Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on Charles Starkweather, the American teenage spree killer who murdered 11 people, all but one during a 2-month road trip with his 14-year old girlfriend. I provided the following psychological insight into Christine, which was published in the 15th November 2012 edition.
Charles was from a happy home, but was bullied mercilessly at school. Why did this bullying affect him so much? And why wasn’t the happiness of his home life enough to counterbalance the unhappiness of his school life?
All the evidence might suggest that Charles was from a happy home, but there are a number of factors that indicate his family life was not all smooth running. Being the third of seven children, it is likely that there was competition between siblings for the attention of the parents. With this many children, it is unlikely that all of their needs were met. Indeed, Charles’s father was often unemployed due to arthritis in his hands and it was during these periods that his mother would go out to work as a waitress. The impact of this on a family unit cannot be underestimated. Indeed, during those times when Charles’s father was particularly disabled by his arthritis, certain responsibilities would have gone to some of the children, with Charles being one of the eldest and thus likely to have been required to take on some responsibilities.
Being bullied at school can leave long-term scars such as low self-esteem, depression, and issues of unresolved anger. The scores can be so deep that some victims will turn violent themselves as a way of retaliating. The bullying endured by Charles would have made it very difficult for him to have developed his social skills or learn about social relationships. Furthermore, the fact that he was bullied for clearly visible differences such as bow legs is likely to have made him feel even more different and isolated from those around him. His speech impediment, which was also a reason for being teased, is likely to have made it difficult for him to communicate about the bullying or reach out for help.
What was the psychological impact on Charles of being different from other young men, in terms of being bow-legged and having a stammer?
Being different from other men would have contributed to the development of an inferiority complex that would have made it extremely difficult for Charles to interact with other young men. Therefore, is likely that Charles was never in a position where he could form a bond with young men of his age, further exacerbating any feelings of difference and low self-esteem.
Why do people who have been bullied like Charles in turn become bullies themselves?
Not all people who have been bullied become bullies themselves. Indeed, while some people will cope by turning their anger in on themselves, others like Charles will cope by turning their anger outwards onto others. In many ways, this was Charles’ way of surviving in a world that he did not fitting; he learnt from his school experiences that he had to harm others before they could harm him.
He was diagnosed as short sighted at the age of 15. Why did he not realise he was short sighted before then? What impact would being so short sighted have had on him?
At 15, Charles would have accepted his eyesight as it was as he would have known no different; his vision, as far as he was aware, would have been ‘normal.’ Indeed, it is usually parents and teachers who notice short-sightedness in children.
Being short-sighted meant that Charles wouldn’t have been able to focus on distant objects, which would have had a negative impact on his learning and on his ability to engage in the classroom. However, the main impact this would have had on Charles would have come from the comments that he was a slow learner and the accusations that he was never applying himself. Just when Charles needed positive intervention, he was yet again labelled in a way that making different or ‘wrong’ in some way. When this is combined with other events in his life, it would be plausible to assume that Charles would have had very little trust in those around him.
Why did he idolise James Dean so much? What was it about James Dean that Charles loved so much? And why did he start dressing like him? Why do some people get into certain celebrities in this way?
Charles could relate to James Dean and felt that they had a lot in common. What he idolise most about James Dean was his rebellion against the torments he had received in his life. It is likely that Charles longed for the same type of control he sensed James Dean gained through this rebellion. His low self-esteem would have enhanced his idolisation of James Dean and his efforts to become the man he looked up to. This is often the case with anyone who idolises someone else; it is likely that they have low self-esteem and see something within the other person that they wish to emulate. Through idolisation they gain hope that they too can one day achieve the traits that this other person has.
What did he see in Caril, a girl so much younger than him?
With Caril being so much younger than Charles, Charles would have finally found someone whom he could feel superior with. Due to any slow social development related to his schooling experiences, it is also likely that Charles could connect better with people who were younger as they would demand less of him socially.
What affect would his falling out with his dad have had?
It cannot be ignored that it wasn’t long after falling out with his dad that Charles became even more dysfunctional. Rejected during his childhood by children, as an adult Charles was now being rejected by the only man who he could look up to. If Charles was already angry, is likely that this anger was intensified, as was his need for the rebellion that he idolised in James Dean.
During the killing spree, some of his acts seem needlessly cruel. He killed a baby and several animals belonging to his victims. Why was he so cruel like this?
Many of Charles’s murder scenes were littered with indications of these horrendous acts being committed during times of anger and rage. Charles had learnt to release his anger through killing, but sometimes one picked him wasn’t enough and he would have to move on to other options – in one case a baby and in another case animals belonging to the victims.
How are we to understand Charles’s refusal to let his organs be donated after his execution?
Charles lived by the philosophy that “Dead people are all on the same level” – his goal was not to give life, but to take it. His refusal to let his organs be donated after his execution demonstrates this goal, as well as indicates a lack of remorse.