Tuesday, August 04, 2009

"None of us are saints"

-Albert Fish, serial child killer and cannibal

I went to visit my parents for a few days. It was my mother's birthday, and she wanted to pick up a free DVD rental at the local video store. Interestingly, she chose The Gray Man, a movie about "a real life Hannibal Lecter" ... a "classy and disturbing piece of true crime".

Now who doesn't love Anthony Hopkins as the sophisticated serial killer, fava bean fan, and gourmand cannibal Hannibal Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs? Well, Lecter seems like an upright chap compared to Albert Fish, an extreme masochist and sadist who preyed on young children.

The Gray Man opens in an orphanage, where young Albert and the other boys are brutally beaten, with the obvious implication that these painful and degrading experiences contributed to creating a monster. The complicated thing is, although the monster suffered from religious delusions (at times), raped young boys, and engaged in every bizarre sexual fetish you can imagine, on the surface he appeared to be a kindly old gentleman who had married and raised 6 children. His mental health deteriorated after his wife left him, and it was at this time that his deliberate self-harm reached epic proportions: he self-embedded 29 needles into his groin, as can be seen in this x-ray [WARNING: neither link is for the faint of heart].

The film focused on the case of Grace Budd, who was voluntarily kidnapped from her family in 1928 after Fish (posing as "Mr. Frank Howard") convinced them he was a well-to-do farmer offering to hire her older brother. Fish ostensibly brought young Grace to a surprise birthday party for his niece, but in reality led her to an abandoned house in the country where he murdered and dismembered her. Her disappearance became a highly publicized missing persons case, with lead investigator William King working doggedly for years to solve it. Six years later, the Budd family received a deeply disturbing and obscene letter that told of torturing and eating children, and then described the utterly horrifying murder and consumption of their own child.
How she did kick – bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms. Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little _ss was roasted in the oven. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body.
Mercifully, The Gray Man shows none of this on camera. The most graphic scenes are of Fish's self-flagellation, plus some views of raw meat here and there.

The letter provided King with enough clues to track down and capture Fish, who was sentenced to death and executed in the electric chair, much to his own delight:
"What a thrill that will be if I have to die in the electric chair. It will be the supreme thrill. The only one I haven't tried."
Of most relevance for this blog is the testimony of psychiatrists who (predictably) called him sane (for the prosecution) and insane (for the defense):
That Fish was suffering from some religious psychosis was a given as far as Dr. Wertham was concerned. Fish's children had seen him "hitting himself on his nude body with a nail-studded paddle until he was covered with blood. They also saw him stand alone on a hill with his hands raised, shouting: 'I am Christ.'"

Fish told him: "What I did must have been right or an angel would have stopped me, just as an angel stopped Abraham in the Bible [from sacrificing his son]."
On the other hand, the elaborate ruse under which Grace Budd was abducted showed methodical planning and premeditation. Furthermore, although he had a history of hospitalization at Bellevue the examining psychiatrists always released him with a diagnosis of "disturbed but sane".

But Fish had an extensive family history of mental illness:
Psychosis seemed to have galloped through Fish's family history from what Dr. Wertham could ascertain: "One paternal uncle suffered from a religious psychosis and died in a state hospital. A half brother also died in a state hospital. A younger brother was feeble-minded and died of hydrocephalus. His mother was held to be 'very queer' and was said to hear and see things. A paternal aunt was considered 'completely crazy.' A brother suffered from chronic alcoholism. A sister had some sort of 'mental affliction.'
The Law and Neuroscience Blog had recent entries -- featuring relatively new neurowords -- on Neurolaw and Psychopathy and The Neuroprediction of Violence:
One issue that the MacArthur Law and Neuroscience Project is actively exploring is whether recent and future advancements in neuroscience could shed new light on the problem of prediction by further unlocking some of the remaining mysteries of the violent mind.
What neural events led to the depravity of Albert Fish? It remains a mystery..

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At August 09, 2009 2:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There have been a few workshops and small conferences on the issue of neuroscience variables as predictors of violent and criminal behavior. The quick summary is that sociological variables seem to be better predictors than any neuroscience-based variable (other than clear cases of macroscopic brain damage that cause all sorts of other behavioral problems. But even these variables don't explain much of the variance (certainly, they cannot be used to predict if someone is going to turn violent or not).

At September 10, 2009 10:58 AM, Anonymous Kellen said...

New research is showing that psychotic symptoms might be caused not by genetics or "chemical imbalance" but by trauma. From my caseload I have seen that traumas are often handed down generation to generation in families, whether it is physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

With as much mental illness as there was in Albert Fish's family it would be hard to believe that he escaped untraumatized. Hence the trauma (and its symptoms) were passed to another generation.

At April 21, 2021 6:54 AM, Blogger Polly said...

None of us are saint somehow hes right. But i hate what he did


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