Concept of the Month -- October 2010

The Myth of the Out of Character Crime*

When a particularly horrendous or bizarre crime is reported in the news, we sometimes read that it was totally "out of character" for the perpetrator. We'll be told that he had no prior criminal record, that he had an excellent employment history, perhaps that he was a church or civic leader. Friends of the offender will say they were shocked, didn't think he was even capable of thinking of such a crime. Even family members who thought they knew him well may declare that what he did was "out of character."

Let's consider the phrase "out of character" and what it implies. This computer keyboard on which I am typing cannot fly. It is not within its character or makeup to fly (unless someone hurled it through the air). A dog will not discuss the weather as it is incapable of doing so. During my 40 years of research, evaluation and treatment of human beings, I have yet to find that someone can do something that is not within his character. I agree that we are sometimes surprised by what other people do, even people whom we think we know intimately. But that does not mean that their behavior is out of character. So what does it mean?

"Out of character" means that we lack information. There are aspects of the person's behavior and thought processes that twe lack knowledge of. In my book "The Myth of the Out of Character Crime," newly available in paperback, I cite the case of a young man who committed a brutal rape of a high school girl. The perpetrator had no prior criminal record, was known to neighbors as the sweet kid who used to deliver vegetables from his family's garden in nis wagon. He attended college and, while in high school, held a part time job. His father asserted that what his son had done was completely out of character. Little did that parent know that, since he was a young boy, his son had composed increasingly violent and pornographic stories, that for years his mind was load with fantasies of violence and coerced sex. Nor did he know that his son used to follow young women who worked where he did, park outside their homes, and fantasize sexually assaulting them. Only when the police came to the house with search warrants was the discovery made of his years of sexual fantasies that he had incubated, written out and hidden. The rape was the activation of years of rehearsal in his thinking.

When we hear that a person did something "out of character," there is always more to the story than appears evident. There are thinking patterns that long have been present predating the behavior at issue! These thinking patterns express themselves at a moment of opportunity The crime is very much within the character of the perpetrator.

*Information about the paperback "The Myth of the Out of Character Crime" can be found on the book page of Dr. Samenow's website.

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