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Applying Social Learning Theory to Childhood and Adolescent Firesetting: Can It Lead to Serial Murder?

NCJ Number
International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology Volume: 48 Issue: 4 Dated: August 2004 Pages: 461-476
Stephen D. Singer; Christopher Hensley
Date Published
August 2004
16 pages
Based on three case studies of serial murderers, this study examined the possible link between childhood and/or adolescent firesetting and adult serial murder by applying social learning theory.
The relationship between juvenile firesetting and general aggressive behavior in adults has been well documented, as have the factors that influence the occurrence of childhood and/or adolescent firesetting. The relationship between childhood firesetting and serial murder is an extension of this research, but it has not been given sufficient academic attention. Still, current theory lends support to this possible link. The current study explored this issue by analyzing three case studies. One involved Carl Panzram, who serially murdered 22 people in the early 1900's; another was Ottis Toole, who in the mid-1900's partnered with the more infamous Henry Lee Lucas in claiming to have committed more than 100 murders (Toole was convicted of only 3 murders); and the third was David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer who pled guilty to 6 counts of murder and 8 counts of attempted murder in the 1970's. Each of these three serial murderers examined in this study engaged in firesetting as a juvenile in an attempt to release his frustration. Each murderer perceived that he had suffered traumatic levels of parental rejection during early childhood. They viewed the source of their frustration as someone against whom they could not retaliate. They attempted to gain a sense of power through firesetting. The destruction they committed through fire made them feel as if they had achieved some retribution against the source of their frustration, i.e., authority figures who treated them badly; however, the release was only temporary. Each of the men escalated his aggression to homicide in a further attempt to reconcile his internalized humiliation and restore his sense of self-worth and power. The destruction of property as an expression of frustration and rage through serial firesetting was apparently an early step toward the destruction of a more realistic symbol of the source of their rage, i.e., human beings. What separates serial murderers from other juvenile firesetters who do not become serial killers is their inability to resolve their frustration through more mild forms of aggression, such that they search forever more destructive releases. The temporary character of the release produces a repetitive pattern of destructive behaviors toward symbols of the source of their frustration. 38 references