The Menendez Brothers: victims or sociopaths

  Throughout history, there have been numerous cases of patricide.  However, in recent times, children less frequently have murdered their parents, in part because of societal changes in the view of the act.

One of the most recent and sensational cases was that of  Lyle Menendez and his brother Erik Menendez who were convicted of the shotgun murders of their parents, Jose and Kitty Menendez. The murders were particularly brutal, as each victim received multiple shotgun blows as they sat in lay on a couch in their family room, apparently watching television.

   While initially denying involvement in the murderers, once they were arrested, the pair claimed that they killed their parents to end years of abuse. Both the defense and prosecution provided witnesses supporting their positions.

   There are two ways to approach this case. If one believes the defense, then the murders were the culmination of years of abuse on the part of both parents.

   The younger brother's defense attorney alleged the brothers were driven to murder by a lifetime of abuse from their parents, including sexual abuse from their father, Jose. The brothers contended that they had been abused for years by their father as their mother ignored the situation to preserve her marriage. 

   Both brothers also stated that attempts to end the abuse were unsuccessful and that they believed their father possessed on omnipotence that would keep them from leaving the family home even though both were over 18. 

 

   The Menedez family life was a turbulent one. Early in their marriage, the boys’ father had a number of mistresses.

   In 1981, Kitty uncovered one of Jose’s relationships and walked out of their home for several days. Jose managed to convince her to come home, more so for the brothers than because he loved her, according to Jose’s brother-in-law. At one point the boy’s mother also suffered from depression and talked of suicide.   Thus both boys had a family history of mental disturbance.

   When the boys were young, they were exposed to rigid rules and great outbursts of violence of heir father. The boys’ medical histories include stutters, stomach problems and outbursts of temper.  Their teachers also noted that both were immature for their age.  If this was the case, both probably struggled socially as well.

   During their teenage years the boys had troubled relationships, often interfered with by their parents, trouble making life decisions and financial issues.  They could not succeed in college, could not decide on career paths and were accused of plagiarism and other cheats while at PrincetonUniversity.

   For those who believe the murders was an outgrowth of abuse, their history shows an unstable family environment with parental conflict, rigid, conflicting discipline, and lack of warmth and nurturing. 

   At their trial both brothers also indicated that they had also been sexually and physically abused by their parents. Some research indicates that those who have been severely abused do not develop normal empathy for others, rather becoming sociopaths who prey on helpless victims. If the abuse was real, this could explain the murders.   The pair has also begun to commit burglaries for pocket money, getting caught and being ordered into therapy.

   Their mother’s recommended Jerome Oziel.  Shortly after Erik started treatment with Oziel, he gave permission to Oziel to discuss his sessions with his parents. Notes from the session note that he boys’ mother “was concerned that her sons were narcissistic, lacked consciences and exhibited signs that they were sociopaths."

   It is possible because of the environment in the home, the boys were turned into delinquents – with few social assets, opportunity and motivation.

However, there is another possibility, first raised by their mother in the therapy session – that the boys were delinquent and the stresses in the home were actually created by the boys’ behavior.

   During the trial, the defense teach consulted with Paul Mones, a lawyer and children’s rights advocate who had written a book, When A Child Kills: Abused Children Who Kill Their Parents. The bookoutlines how attorneys can successfully defend children accused of killing their parents. The book showed that children who kill their parents are usually peaceful, have a low self-opinion of themselves and react only after suffering abuse silently, usually after years of trying unsuccessfully to please their parents. According to Mones, when these children fight back, they strike when their abuser is vulnerable.

   The defense also relied on a diagnostic tool developed by therapist E. Sue Bloom for use with incest survivors. The tool is a thirty-four-item checklist that deals with the after effects of childhood sexual abuse. Bloom’s checklist had many items that could be applied to both brothers. The checklist contains items such as fear of sleeping alone; blocking out a period of early life; carrying an awful secret; stealing; dissociation from family; creating a fantasy world; rigid control of thought processes; and, a feeling that there was a demand to achieve in order to be loved.

   So it is impossible to say whether the brothers’ murderous act is a product of their abuse, or their behavior created the environment and that in the aftermath, the pair, already elaborate manipulators, utilized legitimate psychiatric publications to create a checklist of symptoms for abuse.

   However, indicators that mental illness cased the sudden unprovoked outburst may be diluted by reports that the parents reported to others a fear of their sons, reports from observers that the family was stress and tense together, reports that the brothers talked back and swore at their parents; and the parents’ continued actions to support and encourage their sons’ success.

   While everyone reviewing this case may come away with a different opinion, the only one that matters, that of the jury which heard the second trial for the brothers, is the only one which counts. And that jury found both brothers guilty and sentenced both to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

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