Loneliness and Associated Violent Antisocial Behavior Analysis of the Case Reports of Jeffrey Dahmer by joellundstrom

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									   International Journal of Offender Therapy and
             Comparative Criminology

Loneliness and Associated Violent Antisocial Behavior: Analysis of the Case Reports of Jeffrey Dahmer
                                         and Dennis Nilsen
                                        Willem H. J. Martens and George B. Palermo
                                      Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol 2005; 49; 298
                                              DOI: 10.1177/0306624X05274898

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Loneliness and Associated Violent
Antisocial Behavior: Analysis of the
Case Reports of Jeffrey Dahmer and
Dennis Nilsen
Willem H. J. Martens
George B. Palermo

      Abstract: It can be theorized that loneliness plays a significant role in the development and
      continuation of violent, antisocial attitudes and behavior. Analysis of case reports of two serial
      killers, Dennis Nilsen and Jeffrey Dahmer, indicate that there is evidence for such a link. In this
      article, a list of significant correlates of loneliness and antisocial behavior is presented. This
      may be useful for the assessment of possible dangerousness and in the development of preven-
      tion and intervention programs. Suggestions are made for the adequate treatment of loneliness
      and correlated violent, antisocial behavior. A need is recognized for more research into the
      psychosocial, emotional, neurobiological, cultural, and ethnic determinants of loneliness and
      their correlation to specific antisocial and/or criminal behavior.

      Keywords: loneliness; antisocial personality disorder; intervention; prevention; case reports


    Loneliness, which can involve excruciating physical as well as mental suffer-
ing, is an ancient nemesis. In fact, the first thing that the biblical God named as not
good was loneliness. Loneliness is implicated in numerous somatic, psychoso-
matic, and psychiatric diseases (McGraw, 2000). It is a mundane yet arcane
human affliction that is often hazardous to health and hostile to happiness. There
are distinctive types of loneliness, such as emotional (eros loneliness), social
(friendship loneliness), cultural, ethical, ontological, existential, communicative,
epistemological, and metaphysical (McGraw, 1995). There are also five core vir-
tues of solitude: freedom, attunement to self, attunement to nature, reflective per-
spective, and creativity (Koch, 1990). These core virtues, however, are unlikely to
flourish in the case of severe, traumatic loneliness.
    Loneliness appears as a feeling and a state of separation from others. Insofar as
some preconscious awareness of the immediacy and accessibility of others, as
well as a memory of past togetherness, are prerequisite for loneliness, loneliness

NOTE: One of the authors of this article (Palermo) was the court-appointed forensic psychiatrist in the
Jeffrey Dahmer trial. Much of what is reported here was part of his court testimony.
International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 49(3), 2005 298-307
DOI: 10.1177/0306624X05274898
 2005 Sage Publications

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Loneliness and Violent Behavior                                                                           299

