Why people do bad things: what the Son of Sam killer can teach us about mass killings and the human mind

In this podcast (episode #541) and blog, I talk to behavioral specialist and author Dr. Michael A. Caparrelli about his fascinating new book Monster Mirror: 100 Hours with David Berkowitz, Once Known as Son of Sam, what talking to one of America’s most frightening killers has taught him about evil and the human mind, the power of choosing to change, and so much more!

Dr. Michael A. Caparrelli is a former pastor of 16 years and a PhD in Advanced Studies in Human Behavior. His books, lectures and resources help us navigate through mental health issues from a faith-based perspective. His non-profit organization, UNMUTED, helps give victims of trauma their voices back. He travels the world speaking at churches, schools, prisons and other venues. 

In Monster Mirror: 100 Hours with David Berkowitz, Once Known as Son of Sam, Dr. Michael shows us how David Berkowitz is a human being with familiar vulnerabilities—someone less like a monster and more like “a guy who resembles your brother or friend.” He spent 100 hours talking to Berkowitz, who is in life imprisonment at Shawangunk Correctional. During these conversations, Berkowitz talks about what “possessed” him decades ago in a city that has mythologized his crimes ever since.  

David Richard Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam and the .44 Caliber Killer, is an American serial killer who pled guilty to eight shootings that began in New York City in July 1976. After serving in the United States Army, the New York native shot and killed six people and wounded seven others in a one-year span, terrorizing New Yorkers and gaining worldwide notoriety. Berkowitz evaded a massive police manhunt for months, mocking the police with threatening letters until he was arrested on August 10, 1977. He confessed to all charges against him and claimed he was following the orders of a demon manifested in the form of a dog belonging to his neighbor, "Sam". Berkowitz eventually pled guilty tosecond-degree murder and was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences, while also being implicated in many unsolved arsons in the area. 

Dr. Michael does not deny the horrific nature of Berkowitz’s crimes; rather, he shows how the dark desire on which he acted could have happened to anybody, and how we can all find some kind of redemption, even from the bars of a maximum-security prison. As Dr. Michael notes in his book, “100 hours with David Berkowitz was not like chatting with an extraterrestrial with whom I shared no mutual experiences. Instead, I met a shockingly relatable man.” Today, Berkowitz spends his time helping others while in prison: “He works as a mobility assistant helping wheelchair-bound inmates obtain their meds, submits uplifting writings to the liaison of a website, prepares Bible studies for chapel services, and responds to mail worldwide,” often helping suicidal and violent young men find meaning in their life again. Berkowitz is deeply sorry for what he did, and spends his days seeking forgiveness and trying to right his wrongs.  

Fyodor Dostoevsky once said that “nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer. Nothing is more difficult than to understand him.” This is the perspective Dr. Michael had going into his interviews with Berkowitz: what were the mental health factors behind his actions, and what explains his transformation over the past 35 years in prison. What is the “why” behind what he did and who he is now? 

In his research, Dr. Michael found several themes behind Berkowitz’s actions that led him into prison, which he calls the “recipe for violence”, which are not unique to Berkowitz’s upbringing, highlighting the fact that often the line between psychopath and general population is a lot thinner that we would believe. Understanding these themes is an important step in examining why people choose to commit acts of violence like mass shootings, and what we can do as individuals and society to help prevent these in the future. As Dr. Michael notes, we are capable of many things given the right circumstances and succession of choices.  

These themes include isolation, shame, abandonment, and cognitive distortion. Isolation, for instance, can severely impact our mental health. But isolation can take many forms. We can feel isolated even when we are surrounded by people. There is a big difference between being with people and bonding with people, which requires a level of vulnerability and connection. And the more isolated we are, the more our aggression increases and lays down a foundation for possible violence.  

This is why it is so important to teach children from how to express and manage their feelings. Even though he was loved by his adoptive parents, young Berkowitz struggled with abandonment and isolation issues, which contributed to his future choice to commit acts of violence.  

These feelings are often exacerbated by our very individualistic culture: it is all about “me, myself and I”, not our ties to our community, in many parts of the Western World. This appears to create an environment that is more likely to encourage acts of senseless violence compared to more collectivist cultures, where the statistics for mass shootings and other acts of violence are significantly lower. If we want to work towards preventing more acts of violence like mass shootings, which are tragically all too common in our society today, we need to examine why this is, and why community and our childhood experiences play such an important role in helping us manage our mental health and make good choices as both children and adults.  

For someone like Berkowitz, even though he cannot change what he did, he can change how his choices impact his mental health and actions today, which is having a lasting impact not only on his wellbeing and healing but also on others. His story is an example that regardless of the past, and even when we have to face the consequences of our actions, we CAN change and find healing and community.  

For more on what talking to one of America’s most frightening killers can teach us about evil and the human mind, listen to my podcast with Dr. Michael (episode #541) and check out his amazing book. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).    

This podcast is sponsored by: 

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Podcast Highlights

2:45 Son of Sam’s story 

4:45 Why Dr. Michael wrote Monster Mirror

6:30 The “recipe for violence” & making of a killer 

7:30 How isolation can impact our mental health  

11:15 The importance of teaching children from how to express & manage their feelings  

12:40 The importance of taking responsibility for your actions 

18:00 How our childhood experiences can impact our mental health 

24:00 How our individualistic culture impacts our mental health 

31:40 The “recipe for violence” & making of a killer continued   

33:00 How shame can impact our mental health & become fuel for violence  

35:45 Why it is important to learn how to manage anger  

37:00 How abandonment trauma can affect our mental health 

39:00 We CAN change regardless of our past 

Switch On Your Brain LLC. is providing this podcast as a public service. Reference to any specific viewpoint or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by our organization. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. If you have any questions about this disclaimer, please contact info@drleaf.com.     

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional. 

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