Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on Robert Ben Rhoades, the long-haul truck driver whose rig was equipped with a travelling torture chamber, which he used to chain, rape, torture, and kill prostitutes, hitchhikers and runaways. Out in the 8th November 2012 edition, I supplied the following psychological insight.
For Rhoades, this was much less about murder and the taking of life and much more about torture and causing extreme levels of pain and suffering. Sex also played a key role, with torture being what turned Rhoades on, hence his use of a ‘rape kit,’ which contained instruments of torture. It was the levels of torture Rhoades would have to inflict on his victims in order to gain sexual gratification that would mean his sadistic acts could have no other outcome than murder. Rhoades sadism was extreme and he gained pleasure not only from inflicting pain on his victims, but also humiliating them. Sadists like Rhoades lack empathy and the ability to feel guilt for their actions, and yet they are not completely emotionless. Unlike psychopaths who lack emotion, sadists can be extremely tuned in to the feelings of their victims and it is this that arouses them. This is what makes Rhoades horrendous acts so sinister; it is likely that he could feel and understand that his victims were in pain, but it was this that drove him.
Often, we can gain more insight into serial killers by examining their childhood. However, there is very little documentation available on Rhoades upbringing. Indeed, up to age 16, reports suggest that Rhoades had few problems, despite his father not being present during some of his youth. Perhaps the most well documents traumatic event experienced by Rhoades is the arrest and suicide of his father when Rhoades was 18. His father was arrested for lecherous acts on a 12-year old girl and committed suicide after being arrested. How would this have impacted Rhoades? It is possible that he associated sexual interest in females with the death of his father and somehow felt closer to him when carry out his sadistic behaviours on females. At 14, his first victim was not far off the age of the young girl his father had been arrested for indecently behaving towards. Was Rhoades somehow trying to be like his father? We may never know, but the potential link cannot be ignored.
I was interested in the fact that initially he was raised by his mother (as you said, we don’t know much about this but perhaps it was a happy, peaceful time), then at some point his father returned – a violent paedophile – and Rhoades’s life was turned totally upside down. This change must have had a huge impact on the young boy. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Rhoades was likely to have witnessed the violence of his father and, indeed, to have been at the receiving end of this violence. Rhoades may even have endured sexual abuse at the hands of his father. Indeed, Rhoades own confessions, though limited in detail, suggest both might have occurred. Whatever the case may be, Rhoades would have learnt about violence young. Even with his father not being around to begin with and even with his father being a violent paedophile, Rhoades would likely have seen his father as a role model. Previously only having his mother to look to, with a man suddenly entering his life, Rhoades would understandably look to this man to help him answer the questions that all developing boys have.
Also, he said later that he had been abused terribly by his father – and refused to share the details even when it might have spared him from the death penalty. This suggests perhaps that the abuse really was very traumatic and presumably this had a very formative affect as well – especially as he then went on to become a violent sex offender. How do you think the sexual abuse that (it appears) he suffered as a child contributed to the abuse that he later inflicted on others?
Not all, but some children who have been abused do go on to be abusers; this is most commonly the case if they have unresolved feelings regarding the abuse. The fact that Rhoades would not talk about the abuse does indicate unresolved feelings, be this anger, sadness, confusion, or a host of related emotions. Although Rhoades was no longer a child when committing his crimes, his approach is suggestive of ‘psychotraumatic play’ – re-enacting his own abuse on others. Indeed, Rhoades did appear to treat his crimes like a ‘game’ where he was ‘playing’ with the victims minds and bodies.
Also, he always shaved the pubic hair of his victims, and also cut the hair on their heads extremely short. is there any significance to this, in relation to his own history? There was a comment in one piece of writing about Rhoades that said that child abusers often inflict humiliatingly short haircuts on their victims and posited that this might have been the case with Rhoades, and that he might have been mirroring something from his own past. I’ve never heard of this before though – do you think there’s any validity to that thought? And if not, do you think there is any relevance?
The shaving of pubic hair and cutting the hair short on his victims heads was what Forensic Psychologists would call Rhoades’ ritual or signature. The rituals of a serial killer can tell us a great deal about the motivations behind the crimes. The cutting of the pubic hair could be an effort to regress his victims to pre-puberty, while the cutting of the hair on the head could be an effort to make his victims look male – combined, these two rituals produce the image of a young, pre-pubescent boy. While humiliation might have played a part in these rituals, another strong consideration is that Rhoades was turning his victims into the mirror image of himself when he experienced abuse at the hands of his father.