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Researched and prepared by Wilbur L. Brower, Ph. D.

Dr. Lonnie Athens stated: I will outline a regime which could make anybody into a violent criminal no matter what their biological makeup. This short paper is a summary of the key points in his books titled The Creation of Violent Dangerous Criminals and Violent Criminal Acts and Actors, along with some background information that help to put Athens findings into a supportive framework. Ive also included some of my personal observations and experiences from working with young adults who exhibit many of the behaviors. In Mind, Self and Society (1934), George Herbert Mead advanced the notion that human beings attach meaning to objects, including other human beings, and act on the basis of those meanings. It was his belief that the human society could not exist without minds and selves. He asserted that individuals acquire a mind and a self. Culture derives from an investment of bare nature with meaning. Mead pointed out that meanings are basically arbitrary, devised through communication among minds and selvesyour, mine and others. Mind and self emerge through a social process. A child does not know itself, but begins to discover itself through interactions with others, initially by way of sounds, gestures and expressions. The child begins to learn the sounds, gestures and expressions from the caregiver and the responses. Later, language acquisition, which Mead proposed as an essential ingredient for the development of self, accelerates and enlarges the process of discovering or developing self. The child learns the language of attitude and valuevocabularies of behaviorfor exchanges of gestural and verbal conversation. Mead calls the self-building process objectification. We learn to perceive ourselves as objects by looking back through the eyes of othersby seeing ourselves as others see us. Mead called this, taking the attitude of the other. We form our

objects/identities/personae primarily through social transactions with parents, siblings, relatives and others close to us, or our primary group. They are descriptions filled with the attitudes and values of our primary group with whom we negotiated them. We also attach these objects/identities/personae to our bodily sensations and make them ours, or simulations with attitudes, feelings and values. Mead assumed that within a given society, the interpretations people make in particular circumstances of situations are based on a shared set of meanings. Mead called that collective understanding the generalized other, a concept that Athens had difficulty accepting. It was Meads belief that an individual takes on the language of a community as a medium through which people get their personality. Selves are not given; they are constructed. They are built, altered, modified, refurbished, reconstructed, etc., and even replaced over time. We acquire our selves through our communications with ourselves and with others. The mind and the self are products of participation in group life. Possessing a self makes it possible for human beings to ascribe meaning to objects in her or his world, including other individuals. This allows the individuals to read and interpret others and the world around them. Possessing a self also allows human beings to construct a world of private inner experiences. Herbert Blumer (1969) states: This inner world is one of genuine social experience for him, in which he may cultivate his impulses, develop his emotions and sentiments, form and revise objects of others and himself, brood or exult over his memories, develop and restrain his inclinations, cultivate his intentions and nurture and shape plans of conduct. Additionally, possessing a self makes it possible for human beings to interact with the world around them rather than just react to it. It follows, then, that individuals can operate out of an inner experience and by operating by direct response to stimuli. We also assign meanings and interpretation to situations based on our personal interpretations of or feelings about them. Athens discovered that violent criminals interpreted the world quite differently than the most law-abiding individuals. Therefore, their violence emerged from those different interpretations. Their violent acts were deliberate decisions, not violent acts of unconscious motivation, deep emotional needs, inner psychic conflicts or sudden unconscious outbursts, as is often assumed or assigned.

It was Athens belief that unless violent criminals are bad seeds, genetic monsters born that way, there had to be something in their childhood or a previous experience that drove them to become violent adults. He argues and provides compelling evidence, from extensive interviews with individuals who have committed violent criminal acts, that violent dangerous criminals, in fact, are created through a four-stage process. Athens wanted the individuals during the interview to construct objects of themselves at the point where they remembered being violent or near-violent. He also wanted to know how they thought of themselves during the time of the offense. Their self-concepts would eventually emerge. From these interviews with violent dangerous criminals, Athens found frightened, angry children. He said that, When people look at a dangerous violent criminal at the very end of it, they will see, perhaps unexpectedly, that the dangerous violent criminal began as a relatively benign human being for whom they would have more sympathy than antipathy. Athens was not concerned about the statistical distribution of characteristics of violent offenders or their offenses. His primary concern was the social psychological processes at work within the offender during the violent criminal acts. Athens found that violent people consciously constructed violent plans of action before they committed violent criminal acts. They do not snap but make decisions and act on them. He found that the interpretations violent actors make of situations during which they commit violent criminal acts evolve through a common series of steps. The perpetrator: Assesses the victims attitude and indicates to herself/himself what he believes to be the meaning of that attitude Engages in a dialogue with himself/herself, implicitly consulting the significant figures out of her/his past whose attitudes he has internalized, to decide whether or not the victims presumed attitude warrants violent action Initiates violent action against the victim, if he concludes that the attitude warrants a violent act. During his interviews, Athens discovered four distinct types or kinds of interpretations.


