Poussaint Explains the Psychology of Terror

The horrifying details surrounding the reported torture and kidnapping of a woman in West Virginia leaves many wondering why someone would commit such a crime. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, explains what may have led the perpetrators to inflict such harm.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And we're going to turn now to Dr. Alvin Poussaint. He is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He's a recognized expert on the psychology of racism, and he joins us now from member station WGBH in Boston. Dr. Poussaint, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Dr. ALVIN POUSSAINT (Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School): Thank you.

MARTIN: And, first of all, of course we need to say that it's a complicated case. Not all the details are known about this case, and you haven't had the opportunity to speak with anybody involved. But, Doctor, there really is only one question that anybody wants to know about this, is if the facts are as alleged, why would anybody do this to another human being?

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, I think that some people are very angry and are very violent. And I think in this family and these people, it's been shown from their past history that they've been involved with violence before. I think that the - one of the mothers was involved in a manslaughter conviction of a woman in the past. So, they've always been on the fringe of crime and violence, and probably have a lot of anger and hatred, in general, towards society, and they acted out in that way. We don't know all the reasons why, but frequently, you know, people grow up, and because of their own background in child abuse and sexual abuse and so on, are more likely to turn out to be violent people.

I think, also, they may feel - you know, they may have issues about where they fit in society, and then they have hatred toward people in a bigoted way who they feel they can look at as inferior to them or they can look at them and say, well, this is why I'm so down and out. These people are taking things from me. I think that's a background of a lot of racism, a feeling of kind of paranoia and blaming others for your own failures or your own lack of success in society. Now I…

MARTIN: And you heard Greg Collard report, though, that it's been reported -even though I have to say that there have been other reports - the mother of Megan Williams says she doesn't believe that her daughter knew these suspects, although there have been several reports that say that she did know them and that she was involved with them. Would those racial feelings still be relevant in a situation where persons had a personal relationship?

Dr. POUSSAINT: Yeah, I think, you know, you can have couples and people can have relationships - interracial relationships - and there still can be a great deal of bigotry. I mean, she says that they used the N-word and used racial slurs when they were attacking her, and so I think that racism can be involved, and some of the hatred may have been focused around the fact that she was a black woman.

MARTIN: But what…

Dr. POUSSAINT: And maybe also focused around the fact that she was a woman.

MARTIN: And I guess, of course, the thing that stands out in this case is the length to which the subjects allegedly went to degrade this person. This whole thing - if the facts are as described - went on for days, that, you know, it just…

Dr. POUSSAINT: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: …the whole thing about is forcing people to eat animal waste and that sort of thing.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Yeah. Yeah. Very, very…

MARTIN: What does that suggest to you?

Dr. POUSSAINT: …depraved and degrading. It means that they wanted to degrade her because they saw her as a degrade person in the first place. This may be tied into race, too. It may be tied into her being a woman. And I think sometimes, doing these depraved, violent things in some way to some perverted people are sexually stimulating, and that - and she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped.

And so you can see how the violence and the sexuality connects there. So I think they were grooving on bringing her down and making her degraded, and I think because they don't think too much of themselves. And they do this, again, to boost their own sense of being somebody by humiliating other people.

MARTIN: This calls to mind - this case calls to mind another case out of Tennessee a couple of months ago that got a lot of attention regionally, if not nationally, where there was a white couple from the University of Tennessee who were out on a date, who were attacked by a group of African-Americans who also, you know, raped them both and subjected them to some just terrible, terrible behavior before they killed them. And there's been this ongoing discussion about how race plays into this. And I know you've done some thinking about whether extreme racism should be treated as a mental illness. And I just wondered if this - these kinds of cases bring - what does that suggested to you?

Dr. POUSSAINT: Well, it brings to mind…

MARTIN: And I understand that's a complicated issue. But…

Dr. POUSSAINT: It's a very complicated issue. But I think in extreme racism, usually, the people are so racist that their feelings toward, say, the group that they hate - say, black people or white people or Jews, whatever - amounts to a delusion, in my opinion.

That is, no matter what you say to them, no matter what information you give to them contradicting their belief system that all blacks are no good or all Jews are no good or all women are depraved, whatever, they don't change their belief system. They hang on to it tenaciously in a delusional way. And I think when -usually when they do that, those are the type of people who resort to violence, who want to actually kill and hurt the people who they hate based on a general category of being black. And so it's very, very, very irrational.

And I think when it reaches that level and then leads to violence, also when it reaches that level, a kind of delusional level, the people unpaired, usually those people don't function well in society. And then they get into trouble very quickly, so that's another reason for seeing that something that's really a mental disturbance.

MARTIN: But…

Dr. POUSSAINT: And they project all of their own fears onto the group that they, the group of people that they hate and despise.

MARTIN: But clearly, this - and, of course, this is another complicated question. We only have about a minute left. It raises the question of whether then these people can be held accountable for their actions through the criminal justice system. If you're insane, are they accountable? Or should they be held accountable?

Dr. POUSSAINT: Yes. If you're insane, you're accountable. You know, this comes up all the time. You only rarely, if someone left - gets off for reasons of insanity, you are accountable even if you are insane, even if you have a mental disorder. And I think that it doesn't excuse people.

What it does for me is suggest that when if you see people with this level of hatred, that perhaps what they need is some mental health treatment, not just, say, well, they're people who hate, that it's an indication of a disturbance. Just like if someone was extremely anxious or extremely depressed, we would see it as a mental disturbance. And we see people who are delusional in other ways. We see that as a mental disturbance and try to get help to them.

MARTIN: Okay. All right.

Dr. POUSSAINT: So I think in extreme racism and this kind of hatred, we should, one, investigate and say this, you are unhealthy, this is - you are mentally troubled and we want to help you and perhaps clear up some of these problems you're having.

MARTIN: All right. All right. Thank you, doctor.

Dr. Alvin Poussaint is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He joined us from member station WGBH in Boston.

Dr. Poussaint, thank you so much for those insights.

Dr. POUSSAINT: Thank you.

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