Making of a Monster: David Berkowitz (Son of Sam)
July 30, 2012 by healthpsychologyconsultancy
Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on David Berkowitz, an American serial killer and arsonist also known as ‘Son of Sam’ and the ‘.44 Caliber Killer.’ Berkowitz confessed to killing six people and wounding several others over the course of eight shootings in New York between 1976 and 1977. He claimed that he was commanded to kill by a demon that possessed his neighbour’s dog. Here are my answers to their questions, published on 2nd August 2012.
David felt he was less attractive than others and had a problem chatting with young women. Did these insecurities have a part in making him a killer?
It is not uncommon for serial killers to have a history of difficulty communicating with the opposite sex. It is their lack of social skills and their social inadequacies that makes murder easier for them than for someone without these problems. Social insecurities often manifest from lack of empathy, not being able to relate to others, difficulty communicating, and a whole host of other factors that in many ways makes murder easier than chatting!
What effect did the death of his adoptive mother have on him and his psyche?
Although Berkowitz was troubled before he lost his adoptive mother to breast cancer, his disruptive behaviour did worsen after her death. Some of the symptoms of bereavement in children as young as Berkowitz was at the time include anger, sadness, depression, loneliness, and guilt. For an adopted child, these feelings can be just as strong, sometimes worse because they are yet again destabilised. Not only was Berkowitz vulnerable to feelings of grief, but the lack of a mother figure clearly also impacted his ability to socialise and interact with women.
He found out as a teenager the real circumstances of his birth and adoption. How would this have affected him?
Berkowitz was extremely disturbed at learning the details of his illegitimate birth and adoption. However, what disturbed him more was the knowledge that his biological father was dead. Combined, these new revelations are likely to have created a loss of identity, a lack of belonging, and a feeling of detachment from the world and from others.
He only had sex once, with a prostitute who gave him an STI. Did this incident play a role in his later killings and his general attitudes? He would later write in a letter to the police that he was not a woman hater.
Berkowitz likely only had sex once because of his inadequacy around women as opposed to any sexual problems. The fact that his only sexual encounter with a woman had such a negative outcome is likely to have made him angry, but in the words of Berkowitz, “I am deeply hurt by your calling me a women hater.” It would appear that Berkowitz killings were unrelated to this incident, but were more so related to ridding the world of the young, beautiful women who he felt unable to approach socially. If he couldn’t enjoy their company, neither would others.
Why would a man like him have converted from Judaism to Baptism? What motivated this change? He would also become a Born Again Christian in prison.
The way in which Berkowitz kept changing his religion is indicative of his lack of identity. Rather than having a stable belief system, he would adopt the religion most relevant to his life and decisions at the time. In prison, becoming a born again Christian provided him with the chance to move away from being “Son of Sam” to, in his own words, “Son of Hope.”
Why did he believe that the howling of a dog next door was actually an incitement from the devil to kill?
Many serial killers create the notion of some kind of ‘sign’ or ‘message’ that incites them to kill. For Berkowitz, this happened to be his delusional belief that the howling dog was possessed by the devil, who demanded him to kill.
David complained of not being able to sleep. Does a lack of sleep have a part in his crimes? How does a lack of sleep affect people?
Sleep deprivation adversely affects the brain, causing changes in thoughts and behaviours. Extreme sleep deprivation as experienced by Berkowitz, can cause confusion, memory lapses, hallucinations, stress, irritability, and even mental illness. So, yes, Berkowitz lack of sleep is likely to have played a part in his crimes.
After arrest, David was diagnosed as a Paranoid Schizophrenic. What exactly does this mean in relationship to his crimes?
Paranoid Schizophrenia is a subtype of Schizophrenia where the person has delusions that someone or something is plotting against them. They can also experience auditory hallucinations, hearing things that are not real. A belief that they are powerful beings is also common in people with Paranoid Schizophrenia. They will spend excessive amounts of time planning how to protect themselves from others. Berkowitz was clearly delusional in terms of his neighbour’s dog being the devil and, sadly, his efforts to protect himself from the devil were to obey auditory delusions to kill women.