Interview with Michael H. Stone, MD, an exclusive reprint from the archives of Manner of Man Magazine


Interview with Michael H. Stone, MD

Photo used with written permission. All rights reserved.


This exclusive interview with forensic psychiatrist Michael H. Stone, MD was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in New York, New York during January 2014.


What was the primary reason or interest that caused you to enter forensic psychiatry?

The primary reason for my going into forensic psychiatry was my fascination with the extremes of personality abnormalities and aberrations. I had specialized for years in Borderline Personality Disorder ever since I finished my psychiatric training at New York State Psychiatric Institute (1966) and my psychoanalytic training at Columbia Psychoanalytic Institute (1971). In the early 1980s I began to get requests to serve as an expert witness in various law cases – often involving contentious custody cases where one spouse (usually the husband) accused the other (usually the wife) of being “borderline” – and “therefore” unworthy as a parent. These cases were often frivolous, since the wife was usually a quite competent mother, irrespective whether she were “borderline” (as to personality) or not. Other kinds of cases began coming my way also: ones involving testamentary capacity, malpractice, violent crimes, PTSD, workplace discrimination, and so on. Some of the persons I was called upon to evaluate were highly narcissistic, some were antisocial; some were even psychopathic. The latter two were at the far end of the personality-abnormality spectrum: especially, those committing murder or even multiple murder. For most people (myself included), serial killers are more fascinating than credit-card fraudsters – so I gradually became acquainted in a first-hand way – first with persons of severe narcissism; later, with even more extreme types that people ordinarily call “evil.”


How did you develop your scale of depravity, your now well-known 22-point "Gradations of Evil" scale? And why does it end at 22?

As I steeped myself in the literature on violent crime, I began to formulate the concept of “evil” along the lines of everyday parlance, rather than along the hitherto customary lines of religious and philosophic essays on the subject. I have a very large library of philosophic works by the major philosophers, and I have other tomes on Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, and Zoroastrian conceptions about good and evil. These works almost never get down to actual cases. But when people in the street, or when journalists, lawyers, judges, family-members of murdered victims hear about ghastly crimes – such as those committed by men who torture their victims in excruciating and prolonged ways – the word “evil” pops out of the mouth: OMG! that’s pure evil !!! So I use that as my definition: evil is a word conveying an emotion of horror, repugnance, disgust, shock of a kind that takes one’s breath away. Examples need not end in murder: I think of the man in Boston who poured boiling water on his son’s penis and then exploded the boy’s puppy with a fire-cracker…or…another man who was carrying on an incestuous relationship with his little niece: he took her down to the cellar of her house and proceeded to toss the girl’s cat, and then the kittens, one by one, into the furnace, telling her: if you breathe a word to your mother of what we do, I’ll toss your mother in the furnace, and then you! You get the idea.


Is abnormal visual tracking a potential indicator of any pathologies?

When I wrote my book called Abnormalities of Personality (1993), I began fashioning a scale – the Gradations of Evil. I started the project in 1987 when I was expert witness on behalf of author Joe McGinnis, who was being sued by Jeffrey Macdonald for calling him (in the book Fatal Vision) “narcissistic” and “antisocial.” Macdonald was already in prison at the time (for killing his pregnant wife and their two daughters) – but he was even so suing McGinnis for not giving him half the royalty money and also for “defamation of character.” The trial took place (where else?!) in California. I wanted to show the jury where, along a spectrum of inhumane acts, the Macdonald murders were situated. It was not as bad as the Ian Brady serial torture-murders in England – but it was worse than Jean Harris’ shooting her lover Dr Herman Tarnower to death in a jealousy-murder, after she caught him cheating on her. I began reading True Crime books, by way of adding to my own familiarity with the subject. I now have read over 800 such books.

I divided the crimes, and the criminals, focusing just on killers and rapists in peacetime (war and gang-warfare being a different form of behavior: even pretty normal people can do horrible things in times of group conflict) – into various categories, each one being a bit “worse” (more callousness, more pain to the victim(s), etc) than the preceding. I used Category #1 to represent “Not Evil” – just to give a meaningful endpoint to the Scale. A woman who kills a battering husband is not a murderess; she is committing a homicide in self-defense – which is not murder (murder signifying the unlawful taking of a life). Category #2 was Jealousy Murder (such as that of Jean Harris) – since almost anyone can identify with such a crime: it seems, albeit “wrong,” very understandable. People with marked psychopathic traits begin around Category #9. Spree murderers, like Charles Starkweather, I put at #15. Multiple Vicious Acts (including multiple rapes and also mass murder) I put at #16. Sexual crimes with murder and varying degrees of torture I put at #17 on up to #22 (depending on the nature and degree of suffering inflicted on the victim(s)).

