Big Think Interview With Michael Stone

Forensic Psychiatry
An interview with the Columbia University forensic psychiatrist.
  • Transcript


Question: What is evil?

Michael Stone: Well, evil is a very fascinating topic. Are we really permitted as a legitimate for ordinary folks to use that word “evil,” because it tended for thousands of years to belong to the sphere of religion and philosophy, but I noticed, as we all do, people used the word evil all the time, people in ordinary life, journalists, prosecutors, judges, etc. 

So, I began to create a scale of evil. I ended up at first with just a few numbers on my scale, but I then got it up to 22 of which the first one was "not evil," just justified homicide.  Number two was crimes of passion, all the way up to 22 where there was usually a serial killer subjecting victims to prolonged torture. So, that's about as bad as it gets.

The scale at first, it was just a very rudimentary one, but as I read more and more of these True Crime books and also went around the country interviewing serial killers and other very famous murderers a couple of years ago, I expanded the scale to 22 levels.  Twenty-one of which being evil and one being justified homicide.  And you can divide that into three main segments.  One of which was for impulsive murders by people who really were not psychopaths, they were not the kind of persons who do unspeakable things all the time routinely and have absolutely no remorse and they’re totally hard-hearted and callous.  Ordinary people that get caught in some terrible situation, for example.  

And then the next bunch of numbers from let’s say about nine to 16 are for people that show a fair number of psychopathic traits, those being grandiosity and superficial charm and glibness and manipulativeness and lying and lack of remorse and callousness and so on.  And then finally you get to people who are clearly psychopathic by all the modern definitions.  Especially the serial killers and the ones who go in for prolonged torture.

What is it like inside the mind of a serial killer?

Michael Stone: Well, men who commit Serial Sexual Homicide, which is what the public usually is referring to when they talk about serial killers as opposed to nurses and doctors that kill patients in hospitals, “Angels of Death,” etc.  The serial killer, like Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, and David Parker Ray, and those people, almost all of them, more than 90% meet criteria, hard criteria for psychopathy.  Almost all of them are sadists.  Meaning that they meet criteria for sadistic personality as it had been described in the official psychiatric manual, where there’s enjoyment of the suffering of others as a key quality, and a love of control and domination of others, etc.  Half of them are loners, men that can’t make long relationships with others.  So in effect, some of them use serial killing as a way of having a one-night stand where they rape the woman and then kill her to destroy evidence; dump their body along the road or whatever, like Ed Kemper out in California.  And then go on to the next because they are incapable of sustained romantic, intimate relationship.  

Some of them, seeking revenge—revenge is a motive in some of them, like Debarr Labon in Texas who had been brutalized by his father and his mother... so they're constantly getting back at the parents who abused them or neglected them.  That would probably be true of Leonard Lake that had this torture place he built in a remote area of California. 

And another motive... killing a specific parent over and over, but not actually killing the parent.  For example, when I interviewed Tommy Lynn Sells on death row in Texas, he had been neglected, abused, neglected again by his mother, never knew his father; terrible, terrible childhood.  And he went around killing about 70 people, most of them women.  And when I asked him, I said, “Tommy, you know, it sounds to me like maybe these women were like symbols or duplicates of your mother.  Did you ever have a thought about, you know, killing your mom?”  And he told me, ”Anyone touch a hair of her head, I’ll kill them in a minute.  You only got one mom.” 

So that was a very important point that I see over and over in these men.  They have the same kind of loyalty and love of a parent even if the parent was abusive and horrible, that you can whip and hurt and yell and scream at a child, but if you’re the mom or you’re the dad, there still going to love you. They may hate you as well, but they’re going to love you. So, he never touched a hair of his mother’s head, instead he did symbolically get back at her through these other murders.

Question: Are serial killers born or created?

Michael Stone:  Important question because there’s no one simple answer.  There are a few serial killers, six or seven in my very large series, who were adopted at birth into normal homes, never abused, never neglected.  But who, from adolescence on became violent and then in their 20’s embarked onto the career of serial sexual homicide that you can only ascribe to some genetic flaw along the lines of deficits in the amygdala or the prefrontal cortex that I had spoken about.  Gerald Stano would be an example of such a person who killed 40 women and was finally executed in San Quentin.  

There are other men who were raised in fairly good homes, or even rather normal homes, but who suffered a head injury that affected these key areas in the frontal lobe, such as Richard Starett in Georgia.  He was raised in a wealthy home.  He went around killing 10 women after he had married and had a daughter, but then he got kind of fed up with the marriage, et cetera.  Now he had suffered two bouts of prolonged unconsciousness when he fell from jungle gyms and things like that when he was a kid.  After which he underwent a dramatic and swift change in his personality.  The same thing, by the way, that happened to Phil Garrido, who was a normal kid in a normal home, but who fell off his older brother’s motorcycle when he was 14 and within days—he was unconscious, had to have a brain operation—within days, he began to develop rape fantasies.  And then carried out a number of rapes and finally kidnapped that young Jaycee Dugard girl that he kept for 18 years and had two children by her.  

