One Sunday a number of years ago I opened the morning paper and there staring back at me on the front page was the picture of a good friend. He’d been arrested for brutally murdering one of his clients. Confusion, shock and disbelief were my first responses – I’d just been playing poker with him the Friday night before!  My next thoughts were generated by the self-protective brain/mind as I immediately began assessing any ways, means or opportunities such that I might somehow become his next victim. My brain/mind craves details, presumably in order to insure that I don’t become a murder victim, in the present or in the future.

What made it especially complex and confusing was that my friend Russ was a really nice guy, pretty much liked by all who knew him. He was quick with a joke;  he was an attentive, compassionate listener; and in his work as a criminal lawyer, he did tons of pro bono work.

A Neuro-Theory of Murder

insanity-defense2I have a neuro-theory – necessarily over-simplified – about how Russ came to be a murderer. But first I want to tell you about his parents.* Russ’s father was severe and disciplined, a Marine officer who served in the Korean War. He worked as a gym and history at the local high school. He had a clandestine relationship with the assistant principal for many years. Russ’s mother was an attractive woman who, like 50-70% of the other young girls in America – was sexually and emotionally abused as an adolescent. She worked as an admin at a small Boston law firm. She spent much of her time at home knitting or watching TV or doing jigsaw puzzles, lost in one reverie or another. She was occasionally physically abused by Russ’ father, who was periodically given to outbursts of rage. She was eight months pregnant and taken by surprise when the doctor told her the weight she had been gaining was going to be a healthy baby boy.

Growing up, Russ dismissed his mother and feared his father, who wasn’t above a little “well-deserved” corporal punishment. Russ’s parents weren’t to blame and didn’t cause him to become a murderer. They, like all parents, did the best they could at every turn, given the limits of their own personal histories and neurophysiologies.

But Russ grew up brain-damaged and didn’t know it. Like many of us, his damage was transitory, situational and particularly sensitive to allostatic load that ratchets up like a deadly summer day that dawns hot from the start. Years ago, a supervising psychiatrist, a refugee from Chile, Antonio Wood, once told me: “Circumstances can be deliberately or accidently created that can drive even the sanest of us crazy.” In my mind, Russ is clear confirmation of Antonio’s assertion.

Stress Ratcheting

The circumstances that started Russ down the road to insanity began in childhood, but I’m sure ratcheted up when his first wife filed for a divorce he didn’t want. Next came the news that the law firm where he worked had decided against taking him on as a partner and they asked him to leave.  Meanwhile, the clients he was working with, sometimes violent, life-long criminals, were also adding to his allostatic load. Not able to generate enough business in Silicon Valley, Russ opened another office closer to his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. More overhead; more load.

stress1When Russ met Terry, the woman who would become his second wife, she already had children of her own. Russ had little experience with little kids – more load. Having a baby of his own, added even more stress to his life.  As finances continued to be a struggle for him – trying to support multiple kids and two law offices – Russ made the main mistake that led to the travesty that would ultimately unfold. He kept and spent part of a client’s legal settlement and didn’t tell her about it. When she found out, she threatened to have him disbarred. Getting disbarred would have been experienced as enormously life-threatening, I’m sure. To save his own life, Russ made the deliberate decision to murder his client! I’m guessing in his mind, it was a bizarre kind of self-defense.

Had his brain been operating reasonably well, he never would have embezzled the client’s money in the first place. Having done so, however, lots of creative possibilities to correct that transgression could have been negotiated. The fact that murder was even on his list of possible solutions, is an indication of a brain simply not working properly. And, in fact, when I went to visit him in jail, it was clear that this was not the person I’d played golf and poker with, the guy whose house I’d helped reroof only the summer before. There was little emotion present at all. It was as if he didn’t have any real awareness of the seriousness of what he had done – an emotional vacuity found throughout the brain trauma literature.

But Russ did commit this capital crime. And he paid the ultimate price for committing it – he ended up dying in prison a few years after he was sent away. Strangely, I feel the world is a bit worse off for his loss.

* partly fabricated.