Some of the most notorious serial killers of our time have something in common, beside their thirst for blood: They were all adopted. David Berkowitz (a.k.a. Son of Sam), Ted Bundy, Aileen Wuornos, Joel Rifkin and the Boston Strangler are just a handful of the prominent serial murderers who also happen to be adoptees.
Of course, correlation doesn’t not equal causation, but is there anything else we can learn about this connection?
For some adopted children, especially ones with “closed” adoptions, in which their birth records are sealed, research has shown that not knowing where they come from can contribute to trauma and mental illness. But can this type of childhood wound, in extreme cases, contribute to a later propensity for violence? It’s a question that has stumped criminologists and psychologists for decades.
A&E Real Crime spoke with criminologist Dr. Scott Bonn, author of Why We Love Serial Killers, to see whether there is any evidence of an adoptee-serial killer connection.
What’s your take on the claim that adoptees are overrepresented among serial killers?
When it comes to very high-profile serial killers, [a number of them] were indeed adopted. There seems to be a correlation, but I would certainly not say a causality. The fact that they were adopted did not cause them to become serial killers. There are millions of people who are adopted every year who don’t go on to become violent criminals or serial killers.
David Berkowitz, for example, was a very alienated, disturbed and frightened young boy long before he found out that his birth mother had put him up for adoption. Berkowitz was told [by his adopted parents] that his mother died in childbirth. In his early 20s, he found out that was not true, and it certainly fueled his anger. But the seeds for his pathology [were] laid long before that.
Did he talk about his adoption at all?
Yes, and he loved his adoptive parents. When his mother Pearl Berkowitz died, he was very upset. His father, Nathan, lived to be 101 years old. Nathan died a few years ago, and Berkowitz told me it was one of the worst experiences of his life because Nathan was the only one who stood by him through everything.
Lawyers for Joel ‘The Ripper’ Rifkin used his adoption as part of his defense when he went on trial in 1994 for killing 17 women, claiming trauma from his adoption drove him to kill. Did any other serial killers ever publicly say they were traumatized by their adoption?
Yes, Rifkin’s defense team used that. There are many different syndromes: battered-woman syndrome, adopted-child syndrome. Attorneys use them to try to demonstrate that [their clients] weren’t fully culpable for what they did. But Joel Rifkin was a complete psychopath, who I don’t think felt much of anything for anyone. So the [idea] that he would be disgruntled by his adoption is not likely. He’s almost machine-like. I do not think his adoption fueled his pathology.
Can you explain Rifkin’s defense for people who aren’t familiar?
Essentially, his defense was that that because he hadn’t been nurtured, and because he found out that he’d been abandoned [as a child], it led him to aggressive behavior and violence later on as retaliation against a world that had treated him unfairly.
Much was also made of the fact that Ted Bundy was lied to [about how] he was raised. He thought his mother was his sister! Did that contribute to his pathological mind? Did it upset him? Sure, perhaps he felt that he’d been wronged in some way. But again, Bundy’s pathology had been laid long before. He’s another [killer] who is a complete psychopath, so I don’t think much of anything disgruntled him, either.
Is there any kind of unifying thread for these adopted murderers?
No. I think the fact that they’re adopted is simply a fact. There have been hundreds and hundreds of serial killers since 1900, and I don’t know that there’s evidence that indicates that adopted children are overrepresented among that total serial killer [population]. Where they seem to be overrepresented is in the most high-profile cases.
What about adopted murderers who aren’t serial killers, but instead kill people they know? Does that happen often?
I don’t know any statistics on that. But let’s put it this way: I would be very skeptical. Sometimes people who are adopted are brought up in much more stable and loving homes than they would have been otherwise. Berkowitz is an example. He was born to two individuals who were married to other people. He ended up [adopted into] a very loving, stable home.
[Many] serial killers are psychopaths. They’re completely devoid of normal emotion and empathy. An additional 25 percent or so has another personality disorder or [severe] mental illness. To me, that’s the thing that really matters here. The personality disorders are the instability that drives them to violence; not the fact that they were adopted. They are very disturbed individuals to begin with.
So it has nothing to do with how they were born or raised?
I believe psychopaths are born, not made. Something is wrong with the wiring in the brain. Neuroscientists have mapped the activity of the psychopathic brain versus the normal brain and they process information and respond to stimulus differently.