Physically defensivea violent actor forms physically-defensive interpretation in two steps1) interpreting the victims attitude to mean that physical a physical attack is imminent or already is underway, and 2)t hen telling himself/herself that he/she should proceed to respond violently and forming a plan of action. It is perceived that the victim is making or has made a gesture that the perpetrator believes constitutes or foreshadows a physical attack, requiring acts of selfdefense. Athens found that criminals who form plans of action as a results of physical defensive interpretations view themselves as non-violent. They fell compelled to use violence in self-defense, and their primary emotion is fear.


Frustrativethe perpetrator forms a frustrative interpretation when he/she interprets the victims attitude to mean that (1 the victim is resisting or will resist what the perpetrator wants to do (such as rape, robbery, etc.), or (2 the victim wants the perpetrator to behave in a way that the perpetrator rejects (such as allowing him to be arrested). After an internal debate, the perpetrator concludes that he/she should respond violently to this frustration and then determines a violent plan of action. The perpetrators primary emotion in forming a frustrative interpretation is anger at the thwarting of her/his intentions.


Malefic violencefrom the Latin word maleficus, which means evil. There are three steps that lead to the malefic interpretation: a) the perpetrator assesses the attitude of the victim to be belittling, scornful or contemptuous of her/him; b) the perpetrator concludes from the internal debate that the victims attitude means he/she is an evil or malicious person; and c) the perpetrator, believing the victim to be extremely evil and malicious decides to counter such evil or maliciousness with violence and enacts a violent plan of action. The perpetrators primary emotion in forming a malefic interpretation is hatred.


Frustrative-maleficthe victims frustrative resistance or insistence leads the perpetrator to conclude that the victim is evil and malicious, which demands a violent response.

Athens also found that there were three possible developments that determined whether or not a violent actor would follow through to commit a violent criminal act: 1) the actor has tunnel vision, a fixed line of indication, and carries out the act immediately or nurtures the idea along until he/she carries out the plan of action; ) 2 restraining judgment where the violent actor redefines the situation and judges that he/she should act violently; and 3) overriding judgment where a violent actor breaks out of a fixed line of indication but returns to it later. Athens concludes that violent actors consider, decide and choose when and where to act violently and are responsible for their actions. They interpret situations very much like the average individualfearfully, angrily or hatefully. Unlike the average individual, they decide to act violently as a result of that interpretation. Athens sought to understand what was different about the violent actors decision-making process that leads them to different conclusions. This led him to a fundamental discovery about the structure of human personality. Athens wanted to understand the self-interaction of violent criminals, what they thought about when they assaulted, killed and raped. While he understood aspects of Meads generalized other theory, he had difficulty reconciling it with what he learned first-hand by interviewing violent dangerous criminals. The theory constituted a persons character, principles and acknowledged attitudes of all members of that community. It explained conformity, but it did not explain individualism. It explained agreement, but it did not explain disagreement. Athens was studying individuals whose attitudes and behaviors were totally out of sync with the acknowledged attitudes of their community that had judged them violent and dangerous and sentenced them to prison. They were extreme examples of barbaric individualism, which is antagonistic to the general society. Athens conflict with Meads model led him to propose a more intimate community that was more of a shadow or reflection of the I and the me of each individual. Athens determined that, somewhere between the individual and the broad collectivity of society, there were some significant others whose attitudes shape individuals. The significant others could be parents and other members of the primary group, the voices of past experiences the individual has had. He advanced the theory that