infrequently involves some kind of choice and willful separation (Gotz, 1974).
The experience of loneliness suggests a meeting of the metaphysical and the con-
tingent strands of our existence. This meeting takes place in our narrations to our-
selves of how we have uncovered our loneliness. These narrations arise as we
encounter and bespeak the possibilities of our existence (Labranche, 1973). The
authentic person discovers and becomes himself in and throughout the life pro-
cess of nothingness. A positive reaction to the essential experience of nothing-
ness, as felt in loneliness, can be one (Kraft, 1974). Jaspers considered loneliness
as a means to self-realization and as a presupposition of communication
(Salamun, 1988). But, unfortunately, not every lonely human being is able to
make the step from loneliness to communication. Loneliness is the defining fea-
ture of human awareness and the fundamental question of human existence (Art,
1992). But long-lasting loneliness may lead rather to the painful awareness in the
person in question of his or her inability to take part in human existence, to a
severe distortion of reality as a result of social isolation, and to an associated lack
of possibility to use constructive psychosocial, emotional, and moral feedback of
   No study of loneliness in serial sexual murderers was found during
PSYCHINFO and MEDLINE database searches. However, a few investigations
indicated a link between loneliness and sexual offending. Compared with non-
sexual offenders in one study, child sexual offenders (n = 29) reported signifi-
cantly more emotional loneliness (Marsa et al., 2004). The sex offenders (n = 47)
were both more lonely and more deficient in intimacy than other offenders and
community controls. Intimacy seemed to be the most important deficit among the
sex offenders in a study by Seidman, Marshall, Hudson, and Robertson (1994).
   In a retrospective study of a Dutch population of violent, forensic psychiatric
patients (n = 634), Martens (1997, 2002a) found that the systematic distortion of
reality, as well as too much contact with the harsh dimensions of reality (when
these negative experiences concerning reality differ fundamentally from reality
experiences of other people), may result in pathological loneliness, social isola-
tion, and devastating feelings of being cast out and thrown away. Severe social
isolation and correlated loneliness may also be the consequence of a lack of social
support (Lotter, 1999), neglect and/or emotional/physical abuse (Loos & Alexan-
der, 1997), mental disorders and associated cognitive impairments (American
Psychiatric Association, 2000); social-emotional incapacities (Giovacchini,
1996; Martens, 1997, 2002a, 2002b) and moral inadequacies (Martens, 2002a,


   In this study, the link between loneliness and violent, antisocial behaviour and
the correlates of devastating loneliness is investigated employing the case studies
of two serial killers, Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen.

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300                       International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

    Jeffery Dahmer grew up in a small Ohio town in the United States. His father
was a chemical engineer with a Ph.D. in chemistry; his mother suffered from vari-
ous mental disorders. Reportedly, they had a troubled marriage. When Jeffrey was
5 years of age, his brother David was born and for the first time, Jeffrey felt
neglected. His mother, who suffered from occasional depression and suicidal
ideation, was very self-involved, his father was involved in his doctorate activi-
ties, and Jeffrey had to share the sparse attention of his parents with his brother. As
a child, Jeffrey was shy but displayed impulsive and angry behavior (tantrums)
(Masters, 1993; Palermo, 2004). Between the ages of 6 and 8, Jeffrey’s family
moved three times. He was socially isolated and was regarded by other children as
odd and bizarre, and at age 10 he reportedly felt guilty about his mother’s emo-
tional disorder (Egger, 1998). It appears that Jeffrey remained unattached during
his childhood and never really bonded with anyone except a few high school
friends with whom he had only superficial relations. Although he was rarely inter-
ested in anything, he did show an interest in biology and was eager to perform
small animal dissections. Nevertheless, he was frequently apathetic and demon-
strated no normal emotions, and he felt that he was an outcast, belonging to nei-
ther family nor any other social network (Masters, 1993; Palermo, 2004). There is
no evidence that Dahmer ever developed an intimate relationship, and he was fre-
quently distrustful of others (Egger, 1998). He occasionally had destructive
sexual fantasies about young people with whom he wanted to get close.
    At about age 12, Jeffrey began to wander through his neighborhood and in par-
ticular wasteland and forest to look for dead animals, which he then dissected. He
placed the skulls of the animals on sticks in his neighborhood, and many people
worried about this weird behavior (Masters, 1993). He became increasingly
aloof, and at age 14 he began to drink alcohol to cope with his despair over his lack
of contact with his peers and to quell his compulsive, violent, sexual thoughts. (He
feared his own aggression.) He gave up the idea of contact with others.
    In grade school, the other children had noticed that Jeffrey showed no sympa-
thy for others; in high school, he was considered to be strange and no one wanted
to associate with him. He was very shy toward girls but aggressive toward author-
ity figures. He longed for attention and seemed to be seeking it everywhere. He
would reportedly fake epileptic fits in the classroom and at the nearby mall. He
would frequently draw outlines of nonexistent bodies on the floors at school
(Egger, 1998). But no one became aware that he suffered from deep feelings of
loneliness. At the age of 15, Jeffrey stole a shop-window dummy and lay with it in
bed when his parents were not at home. It was at the time of this episode that he
developed his first necrophilic fantasies and became aware of his homosexual
desires (Masters, 1993). At age 17, he entertained violent necrophilic, sexual fan-
tasies characterized by total, lustful control of another person, brought about by
social and emotional frustrations and loneliness. His parents divorced when he