Now, the thing there is, there are other areas of the brain in the limbic system connected to the frontal lobes and so on and involving the temporal lobes on the side that have to do with our sexual responsiveness.  What we respond to sexually.  If those areas are damaged, we may end up with pedophilia, or abnormal desires for inappropriate objects.  So that clearly happened to Phil Garrido and he became immediately fascinated and eager to commit rape when he was 14, 15 years old, after the head injury.  

So there’s... and about 30% of the serial killers had experienced some form of rather serious head injury.  So that’s a factor that not too many people know about, but that’s important also. 

So the bulk of them; however, have come from horrible homes where the early damage and misery of their home becomes a motivating force later for seeking revenge, against those who had hurt them, plus which they have also been raised in such a way that they don’t have the social skills in order to kind of compensate for that and to make a good relationship anyway and kind of get past it.  So they’re stuck, they’re mired in the misery of their childhood forever.

Question: What causes someone to be a stalker?

Michael Stone: Stalkers are an interesting group.  They’re not all cut from the same cloth.  They’re not as homogeneous a group as men who commit serial sexual homicide.  You know, there are women stalkers, there are men stalkers.  There are stalkers who are very lonely and very eager to affect some kind of attachment, oftentimes to a person that’s more famous or powerful than they are.  And so they will find out where the person lives and go around and follow them and look around their house and things.  And sometimes they may even commit a crime, you know, breaking and entering, or trying to hurt that person.  

There are other stalkers who will try to get back at a lover who has rejected them.  The case of Farley, Richard Farley out in California for example, who was... he fell in love with, if love is the right word, with a coworker in his firm that he worked for.  And when she rejected him, she rejected him after he said, “If you don’t love me, I’ll kill you.”  Well, that’s not the way to a woman’s heart, so he then would find out where she lived, he would put little messages on her car, it was pretty scary. And finally he, being a gun-nut, he brought a bunch of guns to the workplace and he killed seven people.  He tried to kill her also, but the bullet hit her shoulder and she survived.  So that was a combination of mass murder and stalking because he stalked her for a long time before he erupted in the murder.  

But there are other men particularly who are certifiably insane, or crazy.  Like, for example, the one that stalked the actress Olivia Newton John.  He was a paranoid schizophrenic who had ultimately killed members of his family, but he would go out to California and try... in order to form some sort of a relationship with this exalted and, for him, totally unreachable figure of this beautiful woman.  The same, by the way as happened with Richard Bartow in California who stalked Rebecca Shaffer, the actress went to her door after the Department of Motor Vehicles gave him the address and so on, and he shot her to death.  Why?  Because he thought that she loved him because she sent him a photograph of herself, you know, the way you send a request to an actress, “Please send me a picture,” and she sends probably a thousand pictures to her fans.  In his crazy mind, because he was schizophrenic, he thought that she really loved him.  And then when he saw her in a movie where she seemed to be acting the part of a woman who loved other guys and was undressing and kissing and so on, he thought she’s betrayed me and he then went and killed her.  So that was a stalker that actually killed the object of his affection.  

There are other ones that stalk tennis stars and follow them wherever they are and things of that sort.  But they're often people who are hungry for attachment, but then who know no bounds... there’s no brake system preventing them from bothering and pestering or even sometimes harming the object of their interest.

Question: What makes good people do evil things?

Michael Stone: Well for people who are not typically prone to do evil things, right.  You would never say that’s an evil person, but rather what he or she did as a one-off was an evil act.  Some of them, there would be brain changes in the sense that their braking system is not good. 

Now you have to realize that adolescents, in general, young people have a poorer braking system then people in their 20s.  That’s why you don’t vote until you’re around, in my generation, until you were 21, now it’s 18.  But the point is the frontal part of the brain that constitutes this moral decision-making and braking system is not fully developed until you are around 22, 23 years old.  Therefore, that’s explanatory of the impulsivity and those impulsive crimes of violence, et cetera. that many adolescents get involve with that you don’t see so often in adult people.  It’s also the reason why some adolescents will go bad, but who were okay as kids and get okay again as they get to be in their late 30’s and 40’s.  And there would be brain changes demonstrable in the adolescent that might be then less easy to pick up as they got more mature and those parts of the frontal lobe develop their full complement of fatty tissue, what we call myelin sheathing that prevents the wires from getting crossed, so to speak.

Question: Can evil be spotted in children?

Michael Stone: Well, there are certain types of children, mercifully rare, called callous-unemotional youths.  Now they are the ones who become psychopaths as they become older.  Not all psychopaths started as callous-unemotional youths.  But practically all callous-unemotional youths end up as psychopaths.  They’re the kids who could throw a kid off the roof at the school because they were annoyed at him.  They are heartless, they can do terrible things.  

