Thursday, December 17, 2009

Your DNA frightening? Could Be

by Kathryn Casey

Imagine being Dr. Jim Fallon, a Fulbright Scholar and professor emeritus in neuroscience at the University of California - Irvine. He set out to find out if psychopathic killers have certain biological traits that will show up on brain scans. When he finished his testing, he found the signs in a member of his own family.

article about Fallon that caught my attention ran in the November 27th edition of the Wall Street Journal under the headline: What's on Jim Fallon's Mind? A Family Secret That Has Been Murder to Figure Out. On his bio, Fallon says: "I am interested in the neural circuitry and genetics of creativity, artistic talent, psychopathology, criminal behavior, and levels of consciousness."

Over the years, Fallon has analyzed the brains of more than 70 murderers. His interest in looking into the minds of dangerous criminals comes from an honest curiosity.
The 62-year-old scientist started out by trying to assess his relatives' risk of developing Alzheimer's, which killed his father. The hitch was that his father came from a rather unusual family. Early ancestors included Thomas Cornell, who was hanged in 1673 for murdering his mother. (The WSJ describes this as one of "the first recorded acts of matricide in the Colonies.") There were others, seven men suspected of murder on Fallon's family tree, and, it appears, one infamous female. It turns out that Professor Fallon is a distant cousin of Lizzie Borden. Yes, that Lizzie Borden. (Are there others?) To be fair, let's remember that Borden was acquitted of killing her parents with an ax. Although many, including our own WCI historian, Laura James, believe Borden was the culprit.

Anyway, it appeared there could be some particularly interesting genes floating around in Fallon's family. Thus, perhaps, it wasn't surprising that Fallon decided to look for evidence of violent traits by comparing his family's brain scans with those of the violent criminals he'd been analyzing.

Through his research, Fallon had found that violent offenders'
scans often displayed areas of diminished activity in important areas of the brain, including the section thought to monitor self-control. You may remember that awhile back on WCI, I reported on different theories regarding why certain folks become violent criminals. Fallon's work suggests a three-pronged explanation for violence: a combination of genetics, brain damage, and childhood trauma. What Fallon was looking for was evidence in his family's scans of the presence of factor number one, what one might call "violent genes." The most accepted one, MAOA, is the so-called "warrior gene."

When Fallon examined the brain scans of his family, he found the same abnormalities he'd noted in killers in one member. And the scan that was on the screen that day was of his own brain.

Yup, Jim Fallon's brain scan suggested he'd inherited the genetic risk factors he'd documented in dangerous psychopaths. On his scan, the areas of his brain involved in social adjustment, aggression and impulsivity, the orbital cortex, which lies just above the eye sockets, appeared dark or turned off.
For Fallon, that moment must have been chilling.

So how did Fallon end up a respected scholar instead of a serial killer? Here's the final paragraph from the WSJ article: "Dr. Fallon thinks that one vital factor may have prevented him from becoming a killer. 'I had a charmed childhood,' he says. 'But if I'd been mistreated as a child, who knows what might have happened.'"

Interesting, don't you think?


Cheryl said...

I think genectics probably plays a role .... in fact I wouldn't be surprised to find that we all have a "bad gene" floating within us. However, I'm more inclined to believe that a persons upbring/childhood plays a bigger role. So much research has been done that shows serial killers/murderers/rapists have had bad/traumatic childhoods.

There are also those with damaged frontal lobes. Damage that was done early in life due to a fall, accident or some other means.

The scariest of all? The ones who don't fall under ANY of these categories and just kill for the hell of it.

Kathryn Casey said...

All that's true, Cheryl. Childhood abuse is incredibly destructive. On the other hand, it's been theorized that psychopaths sometimes inflate or make up histories of abuse in order to gain sympathy and jetison responsibility for their crimes to others. For instance, the FBI did a study with serial rapists back in the seventies and concluded that their self-reported histories of childhood abuse were questionable.

FleaStiff said...

Defendants always come up with excuses for a judge and jury. I rarely believe those abuse claims but consider it not relevant anyway.

I recall the famed XYY "SuperMale" and links to criminal bahavior. Made a big media splash several decades ago until they discovered the same percentage of killers were XYY and were Seminary students.

Genetics and environmental insults play a role. Some people are mellow drunks some are belligerent drunks. Self control is the primary influence on criminal behavior.

Anonymous said...

I disagree with you Fleastiff. Normal people do not even entertain the thoughts of a psychopath. It doesnt cross their minds. So self control really has nothing to do with it unless you ARE a psychopath and are having these thoughts.

Glenn Adams said...

Rob Neufeld on books: WNC novel fictionalizes trails serial killer

Rob Neufeld • COLUMNIST • February 28, 2010

Romance, a sociopath, and a Blue Ridge Mountain summer camp compete for top billing in Rose Senehi's novel “The Wind in the Woods,” and you might say the camp wins. The novel is one of 15 current books published by the new Boone-area outfit Canterbury House, which seeks to advance good writing, regional settings, suspense and stories of hope.