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Loneliness and Violent Behavior                                                                           301

was 18, and he began to drink more frequently, at the same time becoming more
depressed. His social isolation increased, and he felt emotionally empty.
   At age 18, while driving his parents’ car, Jeffrey gave a ride to a young man
who was walking along the road stripped to the waist. Jeffrey was impressed by
his looks, and he invited him to his home for a drink with the hope of having sex
with him. When the boy refused his advances and wanted to leave, Jeffrey stran-
gled him and sexually abused him. He later stated that he could not stand the idea
of being abandoned and he experienced an irresistible desire to keep the boy with
him. He later went on to kill 16 more victims, all adolescents and young men. As
his obsession grew, he began saving body parts. He wanted to remember the
appearance of his victims, and he took pictures of the corpses. They belonged to
him. He exercised total control over his victims to the point that he attempted to
make zombies out of some of them: He gave them alcohol in which sleep-inducing
drugs were dissolved, and when they were half-asleep, he drilled holes in their
skulls and injected muriatic acid into them to liquefy the brain matter, but when
his experiment failed, he murdered them. The skulls of the six victims on whom
he had perpetrated the horrendous act were found in his apartment at the time of
his apprehension (Egger, 1998; Masters, 1993; Palermo, 2004).
   As in the case of Dennis Nilsen, Britain’s notorious and gruesome serial killer,
Jeffrey Dahmer wanted company. Whether his urge to kill was driven by a longing
for simple companionship or sex, Dahmer killed for it. He stated that he had
wanted to be with his victims, to keep them with him, and he described his fear of
being abandoned by them. He shared with many other serial killers not only a
deep, violent, destructive hostility but also boredom, loneliness, fear of rejection,
and an ambivalent craving for human closeness (Palermo, 2004). After his arrest
on July 1991, he explained that he did not hate his victims at the time of the murder
but that his acts were the result of feelings of lust in combination with an intense
need for total control of the victim (Masters, 1993; Palermo, 2004).

    Dennis Nilsen was born of a Scottish mother and a Norwegian father in
Fraserburg, Scotland. Dennis’s father was a soldier in the Norwegian armed
forces, fighting against the German army that was invading their homeland.
Although his parents were married, Dennis’s father was often absent and he rarely
saw him. Dennis felt himself to be a misfit, and he developed a withdrawn and
inaccessible character. He had developed a strong emotional bond only with his
grandfather, who looked after him and played with him. His grandfather was his
only companion and his great hero and protector. When Dennis was about 6 years
old, his grandfather died, and he was very disappointed that his grandfather had
left him, just as his father had done. No one was there to take grandfather’s place,
and no one gave him an explanation for his grandfather’s death. His mother told
him that he went to sleep and then he disappeared forever. Because of this, Dennis
felt abandoned and betrayed by his family. Moreover, in the same period, he

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302                      International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