I got called by the mother of such a child, a twelve-year-old, in the midst of my doing my Discovery Channel program, who had been born when she was a young woman and she was having an affair with an ex-con in one of the southern states.  So the boy, you know, was... had some genes probably from that ex-con.  When he was 12, by that time she had remarried to a nice man, they had a nice daughter, but the boy had the famous triad of bedwetting—he still wet his bed at 12—fire setting, and animal torture, which is usually a prelude to violent crimes, especially sexual ones as you get older.  He also stole, he bullied kids in school, and he tried to strangle his own sister.  So, he was unmanageable at home.  And I was personally helping that family to get him into an institution, which is where he is now.  But the point is, that’s a callous-unemotional youth and for sure there would be some brain changes that you could pick up then. 

The problem is, what do you do with a callous-unemotional kid?  Very little.  So that’s the kind of kid, if you spot him really... you really, the therapy that we have available today really doesn’t reach them very easily because they don’t have the emotional machinery in their brain, you know, to feel compassion for other people.

Question: Is there any way to treat these callous-unemotional youths?

Michael Stone: Well, this fellow is in a particular institution where they may be able to give him medications that would lower the tendency to act impulsively, like mood stabilizers and so that would be to lower the irritability, for example.  They might also try to institute some kind of behavioral treatment where they gradually teach him that if there’s certain things you do it has bad consequences, even if he doesn’t feel in his heart that it was wrong.  He might feel, “Well if I beat up this other kid, what’s the difference?”  And you don’t make him feel compassion.  You don’t try to educate him to feel compassion because it wouldn’t work, but you might educate him to say, “Well, okay so you don’t really feel in your heart of hearts that what you’re doing is unacceptable, but accept the fact that it is unacceptable and if you get caught, you could end up in jail or in very unpleasant circumstances.  So from the cost/benefit analysis that these people are capable of carrying out, it’s not to your advantage.  So that some of them can be deterred from doing what they want to do, thinking of the consequences not because they suddenly develop a full flower of compassion for their fellow human being.

Question: Are terrorists evil?

Michael Stone: Well, that gets into a complicated subject having to do with evil in wartime or in times of group conflict, which is different from what we’ve been focusing on, which is evil in peacetime.  So that certainly the victims of terrorism experienced the terrorist as evil.  I have no trouble, for example, calling Khalid Sheikh Mohammad evil, the one who cut the throat of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journalist after making him say, “I’m a Jew,” in Pakistan.  That’s a terroristic act which is like many acts of terrorism meant to warn the public.  There are many motives for terrorism, but one of the main ones is public warning.  Like, anyone who is thinking of doing whatever, this is what’s gong to happen to you, so that it acts as a deterrent.  This, of course, is extremely far, outrageously beyond what would be necessary as a public warning and that’s why we experience it as evil because it has that element of excess, which is one of the essences of evil.  It’s over-the-top.  

The guy that killed the... Hasan, that killed the 12 soldiers down in Fort Hood.  Evil.  Of course.  An act of Islamic terrorism.  Those kinds of things are clearly experienced as evil by the victims and by the people who side with the victims, such as the American public.  But the thing is, the people that commit the terrorism they, as you know, like in 9/11, consider the Americans as the Great Satan and we’re the infidel because we don’t subscribe to Islam, et cetera.  So they experience us as evil at the same time as we experience them as evil.  And we don’t have a God that descends from the sky and says, “Well, I’ve looked over your situation and I’ve looked over the other guy’s situation and I really think evil is on the side of the ones who blew up the World Trade tower."  So, it’s like history decides.  But I think it’s pretty obvious, that when you subject a human being to intense suffering, even for these so-called political purposes, that you’ve committed evil.  What the heck?

Question:  Where would corporate criminals fall on your scale?

Michael Stone: Well, they’re not on my scale because my scale is really earmarked for rape and serious crimes of violence and murder.  But I do notice that in the case of Bernie Madoff, because he lost $60 billion of other people’s money—which is all mind-boggling, it’s hard to get your brain around that.  When he was sentenced by the judge and sentenced to 150 years in prison, just as a token gesture, meaning, "We don’t want to let you out, Bernie."  The judge said, “Mr. Madoff, you are an extraordinarily evil man.”  

Now interestingly, a number of the people who fed millionaires' monies to Madoff, especially the guy in France, an aristocratic guy who got various important people to give a lot of money, it was a feeder fund for Madoff.  He didn’t... he believed that Madoff was honest.  When he discovered that he had lost, that Madoff had lost all of his client’s money—and by the way also the aristocrat’s money—he committed suicide.  And there were a number of suicides occuring in the immediate aftermath of the Madoff scandal.  So, in a way, in directly he had caused the death of a number of people besides, of course, subjecting untold number so people to the loss of their money and to misery.

Recorded on July 27, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller