Interview with Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, M.D.: Part Two

by Shannon on February 9, 2011

Renowned Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner Shares Insights on the Role of Media in Mass Shootings, the Andrea Yates Case & How His Career Has Evolved

Michael Welner, M.D. is an experienced and well-known forensic psychiatrist. He is the founder and chairman of The Forensic Panel and a professor at two different universities. Criminal Justice Degree Schools provides more background on Dr. Welner’s distinguished career in the first installment of our interview.

What role does the media play in the mass shooting phenomenon?

The media plays a critical role. Mass shooting is a copycat crime. Those alienated losers who blame everyone else for their failures and low achievement consume television and pop culture – again, because their lives are empty. Sadly, the news media responds to mass killing by hyperfocusing on the killer and his self-serving grievances. Most people are puzzled, horrified, and saddened when they watch of a person’s pain, magnified. The press amplifies this killer’s inner experience to suggest to us that he was the most rejected, the most hurt and provoked person in the whole wide world. He wasn’t. But he succeeded in drawing in the press to take the bait because of the “achievement” of his body count.

Among those keenly watching this social experiment are tomorrow’s mass shooters. Just weeks before Baumhammers embarked on a killing spree, Ronald Taylor carried out a rampage shooting of his own, only 30 minutes away. Taylor, a black man, murdered three whites and wounded two others in the head. Before surrendering, he had advanced from killing a priest to terrorizing the nurses in a family health clinic. But Baumhammers, and other Pittsburghers like George Soldini, watched as Taylor’s racist writings and venomous hatred toward everyone other than himself – including “Uncle Toms” – became fodder for deep discussions of social problems and the sad plight of Ronald Taylor and how awful race relations are. Nonsense.

I interviewed Taylor as well; his reality was quite different. Taylor contemplated mass killing for months and took the next step after his anonymous, clumsy and provocative romantic overtures to an employee at his drop-in clinic were exposed and he was rejected. Rather than portray Taylor for the sexual and social incompetent that he was, however, the Pittsburgh news media and academe took to humanizing a man who delivered inhumanity, and Taylor went from marginal to larger than life in the flash of a gun. Baumhammers was part of his audience. Soldini was part of the audience as well, and made videos for the rest of us with the unfortunately correct presumption that others should care that he killed perfectly innocent people because he could not get a woman interested in him. Others like them identify with the sense of failed expectations and appreciation for the power of destruction. It is easy for those alienated and even contemptuous outcasts to wonder whether they could – and then should – step into the pantheon of immortality by taking as many others with them as it takes to get on the evening news.

In my professional opinion, mass shooting coverage should not show the killers’ faces, should not mention their name. When killers are discussed in the news media, they should be recalled only for their weirdness, hostility, self-absorption, and in ways where no one could possibly WANT to identify with. No one copies a pervert; if we can report about rapists and child sex crimes with an inherent contempt for the offender, we MUST do the same for the mass shooter.

The news media is not the place for dissecting the mass killers and assassins who likewise seek status in destruction, as did Mark David Chapman. Courts and psychiatrists have plenty of opportunity to get to the bottom of a tragedy and to inform and educate the public as need be. Mass shootings need to be covered with stories of heroism – those who saved victims, who escaped, who restrained the killer, who sought help. The public should be educated about what to do in such situations. It is the victims who should be remembered as larger than life. Friends of the perpetrator should be given opportunity to voice their sense of humiliation and shame. Future mass killers have to come face-to-face with the consequences of their actions in the crimes that they identify with. That turns the role of the press into the deterrent it should be, rather than a cheerleader for the next Olympian scheme to top Columbine’s destruction. The brewing mass killer must not be reinforced with the prospective reward of becoming a household name.

You were also involved with the analysis of Andrea Yates and Chris Benoit, who were both found responsible for murdering family members. How do these types of cases differ from other types of murder cases?

Child killing is a unique and multi-faceted crime. As much as mass shooting has common features, child killing does not.

Andrea Yates was overly wrapped up with high expectations of motherhood, and her functional impairment carried over into a degrading of the care and attention she provided her children. The children’s behavior became more uncontrolled as well, reflecting the chaos around them. At the same time, she was an obedient wife who continued to have children even as she recognized that she quietly harbored homicidal fantasies during her depressions for years.

Andrea Yates told me that she arrived at a determination that she would kill her five children two months before it happened. But she told no one, because she knew she would be stopped. Her children were doomed and did not even know it. Yates was surrounded by family and others who cared for her and no one knew what she was going to do. Yates sat with her doctors, her mother, her friend, her husband, and told no one. She did not want her children to be in foster care, and she did not want to be stopped. At some point, her mother-in-law came from Tennessee to help her care for the children. When Yates started to improve, by her doctor and her family’s impression, her mother went home on the decision of Andrea’s husband, Rusty. As soon as she was alone with the children, Yates killed them all.

Andrea Yates was overwhelmed and ashamed of her inability to mobilize to care for her children. She increasingly grew away from her children the more they misbehaved, and she was increasingly resentful of them. Deeply devout, she reasoned that as she had lost control of the children, they would eventually fall under the devil’s influence and go to hell. She reasoned that if she killed them at a young age, they would go to heaven. She drowned them all and felt relief afterward – not for the children, but for the accomplishment.

My analysis of Andrea Yates covered more material and interviewed more sources than anything done up to that point and since. Ultimately, it was my impression that Yates had a recurrent depression with irrational, or psychotic guilt about her failures as a parent. I also felt that she had simmering rage toward her husband, a powerlessness for her failures as a mother, and an inability to express that anger towards her husband and her increasingly disobedient children. She intended to kill all of the children for months, chose a way that she told me would not be messy, and was filling up the bathtub to do so a short time earlier when she was interrupted. On the day of their deaths, Yates started drowning the five children literally as soon as her husband left the house that morning. Her behavior was so deliberate that she locked up the family dog first, preventing him from interfering.

Andrea Yates never expected Rusty to have anything more to do with her after the killings – she ignored his cries when he came upon the death scene and later told him to “have a nice life” when he first visited her. But Rusty Yates stepped up to defend her when attention focused on whether he had failed in the demands he put upon her. In my experience, it is customary for aggrieved parents to defend their killer spouses and homicidal children when murders happen on their watch. It is easier to blame the psychiatrist or the psychiatric diagnosis than to confront the uneasy question, “how could you ever leave a woman who was planning to kill the children for months alone with them for even a minute?” Rusty may have been insensitive, but no one saw the killings coming, and Andrea made sure of that.

Medicine has come a long way in its appreciation of protecting helpless children. The not guilty verdict in the Yates case was a huge step backward in children’s rights, precisely because jurors felt compelled to deliver a verdict to respect mental illness. What I feared, and what I have since seen, is that people in desperate straits – be they financially overtaxed or drug addicts or likewise – will view child killing as an option. For a desperate individual to even consider killing a child as a solution is unacceptable.

The erosion of that red line is precisely why child killing has not decreased since the Yates verdict, not at all. Only last year I was in Texas examining John Rubio, a man who beheaded his three children. He knew of the Yates case. He also, according to a witness, had asked the children’s mother months earlier what she would think if he killed the children. As his case advanced in the courts, Rubio told a cellmate, “If Andrea Yates could get away with it, why can’t I?”

The Benoit case differed from the Yates case in that it had more to do with the disintegration of the family unit rather than the disintegration of the self. Unlike many cases of fathers who kill their families, and in contrast to Yates, the killing was far more impulsive.

And, of course, the Benoit tragedy was a murder-suicide. At no time was Andrea Yates suicidal. In fact, she became emotional only when she was riding in a police cruiser having just been arrested, upon hearing a talk radio caller volunteer to carry out her death penalty himself.

The Benoit case is emerging as one of a growing annals of athletes who sustain head injuries and who meet a far younger life expectancy. For some, such as dramatized cases of former Pittsburgh Steelers players, the cause of death is suicide. For others, it is a byproduct of recklessness.

The Benoit murder-suicide absolutely featured a contentious relationship between husband and wife. The relationship between the interpersonal and biological may be difficult to tease apart. Benoit was never alienated from his developmentally disabled son. There was no animosity between them, such as one sees in so many cases when fathers kill their children. There was no financial ruin. There was, however, the uncertain prospect for the child in the face of the family’s disintegration – especially after Benoit killed his mother and was destined for prison or life on the run as a public figure. In that vein, in my professional opinion from conducting a death investigation of the case, the Benoit murder-suicide began as a confrontation that degenerated beyond a point of return – and that point of return claimed three lives.

Are your insights based on a particular school of thought or have they evolved from various paired with clinical and case observation?

You don’t forget experience half as quickly as you do what you learn in classrooms or from others’ mentorship. Get involved as a participant. I remember volunteering to consult on medication refusal cases at Bellevue Hospital simply to get experience testifying. Years before that, I had ultimately trained more for testifying from doing play-by-play for University of Miami football and baseball games on the radio than I ever learned from later experience. In play-by-play, you have to be precise with your words as you follow the ball and the numbers of players and who is where on the field, all in real time. Boy, does that come back to you in court settings. And back then, all I thought I was doing was watching a twelve yard run to the far side of the field, sprung by a great block from the tight end!

I also continue to learn a lot by regularly challenging myself professionally with something I think really refines my skills, be they psychiatric interviewing or forensic investigation. A new culture, a new genre. It forces you to thrive in the adversity of your own growth curve. Finding answers in forensics is a proactive exercise. The sources for finding answers are different for each case. Identifying those sources becomes an almost improvisational exercise.

Mentorship is extremely important. I had great mentors and try to set the right example for my students as a result. My mentors and I did not spend an inordinate amount of time together. However, I found them to challenge my thinking and to throw a lot at me that I was forced to digest for the first time. They were professional, iconoclastic in their own way, and thought independently. That is a key quality to mentorship, because it trains you as a student to think beyond a textbook. When a mentor models that for you, it makes the leaping safer for you.

I find it hard for students to gain confidence and to take those upward leaps. For me, the most formative case in that regard was consulting to the defense in the case of William Tager. Tager almost carried out a mass shooting at the NBC Today studios in New York. When attorneys came to me in 1996 to consult with them, I asked them if they weren’t better off with someone else! Prosecutors had hired one of the most well-known forensic psychiatrists in America at the time – and brandished his involvement to the defense. I confronted my insecurities by vowing not to be outworked. I still remember how I traced the steps of his crime, right down to going to the barber shop in Scranton Pennsylvania where the killer got his hair cut on the way to the city. I submitted to the worst haircut I have ever had in the interest of chatting up the barbers about their recollections of my examinee. I eventually found irrefutable evidence that it was Tager who had attacked newsman Dan Rather. Ultimately, I felt that I found a tremendous amount of new evidence, and felt confident about how that would stand up to critical scrutiny.

In response to my evaluation, the case resolved without trial. The experience left me with the impression that I could do this work at a high quality level as well as anyone as long as I was true to the science and worked indefatigably to find answers; and I never looked back. Everyone needs to have that kind of signal experience; as teachers, parents, siblings, and significant others, we can teach those we care about to recognize those events so that they can spread their wings and take off.

Read Part 1 of Dr. Welner’s Interview
Read Part 3 of Dr. Welner’s Interview

Page updated on February 9, 2011.

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