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Updated 27 June 2014

"House of Horrors" - What made him do it?

What drives men to commit such despicable crimes, and is there anything we can do about it?

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Revelations about the “House of Horrors” in suburban Springs sent shockwaves of disbelieve and anger through the East Rand community.

A 36-year-old father of five children is alleged to have effectively held his own family hostage for years, subjecting them to violent abuse and repeatedly raping his wife.

Read: Rape linked to manhood in South Africa

In recent years we have become familiar with similar and even more horrific cases – Josef Fritzl in Austria and Ariel Castro in Cleveland spring to mind. But what is it that makes men commit such despicable crimes? What psychological scars do their victims suffer and how should we, as a society, respond?

What makes them do it?

“These men are most certainly mentally disordered by any modern definition, but very rarely legally insane,” says Paarl-based forensic psychologist Dr Joan Swart.

She cautions, however, that psychoanalysing a specific offender from a distance without direct access to all of the facts may not be entirely accurate and must by necessity rely on what is known from similar previous cases.

Swart emphasizes the fact that the crimes these men commit are typically part of a cycle of violence that has its roots in their own childhood by quoting Carl Jung who said: “The healthy man does not torture others - generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers”.

Read: Murder and torture, who can do it?

According to Swart, the characteristics of men who keep strangers or family members captive and abuse them physically, emotionally and sexually include:

- A history of childhood abuse which may give rise to personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder, behavioural disorders like conduct disorder and internalized disorders including depression and anxiety.

- Distrust and hatred towards others, the world in general, and even themselves.

- Deep-seated feelings of fear, insecurity and inadequacy which often translate into a desperate need for power and control.

“Most of these men are particularly adept at hiding their dysfunctional (‘dark’) side,” explains Swart, “keeping up good appearances to the outside world, friends, family and work colleagues”.

They may be able to mediate their feelings some of the time, making themselves look ‘normal’, but when certain stress factors trigger them, they cause significant distress that is relieved when acted on through abusive behaviour.

Read: Most will torture if ordered

Their conditions are a mix of genetic predisposition and personal experiences, and the abuse is often the result of individual and situational factors that create the need to control their victims in order to compensate for low self-esteem, jealousy, difficulties to control anger and a sense of inferiority.

Can they be cured?

“In principle, it is possible to rehabilitate such perpetrators,” says Swart. “However, it depends greatly on the psychological profile of the offender and his environment. If (and only if) a person is willing to commit to treatment, a combination of medication and psychotherapy has proven effective in preventing relapse in a majority of cases”.

What about their victims?

According to Swart, aside from the physical hurt inflicted on the victims, the most common potential repercussions are post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, suicidal behaviour, substance (alcohol, drug and prescription medication) abuse, outbursts, impulsivity and recklessness.

She makes the point that it is not unusual for a woman suspected of being the victim of domestic abuse to refuse to testify against the perpetrator who is typically her husband.

Reasons may include:

- Threats to her and her children;

- Feelings of shame, humiliation, dehumanisation, guilt and a belief that she is to blame;

- A lack of social or financial resources to extract herself from the abusive situation;

- An abuser who promises that he will change;

- Gender-role conditioning, making her believe that she is dependent on and inferior to her husband;

- Cultural and religious beliefs and values, including commitments to marriage, duty and submission to a husband’s will;

- Social prejudices;

- Continued love for her abuser; and

- Distrust towards the authorities and the legal system.

Given their horrific experiences it may come as a surprise that under the right circumstances and provided with the appropriate care and therapeutic, social and financial support, victims may in time recover reasonably well.

“Cognitive-based psychotherapy approaches are often very effective, sometimes in conjunction with medication,” says Swart.

Beyond this, attention to positive reintegration into society may also be required, including privacy, anonymity, security, education, vocational training and employment.

What should we do?

Cases like the Springs “House of Horrors” are only the most severe examples of the endemic levels of violence against women and children.

Some estimates suggest that as many as 25% of women will experience abuse in their lifetime and that 30 to 60% of the perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the home.

Swart thinks that our collective response to this kind of abuse should not be to distance ourselves, to deny that it could ever happen to us or those close to us, to blame the victims, neighbours and family for not doing enough, to sensationalise it in the media, to report on it inaccurately, and to attribute it to ‘evil’.

Read:What makes people evil?

“Instead, we should be willing to take collective responsibility, look at our own moral compass, and recognise that we all have certain vulnerabilities.

By cultivating and practising an awareness of ourselves and compassion for others we can move forward as a society.”

“A reflective change from within, supported by education, appropriate legal responses and supportive infrastructure and services is required to prevent or limit these abuses.

Prevention and management of sexual crimes should focus more on a mental health approach rather than a criminal one, as punishment in itself does not seem to be much of a deterrent.”

“I believe that it’s society’s responsibility to provide the victims with the trust and confidence that there is a safe and viable life for them and their children after abuse.”

Read more: 

The weird Fritzl trial
10 things you didn't know about torture
ADHD drives father to kill son
Oslo killer, sane or not?

 
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