the internalized attitudes of significant other individuals are constants in a persons life, which make it possible for a person not to be unduly influenced by immediate, passing experiences. Athens identified these incorporated attitudes as phantom others, and proposed that these phantom others comprise a phantom community. Athens also states that we talk to ourselves; in essence, talk with a go-between when we are undergoing social changes. We also talk with phantom others, who are not physically present, but whose impact upon us is as powerful as people who are present when we are during our social experiences. Our phantom community is ever-present, but we may be unaware or unconscious of their presence. Our phantom communities are likely to emerge during times of personal crisis, and they are a hidden source of our emotions, especially fear, anger, hate and love. It is his belief that we assign meanings to situations when we talk to ourselves, and that our phantom community is a major contributor to our emotions. Our phantom community tells us how an experience is going to conclude before it actually does. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is from the phantom community that Athens subjects interpreted the attitudes of their victims; and it was from the phantom community, not the generalized other, that they found justification for responding violently. Unlike the typical individual, violent dangerous criminals attached different, violent meaning to their social experiences. Many people feel frustrated, become angry and hate, but only a small number uses violence to overcome those conflicts. There will be more about this later. It is from the phantom community that violent dangerous criminal construct selfimages. He discovered that the image the criminals had of themselves when they committed a crime determined they types of violent acts they committed. He found three types of self-images, and labeled them violent, incipiently violent and non-violent. Violent self-image individuals see themselves and as seen by others as having 1) violent dispositions, a readiness and willingness to attach other people physically with the intention of seriously harming them; and 2) see themselves as having violence-related attributes and characteristic, such as explosive, hot-headed, mean, ill-tempered and coldhearted. They commit violent criminal acts in situations in which they formed malefic, frustrative, frustrative-malefic or physically defensive interpretations.

Incipiently violent self-image individuals see themselves and are seen by others as having violence-related attributes, but only a readiness or willingness to make serious threats of violence toward others. They make menacing physical gestures and violent ultimatums toward others. They commit violent criminal acts only in situations in which they formed physically defensive interpretations or frustrative-malefic ones. Non-violent self-image individuals do not see themselves and are not seen by others as having a violent or incipiently violent disposition. They commit violent acts in situations in which they form physically defensive interpretations of situations in which they find themselves. They referred to their phantom community to construct their self-images and their interpretation of situations in which they found themselves. Those who have a violent self-image have an unmitigated violent phantom community providing them with expressed and unlimited moral support for acting violently toward others. Those who have an incipiently violent self-images have a mitigated phantom community providing them with expressed, but limited, moral support for acting violently toward others. Those who have non-violent self-images do not have a non-violent phantom community that provides them any expressed moral support for acting violently toward others. He discovered that crimes are a product of social retardation because criminals are guided by an undeveloped, primitive phantom community that impedes them from cooperating with ongoing social activities and interactions of their corporal community or the greater society in which they live. It is Athens belief that a small group of people who have violent phantom communities are at the heart of our violent crimes. He contends that there are three types of violent criminals based on their phantom communities and their self-conceptions and self-images: ultra-violent, violent and marginally violent. He states that ultra-violent criminals inhabit unmitigated violent phantom communities and paint violent portraits of themselves. Violent criminals inhabit mitigated violent phantom communities and paint incipiently violent self-portraits. Marginally violent criminals inhabit non-violent phantom communities and paint only non-violent portraits of themselves. Therefore, he believed that in order to understand violent criminals, one had to understand the phantom

communities of violent actors. This led him to the investigation of the social process that leads to the development of a violent phantom community. Two of Athens assumptions were: 1) people are a result of social experiences that they undergo; and 2) significant experiences that make people dangerous violent criminals do not occur all at once, but gradually over a period of time. He proposed that there are some social experiences that a person can undergo that are so consequential and profound that they leave an indelible impression on the individual. Those experiences could make a person a dangerous violent criminal. Those social experiences build on each other and form a development process with discrete stages. Athens interviews led him to conclude that violent dangerous individuals are created by way of a socializing process that included a strong influence of a phantom community. It was a four-stage experiential process that he termed violentization. The progression of stages is: 1) brutalization, 2) belligerency, 3) violent performance and 4) virulency, and individuals have to go through the attendant social experiences in one stage before they can enter the next higher stage of violence development. The following outline provides some of the factors and explanations associated with each stage in the progression. 1. BRUTALIZATION: a) Violent Subjugationthe subjects primary group (characterized by regular, face-to-face interaction and intimate familiarity between its members, such as a clique, family, gang) threatening to use or using extreme physical force to compel the subjects obedience and respect. There can also be coercion wherein the authority figure forces the individual to comply with some command that the subject displays some reluctance to obey or refuse outright to obey. The authority figure continues the battering until the subject signals submission by obeying the command or proclaiming intensions to. Then, the authority figure stops. But, before that point in the subjugation, the subject reaches at state of terror and panic, and subjection is the only way out. Submitting to and stopping the battery provides a great sense of relief to the subject. 8

