Severe, prolonged childhood trauma is a common theme in the backstories of notorious serial killers. A 2005 study in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology revealed that the prevalence of childhood-sexual abuse among serial killers was 26 percent, while 36 percent had experienced physical abuse and 50 percent had been psychologically abused as children.
Charles Manson, the mastermind behind the torture and murder of 8-months-pregnant Sharon Tate and seven others in 1969, fits this narrative. He was born to 16-year-old Kathleen Maddox, who was arrested several times, first for armed robbery when Manson was a young child. He never knew his father. Maddox was reportedly an alcoholic with a penchant for theft and disappearing on benders.
Manson’s upbringing was unpredictable and chaotic: He spent time with relatives, in boys’ schools (where he claimed to have been raped by another student), and, eventually, in jails and juvenile facilities. He later headed the Manson Family cult, a communal California-based group that carried out his violent demands. He was convicted of seven counts of first-degree murder and remained in prison until November 19, 2017, when he died at age 83.
Aileen Wuornos, who was born in Rochester, Michigan, in 1956, murdered at least seven middle-aged men in 1989 and 1990 while working as a sex worker along Georgia and Florida highways. Born to a teen mother and a schizophrenic father who committed suicide in prison after a child-molestation conviction, Wuornos was left to the care of her grandparents.
Wuornos claims she was a victim of extensive sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather and possibly others. At 14, she gave birth to a child—whom she claims was fathered by her brother, Keith—in a home for unwed teen mothers. Her grandmother died of complications from long-term alcoholism, and Wuornos was subsequently thrown out of her home.
Wuornos began hitchhiking and relying on sex work to sustain herself. She killed one convicted rapist, Richard Mallory, which she claims was an act of self-defense after he sexually assaulted her, as well as at least six other johns. Convicted of first-degree murder in 1992, Wuornos was executed in October of that year.
Richard Ramirez, otherwise known as the “Night Stalker,” raped and brutalized more than two dozen people, ultimately killing at least 13, over a two-year period in the mid-1980s. Ramirez was born in 1960 in El Paso, Texas, to Julian and Mercedes Ramirez. Mercedes was reportedly exposed to toxic fumes at the boot factory where she worked while pregnant with Richard. This exposure, in addition to pollution from nuclear-bomb tests being conducted near El Paso in the 1950s, may have contributed to the multiple birth defects, illnesses and congenital disabilities experienced by Ramirez and his six siblings.
Ramirez said that his father was physically abusive to the family. As a child, Ramirez was also exposed to both violence and drugs by his older cousin, Michael, who had recently returned from Vietnam and showed him pictures of women he claimed to have mutilated, raped and murdered. After a fight, Michael shot and killed his own wife in front of Ramirez and ordered him not to tell anyone.
Ramirez became involved in drugs and petty crime shortly thereafter, and spent time in juvenile-detention centers before beginning his serial robberies, rapes and murders in Los Angeles as a young adult. Convicted in 1989 on 46 counts, Ramirez was sentenced to death and passed away on death row at age 53 on June 7, 2013.
A&E True Crime spoke with Dr. Ashley Hampton, a licensed psychologist who works in the prison system with both victims and perpetrators of violent crime, about how the traumatic childhoods of these three serial killers may have shaped their adult behavior.
A disproportionate number of serial killers have experienced psychological, physical and/or sexual abuse. How can these kinds of adverse childhood experiences contribute to serial killers’ patterns of violence?
What we generally see when we have some kind of abuse is victims begin to develop different thinking patterns than someone who has not been abused. What we grow up in, we believe is normal. That becomes the way we relate to people, the way we believe we should parent. That tends to be your go-to, for relationships, friendships, eventual families. Without being taught something else, that’s what they tend to repeat.
I work with kids and parents in child protective services, and we often see, for example, with sexual abuse: Once it happens, it’s difficult to keep it from happening again, because they believe that’s how you show love and how you interact with others and how family members treat each other.
You’re getting the message, ‘This is how we love each other, this is how we communicate, this is how we have relationships, this is how our family does things.’ And that’s what they believe because that’s their parent, that’s their guardian, that’s the person they look up to. And that becomes a thought pattern which affects their worldview and how they behave as adults.
Many people are abused as children, but most don’t become violent, much less become serial killers. What are some factors that lead a survivor of child abuse to develop an extremely violent response like serial rape or murder?
That answer runs the whole gamut. Some of it is intellect—to be able to cover up your victims and carry out crimes over and over enough to be a serial killer, you likely have some kind of intellect. They have to be crafty enough to establish a pattern.
A lot of what I see when I’ve worked with people in the prison system is little-to-no supervision— either they had a single parent working two or three jobs, or parents who were addicted to drugs and didn’t really pay attention or some other kind of abandonment or neglect on top of the abuse. They had time to craft how they wanted to do things. The way they lived was to manipulate people; that’s what they’ve always done. That’s how they always survived.
Charles Manson experienced several periods of abandonment as a child. How might his mother’s repeated abandonment have contributed to his later criminal activities and establishment of a cult?
We have an innate feeling in all of us that we want to belong. We want to be loved; we want to have some kind of group that we belong to. That desire can bring about gangs, and it can bring about cults, when we don’t get that feeling of belonging and love at home and we start desperately searching for it.
What is really interesting in his case and what you’re going to see across the board in terms of people who commit serial crimes, is that they become the leader. Even though they’re not necessarily the leader anywhere else, this is one way to become a leader, by influencing people to do what you want. Manson influenced others to murder Sharon Tate. Jeffrey Dahmer influenced boys to come to his home.
