Exclusive Interview with author "Richard Lettieri"
Richard Lettieri, PhD. is a forensic neuropsychologist and psychoanalyst with over 25 years of experience. Whether privately retained or appointed by the court, he is frequently called upon to assess individuals for a number of reasons, including competency to stand trial and insanity, and to evaluate individuals accused of sex crimes and violent offenses. He has written and lectured on a variety of topics as an expert in his field.
Dr. Lettieri received his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California and is a member of the Expert Witness Panels of Orange County and San Bernardino County Superior Courts. He has taught at Chapman University in Orange County, California, at the New Center for Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles, and at Pepperdine University in the Masters and Doctorate programs.
As a forensic psychologist trained in psychoanalysis, he is deeply attuned to an individual’s emotional turmoil, his intentions and conflicts, and his purposefulness – the drivers of behavior. Since the commission of most crimes require both criminal behavior and an accompanying mental state which is intentional and purposeful, his comfort and expertise in dwelling within the deeply subjective is an asset when conducting complex forensic examinations.
He covers all of this in his first book, Decoding Madness, which features new findings and personal insights. Here Dr. Lettieri presents an engrossing view of the psychology of defendants accused of committing heinous crimes and the insight that they provide towards the human mind.
-Tell us about your background and why you chose to write “Decoding Madness”?
As a forensic psychologist I have been face-to-face with criminals who have committed the most heinous of acts, from violent sexual murder to the killing of children. I am also a trained psychoanalyst in private practice who treats high-functioning individuals who have never committed a violent act and who are, by any measure, model citizens. Having had privileged access to my patients’ inner lives and to their deeply private conflicts and desires, I’ve learned that we all experience a range of impulses - from the vile to the sublime. But some of us grapple and control our shadowy side, while others allow their dark angels to take flight. My book exposes the many issues that lead some among us to “cross the Rubicon” and act with malevolence. That’s why I wrote it. This is something I thought was worth writing about
-How would you describe the book?
My book is filled with gripping stories like that of Michael, a young man who stabbed his mother in the back, believing she was the evil force causing the sun to descend upon the earth and destroy everyone, including him. Or consider Peter, a violent psychopath who claimed he shouldn’t be responsible for the death and destruction he wrought because his behavior was the result of his defective brain. He even provided me with neuroscientific research supporting his perspective!
In all of the cases, I present a nuts-and-bolts look into what it takes to complete criminal forensic psychological examinations. In the process, I describe my jarring experiences while conducting these examinations and the toll it sometimes takes on me.
-What would you like readers to take away from reading your book?
I think there are a number of take-aways. First, I’d like readers gain a richer perspective on the many factors - emotional, biological and even social – that, like a perfect storm, come together and galvanize destructive and aberrant behavior.
Another take-away, I hope, is a greater appreciation of how the law strives to deal with defendants who are mentally ill in a fair and just way. Surveys reveal that many people have a negative view of the insanity defense, for instance, believing it’s a get-out-jail for free care. In truth, it’s a rarely used defense, and when it is presented as a defense, it rarely succeeds. In several of the cases I present in the book, I offer a user-friendly yet detailed exploration of the process involved in completing an insanity evaluation. I include my thought process as I go along, including my periods of confusion and doubt, and how I reached my conclusions. I also give an on-the-ground description of what it’s like to deal with a skilled cross examination at trial.
Throughout the book, I strived to present an honest perspective on how the system actually operates, warts and all. I don’t shy away from the ethical dilemmas faced by justice professionals and forensic experts who work within a system, and how we sometimes fall short, as when, for instance, crucial evidence is withheld by the prosecution, or when experts become cynical and detached.
My hope is that readers will come away with a clear-eyed view of the criminal mind and a grander appreciation of the criminal justice system, even though it’s imperfect and flawed. How could it be otherwise: it’s run by human beings.
-What surprised you most about the writing journey?
I first conceived of the book as a series of case studies that highlighted the kinds of issues regularly confronted by a criminal forensic psychologist. Early on, it dawned on me that I would also need to comment on the functions and dysfunctions of the criminal justice system, and that simply focusing on the defendants without a context would be inadequate. And finally, as I reflected more deeply on the swath my cases I’ve completed over the years and the system in which I have been operating, it dawned on me that I was not simply writing about various individual cases and legal issues, but that I was confronting something elemental, our complex and imperfect human nature.
-Will there ever be an answer to the question - Why do good people do bad things?