Immediately afterward, however, the subject feels humiliated from the realization of having been battered into submission. The subject is incensed by the humiliation and later is filled with rage that is transformed into a desire to seek revenge. The subjects desire for vengeance expresses its in fantasies in which the subjugator is battered, maimed, tortured or murdered. Coercive retaliation is intended for momentary submission for compliance to a present command. The authority figure can also exact retaliation to punish the subject for previous disobedience or disrespect. Retaliatory subjugation involves relentless battering because the authority figure refuses the subjects offers of submission. Once the subject realizes that the subjugator was not going to relent, the subject becomes resigned and falls into an apathetic state, becoming numb to the pain, absorbing the punishment and falling into a stupor. The subject will harbor desires to batter, maim, torture or murder the subjugator. Retaliatory subjugation seeks a permanent submission to ensure future obedience and respect. b) Personal HorrificationThe subject witnesses (sees or hears) another person undergoing violent subjugation. The other person must be a member of the subjects primary group. The subject feels helpless in defending the group member. The wrath felt builds into fantasies about battering, maiming, torturing or killing the subjugator. The intense feelings eventually turn to personal shame and blame because the subjects inability to stop what was witnessed. The subject blames her/his own impotence rather the subjugators wickedness. c) Violent CoachingThe subject is prompted to violent conduct by someone in the subjects primary group who is older and more experienced than the subject, or a credible authority figure. Subjects are taught that they have a personal responsibility to physically attack any

protagonist. Through the following techniques, violence coaches instruct novices what they should do when people provoke them: Vainglorificationglorifies violence through storytelling. The violence coach tells personal anecdotes about violent acts-her or his own or those of relatives or close friends Ridiculepromotes violence through belittling and derision via comparisons between the coach and the novice Coercioncoaching through coercive, violent subjugation, where the coach threatens to physically attack the novice unless the novice attacks a protagonist Haranguingrepeated and raves about hurting other people, from which the novice learns over time the lesson conveyed by the coach BesiegementThe coach mixes a combination of penalties and rewards to overcome any reluctance the subject has to engage in violence All three components involve the individual being subjected to cruel and coarse treatment at the hands of another individual in a way that dramatically impacts the individuals subsequent life in some traumatic way. All three brutalization experiences, violent subjugation, personal horrification and violent coaching, are necessary to complete brutalization. It is Athens belief that most people who complete the process, especially males, do so by early adolescent, and are left in a confused, turbulent condition. This confused, turbulent condition prepares them for the next stages of the violentization process. The violent subjugation generates emotionally-charged thoughts in the subject with a repressed sense of rage and vague notions about physically attacking other people. The personal horrification adds a sense of powerlessness, turning the subjects feeling inward. The subject was unable to protect her/his intimates and concludes that she/he is worthless. The violent coaching adds humiliation to the feelings of worthlessness. Athens writes: The question which has been in the back of the subjects mind for


some time and which only now moves to the forefront is: Why have I not done anything to stop my own and my intimates violent subjugation? 2. BELLIGERENCY BelligerencyThe subject re-directs the question from Why have I not? to What can I do?, and clearly understands, for the first time, the importance of the coaching received. The subject concludes: Resorting to violence is sometimes necessary in this world. The subject then resolves to use serious violence only if theres serious provocation and only if theres a good probability of prevailing. This mitigated violent resolution represents the completion of the belligerency stage. 3. VIOLENT PERFORMANCES If there is defeat in a violent act, the subject is likely to either avoid physical confrontation or resort to more lethal violence more quickly. If there is a draw, the subject is left in limbo. If the subject prevails in a violent confrontation or performance, primary group members and secondary group members (school officials, police, prosecutors, judges, etc.) reinforce the opinion or notion that the subject is an authentically violent person, and needs to be approached and treated with apprehension. The subject engenders social trepidation, wherein the subjects violent notoriety is better than not being known for anything at all. Being known as a dangerous person creates and gives the subject a greater power over her or his immediate social environment. The subject draws the conclusion that he or she is invincible, and is determined not to tolerate any provocation from others and, in fact, is likely to provoke others. The subject has come full circle from a hapless victim of brutalization to a ruthless aggressorthe same kind of brutalizer the subject once despised. This completes the fourth stage of violentization, which is virulency.




