Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on Brian David Mitchell, a former street preacher convicted for the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping following 6-years in psychiatric custody. I provided the following psychological insight into Mitchell, which was published on 27th September 2012.
Brian David Mitchell grew up in a family where you might think all his needs would be met – his father was a social worker and his mother a teacher – very child-oriented roles. However, underneath this exterior was an environment of strict Mormonism and a history of mental illness. Also, being one of six children, would likely have been very difficult for Mitchell. Research has shown that middle children are vulnerable to being neglected, underestimated, and misunderstood. Mitchell wasn’t underestimated and his father often highlighted his intellect – yet it does appear that he was neglected, with more energy being placed in religion than in raising happy, content children. Indeed, Mitchell was seen as the ‘black sheep’ of the family, which was possibly the outcome of being a withdrawn child. Again, middle children are far more likely to become outsiders.
There is no doubt that Mitchell’s father was correct in his observation of his intellect. It was this intellect that enabled Mitchell to have so much influence over the women in his life, even Elizabeth, who was kidnapped and raped repeatedly. Despite her traumatic experience, his influence over Elizabeth was so strong that he felt able to take her out in public, albeit disguised. What mustn’t be missed here is that Mitchell was not only intelligent but he had inherited his father’s need for control and his father’s utter reliance on religion. In the hands of a dangerous person, religion can be highly influential in obtaining faithful followers, as Mitchell had clearly done here. It is likely that he achieved this influence through fear – showing himself to be ‘holy’ and indicating that if he was rejected, his victims would in some way be rejecting God.
Was he mad, bad, or both? There does appear to be a genetic predisposition to psychosis or Schizophrenia within his family. At the same time, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to suggest that Mitchell didn’t know what he was doing. Mitchell was mad and bad, in my opinion. He clearly had a mental illness, but he wasn’t insane to the extent that could relieve him of his responsibilities or morals. Mitchell new exactly what he was doing. He might have justified what he was doing through claiming to be a ‘holy man,’ but this was merely part of his effort to justify himself to those he was abusing – a clever tactic not uncommon among serial killers.
We naturally seek to explain events that are beyond our comprehension, such as murder, rape, and violence. However, the hard truth is that sometimes such atrocious acts are merely the outcome of something as simple as not fitting in. This is because being an outsider can lead to feelings of anger and resentment towards those who do fit in. While some of us might develop low self-esteem, others go on to become narcissistic. In other words, they believe they don’t fit in because they are ‘special’ and superior to others. When religion is mixed in, this superiority complex grows into a belief that God has chosen them to be superior. Being superior, they have the right to do what they want and to whom they want; they are above the law and above morals. Psychologically, this acts to help them cope with not fitting in. The mind is incredibly clever at helping us adapt to our situation and, as this case shows, this can sometimes have disastrous consequences. It is likely that Mitchell had a predisposition to mental illness since his grandfather had Schizophrenia and his father showed signs of mental illness. Therefore, social (i.e. not fitting in, religion) and psychological (i.e. a predisposition to mental illness) merge to create what we see in Mitchell – a ‘monster.’
Mitchell’s father, in many ways, contributed to the development of this monster. With strict, religious convictions and a tendency to flaunt sex in front of a young Mitchell, Brian was given messages from a young age about sex. Indeed, he craved sex from a young age because his innate (adult needs) were bought to the fore much sooner by his father’s actions. Showing children explicit photographs of sexual images is sexual abuse. We can conclude that Brian was sexually abused as a child and that this contributed to his own sexual abuse of other vulnerable people, as can be the case. The sexual abuse might not have been physical, but it was sexual abuse nonetheless.