Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bones to Talk With

From Victim to Victimizer

Jason Massey, mugshot
Jason Massey, mugshot

In the entry for January 19, 1991, a Sunday, Massey writes that he tried and failed to kill his girlfriend, and "I'm tired of feeling like shit for not being able to kill."  Three days later, he made a notation that officially marked his "sacred journey."  His master was Satan, who had called out to him in the woods, and Massey believed that once he began, he would be unable to stop. 

How can we understand a young mind that would engage in extreme fantasies of mutilation and torture, devise a "campaign of death," and view as sanctified his development into a serial killer?  Is this just some aberrant individual or might there be others like him in the making?  His case provides a good study for criminology.

Erich Fromm's <em>Anatomy of Human Destructiveness</em>
Erich Fromm's Anatomy of Human Destructiveness

Psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm writes about the development of "malignant aggression" in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, and his ideas clarify how some people turn toward the need to harm.  They're guided by a set of values, and those values come from character, which is influenced in its development by social circumstances.  Certain people appear to crave absolute control--evident in Massey's journals — and this need often derives from a chaotic childhood. 

The natural instinct of benign aggression, Fromm says, comes from the automatic need to protect oneself and to survive, whereas malignant aggression is not physiological in nature.  Rather, it is a failure of character rooted in human passion.  It is about existential need, or the desire to make a distinct mark on one's world.  Whether a person will make that mark in a prosocial or antisocial way is largely influenced by how his social circumstances interact with his physiological constitution.  If his urge is to leave his mark destructively, the extremes of that drive are sadism — the passion for unrestricted power over another person — and necrophilia — an attraction to all that is dead.

Fromm believes that we all have an inner drive to make sense of life and to experience it to its optimum intensity.  Even people inclined toward evil are trying to make sense of their lives to organize an otherwise chaotic existence.  Yet paradoxically, they use their own lives to turn against life itself.

Necrophilia itself, says Fromm, is both real and symbolic.  It is a yearning for life to finish itself.  Such people often have dreams about dismembered parts, which are interpreted as their desire to tear apart living structures.  These people desire a world where there is no life and their drive for absolute control makes them increasingly more dangerous.  They have to control via death.

We can see how this applies to Jason Massey, who clearly wanted people around him to die, who wanted to tear their bodies apart, and who wanted control over others to the point of owning their bodies.  "All I want," he wrote, "is the murdering of countless young women."  The real question is, how did he get this way?

Children who grow up without stability, as the published accounts say he did, have difficulty forming emotional attachments to their caretakers.  Jason, who never knew his father, was deprived, beaten, and forced to live in an environment of uncertainty and random violence, at the mercy of a narcissistic mother who had children by accident and who treated them as if they were a bothersome appendage.  Not only did she create a transient and unpredictable environment, she added to it with neglect, starvation and punishment.  It should come as no surprise that Jason would develop a love/hate relationship with women.  Jason's mother, like all self-absorbed mothers, never saw what she was creating.  That her care of him was filled with cruelty, unpredictability and little emotional involvement meant that she was molding him in her own image. 

First, she was an influential role model who showed her children that violence was the way to resolve life's problems.

Second, she inspired in at least one of her children the feeling that he had to create his own center of stability, and for a male that meant finding some image that would make him feel powerful rather than weak.

Third, she kept her family in Texas, a place where the image of manhood does involve an aggressive sense of control.

While Jason was viewed as a monster, in some ways, he never really had a chance.  As the only child for two years, he took the brunt of his mother's immaturity, and as a loner rejected by other kids, he developed a need to find something that would comfort him and make him stronger on his own.

While this kind of parenting and childhood experience would not necessarily cause someone to look to serial killers as the source of power, it apparently had some influence on Jason's selection of what gave his life meaning.  Feeling angry and afraid, he developed violent fantasies, and his image of women was formed by an ill-tempered mother who was anything but nurturing.  When he learned from experience that violence against others made him feel powerful, it was inevitable that his fantasy life would become more textured with these images, especially as he moved through puberty.  Since he was heterosexual, girls would naturally become the objects of his fantasies of domination and control. 