The subject resolves to unmitigated violence, and will attack others physically with the serious intention of inflicting severe harm or killing them minimal or less than minimal provocation of their part. The subject is ready to become an ultra-violent criminal. Athens contends that unless an individual has undergone an authentically violentization developmental process, he or she will not become a dangerous violent criminal. Violentization is transmitted experientially across generations, and the process can take several years or a few months. Violentization is a social process that requires interpersonal interactions and the process changes over time. For example, subjects suffer from low self-esteem during the early stages of violentization, and then suffer from unrealistically high self-esteem to the point of arrogance should they reach the final stage virulency. Athens research brought him to the conclusion that people who have never had any prior violence-related experiences whatsoever do not suddenly commit heinous, violent crimes! His research shows emphatically that violentization is the cause of criminal violence, not poverty, genetic inheritance, psychopathology and other factors often contribute to dangerous criminal behaviors. He found that dangerous criminal behaviors cut across class, race, cultures, economic and social status and gender. However, Athens did find some differences, primarily because of different interpersonal interactions and socializing techniques, in criminal behaviors between men and women. In his efforts to further explain his theories about creating violent dangerous criminals, Athens also examined and explained various kinds of communities historically and present-day. He asserts that dominance is a social universal because human beings compete for dominance, which he defines as swaying the development of social acts in accordance to ones preferences. He states that social acts are collective co-ordinations of the separate of individuals, and people dominate when they impose their view of a developing act social act on others. He also states that in all communities, a dominance hierarchy invariably emerges, and that people who occupy higher positions often make their identification of emergent social acts prevail over people in lower positions. This usually initiates a dominance struggle. Athens identified three distinct kinds of communities within the United States and how they differ from each other. He also states


that in spite of their differences, they all are the same regarding the dominance hierarchy, and the norms that people use for settling dominance disputes. However, the individual type that predominate The three kinds of communities that Athens identified are civil, turbulent and malignant. Each community has its own unique phantom communities, self portraits, patterns of actions and insignia of dominance, characteristics Ive attempted to show in a table format: COMMUNITY CIVIL WHO DOMINATES Pacifistswill not commit even physically, even under life-threatening circumstances. Marginally violent personwill only commit physically violent acts. TURBULENT No individual predominatesa turbulent mix of all four types: pacifist, marginally violent, violent and ultraviolent SELF PORTRAIT Anti-violent NORMS FOR SETTLING DISPUTES Gossiping about, ridiculing, snubbing, deluding or temporarily avoiding rivals. In more extreme disputes, rivals may be permanently purged from the group by firing, disowning, divorcing, ostracizing or shunning. Violent crimes are a rarity. No prevailing norm for resolving dominance disputes. Violent crime is smaller than in malignant communities, but still a much bigger one than in civil ones. A willingness and readiness to attack other people physically with the intention of seriously harming or killing them for any dominative provocation. Prepared to commit physically defensive and frustrative-malefic


In transition toward either civility or malignancy


Ultra-violent person Violent prepared to commit the full range of violent acts and has unmitigated violent communities Violent personhas mitigated violent phantom Incipiently violent



violent acts under extreme dominative provocation. Physical violence is the most effective means of settling dominance disputes, and one must be prepared to use and receive deadly force. Violent criminal acts of all kinds occur with great frequency, and produce an unsurprising callousness toward violence among its members.