That kind of influence feeds the ego, to feel like you belong and are loved. ‘I have a place, these people appreciate me, this is where I belong.’ It may be about control, but it’s more that it’s a way to get that kind of love and inclusion you’ve never experienced before. In the case of Charles Manson’s mother, she told him directly that she didn’t love him.
So for Manson, that influence may have been overcompensation for his mother’s abandonment?
It eventually became, for Manson, an intense need for celebrity and fame, and yes, an overcompensation for the lack of love and belonging in his life.
Still, I’ve worked with plenty of kids whose parents didn’t love them and who abandoned them and they never became criminals. They moved on. Individuals with antisocial-personality disorder, which is a common diagnosis in people who commit serious criminal activity—we know from scans of their brain that they function differently—could also [have] contributed to Manson’s reaction to the abandonments. Though we’ll never know the answers to all of these questions for sure.
How could Aileen Wuornos’ childhood sexual abuse lead to her becoming a serial killer?
I’ve worked with people who have gone into prostitution after they were sexually abused. They didn’t value their body because no one else did. They didn’t see it as something special, they didn’t see it as something to be protected, they saw it as a tool to get what they want. Growing up, whoever was hurting them was giving them something in return; either it was love, or special attention or money. Then they used that as a way to get whatever they wanted in life as adults.
That became the impetus for becoming a prostitute, but what we would specifically see in cases like [Wuornos] is [after] the trauma of being abused, she was essentially repeating getting her ‘revenge’ against all these people—by murdering individuals who were really taking advantage of her again, even though she was getting paid. That’s repeating the trauma over and over. Eventually it becomes unbearable.
Wuornos was eventually diagnosed with both borderline-personality disorder and antisocial- personality disorder. Could her killings have been triggered by PTSD or her other mental illnesses because they activated memories of being sexually abused? Or did they represent a pattern of revenge?
Borderline-personality disorder develops when you have really unhealthy relationships. Everything’s kind of chaotic. You don’t bond with people very well, people go in and out of your life. (I also suspect that’s what Manson had.) You have this really unhealthy connection to anybody you are in a relationship with of any kind, and you also have this really unhealthy connection to yourself. Really low self-esteem, which ends up looking like impulsivity in sexual areas, drugs, that kind of thing. That’s not at all uncommon in individuals who have had sexual abuse, and neither is PTSD.
Even if they don’t necessarily see it as trauma as a child—because they’ve been told whatever story they’ve been told about why the abuse is happening—they understand when they get older that that’s not right and that wasn’t supposed to happen. Then it becomes this traumatic guilt and shame: ‘I should have known better, I should have done something, I should have told.’ It becomes this overwhelming life-altering thing, where maybe they hadn’t had much of a problem with it, but then the nightmares come back. A smell will trigger a flashback.
It may have been the trauma that set it off, because it was a repeat of what happened to her, or it may have been a revenge thing. I would venture to say it was both, and she would have been able to feel like she was ‘getting back’ at people who harmed her even though they were just stand-ins for the actual perpetrators.
These cases are ultimately so complicated because of the multiple things that happened. The multiple environmental factors; then you have what they chose to do as an adult.
Richard Ramirez, the ‘Night Stalker,’ was the son of a factory worker who was exposed to chemical fumes while pregnant. How might exposure to addiction as a child or to substances while in the womb contribute to future violent criminal behavior?
The kinds of things that attack our brain, we don’t know enough about yet. We know there are certain disorders, of course. We know about fetal-alcohol syndrome and that babies that are exposed to cocaine in the womb often exhibit symptoms that look like ADHD (Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder), but don’t respond to medication. We don’t know a whole lot about why they happen yet. Our hands are tied in terms of what kind of research we can do, because it’s not like we can purposely expose pregnant women to chemicals.
But in terms of toxins and chemicals, as well as drugs—anything that affects your brain—we know for sure that a lot is passed to the fetus. We can’t connect exactly how it might impact the baby as they grow.
Here’s the other issue we’re up against: In cases like this—lead poisoning, kids who are born drug addicted, things of that nature—they are sometimes born with some kind of intellectual disability. Then they’re made fun of at school, they’re isolated, they often have poor functioning in school and no one understands why it’s happening. Whether or not they were diagnosed and treated is also a factor, especially in lower-income families where parents might not have access to good health care or might not be around to notice what’s happening because they’re at work. They often start acting out in school and possibly exhibiting more criminal behaviors.
Then there’s the question of, ‘What is he having to do to survive?’ Even if there’s not a genetic issue, the ‘nurture’ part of the nature/nurture debate comes into play. Typically you might be looking at the poverty line, no access to safe housing, less access to resources of any kind and that leads to a fight to survive. If you don’t have someone to show you the correct way to get by, you’re going to have people to show you the wrong way to survive and get by, and they’d be happy to bring you into their fold.
Did Ramirez’s early exposure to domestic violence contribute to his own violence against women?
It goes back to what I was saying earlier: what you grew up around is your normal. You learn, ‘This is how we conduct relationships. This is how we treat women.’ At some point, that becomes a poor excuse, because when you grow up you realize not everyone is treating women that way. So of course it contributes, but there’s also the caveat of—if this is how he’s explaining what he did, then he chose not to look at any other examples.
We do see that cycle of violence happen all the time to a lesser extent. You’re abused as a kid, then you grow up and beat up your partner, and eventually you’re teaching your own children to do the same thing.
It’s important to note there are plenty of people who are severely abused who grow up and aren’t violent at all, or who learn from their mistakes. We tend to miss that a lot when we’re talking about domestic violence.
That’s the thing with these cases. They become a media frenzy, and they become our poster child for criminal behavior and what causes it.