Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles Sobhraj


The constants in Charles Sobhraj's formative years were abandonment and second-class status. Born Gurhmuk Sobhraj to an unwed Vietnamese woman, Sobhraj grew up feeling his parents' indifference to his existence. His mother, Song, was abandoned by his father, an Indian tailor, soon after her first son was born and she blamed him for her lover's dismissal.

His father wanted little to do with Gurhmuk during the boy's childhood, but the youngster twisted it around in his head to believe that his father was a mythic, heroic figure.

Eventually Song met up with a French officer stationed in French Indochina and they were wed. The soldier, Lieutenant Alphonse Darreau, was willing to adopt Song's son, but not to give the boy his name. Darreau was kind to Sobhraj, but as other children were born to Darreau and Song, Gurhmuk began to feel more and more an outsider in his own home. For his part, Darreau, who had suffered shell shock during a battle and for the rest of his life was in and out of hospitals for post-traumatic stress disorder, looked at Sobhraj as a drain on scarce family resources.

A child shunned in such a way will eventually do things to gain attention. For neglected children, even negative attention is considered better than no attention at all, and Charles (he took the name as a teenager after being baptized a Catholic) was no different. From an early age he was disobedient and delinquent. He was a smart, charismatic youngster, but his grades suffered and he was often absent from school. When he did show up Charles was a discipline problem for his schoolmasters.

Living in Marseilles, Charles had access to ships heading east to Indochina and he began stowing away on them in an effort to reach his natural father. The affection Charles held for his father was not returned, however. Several times the boy managed to make it out of Marseilles only to be discovered while at sea and returned to port -- at no small cost to his mother or father, depending on who could be convinced to pay the boy's fare.

Charles bounced back and forth between the Orient and Europe, at home in neither place. The geographic cure his parents hoped for never occurred, because wherever Charles went he took his psychopathic personality. He was uncontrollable and as he reached his late teens his family became unwilling to bail him out of trouble.

When he was arrested for burglary in Paris and sentenced to three years behind bars, he went to prison, estranged from his family. Alone, without anyone who cared whether he lived or died, Sobhraj was determined to make his family and all society pay for throwing him away.

Some consider this need for vengeance a pretense.

"His claims that his life was a protest against the French legal system or that his love for Vietnam and Asia motivated his criminal career are absurd, but as tools of psychological manipulation they were very effective," Neville wrote.


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