My understanding of abnormal visual tracking is as a correlate usually of schizophrenia. Schizophrenics are more apt to be violent than people in the general population, but only by a small increase in risk: 4 to 6 % as opposed to 1% in the general population. Manic persons are also more violent – to about the same 4 to 6%. The mass murderer in Washington DC’s Navy Yard last year (Aaron Alexis) was a paranoid schizophrenic. James Holmes (mass murderer in Aurora CO) was schizotypal in personality (in the penumbra of schizophrenia); Jared Loughner (who tried to kill congressman Gifford) was psychotic on drugs (and was called “schizophrenic” – but he made himself appear that way because of his heavy use of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, Ecstasy, Angel dust, etc etc ). Adam Lanza in Newtown CT was autistic – though ordinarily autistic persons are not very prone to violence.


In MRI testing do violent neural landscapes create any concern for potential dangerous straits?

MRI testing can show how various areas in the frontal lobes, amygdala, and other parts of the brain – appear to be too small, too under-developed or hypo-functioning, or otherwise abnormal – in certain kinds of perpetrators. Antisocial men, psychopaths, for ex., may show such abnormalities (as identified by Prof. Adrian Raine and others in recent years). But the correlations are not so foolproof as to allow us to say that Mr X (before he has even done any crime) is at high risk to be a violent criminal.


In childhood are their known indicators that at that hold potential for sociopathic and serial killer tendencies?

In childhood there are certain patterns that crop up again and again in the lives of those who go on to commit violent crimes. Men, thanks to their testosterone and other male attributes (including brain differences from females) are far more likely to engage in violent crime than are women (about 5 or even 8 to one ratio). Many serial killers (I speak of men committing serial sexual homicide – like Ted Bundy and David Parker Ray and Leonard Lake – have had miserable childhoods (parental abuse, humiliation, neglect…) – which play a role in their becoming abnormal in personality. But some were never abused or neglected: Ted Bundy and Larry Bittaker had childhoods that were all right. So in their cases, we look for inborn brain abnormalities that predispose to the development of psychopathy. In adolescence, many such men could be identified as “callous unemotional” youths. Serial killer Mike DeBardeleben, in contrast, was more typical: both his Texan parents were extremely abusive and threatening.

But one must remember that some children who have been treated as outrageously as he was or as David Parker Ray was – go on to become harmless, at times, even, model citizens. David Pelzer, in his book: A Child Called “It” – sketches how his mother tortured him for years, yet how he became a highly medaled soldier and fine young man despite it all. Mental illness plays a role in some cases of violent crime: in my series of over 300 mass murderers over the last century (1913 to 2013) about 22% of these killers were mentally ill, in the sense of suffering from some sort of psychotic condition. But the majority of mass murderers are disgruntled workers who’ve been fired from a job (like the postal worker Patrick Sherrill, or the Xerox employee in Hawaii, Brian Uyesugi) – and have some paranoid traits and are quick to take offense – but who are not certifiably “mentally ill.” George Hennard, of the Luby Cafeteria massacre in Killeen Texas was an example: an angry, hot-tempered and embittered man who hated the idea of women attaining positions of prestige in our society – but he was not psychotic.


What percentage of potential serial killers function in society undetected, without ever committing crimes?

As to the percentage of potential serial killers who might function undetected without ever committing crimes – this is an unanswerable question. I did once supervise a psychiatric trainee who was treating a 19 yr old fellow with worrisome attitudes. He had been severely neglected by his mom, and terribly humiliated by his gymnast-father. The young man had fantasies of killing women, and when he was being treated (for over two years) on our unit at Psychiatric Institute, the girls called him “Little Jeffrey” – referring to Dahmer, who had just been arrested (this goes back to 1991). Little by little, the patient got over his murderous fantasies, and made a good adjustment. He was released from the hospital and shared an apartment with another former patient. He has never been in trouble with the law, never committed any act of violence. So how many such persons (treated and untreated) are there in society? There is no way of tabulating such persons and of coming up with a percentage.


