Edward Gein was born in August 1906 to a drunkard father and a bitter mother who from a tender age instilled in her sons the notion that the world and women, in particular, were full of evil. Ed and his brother Henry were daily subjected to horrific stories from the Old Testament of the Bible that talked of death and murder and other grave evils committed by human beings against their fellow men. Besides having to grow up in a dysfunctional family, Ed Gein was constantly the target for bullies at school due to growth over one of his eyes. Ed’s mother discouraged her sons from interacting with others, a fact that was evident throughout his childhood and adolescent years. She would scold him whenever he tried to make friends either at school or in his neighborhood. The only people Ed interacted with were the workers with whom he worked at his mother’s farm. His social development problems were evident particularly in school where he was detached from others and always seemed to laugh by himself as if at his jokes. To make matters worse, Ed and his only brother were constantly abused by both of their parents. Their father abused them when drunk while their mother believed that her sons were as useless as their father (Fox and Levin, 2005).
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At the age of 34, Ed lost his father. Four and five years later, he lost his only brother and mother respectively and became the only surviving member of his family. His engagement in criminal activities began shortly after his mother’s death when he began visiting graveyards to exhume dead bodies. The dead victims were bodies of recently dead women who bore a close resemblance to his mother. Ed would carry out sexual experiments with the bodies which grew more ghastly and weird over time and included cannibalism and necrophilia. His compulsive sexual fantasies pushed him to make and wear female masks and breasts from the dead bodies to become a woman. In addition, Ed was found guilty of murdering Bernice Worden and was the prime suspect in the disappearance of Mary Hogan. The discovery of Bernice Worden’s dead body at his farmhouse by police officers led to his institutionalization at the Waupun State Hospital for life. Gein died at the age of 78 from complications arising from cancer (Fox and Levin, 2005).
Theories Applicable to Edward Gein’s Criminal Life
Trait theory of crime
The trait theory is one of the theories of criminal and deviant behaviors. The trait theory asserts that human personality is shaped by the interaction of several personalities such as extroversion, introversion, and neuroticism among others. As a result, differences in people’s conduct render some people to be more susceptible to committing criminal acts. The trait theory is further divided into different perspectives which include: psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, personality and intelligence perspectives (Siegel, 2007, p.92). The behavioral perspective of trait theory is based upon the principles of behavioral psychology and is the basis for behavior modification and change. It is also one of the approaches used in both institutionalized and non-institutionalized settings for changing behavior. According to this perspective, behavior is learned and therefore can be unlearned (Siegel, 2007, p.109). This perspective was first propounded in the early twentieth century through the works of John B. Watson. Between 1920 and mid-century, this theory was further developed by other scholars such as Frederic Skinner who came up with their theories of learning and behavior based on laboratory experiments instead of introspection.
Skinner showed the power of reinforcement or rewards, where a specific response to a stimulus is increased to encourage a certain desired behavior.
These studies have included the role of; the interactions that precede behavior, such as the degree of attention; “modification in behavior itself, such as the formation of skills; interactions that come after the behavior, such as the effects of reinforcements or rewards and punishments; and conditions prevailing over all the events, such as prolonged emotional stress and deprivations of the basics of life,” (Reid, 1994, p.158). Behavioral therapy, therefore, tries to change or modify a person’s long-established patterns of response to himself and others by dealing directly with deviant behaviors. If the reward value is not taken away people will behave defiantly.
The cognitive development perspective of trait theory was first propounded by Jean Piaget. This perspective is founded on the belief that how people organize their thoughts about rules and laws leads to either criminal/delinquent or noncriminal behavior (Reid, 1994, p. 157). Psychologists refer to this organization of thoughts as moral reasoning. When that reasoning is applied to law, it is called legal reasoning. Jean Piaget believed that there are two stages in moral reasoning. The first stage is the belief that rules are sacred and immutable. According to Piaget, we leave this stage at around the age of thirteen (Reid, 1994, p.158). The second stage is the belief that rules are the products of humans. This stage leads to more moral behavior than the first one. In 1958, Lawrence Kohlberg modified this approach. He named the first stage conventional and the second conventional stages. He also added a third and higher stage known as post-conventional reasoning. Unlike Piaget, Kohlberg believes that most people move from conventional to conventional reasoning or thinking between the ages of ten and thirteen. Those people who do not make this change are seen as arrested in their development of moral reasoning and they may become delinquents or criminals.
