Originally published 04/02/2013.
In a correspondence with serial murderer-rapist Lawrence Bittaker, who was adopted, crime writer Denise Noe, a frequent recipient of letters from high-profile inmates, explores the statistical link between adoption and crime.
There is a strong statistical link between adoption and serial murder. Dr. David Kirschner, Ph.D., author of Adoption: Uncharted Waters, notes, “The FBI estimates that of the 500 recorded serial killers in U.S. history, fully 16 percent were adopted – an incredible statistic, considering that adoptees represent only 2-3 percent of the general population.” Adoptees are also fifteen times more likely to kill one or both parents than other people.
It is vitally important that adopted people as a group not be stigmatized. The vast majority of adoptees never commit serial murder or parricide – or any other sort of murder. Kirschner writes, “Although the trauma of abandonment is inherent in every adoption, the vast majority of adoptees do work through their issues and manage to navigate responsibly through life with the rest of humanity.”
What are the reasons adoptees are so statistically over-represented as serial murderers? In a Crime Library article, Shirley Lynn Scott states that this over-representation “creates two questions.” Scott continues, “The first one is that the biological parents may have left their child with deviant genes.” It seems possible that adoptees might be more likely to have genetic problems. After all, babies placed for adoption would not be a random cross-section. A human female typically carries a pregnancy nine months and suffers in giving birth. Her body is biologically prepared to nourish the baby with breast milk. If she does not want to raise the baby she has carried and borne or is unable to raise that baby, it is likely something is wrong in either her situation or personality. Perhaps it is women impregnated through rape that are more apt to place babies for adoption. Scott notes that a 1997 study of twins raised apart by Yoon-Mi Hur and Thomas Bouchard showed that if one twin was impulsive and “sensation-seeking,” the other was likely to be too. Hur and Bouchard conclude that this could be “attributed almost entirely to genetic factors” and noted that these characteristics are higher in psychopaths.
Scott notes that adoption itself could “undermine the sense of identity in a fragile youth, and make the child prone to fantasizing an identity of his ‘true’ parents, either good or bad. Was the mother a prostitute? A nun? Was the father a gangster? A hero?” Scott observes that the adoptee may be haunted by a “sense of rejection.”
Kirschner writes that since 1987 he has worked as “a consultant or expert witness in 20 homicide cases in which the accused was adopted, usually as an infant or in early childhood. In every case of these adoptees who killed, we have found a remarkably similar pattern, including a history of sealed original birth records, a childhood of secrets and lies (re: birth parents and genetic history), frustrated, blocked searches for birth parents, and untreated, festering adoption issues of loss, rejection, abandonment, identity, and dissociated (split-off) rage.”
Kirschner elaborates that, in some high-profile serial murders, the murderer was consciously motivated by negative feelings over having been “abandoned” by his birthmother through adoption. Forensic psychiatrist Dr. David Abrahamsen interviewed David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” serial murderer, and found that “Berkowitz’s adoption became a central concern in his life, and the notion of being different also engendered in him a feeling of ambivalence toward the rest of the world.” Berkowitz found his birth mother with the help of an adoptees’ support group. He was disappointed to learn that his birth mother had raised his sister. Berkowitz said he shot women in cars in “lovers’ lanes” because he believed they might conceive pregnancies that would end with them “abandoning” babies through adoption.
Adoptee Joel Rifkin murdered prostitutes because he feared his birth mother had conceived him in prostitution. In fact, his birth mother was located and she had never been a prostitute. In an interview with Kirschner, Rifkin said his “whole life was about adoption.” Kenneth Bianchi, who along with his cousin Angelo Buono murdered prostitutes in the “Hillside Strangler” case, was also haunted by the possibility that his birth mother had been a prostitute.
While the reasons for the statistical connection between adoption and serial murders are uncertain, that statistical connection is fact. I wrote to some imprisoned serial murderers to learn what they thought the reasons might be. Adoptee and serial rapist-murderer Lawrence Bittaker wrote back on this subject and we began a correspondence that has branched off into other areas.
He does not believe that adoption per se is responsible for the disproportionate number of adopted serial murderers. I find his belief that adopters are just “less likely to be successful parents” difficult to reconcile with the fact that people must usually go through screening processes in order to adopt, while birth mothers and biological fathers need only engage in sexual intercourse. He also does not believe that pregnancy and birth bond mother and child.
He knows about the “nature vs. nurture” controversy and points out that he may have been born with negative characteristics. His “party girl” birth mother, thieving biological father and alcoholic biological brother raised in a different family were not serial murderers – but weren’t winners either.
As the second letter Bittaker wrote me shows, I accidentally sent my original letter to him twice. I also sent writings that I thought might interest him to spark further discussion. I wrote back to him that the sending of the same letter twice was a goof.
He signed his first letter to me with his real initials. I have read that Bittaker often signs his name “Pliers” in reference to an instrument of torture and murder he used on his victims. Because of this, I asked him in one of my letters to please not sign anything he writes to me in this manner, but to continue signing with his real name or initials. He wrote back that signing “Pliers” was at someone else’s suggestion and has complied with my request not to use that nickname in his correspondence with me.
I sent him copies of a Scientific American Mind article by Kent A. Kiehl and Joshua W. Buckholtz about psychopaths that I found intriguing. His fourth letter is largely how he sees himself regarding the signs of that disorder discussed in that article.
Bittaker’s letters show that he is an intelligent person, making it all the sadder that his intelligence was used destructively rather than constructively.
He is a thinking person and possesses some insights into the factors that formed – or rather, mal-formed – his personality.
And he remains very, very dangerous.