Updated: Feb 21
Written by Elias McClellan
“Nobody ever says I want to be a junkie when I grow up…”
While nowhere near as popular as the “this is your brain on drugs” spot, the former 1990s PSA gets much closer to the message. The meth addict, the crack addict, the alcoholic, the heroin addict--none of them woke up with a burning desire to throw away their life behind a cycle of lies, loss, and shame.
The same is (mostly) true of the men and women who break bad. The thief, the drug dealer, and the killer often spring from the deep reservoirs of damage, mental illness, and/or addiction.
There are, of course, exceptions. White-collar villains: embezzlers, inside-traders, and fraudsters are entirely different in method and motive. The majority of corporate criminals defraud to meet expectations (social, familial, shareholder, etc). Some defraud to cover lifestyles beyond their means, to cover addiction, or to exercise an extreme grievance, but this is very rare.
“I was raised in the pro-jects, roaches and rats...” Jay-Z, H.O.V.A.
The drug dealer is currently the most conspicuous criminal. But contrary to prevailing opinion, no drug dealer starts out as a Heisenberg or an Escobar. Almost all drug dealers start out hungry.
The kid who hires on as a runner to buy a meal, becomes the lookout to buy a warm coat, becomes the hand-off to buy a new pair of shoes, becomes a cook to support the family, becomes a soldier to protect his crew/clique/turf.
Whether it is Bed-Stuy, Glass Farms, or West Reno, poverty is the ultimate mother of crime.
Both Elsworth “Bumpy” Johnson and Alphonse “Scarface” Capone came from working-poverty. Both had explosive tempers, forcing both to leave home early. Both faced early 20th Century racism, severely limited prospects. Prohibition booze-running must’ve looked like hitting the lotto to Capone. The heroin trade would’ve looked the same to Johnson. The cocaine 70s and 80s had to look like the California Goldrush to Jon Roberts, George Jung, and Griselda Blanco.
“Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse.” Hannibal Lecter, Silence of the Lambs.
Killers are a different branch of the same tree. To qualify terms, we’re not talking murderers who commit crime-of-passion killings. The spouse who kills a cheating partner, the businessperson who kills a pilfering associate, the brother who kills his sibling in a fistfight actually has the lowest recidivism rate of any criminal subgroup. No, we’re talking about the monsters.
Doctor Lecter’s quote above is based on author Thomas Harris’ years of study with FBI behavior scientists. The Behavior Analysis Unit has been part of almost every serial killer investigation dating back to the 1970s. What the BAU found in nearly every case is that what we think of as a monster is actually a damaged adult with deep-rooted childhood trauma. Richard Kuklinski, the infamous “Iceman,” is believed to have killed between 70 and 200 people. He also suffered profound childhood abuse. The same is true of Aileen Wuornos who murdered 7 men. Henry Lee Lucas was convicted of killing 11, (but claimed hundreds more) also suffered horrific childhood abuse. Undiagnosed/untreated mental illness is a common thread.
“Well, ya know, for me, the action is the juice.” Michael Cheritto, Heat.
Of all the criminal subgroups, thieves are the most “a thing of themselves.” Whether it is car thieves, burglars, stick-up kids, or bank robbers, thieves rank among the highest recidivists. On the surface there’s no unifying thread. There is not enough incidence of childhood trauma to draw causation. Addiction, while certainly part and parcel of the lifestyle, especially among armed perpetrators, is not consistently present enough for relationship.
However, deeper behavior analysis yields clues. With the potential for brutality and death, perpetrators of armed robberies tend to be the most aggressive, narcissistic, yet predisposed to hopelessness based on marginalization. They are often intelligent and athletic with strong dexterity. In short: smart, physical, and highly capable at thinking on their feet. They are drawn to life-and-death situations where they must take charge, must assert themselves as dominant in stark contrast to the larger world where they feel powerless and persecuted.
William Guess, the Polo Shirt Bandit, was captain of the high school basketball team, made good grades without studying, and exuded confidence. Yet he was an underachiever with no perceptible ambition. A delivery driver when as friends graduated college and began careers, by his thirties he was a sometimes salesman, sometimes car dealer, and habitual gambler. If his first bank robbery only yielded $1000, the adrenaline must’ve been intoxicating. He hit his second bank weeks later. When an early robbery fell apart due to a dye pack that ruined the money—and marked Guess as well—he became a master of takeover robberies.
In Heat Neil McCauley, (DeNiro) asks, “Do you see me doin' thrill seeker liquor store robberies with a Born To Lose tattoo on my chest?” Pachino’s Vincent Hanna answers “no,” but McCauley’s actions beg to differ.
Carl Gugasian, the Friday Night Bandit, and most prolific bank robber in American history, was an SOG trained Army officer. He was also an electrical engineer with advanced degrees in systems analysis, statistics, and probabilities. And, he robbed 50 banks over a thirty-year period netting $2 million—much, much less than he would’ve made applying himself in any of his legitimate disciplines.
Adrenaline addiction or simply thrill-seeking? Identity quest? Maybe none of the above. There is data to suggest sexual dysfunction is common to armed robbers. This makes Donald Westlake/Richard Stark prescient in depiction of heister Parker’s work/sex cycles. Which brings us back to the “mostly” part and, more importantly, the motivation. Whatever it is that gets your character out of bed in the morning—whether they admit it or not--is what they wanted to be when they grew up. Except counterfeiters. Nobody wants to be a counterfeiter. They’re phreaks.
Elias McClellan is an accountant for a state agency never to be named but aspires to commi—write, write crime. You can find him on Twitter at @TuttleNTexas. But why would you want to do that?