became painfully aware that his birth was not the result of a happy and harmoni-
ous relationship between his parents. After his grandfather’s death, he became
more and more irritable and melancholic. He had no close friends, and he used to
take long strolls by himself along the sea.
    Dennis’s mother divorced his father when Dennis was 7 years old, and a year
later she was married again, to a quiet but reliable man. Dennis hated his stepfa-
ther because he felt that he took his mother’s attention away from him. Four chil-
dren were born from the marriage, and Dennis felt himself to be superfluous and
rejected. His mother neglected him because her attention was mostly targeted
toward her new children and husband, and his feeling of loneliness, present for
years, became more severe. His mother was not physically demonstrative with
Dennis and he missed that. During this period, he engaged in episodes of criminal
behavior, including theft and robbery. After age 13, while under the influence of
an uncle, he developed a very cynical and critical attitude. At about age 17, he
joined the army, where he remained until age 23. During that same period, he
became aware of his homosexual feelings, which he repressed both out of guilt
and shame. He hid them from the other soldiers, who did not tolerate homosexu-
als. Because of his distinctive sexual nature, he felt lonely, depressed, and alien-
ated from the outside world. Nevertheless, although he was introverted, he did
have some social contacts with other soldiers, and at age 21 he had one sexual
contact with a boy.
    By then, Dennis was a heavy drinker and he committed his first violent crime.
Although he was not sure, he claimed that he had probably killed a taxi driver who
had hit him without reason. When he left the army at age 23, his social life was
meager, and in his new work setting (police and civil service), he had few real con-
tacts. His colleagues avoided contact with him because he showed very little
social awareness and social-emotional interaction abilities. He talked incessantly,
even when the listener obviously showed no interest in his stories. His sexual life
consisted of one-night stands, and he found it to be very depressing. He hated his
life, and at 28 years of age, after an endless search for companionship with col-
leagues or with strangers, he feared that he would be alone forever. His self-
esteem was so low that he believed that he deserved no better. In these lonely
years, he developed violent, sexual, and necrophilic fantasies. Unexpectedly, at
age 30 he met an unemployed young man, and they decided to engage in a perma-
nent relationship. But after a year, their problematic and shallow relationship
worsened and they separated. Dennis became despondent and loneliness over-
whelmed him, and his feelings of despair reached a peak at Christmas that year.
Some days later, deciding to go out and seek company in a bar, he met a young
Irish man who was also alone and took him home with him. They drank a lot and
they went to bed naked. When Dennis woke up in the morning and looked at the
boy, he became afraid that he would leave him once awake and, trembling with
fear, he strangled him. In the following years, he strangled another 14 young
homosexual men, most of whom were homeless and jobless. He claimed that he
carried on conversations with some of the dead bodies and watched TV together

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Loneliness and Violent Behavior                                                                           303

with them and that he wrote poems for some of his victims. He killed only for
company, he said after his arrest (Masters, 1985; Ministry of Justice of Great
Britain, 1983).

                             ANALYSIS OF CASE REPORTS

   The impact of loneliness on the deviant development of Dahmer and Nilsen is
considered below.
   Dahmer’s loneliness, beginning about age 5, was the result of his parents’
neglect, their troubled marriage, the mental disorder of his mother, and frequent
moves from one town to another. He showed impulsive and aggressive behavior;
between ages 6 and 8 he developed apathetic, odd, and bizarre behavior and suf-
fered from severe social isolation. As a consequence, he missed the opportunity to
develop social-emotional interaction skills. From the age of 10, he began to view
himself as an outcast, he developed self-destructive fantasies, and he began to
drink alcohol frequently. At age 14, fearing his own aggressive feelings, he sys-
tematically abused alcohol to control the compulsive, violent, sexual thoughts
that were linked to his social-emotional frustrations and his lack of ability to form
contacts and the concomitant loneliness. At that point, he hesitated to try to fur-
ther establish emotional contacts with others. At age 15, he had his first
necrophilic fantasies, and he became aware of his homosexuality. After age 17,
his violent sexual and necrophilic fantasies were characterized by lust and a need
for total control over another person, possibly as a defense against unbearable
reality. From age 18 on, his feelings of loneliness were so overwhelming and his
need for companionship was so strong that the destructive fantasies that were
linked to these unbearable experiences of social isolation became reality.
   Following the death of his grandfather when Nilsen was age 6, Nilsen experi-
enced strong feelings of abandonment and betrayal by his mother and the rest of
his family, in part because they had not told him the truth about his grandfather’s
death. After his mother remarried when he was 8 years old, followed by the birth
of four step-siblings, he felt neglected and experienced severe loneliness, and he
developed serious conduct problems, engaging in criminal behavior. At age 14, he
became aware of his homosexual nature but was unable to manifest it openly or
explore it. As a result, despite having some social contacts, he felt lonely and
depressed. At age 21, he was a heavy drinker and committed his first violent
(probably homicidal) crime. When he left the army at age 23, he began to suffer
increasingly from feelings of loneliness and despair. In contrast to his army
period, he was unable to make social contacts. In the lonely years between ages 28
and 31, he further developed violent sexual and necrophilic fantasies. These fan-
tasies compensated for the lack of intimacy with living persons who, he felt, con-
tinuously rejected him, and they eased his emotional pain. Later, as his loneliness
became unbearable and he needed human company at all costs, his violent
fantasies became reality.