Canterbury's best-selling titles are the “Ride” series by Alabama writers Edie Hand and Jeffrey Addison (a.k.a. Don Keith). Their novella, “A Christmas Ride,” tells of miracles of reconciliation experienced by a family on Christmas stays in the mountains.

“The Soldier's Ride” involves visitations in a cemetery and an appreciation of war veterans' struggles.

Senehi taps another inspirational source: efforts to preserve wilderness and use its effects to build character in youth. She launches her book at four locations in Western North Carolina, March 7-14 (see box).

Creepy entrance

“If they only knew who they ushered out of that cell,” Gary Skinner, a sociopath, mutters to himself after being let out of the Buncombe County jail at the beginning of “The Wind in the Woods” (trade paperback, $15.95).

“If everything went the way he planned, by the end of the week he'd have enough cash to head back down to Satellite Beach” in Florida, where the murder of Melissa Hunt should have become a cold case.

Skinner murders people on hiking trails to get their money and bank cards.

Senehi drew some of her details from the October 2007 murder of John and Irene Bryant and from the confession of Gary Michael Hilton, the 61-year-old killer of Meredith Emerson in north Georgia in 2008.

Senehi's lead chapter, in which the reader catches up with the mind of Skinner, is literary and disturbing. Skinner's modus operandi is believably detailed and improvisational.

Very good suspense writing, however, cannot fully deepen the unambiguous division of good and evil in the novel. Skinner's story does not connect with the themes of the other characters' stories except as someone who generates fear and heroism.

(2 of 2)

The flip side

Romance is another matter. A love of Camp Green River is integral to lovers' love. “Almost every couple he knew,” Senehi writes of the camp owner, “Tiger” Morrison “met at camp, worked together at camp, or got together through some camp connection.”

Morrison breaks up with his stylish companion, Liz, because of her disdain for the commonness of camp. Liz wants him to turn over the camp to Sammy, his daughter by his late wife, who died in a car crash with a drunken driver.

Sammy lives and breathes the camp. “She practically grew up learning to look for and recognize anything that grew or crawled around on the forest floor. Over the past 24 years she'd hiked every trail on their three thousand acres a hundred times.”

When Sammy goes on a hike to Ruby Falls with Patrick, a smitten camp counselor, they talk about one of Patrick's charges, Tucker, a math prodigy with a nature deficit disorder.

“Are you familiar with the Fibonacci ratios?” Patrick asks Sammy. Yes, she had read about it in “The Da Vinci Code.” The ratios show up in pine cones, flower petals and other natural patterns, and Patrick figures he “can teach it to Tucker and try to draw him into connecting his number fetish to nature.”

That's the third element in the book: connecting children to an ethic that goes back to the Cherokee, from whom Morrison's ancestors got the land, and to Ernest Thompson Seton, the Scots founder of the League of Woodcraft Indians.

It's an ethic that this region can boast.

“The year 2010,” Senehi writes in her acknowledgements, “marks the 100th anniversary of the establishment of summer youth camps in the Hendersonville/Brevard area, which contains the highest concentration of camps in the United States.
Continued- WS

Glenn Adams said...

Continued from last post-

Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of four books, and the host of the Web site The Read on WNC at He can be reached at and 505-1973.

Rob Neufeld on books: WNC novel fictionalizes trails serial killer | | Asheville Citizen-Times

The Wind in the Woods is my second book in
the Blue Ridge Series. Woven through this
story is the 100-year-old history of summer
youth camps in the Hendersonville/Brevard
section of Western North Carolina--which has
the highest concentration of summer camps in
the United States. Hundreds of thousands have
had the most unforgettable summers of their
lives there. The 15 camps in this area comprise
over 10,000 acres, and therefore make up a
considerable section of unspoiled, undeveloped
mountain forests. Loosely modeled on The
Green River Preserve in the Green River
Valley. The Wind in the Woods tells the story
of one camp owner's struggle to preserve his
3000-acre youth camp with the help of the
Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy and The
Nature Cosnervancy.

One of the major plot lines traces the
murderous rampage of 61-year-old alleged
serial killer, Gary Michael Hilton, who
confessed to the murder of 24-year-old
Meredith Emerson who went hiking with her
dog in the Northern Georgia mountains on New
Year's Day 2008 and never returned. I used his
confession to create, in my novel, his stalking
of a young camp employee and the abduction
of Katie Warlick, the 41-year-old camp cook.
Hilton is also the sole suspect in the killing of
John and Irene Bryant, a couple in their
eighties, who were murdered in October 2007
while hiking in North Carolina's Pisgah National
Forest. In deference to the Bryant family, I have
changed them to two widows in their seventies
and put the scene in neighboring Rutherford
County. The book opens with their
disappearance and traces an exact timeline
sequence of the Bryants' disappearance and
subsequent murder investigation.

CP by Wolfscratch