Stanton Samenow: Psychologist Whose Findings Challenged Prevailing Views of Criminal Behavior

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Stanton Samenow, psychologist who studied ‘criminal personality,’ dies at 81”:

Stanton E. Samenow, a forensic psychologist who drew national attention by challenging prevailing views of criminal behavior, arguing that its causes lie not in environmental factors such as poverty but rather in an identifiable “criminal personality” that could be addressed only through rigorous counseling and the acceptance of personal responsibility, died in Fairfax County, Va.

Dr. Samenow devoted decades of his career to the study and rehabilitation of criminal offenders, beginning in 1970 with his work alongside Samuel Yochelson, a psychiatrist who oversaw a years-long study of patients at St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital in Washington, D.C. The study, which received funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, began in 1961 and continued until 1978, two years after Yochelson’s death.

At the time, psychologists generally agreed that many if not most criminal offenders had mental disturbances and that those disturbances could be treated through psychotherapy exploring their personal histories, their past traumas and their motivations. That approach, Yochelson and Dr. Samenow came to believe, was profoundly flawed.

“The outcome was criminals with insight, rather than criminals without insight,” Dr. Samenow wrote in the publication Psychology Today. “Dr. Yochelson wryly commented that the insight they showed should be spelled ‘i-n-c-i-t-e.’ They were incited to blame other people and their environment. In a moment of rare candor, one man commented, ‘If I didn’t have enough excuses for crime before psychiatry, I sure have enough now.’”

Yochelson and Dr. Samenow compiled their findings in a work titled “The Criminal Personality,” published in three volumes from 1976 to 1986. Dr. Samenow also wrote “Inside the Criminal Mind,” a book geared more toward a popular readership and first published in 1984.

Their findings prompted criticism from research psychologists who regarded the authors’ methodology as lacking and their interviews with hospital patients, however thorough, as overly subjective. Other critics denounced what they saw as an effort to minimize the role of poverty, neglect and abuse in the lives of some people who turn to crime.

“I’m prepared to offer Samenow a deal,” Washington Post columnist William Raspberry wrote. “I’ll give up the myth that criminals are caused by their environment if he’ll give up the myth that they are cured by psychiatry.”

Criminal justice experts and authorities, however, found the work by Dr. Samenow and Yochelson immediately useful. A contributor to the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior described the newly released “Criminal Personality” as “a seminal work, rich in new concepts of criminal treatment,” and one that “gives correctional counselors a blueprint to begin the serious work of criminal rehabilitation.”

Dr. Samenow and Yochelson identified more than 50 “errors in thinking” that lead criminals to see the world, in Dr. Samenow’s description, as a “chessboard, with other people serving as pawns to gratify his desires.” Those errors include overriding anger, lack of guilt in the face of injury to others, a propensity for breaking promises, and a craving for power and excitement.

Dr. Samenow conceded that many people, including those who do not commit crimes, may share those traits.

“It’s a matter of degree,” he told The Post in 1984. “We’re talking about a [criminal] person whose entire way of life is predicated upon the view that the world is there to suit him.”

Dr. Samenow formulated intensive counseling techniques used in prisons to help offenders avoid recidivism by breaking away from those “errors in thinking.” At the core of the approach was the acceptance of individual accountability.

“Criminals cause crime — not bad neighborhoods, inadequate parents, television, schools, drugs, or unemployment. Crime resides within the minds of human beings and is not caused by social conditions,” he wrote in “Inside the Criminal Mind.”

“Once we as a society recognize this simple fact,” he continued, “we shall take measures radically different from current ones. To be sure, we shall continue to remedy intolerable social conditions for this is worthwhile in and of itself. But we shall not expect criminals to change because of such efforts.”

Forensic psychology continues to evolve, including with the emergence of the field known as neurocriminology, which seeks to use neuroscience to understand crime.

“It remains to be seen how the idea of a criminal personality and a ‘criminal mind’ will fare,” William S. Laufer, a professor of legal studies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an email. “No doubt, though, Samenow’s influence on criminal psychology will remain, even if at the foundation of future research.”

Dr. Samenow, who left St. Elizabeths Hospital in 1978 to pursue a private practice in Northern Virginia, frequently testified in court, mainly as a prosecution witness, in cases involving the insanity defense.

He was among the experts who examined Daryl R. Atkins, a Virginia death row inmate whose case precipitated a 2002 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court barring the execution of intellectually disabled defendants. Atkins, who had been convicted in a carjacking and murder, had been determined at various points to have an IQ of 59, 67, 74 or 76.

Dr. Samenow did not administer standardized tests to Atkins but had spent hours in conversation with him. He conceded that the defendant’s IQ was low but cited his knowledge of history and his use of terms including “decimal” and “parable” in reaching the conclusion that he was not intellectually disabled.

Dr. Samenow was later appointed by a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge to examine Lee Boyd Malvo, who was 18 when he was convicted on capital murder charges in 2003 in connection with his role in the sniper killings that terrorized the D.C. area the previous year.

Dr. Samenow spent more than 34 hours interviewing Malvo, who said he had been brainwashed by an older co-conspirator, John Allen Muhammad, and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Dr. Samenow testified that he found no sign of mental disease in Malvo and described him as “highly intelligent,” an advanced reader who quoted the philosopher Spinoza.

“Mr. Malvo knows exactly what he’s doing,” Dr. Samenow testified. “This is a person that is fully cognizant, conscious, deliberating, purposeful.”

When a defense lawyer asked Dr. Samenow whether it was his opinion that “all criminals are rational and no crime is caused by mental illness,” Dr. Samenow replied that it was.

Malvo was convicted and sentenced to prison. Muhammad was convicted and executed in a Virginia state prison in 2009.

Stanton Ethan Samenow was born in Washington on Oct. 16, 1941. His mother was a teacher and principal in D.C. Public Schools before becoming an assistant principal at what is now the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. His father was a lawyer who worked for the Rural Electrification Administration established by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.

Dr. Samenow received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Yale University in 1963 before pursuing graduate studies in psychology at the University of Michigan, where he received a master’s degree in 1964 and a doctorate in 1968. He spent the early part of his career in Michigan as a clinical psychologist working in adolescent inpatient services.

In the later years of his private practice, Dr. Samenow served as an independent evaluator in child custody disputes, which he described as “darker than some of the criminal stuff I’ve done,” with parents treating a child as a “pawn in a ruthless battle.”

Dr. Samenow lectured widely to mental health, law enforcement and other professionals and served on three presidential crime commissions.

His books included “Before It’s Too Late: Why Some Kids Get Into Trouble — and What Parents Can Do About It” (1989), “Straight Talk About Criminals” (1998), “In the Best Interest of the Child: How to Protect Your Child From the Pain of Your Divorce” (2002) and “The Myth of the Out of Character Crime” (2007).

Dr. Samenow’s work reached perhaps its largest audience in 2007, as “The Sopranos,” the HBO series about a mob boss who submits to therapy, reached its conclusion.

The writers of the show had been introduced to Dr. Samenow’s research at a seminar and referenced his theories as psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) reaches the conclusion that her sessions with Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) serve more to reinforce his criminality rather than to stop it.

Informed by a neighbor of the pop-culture allusion to his work, Dr. Stanton Samenow viewed “The Sopranos” for the first time just as the show ended.

“You know, I get enough crime during the day, in terms of the people I see,” he said. “I tend to not watch crime shows or series, even those that are very good.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond.


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