That’s a very complicated question, but I address it head-on in my book. I do so by introducing the idea of the daimonic as a basic force of human nature that is the source of our constructive and destructive capacities. The venue of the criminal justice system, with its daily exposure to primal emotions, serves as a petri dish to investigate the full spectrum of our basic makeup. And what I’ve seen is that even psychologically mature people, under certain conditions (prolonged stress, mental illness fear, shame, unbridled competition as a few determinants) could perpetrate malice, wittingly or otherwise.
Notwithstanding this potential in us all to do bad things, I describe in the book the psychological capacity of self-reflection that serves as a powerful hedge against acting upon damaging impulses. This ability is much more that simply subjective awareness; it’s a deeply rooted part of oneself that seems to requires certain kinds of early experience (good-enough attachment experience, e.g.) to develop adequately (having been blessed with a stable temperament helps). A by-product of this developmental achievement is the ability to understand other people more accurately and to exercise self-restraint even under the most emotionally trying of circumstances. I provide a number of examples in the book of those who had been deprived of this kind of psychological maturity, and the ensuing tragic consequences.
-Have you come to believe in evil? If so, do you believe some people are born that way?
Evil has a supernatural connotation. Unfortunately, wickedness and moral depravity are all-too human earthly papacies. I think by now it’s clear that I see such destructive conduct as a very human potential. I don’t see evidence for the concept of a “bad seed,” someone born to be wild, so to speak. But there are differences in our make-up. Budding psychopaths have been found to have certain kinds of brain structures with, for instance, underactive limbic systems, the part responsible for emotionality. As such they tend to be less responsive to the socialization process. They don’t learn from interpersonal experience, they’re much less empathic and self-reflective, and more impulsive. They don’t internalize norms and are unresponsive to discipline. Still, that doesn’t mean that, given such a brain, one is destined to become a raving psychopath. If raised in a loving yet consistently disciplined family environment, the outcome could be favorable. We are more likely to find such individuals in professions that require a tough poise to be successful, like, for example. naval seals.
Unfortunately, there are psychopaths all around us. In my book, I discuss the problems with criminal psychopaths but I also get into the problem of the successful psychopaths, those individuals in the professions, politics and business who, though without a criminal record, wreak havoc.
-With the recent surge of true crime documentaries, what is it about killers, crimes, and especially serial murders, that you feel people find so fascinating?
Another great question. Aside from the more lurid voyeuristic impulse that make one unable to avoid glaring at a train wreck, I think there’s something more basic going on here. People intuitively realized the capacity in us all to be incredibly destructive and cruel and, at the same time, to be deeply humane and giving. It’s what I’ve referred to as our daimonic nature. There’s an intense desire to comprehend what makes some people exercise their dark side of the daimonic spectrum, and maybe a curiosity and fear of their own wicked impulses and fantasies. Watching a psychopathic killer on TV affords an opportunity to face these kinds of unspeakable behaviors from a distance, and to learn something about those who exercise their dark inner experience, and to learn something about their own darkness. At a safe distance.
-How do you feel the courts handles the cases of some of these people with severe mental illness? Are they given a fair shot?
The courts and the justice system are over-extended with mentally disordered defendants in their midst. Because of the abject failure of our health system, the jails have become, by default, a major provider of mental health services. Yet that isn’t their basic mandate, which is of course to monitor those who have committed crimes. Many of the justice systems around the country are understaffed and underfunded. As such, psychiatric treatment is uneven and usually inadequate. But not always. In my book, I describe a psychiatric unit at one of the jails I frequent that treats some extremely psychotic and potentially violent defendants with respect and dignity.
-Your book studies the criminal mind, will we ever be able to truly understand it?
With increasing advances in the psychological sciences and neurosciences, we’re making progress. But I suspect we’ll never completely comprehend the mind, in its normal, neurotic, psychotic or criminal form.
-What can we expect from you next?
I’ve long been interested in 20th Century history, and I’ve wedded this curiosity with my preoccupations of human nature. In a sense I’m beginning to explore the flip side of madness by focusing on the sublime end of the daimonic spectrum, as it was represented in those individuals who risked all to protect Jews and others from the Nazis during WW2. I have consulted with several historians and hope to be mentored on how to conduct archival research in this area. As a forensic psychologist and psychoanalyst with an understanding of psychological development mental resiliency and emotional strength, I hope to make a contribution.
For more information, please visit: https://crimepsychologist.com/