From his interviews with violent dangerous criminals and his understanding of Herbert Meads work on the I, me, and phantom communities, Athens developed thirteen principles to delineate the other, as outlined below: 1. People talk to themselves as if they were talking to someone else, except that they talk to themselves in shorthand. 2. When people talk to each other, they tell themselves at the same time what theyre saying; otherwise they would not know. Athens states that a corollary of this principle is that people may talk to themselves silently while also echoing what they are saying to someone else, so that what they tell someone or what someone tells them is not necessarily what the speaker is thinking. 3. While people at talking to us, we have to tell ourselves what they are saying. Unless we do, we do not know what they are telling us. 4. Soliloquizing transforms our raw, bodily sensations into emotions. 5. We always talk with an interlocutor when we soliloquize. Everything that is said to us, including what we say to ourselves, some interlocutor tells us. 14

6. The phantom other is the one and the many. It is a multiple because more than one phantom companion is ready at hand. We need a council of phantom others for social flexibility, since different phantom others offer different expertise. 7. We soliloquize both superficially and profoundly. Superficially we self-talk ourselves through out daily experience with people we are aware of and recognize. But ordinarily we are not aware of our phantom companions. 8. Our phantom others are the hidden source of our emotions. If we devise emotions by soliloquizing about bodily sensations, and if our phantom others play a critical role in our soliloquies, then our phantom others must largely shape the emotions we devise. Our phantom others tell us how an experience that we are undergoing will unfold before it actually ends, which can create in us a powerful selffulfilling prophecy. That prediction in turn can stir us so deeply that we will be moved to carry it out when without its powerful influence we might not have done so. Since our phantom others stand in shadow, we may well be unaware of their authority over us. 9. Talking to ourselves allows us to compose self-portraits, f we could not soliloquize, and we could not describe ourselves to ourselves. 10. The phantom community rules. It occupies center stage whether we are alone or not. 11. Since soliloquies are necessarily multi-party dialogues, conflicts of opinion are always possible. 12. Absolute conformists or absolute individualists are rare. Whether we act like one or the other in the course of a specific social experience depends on what our phantom community tells us. When our us (our phantom community) disagrees with them (our generalized other), we act like individualists, confounding


their expectation; when us and them agree, we act like conformists, meeting their expectation. 13. Significant social experiences shape our phantom community.

Personal Thought, Questions and Observations We are what we say and believe we are. How do we change young adults self-conceptions and self-images toward violent behaviors to self-conceptions and self-images toward personal mastery and value and academic success? Who we think we are has a profound influence on our actions and behaviors. Our thoughts become our blueprints and roadmaps for what we are likely to do. Our phantom communities can be extremely dangerous for us if we listen exclusively to those communities for moral guidance. How has the growing hip-hop culture influenced the attitudes and behaviors of todays young adults? Does this culture constitute a phantom community that has more influence than society at-large? Phantom communities are inevitable. How can we develop phantom communities that are non-violent? What are some of the components or elements of an effective of non-violent phantom communities? How can we thwart or eliminate violent phantom communities? How do we extinguish students need to act violently toward each other? What social pressures can be brought to bear on schools that will not deal effectively with belligerent students? Can these students be directed to rehabilitative and therapeutic settings for help before their offenses go beyond the point of rehabilitation? Some things that can be done: Reduce violence in families


Reduce school violence Offer non-violent coaching such as training in negotiation, anger management and conflict resolution Discourage bullying Offer mentoring to children at-risk of violent coaching Counsel belligerent student Dissolve or pacify street gangs Separate violent dangers students from the remainder of the students so that their presence will not have any legitimacy with others What roles have economic and social oppression had on creating phantom communities that work in opposition to the functioning of general society? How might this contribute to the present prison population? Upon reflection on the violentization process, it seems that prisoners are exposed to a phantom community in which violentization is re-enforced and solidified. If this is true, it might explain the high recidivism rate. One of the primary reasons for being in business is to move inventory or provide a service. The more inventory one moves or the move service one provides, the more money one expects to make. In the prison business, however, the more inventory one has the more money he or she will make. There is no incentive to get rid of inventory. This would suggest that there is little or no incentive to rehabilitate the inventory. Could this be a major factor contributing to the growing prison population? If prison businesses were penalized for not rehabilitating their inventory, what affect might that have on the results of their rehabilitation efforts?


Sources Athens, Lonnie, 1997. Violent Criminal Acts and Actors Revisited. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. _____________, 1992. The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. The Self and the Violent Criminal Lonnie Athens Blumer, Herbert, 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkley: University of California Press. Rhodes, Richard, 1999. Why They KillsThe Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. New York: Vantage Books.