the same. Ostracism refers to when a person is already a member of a group and is then exiled from that group. Rejection is when a person approaches, expecting a positive inclusion or acceptance and is then turned down. Ostracism activates a primal survival fear in anybody, but people manage rejection much better, especially depending on their levels of emotional maturity, but to many, it still hurts. Some people however take rejection very personally – even perceived rejection, when it was not intended.  To some, repetitive rejection becomes an almost fatal blow to their already fragile ego’s and low self-esteem. 

And the seeds of rejection-sensitivity are sown during early developmental childhood. Psychologist Karen Horney in the 1940’s developed the attachment styles theory. Psychologist Julie Menanno in a 2024-article titled Disorganized Attachment The Childhood Environment, explains children with disorganized attachment style seek emotional care from caregivers, “but they have good reason to believe based upon their experience, that their attempts to connect will be met with intensified levels of rejection, non-responsiveness, punishment, abuse or fear-inducing tactics, all of which will leave them feeling significantly worse than the emotional loneliness which compelled them to seek connection in the first place.”  Menanno says that during moments of overwhelming stress, children with disorganized attachment style, whose attempts at attachment to parental figures have been continuously rejected, are prone to uncontrollable emotional outbursts.

With this inherent default, they enter the school environment, where they are sometimes mercilessly rejected and bullied. Although bullying and rejection are not the same, bullying often leads to peer rejection, as peers are afraid of being associated with the bullied victim, in case they are bullied too.  The victim’s attempts at pro-social inclusion are therefore rejected, out of fear of association. 

Some compassionate children may side with the victim and stand up to the bully. The far-reaching consequences of their act of kindness, compassion and courage may be that they save lives. They are too young to be aware of this, and even their parents may not be aware of it, but practicing in this field for decades, I can recall testimonies of people who relate how an act of kindness turned them around, or sadly how an act of bullying set others on a murderous path.

The medial pre-frontal cortex of the brain is the part where we evaluate ourselves and compare ourselves with others – how do we measure up to others – will we be accepted or will we be rejected? It is commonly accepted by neuroscientists that the prefrontal cortex – the so-called adult brain, responsible for executive functions – only matures at around 25 – 28 years. So since the medial pre-frontal cortex is still developing in teenagers, they are much more self-conscious, more easily socially embarrassed, more sensitive about their appearance and fitting in with their peers to the extent that making a public fool of themselves or being made fun of, can lead to suicide or even to murder.  Teachers, parents and peers should be mindful next time they tease or humiliate a shy, withdrawn teenager. 

By late teens and early adulthood when establishing more serious romantic partnerships becomes a developmental priority, the rejection-sensitive person is in for a tough time.  Romantic rejection has been tracked through fMRI scans as a painful experience, similar to physical pain. Subjectively, rejected individuals experience a range of negative emotions, including frustration, intense anger, jealousy, hate, and eventually, resignation, despair, and possible long-term depression. However, there have been cases where individuals oscillate back and forth between depression and anger and then they act out – some of them murderously.

Moses Sithole, the Atteridgeville serial killer with a victim count of 38, said he murdered the women because they reminded him of the woman who, in his opinion, had falsely accused him of rape and was the cause of his being sent to prison. Yet Moses was abandoned and rejected by his mother as a child when she left him and his siblings at an orphanage shortly after his father’s demise. He began killing women when he was released from prison after his sentence for the rape. Sipho Twala, the Phoenix serial killer, with a victim count of 16 women, said he murdered women who reminded him of his girlfriend who had aborted his baby. He experienced this as an extreme rejection – he covered the mouths of his victims with a cloth even when they were unconscious “to stop hurtful words coming out.”

In 1999 I testified in the trial of South African serial killer Chris Nel.  In 1984, when he was 18 years old, Chris attended a dance at a local barn when teenage girls rejected him by refusing to dance with him. He slaughtered one of the girls with a pocketknife and raped the other.  He was interrupted before he could kill her. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. When he got dressed for the dance earlier that night, Chris Nel did not set out deliberately to kill these women, the murders were spontaneous, when he was triggered by rejection. He said reminded him of his mother who did not care when he ran away from boarding school. However, this is no excuse for his behaviour as he knew exactly what he was doing while doing it, showed a rational mindset by trying to conceal his involvement and felt justified in killing them. 

In 2018 researcher Khandis Blake of the University of New South Wales found that men behaved more aggressively towards sexualized than non-sexualized women after a romantic rejection. Twelve years later in 1997 after his release on parole, Chris killed a sex worker he raped and attempted to murder another sex worker. Chris felt he was justified in killing them since they rejected his advanced and they had ‘led him on”. Then he also killed a young girl, innocently walking home from a dance, who did not project a sex-for-sale image at all.  Again, Chris never showed remorse and was sentenced to life imprisonment. One wonders if he will be paroled again? 

No-one deserves to become a victim of violence. Can we save innocent lives by teaching our children compassion, the impact their behaviour has on other people around them, even with a simple act of preventing them from kicking the seat in front of them in an aeroplane, since it causes discomfort to the person occupying that seat.  It has to start somewhere. Perhaps if children are taught compassion, they can make the world a safer place for themselves to live in?

Top image: The rejection scene of the British Museum copy of the “Admonitions Scroll”, attributed to Gu Kaizhi (Public Domain)