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304                       International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

    In the etiology of the antisocial homicidal behavior of Jeffrey Dahmer and
Dennis Nilsen, loneliness obviously played a crucial role (see antisocial personal-
ity disorder (ASPD); American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Both Dahmer and
Nilsen felt rejected by their parents and others in their neighborhood. Further-
more, they were unable to interact adequately with other individuals, and as a con-
sequence, they experienced long-lasting and unbearable feelings of social isola-
tion and an impossibility to develop effective social skills. They lived too much in
their own limited world, without close bonds or a safe nest and without receiving
the useful psychosocial, emotional, or moral feedback, or positive stimuli from
others that are necessary for reflection and behavioral correction. Healthy bonds
and relationships are the breeding ground for understanding, empathy, loyalty,
and feelings of responsibility toward others. Because of this lack of emotional
bonding and relationships, they had little chance to develop emotionally, socially,
and morally in a normal and healthy way. Furthermore, this severe lack of social
relationships, bonds, and psychosocial feedback from others may have generated
their inability to adequately test reality and led to their behavioral disturbances.
But Nilsen and Dahmer also experienced a lack of other normal social stimuli. A
person forced to live without company seriously misses the dimensions of distrac-
tion, entertainment, and relaxation that are a part of friendship and company. Con-
tinuously focused on their own disturbed and deviant internal world and associ-
ated emotional, mental, and social conflicts, they were prone to boredom, stress,
and strain. This became more and more unbearable for them. Only the compan-
ionship of other people could have released them from the imprisonment of their
limited self. Because of their long-lasting social isolation, Dahmer and Nilsen
were further inhibited in the expression of their desires for love, sexuality, and the
warmth proper of a normal relationship. The deviant manifestations of their
desires correlated with abnormal social-emotional and sexual development con-
sequent to their social isolation. Their loneliness was mixed with sentiments of
failure, shame, low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, and of not being good
enough for others, which they deduced from the fact that few people showed any
interest in them. They developed deviant fantasies, partly fed by frustrations and
anger, because they basically felt unwanted and incapable of relating to others.
Their deviant fantasies may be seen as a reaction formation, a defense against a
painful affect. Their loneliness caused severe and unbearable emotional pain, and
to avoid or overcome these feelings, they gradually came to desire complete con-
trol over the lives of others. This need for absolute control was paired with intense
lust. In their view, the only way to realize absolute control and to satisfy their lust
was to make zombies of their victims or to kill them so that they could use their
dead bodies for their own purposes.
    An analysis of these and other case reports of “psychopaths” who experienced
serious degrees of loneliness found that loneliness was, in most cases, clearly a
significant trigger for their severe antisocial behavior (Martens, 1997, 1999).
Most of these persons claimed that real friends and bonds probably would have
prevented their deviant, violent development.

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Loneliness and Violent Behavior                                                                           305