Kohlberg and other scholars advanced this position with the development of stages of moral judgment that can be applied to all kinds of behavior. The progression or development to higher stages should preclude criminal behavior but most criminals do not advance beyond the first stage. Other modern scholars have propounded the fact that both criminal and non-criminal behaviors are related to cognitive development and that people decide on the behavior in which they wish to engage in. These scholars emphasize that although environmental factors such as family background, poverty, and peer relationships may bind one’s choices, they do not determine those choices. Hence criminal behavior is a result of the way people think and the choices they make i.e. the root causes of crime are thought and choice (Walters, 1989, p.8). Thus criminals must be taught how to change their ways of thinking.
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The learning theory of crime
The learning theory approach to the explanation of criminal behavior has been associated with two of the major sociological perspective of crime, the differential association perspective, and the social learning perspective. The differential association theory is founded on the idea that the current society has incompatible structures of norms and behaviors. The society also has a contradictory description of suitable behavior that causes individuals to engage in crime (Blackburn, 1993). When individuals directly experience this conflict, they are more likely to engage in acts of crime or delinquency through differential association. In differential association, individuals learn criminal and delinquent behavior by coming into contact with other delinquents/criminals, more often than not in close and personal groups. In short, peer pressure and the attitudes of peers greatly affect the inclination of an individual to engage in crime. Similarly, associations with individuals who support delinquent/criminal behaviors also influence individuals to engage in such behaviors. This, therefore, means that people do not necessarily have to associate with criminals for them to engage in criminal activities.
The social learning perspective is also used in psychology. It is normally linked to the work of Albert Bandura and his study on modeling and imitation. Social learning theory asserts that behavior can be learned cognitively by observing and imitating the behaviors of other people (Blackburn, 1993). People can imagine themselves in related circumstances, and incur related outcomes. When the behavior has been learned it may either be reinforced or discouraged according to the results it produces. Bandura supported a number of the vital notions of the operant conditioning theory; reinforcement, punishment, and motivation (Feldman, 1993). He believed that there are three elements of motivation which include external reinforcement, vicarious reinforcement, and self-reinforcement.
External reinforcement is likened to Skinner’s notion of reinforcement. Vicarious reinforcement is obtained from watching other people’s behavior is either reinforced or punished. Self-reinforcement denotes individuals’ sense of pride or a meeting of standards in ones’ behavior. The social learning theory postulates that criminal behavior is learned by observing others. The learning occurs in three settings; the family, established subculture, and the social environment. The reinforcement for criminal behavior can either be internal or external or both. It can also be in the form of tangible or social rewards. Tangible rewards refer to outcomes such as material wealth while social reward refers to intangible rewards such as acceptance by peers or increased self-esteem. The reward mechanism plays an important role in the criminal career of individuals. Consistent receipt of punishments following a criminal behavior will discourage an individual from engaging in future criminal behaviors while consistent receipt of positive rewards will encourage future criminal behaviors (Feldman, 1993).
These theories of crime can explain Gein’s criminal activities in several ways. First, Gein had been brought up by a very domineering mother. After his mother’s death, Gein was now free to do whatever he wanted. Because of his social development problems, Gein had lived in a fantasy sexual world. The exhumation of the dead bodies and the experiments he carried out on them was a strategy used by Gein to realize his fantasies. With each dead body he exhumed, Gein was rewarded through the realization of his fantasies, a fact which propelled him to exhume more bodies and carry out his gruesome deeds. Gein also acquired his criminal activities through the learning process. Learning was done from his mother who from a tender age instilled in her son murderous thoughts by reading to them Bible chapters that mainly talk of murder and death. As he grew older, Gein became interested in death-cult magazines from which he also learned criminal activities.
Blackburn, R. (1993). The psychology of criminal conduct: Theory, research and practice. Toronto: John Wiley & Sons.
Feldman, P. (1993). The psychology of crime: a social science textbook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fox, J.A. & Levin, J. (2005). Extreme killing: understanding serial and mass murder. New York: SAGE.
Reid, S.T. (1994). Crime and Criminology. Dubuque: Brown communications, Inc.
Siegel, L. (2007). Criminology: The Core (3rd Ed.). Florence: Cengage Learning, Inc.
Walters, G.D., & White, T.W. (1989). The thinking criminal: A cognitive model of lifestyle criminality. Houston: Sam Houston State University Criminal Justice Centre.