The Process of Violentization, Why They Kill – Lonnie Athens.

Lonnie Athens was senior research criminologist at Georgetown University Law Center and now teaches in the criminology department at Seton Hall University.

Athens developed a theory known as “The Process of Violentization” which describes four stages in the development of violent actors.

Stage 1 Brutalization: Within this stage, the subject is forced into doing violent acts by a member of their primary group.

Stage 2 Belligerency: In this stage, the subject reinforces his warlike attitude to the situation by a method of different steps. They take personal responsibility to the fact that they started the brutalization stage to begin with. In turn, they feel like they must lash out in order to forget about what they did to begin with. The subject feels like the only way for them to make right to the situation is to keep acting out. With this repeating behavior they get emotionally attached to what they are doing. Because of this emotional attachment, the subject feels like anytime they are provoked, they can end the feeling by continuing the violent acts.

Stage 3 Violent Performances: The subject continues to act out violently and they feel that they get inner confidence by acting like this and that in turn builds their self-esteem. With their actions being executed, they feel like they get a knack for it and they incorporate it into their daily activity. In this stage they feel most comfortable with what they are doing and do not feel like they are doing anything wrong. The subject feels like they have gained celebrity status to what they are doing, and within this stage is the defining moment of whether or not they will continue to do what they are doing.

Stage 4 Virulency: Once the subject has made it to this point, they feel like whether or not their fame is notorious or not, they believe it to be a good thing. This stage is also known as the need to show off. They feel like they can move on to bigger and better things if they wanted to and the subject tries to. They have an overwhelming feeling of being invincible and that nothing can stop them, so they continue these violent acts. After this stage has been completed they are now considered to be a criminal and there is no stopping the subject to what they may do next.

IN PERSON; Why They Kill? He Thinks He Knows.

George James

HANNIBAL LECHTER, wild-eyed, glares maniacally from the wall. The Joker — in the person of Jack Nicholson — is grinning devilishly.

It is not most people’s notion of a university professor’s office. But then Lonnie Athens of Seton Hall University, did not travel the usual route to academia.

Consider his father, Petros Athens, who called himself Pete the Greek — a rugged jack-of-all-trades with a hair-trigger temper who carried an unlicensed gun and was quick to use his fists, even on his wife, on Lonnie and on Lonnie’s older brother, Rico.

In a sense, young Lonnie grabbed himself by the scruff of his neck and flung himself from the slums of Richmond, Va., into a world that he hardly knew existed.

One day last week, Dr. Athens, who is called a maverick criminologist by some these days, was standing outside Presidents Hall on the Seton Hall campus here, when Albert Hakim, professor emeritus of philosophy called out in passing, ”Congratulations on all the good publicity.”

Moments later, Donald Wimmer, a professor of religious studies and archeology, passed by and remarked that he had seen Professor Athens on television discussing his theories on violence.

Mumbling ”thank you,” Lonnie Athens appeared awkward at receiving the type of praise that has eluded him for so many years. But now he is being noticed, thanks largely to the publication of ”Why They Kill: The Discoveries of A Maverick Criminologist” by Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer-winning author.

The critically acclaimed book focuses on Professor Athens’s life and controversial theories that arose from his interviews with imprisoned felons as well as his own violent upbringing at the hands of his abusive father in a series of rough-and-tumble neighborhoods around Richmond.

”It’s like being outside with your clothes off,” he said about being the subject of a book. In fact, the night after Professor Athens received his first copy, the book prompted a dream: he has been invited as a conference speaker because of the book. He steps outside his hotel room to pick up a newspaper. But he’s wearing only his boxer shorts. The door locks behind him.

”I was walking all around the hotel looking for the maid to open it,” he said in a Virginia drawl, ”and everybody was laughing at me.”

Discussing the book in his office in the criminology department, he said, ”I feel pretty good about it, but honestly, I couldn’t even complete reading it for a long time because there’s such emotional turmoil the first three or four chapters.”

He added, ”It just went from laughing to tears.”

When he was born in 1949, he was named Lombros after his kindly maternal grandfather, a Greek diner owner who catered to the workers in the paper mills and cigarette factories of Richmond. His mother Americanized the name to Lonnie.

It was a tough neighborhood, and an even tougher household.

Speaking about his father in the book, Dr. Athens said, ”He’d grab my brother and me by the hair and smash our heads together, bloody our faces.” Once, when Lonnie resisted taking a bath, he said, his father shoved his head in the toilet and repeatedly flushed it, almost drowning him. He once broke a plate over Rico’s head, hospitalizing the boy with a concussion.

In a snack bar Pete owned, Pete began shooting at a customer who was coming at him with a broken bottle. The bullets thunked into the wall beside Lonnie, who was so terrified he wet himself.

