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Is serial killing an addiction?

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Clinical Psychologist/Criminologist Craig Traube believes that there are similarities between serial killers and addicts, and refers to notorious US killer Ted Bundy to illustrate his point. Photo: Chris Collingridge

Johannesburg - The anticipation. The need to get that hit. The lies. The elaborate schemes to quash that craving that’s gnawing… Just gnawing and gnawing on the inside of your skull like an unreachable itch. Everything is, eventually, reduced to simply standing between you and that thing that you need.

This could be describing an alcoholic in the grips of their addiction. But you could also be talking about a serial killer.

Craig Traube, psychologist and criminologist, recently aired the idea of serial killing being similar to an addiction at a talk he gave at the Akeso Crescent Clinic in Randburg.

He used the US’s notorious Ted Bundy, who confessed to murdering 30 women and is believed to have murdered many times that number, as a model for his idea. Bundy used elaborate ruses, such as putting his arm in a cast, to lure women to his car where he would attack them.

In psychology literature, serial killers are classified as having a personality disorder - usually either narcissistic, anti-social or paranoid. But Traube points out a number of overlaps with addiction.

Addiction can be defined as the continual repetition of a behaviour, despite this causing adverse consequences.

 “Most addicts evolve in the same way: they start out experimenting with different things and then they find the substance they like,” said Traube.

Bundy liked to kill brunettes between the ages of 15 and 25, although he experimented with younger and older, as well as different forms of social rebellion and criminal activity, before settling on murder.

An addict will always keep an emergency supply: a list of pharmacies they can get pills from or a secret stash of booze for when bottle stores may be closed. Bundy always followed a few women at a time, should he need an emergency hit.

There is also cross addiction: when you let go of one thing you cling to the other.

An alcoholic may become extremely religious after their recovery. A gambling addict may rotate between using casinos, prostitutes and cocaine. Bundy engaged in booze, weed and porn in prison, when he could no longer kill.

Addicts engage in sobriety and binge cycles which get progressively worse. Two weeks after Bundy escaped from prison for the second time, he attacked five women in one night, raping one, bludgeoning all and murdering two. They were all in their bedrooms at home when they were attacked.

There’s also the shifting of blame. “Most addicts don’t want to take responsibility,” said Traube. “Bundy blamed people for looking vulnerable, saying that they were, in a way, begging to be murdered.”

Traube said he hoped the idea would help understand some of the questions behind serial killing. But it seems almost anything can be labelled an addiction. Shopping, sex, eating, exercising, the internet.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the practitioners handbook used to classify illnesses, only recently recognised behavioural addictions, although the only one listed is gambling disorder.

“We are trying to find better ways of describing addiction, and ways which make more sense in terms of treatment,” said Neil Amoore, a clinical psychologist working with addiction.

Amoore said process addictions were controversial and relied on finding a psychological motive.

He said that even substance addictions like heroin could have a process component. For example, some former users may spike water into their veins and feel a rush from that process rather then the actual drug.

Amoore said they had opened up the ways of treating people beyond previous compartmentalisations and that might be why the public perceived things being lumped together.

Dr Jackie de Wet, from the criminology and forensic studies department at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said another example of a serial killer who spoke to addiction was American Israel Keyes, who said he killed for the rush. “He felt the addiction of taking another person’s life, an addiction to the feeling he got when he was doing it,” said De Wet.

He said there could sometimes be a correlation between the two but that the motivation for serial killing was more complex. De Wet said serial killers knew about the consequences of their actions - prison or death - and actively tried to avoid those consequences by being calculated in their attacks, while addicts simply didn’t care about the consequences.

De Wet pointed out that, proportionate to our population, we had the third highest number of confirmed serial killers in the world after Russia and the US.

South Africa’s most notable serial killer was Moses Sitole, who lured his female victims by “interviewing” them for a job. He would take them to remote fields to beat, rape and murder them. They were generally strangled with their own underwear and he would write the word “bitch” on their dead bodies. Sometimes he would later phone the victims’ families to taunt them.

Norman Simon, another local serial killer, murdered at least 22 young boys in Cape Town, while Cedric Maake killed at least 27 people and Steven Milke killed his own daughter and ate the heart of one of his victims.

De Wet said that it was difficult to make generalisations across what motivated serial killers, as each case was unique but that, in both serial killers and serial rapists, themes of parental neglect and emotional or physical abuse were usually present.

*Theresa Taylor is a recipient of the Pfizer Mental Health Journalism Fellowship Award.

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