He roamed the woods in search of his own private cemetery for his victims.  He viewed himself as serving some "Master" and built altars to a demon.  He killed animals out here under the moon and become obsessed with specific girls he saw.  He even wrote that he wanted to decapitate a girl and have sex inside her neck.  Thus, he would gravitate toward others who had found the same kind of solace or solutions in violence, notably people such as Charles Manson, Ted Bundy   and Henry Lee Lucas (whom he later got to meet — on death row).

All he needed to do was watch how the media nearly deified such people with endless hype and attention, how serial killers were made to look clever and calculating in movies.  They were somebody, and if he became one, he'd no longer be a nobody, a poor boy with nothing.  He, too would be somebody.  In fact, he'd not only become a serial killer and achieve some of that glory, but he'd become America's most notorious serial killer.  Everyone would remember him, people would write about him, he'd be in criminology textbooks, and be offered as an example of real dangerousness.  Thoughts like that were powerfully erotic to a lonely, disturbed boy who had few social skills.

In his journal after he was released from the psychiatric institution, Massey wrote, "The system had one chance…so what can I say?  It's not my fault.  After reading all the shit in those two books, they had a reason to get a court order to get me some help."  Then out on his own, he seemed ambivalent: should he resume his plans to find a girl to kill or try to do something positive?  That was a crucial moment of decision.

Yet as Fromm says, the only way to change from the destructive pole to the loving pole was to change one's foundational values.  That did not happen for Massey.  He continued to kill dogs and was soon he was back on drugs. 

For a time, he considered enlisting a killing partner, but decided that he'd probably just go it alone.  He wanted to go to the Pacific Northwest, the land of Ted Bundy and the as-yet uncaught Green River Killer.  He managed to get as far as Oregon in a friend of his mother's car, but the police caught them and sent them home.

He lived with a woman for a while who kicked him out when he killed dogs in the house.  She had accidentally come across his journals and was horrified, inspiring him to a new resolution: "Never speak your true nature."  With this incident, he was consolidating his secret drive toward destruction.

In 1992, he came close to realizing his dream of murder, but as he held a knife to a young girl as a prelude to rape, her mother came home — the same woman who had seen him kill the dogs — and ordered him to leave.  He wrote in his journal that it was a momentous day for him.  Later he "buried" the girl symbolically at his secret altar in the woods.  He looked forward to really "losing his virginity" as a killer.  He wanted to physically eat some girl's brain and heart, and drink her blood.  He wanted bones to cry to him from the earth, bones of victims that belonged to him and him alone.

The next year, when he shot Christina in the back, he told someone that he saw three angels leave her body.  Then he spent many hours with his first kill, looking at the body, cutting into it, removing and handling things.  This for him was a truly powerful moment.  He was a god.  In fact, he had written in his journal that females must die.  "It is written in Esekiel 16:35."

Bill Cox begins Born Bad with a quote from Jason Massey's journals that appropriately shows the workings of his mind:

"My life: It's been about chasing girls, finding the one to rape and kill.  Rape is not enough.  I must have a body for the next day or two, to hold, talk to, and make love.  Bones to talk with."

Jason Eric Massey, entering a world where he had no control or security, found what he needed in images of death and destruction.  His heroes had done so, too.  Thus he is not unique, and there may be others like him, as yet uncaught, who feel a similar need to make their mark.  Massey gave out plenty of signals, but those signals were largely ignored or dismissed, and because of that, two children died.

James King called him the devil, but he didn't start out that way, he became that way.  Jason Massey's case can teach us why we must pay attention to anyone's obsession with harm to others.  It may be the first smoke arising from sparks that could eventually become a blazing fire.

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