The Perversion of Virtue: Understanding Murder-Suicide

Thomas Joiner. Oxford Univ., $35 (244p) ISBN 978-0-19-933455-1
Psychologist and Guggenheim Fellow Joiner establishes several theories on the motivations behind incidents of murder-suicide, which account for around 1,000–1,500 U.S. deaths per year, positing that such events are misguided attempts by the perpetrator to act virtuously. He offers in-depth analyses and real-life examples, placing “true murder-suicides” in four categories—“mercy, justice, duty, and glory”—while two other categories cover related acts involving both murder and suicide. Joiner explores the role of empathy, clustering those acting towards justice or glory as unempathic, where those concerned with mercy and duty are overly empathic. He uses the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, as an example of a justice-motivated incident, and the Columbine High School shooters as perpetrators seeking glory, despite media coverage suggesting otherwise. In a chapter on murder, Joiner compares the need to overcome “the ancient and ingrained reluctance to kill” to the “guiltlessness of the psychopathic mind.” On suicide, he explains the ambivalent “clash between desire and capability” that often results in dismissal of suicidal talk by mental health professionals. In addition to psychological and evolutionary research, Joiner draws from the Bible, Shakespeare, Thomas Aquinas, and elsewhere. This important study could save lives, and Joiner’s suggestion for mental health professionals to engage patients on the topic of virtue is well-founded. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 12/16/2013
Release date: 03/01/2014
Genre: Nonfiction
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