On another occasion Lonnie saw a man put a gun to Pete’s head, cock the trigger and threaten to kill him until the man’s friend talked him out of it. He saw a man’s eyes gouged out with a can opener outside a stadium. And on another occasion he watched as a frantic woman was overtaken by a man and stabbed to death in the light of an otherwise normal afternoon.

These horrible images, all before the age of 18, embedded themselves in him, and it was trying to make sense of them that led Lonnie Athens to undertake the study of violent acts and why people commit them.

Often appearing to instructors as an unpolished and brash blue- collar product, he got his bachelor’s degree from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1970 and his master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1972, both in sociology, and earned a doctorate in criminology at the University of California at Berkeley in 1975.

This was at a time when factual narrative, or case studies, in sociology had been replaced by statistical studies, Mr. Rhodes writes. But Mr. Athens thought the best way to understand crime was to talk to criminals firsthand.

And so in a battered Volkswagen, dressed in old jeans, striped T-shirts, head bands and Swiss hiking boots — looking nothing like an academic and more like a criminal himself — Mr. Athens managed to talk his way into prisons in Virginia, Iowa and California, despite the occasional reluctance of the correctional hierarchy. And there he interviewed more than 100 violent felons, including murderers and rapists.

Sometimes he was menaced by the prisoners, and occasionally the guards, who saw him as no more than a college radical. Once, the guards locked him in a cell with a man who, while sitting across from him, grabbed him by the front of his shirt and threatened to sexually assault him. Mr. Athens, a diminutive man, flipped a heavy table separating them onto the man and then stood on it until the guards intervened. He refused to press charges for fear of jeopardizing his research. And in the process, he won the confidence of many of the inmates, who then opened up to him.

From these conversations viewed through the prism of his own violent past, he decided, contrary to popular thought, that those who commit violent acts are not necessarily crazy or acting in uncontrollable passion. They make conscious decisions and plan to do violence.

People become violent through a four-step process he called ”violentization.” In stage one, a youth is brutalized through violence or the threat of it, witnesses the violent subjugation of others or is coached in violence by an authority figure, or both. Next, he becomes belligerent and decides that when provoked, he will take violent action. Then he commits his first violent act. Finally, as he becomes notorious for his violence, he begins to glory in it and look for ways to hurt people.

Dr. Athens’s books — ”Violent Criminal Acts and Actors” (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980) and ”’The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals” (Routledge Publications, 1989) — drew the praise of renowned figures in his field, like his mentor, Herbert Blumer from Berkeley, but were dismissed by his peers.

During a telephone interview from Pittsburgh, where Mr. Rhodes was on a book tour, he said that Dr. Athens had been rejected by fellow sociologists and criminologists in part because his qualitative approach — with its emphasis on direct observation — had been largely replaced in his field by the quantitative approach with its emphasis on statistical data.

”The other problem is that Dr. Athens is a fairly belligerent man who doesn’t tolerate fools,” said Mr. Rhodes. ”He tends to stand up at conferences and ask some expert blathering on, ‘Have you ever talked to a violent individual? Did you ever experience violence? If you haven’t why do you think you know anything?’ ” Mr. Rhodes added, ”He went through the agony of the ignored.”

His first teaching assignment at Wayne State University in Detroit ended without tenure, after which he began what he describes as ”a deep descent.” He and his wife Marilyn, whom he had married when they were attending Virginia Polytechnic Insitute, were already separated when ”The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals” came out and divorced soon after. She was a lawyer for the government and decided it was time to pursue her career, not his. At the age of 40, and considering himself a failure, he drove to Richmond and moved in with his mother, who had finally divorced Pete. Today, their 21-year-old daughter, Maureen, is in college.

In 1990, he was hired in the sociology department at Seton Hall. He also remarried after a whirlwind courtship with Jennifer Weatherford, a nurse whom he had met through a boyhood friend. In 1996 he was granted tenure as an associate professor. Yet he still felt despair at times that his life’s work was still being ignored.

Enter Mr. Rhodes, the author of 17 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning ”The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (Simon & Schuster, 1986) and himself a victim of brutalization at the hands of his stepmother. He read Dr. Athens’s second book several years ago and found it ”so refreshing after so many statistical work-ups of criminal database.

Mr Rhodes, who describes Dr. Athens as a ”rugged genius” tracked him down at Seton Hall and invited him to dinner in Manhattan’s Little Italy. Even after Mr. Rhodes suggested the idea of the book centering on Dr. Athens’s life, the professor showed no emotion.

”I just didn’t really believe it, to tell the truth,” Dr. Athens confessed the other day, as Hannibal Lechter and the Joker peered out from the wall behind him. ”I didn’t want to be disappointed.”


Why They Kill: The discoveries of a maverick criminologist.

by Richard Rhodes

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