In brief, what are major differences distinguish John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein?

As for serial killers: Gacy, Dahmer, and Gein – they are very different in many ways. Gacy, for ex., was bisexual, was personable enough to become an alderman in Chicago and have his picture taken with First Lady Roslyn Carter. He had been severely abused physically by his father. His penchant was for picking boys up from the Greyhound station and bringing them to his home – where he would proceed to have sex with them and then kill them, and bury them under his porch. Gacy had strong psychopathic personality traits. Dahmer was unable to connect up with people or make friends, and came across as an Asperger Syndrome case in many ways (what with his lifelong preoccupation with the insides of animals and his lack of empathic connection with others). Some colleagues say he didn’t have the Asperger picture. Be that as it may, he was a loner – and was gay – with sexual “hang-ups” like public lewdness (masturbating in public in Milwaukee), before he embarked on his career of seducing young boys and men.. He would get them drunk and unconscious after sex, via alcohol and Xanax, and then strangle them, whereupon he would try to “preserve” them, saving pieces of them in the fridge or in oilcans in his apartment. He tried a few times to make “zombies” out of them by injecting hydrochloric acid into their brains, hoping to make them into sex-slaves he could then keep. They of course died, so he gave that practice up. When finally caught, he did have some remorse, so he was not a clear-cut psychopath the way Bundy was. Ed Gein was schizophrenic: he was abnormally attached to his mother, and when she died, he took to doing such things (besides killing a few people) as digging up the bodies of women from the cemetery – and decking himself out in the skins of the women, as though “wrapping” himself up in his mother’s body, by way of denying the death and loss of her. So he was quite crazy, in comparison to Dahmer or Gacy (or Bundy or Ed Kemper or Lake or Ray etc etc ).


In your opinion who is the most evil serial killer of all time, and why?

The most evil serial killer of all time? I think the “gold star” should go to the man who inflicted the most awful torture on the greatest number of victims over the longest period of time before finally killing them. In that sense, David Parker Ray, with his “Toy Box” (a large mobile home he converted into a torture chamber in the small New Mexico town where I visited) is the best contender for this most revolting of prizes. Leonard Lake, with his younger sidekick Charles Chitat Ng, who tortured their victims over prolonged periods (but perhaps not as long as did Ray) would get 2 nd prize. John Ray Weber in Wisconsin tortured his 15 yr old sister in law in the most nauseating imaginable fashion – but he may only have killed one other woman – so his record is more meager (as to victim-count) than that of either Ray or Lake.


It seems like the general public are becoming more insensible to empathy and life, does this mean there will be an increase of serial killers and brutality of their crimes in the future?

As to whether the public is becoming more insensible about crimes of this sort, and less empathic – and less compassionate -- toward their fellow-man, I do think this is happening, during the past 50 years. We are now seeing horrific (evil!) crimes of a sort that were very rare before the mid 1960s. But serial sexual homicide – which peaked in the 1980s – has declined a bit lately. I think the feminist revolution of the late 60s played a role: women were now able, as never before, to divorce from cruel battering husbands and to support themselves via work, in ways that were less available before. So some men (mostly working class and otherwise not very successful men economically) resented their wives’ ‘freedom’ – and some became vengeful and sadistic and even murderous. But the big wave (of serial sexual homicide) may have passed. We are still seeing other forms of “evil” crimes, however – including the rape of a Marine cadet by Sedley Alley who killed her by thrusting a tree branch in her vagina on up to her diaphragm. I could find no crime so gruesome in the period before the 60s. I made a Power Point presentation recently of some 60 crimes that I characterized as partaking of the “New Evil.” There seems to be an increasing degree of emotional insensitivity of late…as if some people have begun to make little distinction between real human beings and the little figures one manipulates in the violent video games to which many young persons have in recent years become addicted. The number of men committing serial sexual homicide may continue to decrease a bit – but the occurrence of other variety of crimes involving unusual brutality may be on the rise.



The above interview with Michael H Stone, MD 2014 © Manner of Man Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.