                            CORRELATES OF LONELINESS
                             AND ANTISOCIAL BEHAVIOR

   There are important correlates of loneliness and associated ASPD, which
should draw our attention. The case reports of Nilsen and Dahmer and other
patients with ASPD illustrate the importance of preventing loneliness in young
persons who are at risk of developing antisocial behavior. Extreme loneliness may
lead to internal rigidity, social-emotional and moral numbing, indifference,
hostility, and anger.
   Certain etiological determinants and predictors of loneliness and associated
antisocial behavior may be important indicators for prompt therapeutic interven-
tion. A combination of risk factors for loneliness that may be a forerunner of anti-
social behavior includes depression, social withdrawal, lack of social and coping
skills, neglect or abuse, and aversive family factors (parental divorce or antisocial
behavior, chaotic family life). These are dangerous warning signs calling for
remedial action. Parents, teachers, school physicians, pediatricians, adolescent
mental health workers, social workers, and sports trainers should be aware of the
significance of these signs, and they must know what to do and to which profes-
sionals the troubled persons should be directed. Children and adolescents at risk
and their families could be helped by a multisystemic treatment consisting of a
combination of family treatment, support, and training; social and coping training
for persons at risk; and educational and individual therapeutic programs, espe-
cially in an improved version as suggested by Martens (2004a, 2004b). In this
way, the dangerous influences that correlate with loneliness and antisocial devel-
opment, such as aversive family factors, neglect or abuse, and lack of intellectual
capacities and/or skills could be tackled. Treatment should also target comorbid
disorders such as substance abuse, depression, and neurobiological correlates of
antisocial behavior and associated loneliness in antisocial juveniles or adults at
risk. In particular, a combination of neurofeedback, psychotherapeutic and
psychopharmacological treatment, and psychosocial guidance could be effective
in antisocial personalities who suffer from loneliness (Martens, 2002a). Psycho-
analysis may be suitable for treating loneliness that is related to fear of one’s own
aggression and the need for intimacy (Richards & Spira, 2003). Because loneli-
ness is often the result of severe social-emotional deficiencies, intervention and
prevention programs should be directed toward the growth of social-emotional
interaction skills and the enhancement of social and emotional awareness and
capacities. Furthermore, treatment programs for this category of lonely patients
should also include intimacy training. Marshall, Bryce, Hudson, Ward, and Moth
(1996) revealed that intimacy training (i.e., enhancing intimacy skills) was very
effective in treating 32 male child molesters. The participants in their study were
provided with information about the origins and development of intimacy skills,
what constitutes a happy and healthy relationship, differences in sexual satisfac-
tion, how and why jealousy occurs, the development of relationship skills, and
dealing with loneliness. These offenders demonstrated significant improvements

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306                         International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

in both loneliness and intimacy after training. Effective psychosocial guidance
during treatment and follow-up psychiatric, psychotherapeutic, and neurological
care may be necessary in some cases to prevent relapse.


   Loneliness may be especially harmful for persons at risk for antisocial behav-
iors when combined with other risk factors, such as substance abuse; depression;
social-emotional incapacities; lack of social support and guidance; a violent,
criminal, or indifferent environment; and a lack of self-esteem. Therefore, profes-
sionals who are involved in the education and treatment of juveniles should be
aware of these risk factors. Nevertheless, although the risk indicators presented
are useful for the assessment of harmful conditions in vulnerable juveniles, more
research is needed into other neurobiological, psychosocial, and cultural/ethnic
correlates of loneliness. Impulsivity, hostility, and even aggression itself may be
linked to loneliness because such destructive attitudes may easily disturb existing
bonds and relationships, preventing new contacts or relationships. Cultural and
ethnic factors, which can be observed in refugees, can lead to estrangement in a
new country, to loneliness, and to associated mental disorders. Many psychiatrists
have observed that loneliness seems to be an important issue in psychiatry, psy-
chology, and psychotherapy. Unfortunately, it is not always clear how different
categories of patients/offenders with distinctive forms of loneliness should be
most effectively treated. Thus, more research is needed into a possible combina-
tion of therapeutic approaches for patients in whom loneliness is found to play a
major role in the development and continuation of their mental disorder and/or


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   Willem H. J. Martens, M.D., Ph.D.
   W. Kahn Institute of Theoretical Psychiatry and Neuroscience
   Beatrixstraat 45
   3921BN Elst (Utrecht)
   The Netherlands

   George B. Palermo, M.D., M.Sc.Crim.
   Center for Forensic Psychiatry and Risk Assessment
   1000 North Water Street
   Milwaukee, WI 53202

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