WHY THEY KILL by Richard Rhodes


The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist
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National Book Award and Pulitzer-winning author Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 1987, etc.) offers a passionate assessment of the career of Dr. Lonnie Athens, a cutting-edge criminologist whose overlooked work deciphers the process by which individuals commit themselves to violent action. Unlike most criminologists, Athens grew up intimately acquainted with interpersonal mayhem, both within his family and in the high-crime environment of Richmond, Va. As a Berkeley graduate student, he embarked on the then-radical tactic of interviewing prisoners about their violent crimes and eventually formulated a provocative yet persuasive theory that such actors undergo a four-stage “violentization” process, in which their own childhood brutalization and “horrification” (witnessing violence against others) is augmented by “violence coaching,” until the individual instinctually accepts violence as a ready solution to personal conflict. Although Athens published two books on his findings, his academic career foundered for many years. Rhodes thus applies his considerable narrative authority both toward detailed explication of Athens’s work and as advocacy. He accomplishes these goals in many ways, ranging from his poignant re-creation of Athens’s blasted childhood, to his application of Athens’s template to notorious criminals like Lee Harvey Oswald (and Mike Tyson!), and more generally to such phenomena as wartime atrocities and the extreme violence of the medieval era. By utilizing Athens’s work as a foundation, Rhodes produces a disturbing and engrossing study of the (seemingly) myriad motivators of contemporary violence; however, his inclusion of sundry third-person scholarship and of such unexpected tangents as the life of Louis XIII tend to dilute the clarity and immediacy which mainstream discussion of social crises inherently demands. That said, Athens’s tumultuous life is illuminated and his work comes alive in the context of Rhodes’s fine prose and elegant organization. Athens’s thesis is both subtle and discomforting (in that he finds the completed “violentization” process to be irreversible); one concurs with the necessity of Rhodes’s commitment to introduce it into the often dissonant arenas of contemporary criminology and social theory.

Pub Date: Sept. 23rd, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40249-7
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1999


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