Mommy’s Little MonsterrnDoes the Family Breed Serial Killers?rnby Philip JenkinsrnMonsters are an ancient phenomenon in human history:rnThere have always been individuals whose charactersrnare marked by brutal, sadistic cruelty, who lack any redeemingrninstincts of compassion or mercy. Call them what we will —rnfiends or psychopaths, ghouls or serial killers—this type is by nornmeans new to the later 20th century, however much the mediarnpreach to the contrary. What is new to our age, however, is thernexplanation that we give for the production of such creatures,rnwhich in recent decades have been explained in terms not ofrnmoral evil but of the offender’s upbringing and familv environment.rnA cascade of true-crime books and television programs hasrnestablished as social orthodoxy the idea that monsters, serialrnkillers, and child molesters are not born but made, and madernby the most extreme forms of sexual and physical abuse, committedrnby parents and intimates. As psychiatrist Park Dietz declaredrnwhen he was asked how societ)’ could prevent the creationrnof serial killers: “Parents should stop torturing theirrnchildren.” We can readily find plausible examples of revokingrncruelty which have had understandably devastating consequencesrnon the lives of the unfortunate child victims. Butrnequally disturbing is the extent to which such family ‘iolencernhas now come to be seen as a commonplace phenomenon,rnand thus to serve as an all-purpose explanation for irtually anyrnt}’pe of crime, violence, or depravity, a magic key to interpretingrnall social failings.rnThe familiar themes emerge in myriad books and magazinernarticles, in thousands of television talk shows and newspaperrnadvice columns: Repeat killers commit their deeds becausernthey are taking vengeance against the parents v’ho abused andrnhumiliated them; molesters abuse children because they themselvesrnwere abused. And while such individuals fortunatelyrnrepresent only a tiny proportion of the population, they are on-rnPliilip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History andrnReligious Studies at Pennsylvania State University’.rnly acting out in extreme form the traumas inflicted to a greaterrnor lesser extent upon all of us. As the therapy industry asserts,rnwe are all “secret survivors” of our family horrors. In this jaundicedrnview, the Western family is “a nightmare from which wernare just beginning to awake.”rnOur current social ideology presumes that all evils resultrnfrom the ills of the family and that individual misdeeds must bernunderstood, and presumably pardoned, in that context. The attackrnon the family thus merges with a wider assault upon thernidea of individual moral responsibilit)’.rnAlan Dershowitz coined the phrase “the abuse excuse” in hisrn1994 book of that name. The potential value of that excuse becamernapparent to an amazed public in the early 1990’s, in a seriesrnof incredible cases in which flagrantly guilty criminals escapedrnpunishment by claiming that their actions resulted fromrntheir disastrous family setting and upbringing. One of thernmore spectacular cases involved the Menendez brothers, whornhad killed their parents (according to most accounts) becausernof an overwhelming desire to gain an inheritance. In court,rnhowever, the brothers testified that the acts were the consequencernof lifelong sexual and physical abuse at the hands ofrnthese sinister parents, and in memorable scenes broadcast nationwide,rnthis evidence was accompanied b’ some of the leastrncon incing and least spontaneous tears ever produced outsiderna mediocre high-school drama production. But the juryrnbought it—or at least decided that the appalling abuse whichrnthe brothers had suffered more or less justified their violent response.rnThis remarkable miscarriage of justice was soon rectified,rnbut the case sent a frightening message about the extent tornwhich the child-abuse idea had established itself as a social ideology.rnWe had come a long way from the dark, superstitiousrndays of “the devil made me do it”: As every behavioral scientistrnknew, my father’s abuse made me do it. In 1997, James Q. Wilson’srnbook Moral judgment bore the justifiably alarming subtitle.rnDoes the Abuse Excuse Threaten our Legal System?rnMAY 1999/21rnrnrn