Review of: Borwin Bandelow, Wer hat Angst vorm bösen Mann? (Who’s afraid of the wicked man?)

Oct 30th, 2013 | By | Category: Book reviews

Borwin Bandelow: Wer hat Angst vorm bösen Mann? Warum uns Täter faszinieren, Reinbeck 2013

A professor of psychology in Göttingen has finally found the answer to the age-old question of what drives serial murderers and those who kidnap young girls in order to torment and rape them for years on end. The answer is nothing other than a lack of endorphins, intoxicants which are similar to opium and which the body produces to reward itself. People recovering from near death experiences, for example, experience particularly high levels of endorphins, as do women who have just given birth. In his book, Professor Bandelow asserts that in the ability to produce endorphins humans possess a mechanism with which they are chemically rewarded for their actions. This mechanism controls their behaviour. An individual’s greatest aim is therefore to achieve high levels of endorphins. However, some people produce much lower levels of endorphins or are considerably less sensitive to them and because of this they experience no feelings of happiness. The inevitable result of this is that those affected are continually in a bad mood – but not only that. They also nonetheless search for opportunities to experience happiness. In the end they find these by carrying out brutal murders or abusing and tormenting young girls.

With this surprisingly simple recognition (as he himself admits that it is), the Göttingen professor also answers a question which he did not even pose: why are serial killers and serial rapists in fact mostly male? The answer is now clear – women who lack endorphins have the option of having lots of children and so achieving high levels of endorphins in this way. One might also investigate whether women with many children demonstrate the same lack of endorphins as serial killers. In addition, it would be interesting to consider whether the low birth rates in Germany and Italy result from an overly high responsiveness to endorphins on the part of the women in these countries; they simply do not need the extra kick of endorphin after giving birth. Conversely, there ought to be a high rate of serial killers and child rapists in countries with high birth rates. Admittedly, as near death experiences also effect high levels of endorphins one could also ask why the human monsters whom Bandelow describes, visits and interviews did not attempt to achieve their goal in this way. That would have saved their victims rather a lot.

Joking aside, Professor Bandelow cannot answer the most important question which he brings up in his book. Could the low production of or the lack of responsiveness to endorphins be medically conditioned? Or is it perhaps the result of social problems? Why do some people become serial killers and kidnappers owing to the lack of this morphine made by the body rather than simply becoming drug users, as one might expect? Bandelow also discusses in his book to what extent serious sexual crimes can be explained by damages to the offender’s lower frontal lobe, which is responsible for a person’s affective and social behaviour. While this might be the cause in individual cases, the book’s strategy becomes obvious through its attempt to generalise. The 19th century pointed to social environment to absolve people from the responsibility for their actions. Feodor Dostoevsky took up in arms about this. In the 21st century, academics such as Bandelow clearly follow a biological-medical strategy to release individuals from the burden of responsibility for their actions. Responsibility is a cultural achievement, which humans can certainly lose.

Bandelow’s conception of humans thus completes the two-phase model of human history which Dostoevsky sketches in his novel The Demons; the first phase consists in the long and difficult path from monkey to human, while the second, opium-sweetened phase leads us back to being monkey. If we previously assumed that with this model Dostoevsky predicted the barbarity of the 20th century with its wars and genocides, we can now see that humankind’s journey back to the apes – our odd, mirror image eschatology – is not yet finished. Genocide and barbarity are still much too intellectual for monkeys. Monkeys do not do such things. The 20th century was probably simply a stepping stone on the way to a society without any moral scruples, as described by the Polish writer Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz in his novel Nienasycenie (Insatiability). In the novel, endorphins are known as Murti Bing pills.

In effect, Professor Bandelow simply replaces the concept of “drives” which control people with a model of an endogenous morphine to which we are addicted. Admittedly, this model names the “motor” of our drives. However, it does not solve the old problems of such a model of humanity. Of course, people can allow themselves to be determined by nature, by their surroundings, by the anonymous power of the biochemistry in their bodies. Nonetheless, humans are also the only species – at least as far as we know – which also has a second option. We can, as it is called, behave humanely. Or was Janusz Korczak simply craving a near death experience when he accompanied the children of his orphanage as far as death? What should we think about the state of endorphins of people such as celibate monks who deny themselves an active sex life? Bandelow’s model would suggest that these people are dangerous, because they suffer from chronic lack of endorphins and must find other ways of stimulating this naturally produced opium – or at the very least that they are in a constant bad mood. Both of these scenarios are obviously false.

The second theme in Bandelow’s book is the fascination with particularly bestial or elaborate sexual criminals, which can even lead to victims identifying with their tormentors. As Bandelow suggests, the identification of victims with perpetrators could be a defence mechanism which makes possible survival in critical situations. With this suggestion, Bandelow helps to rehabilitate victims who are often viewed with hostility due to their closeness to the criminals, and this can only be a good thing. However, at the same time his book ensures that people distanced from the perpetrators develop a fascination for the described and interviewed criminals – indeed, Bandelow himself demonstrates such a fascination in the book. He is clearly proud and grateful that the criminals talk openly to him – he yields to their charm and admires their intelligence. A star-fan relationship which indicates a certain lack of emotional maturity is visible here. In and of itself, this would not be so bad. However, in the case of a psychologist who deals with such sensitive social problems, it is indeed problematic.

Matthias Freise, Göttingen

Translated from German by Annie Rutherford

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