Experts debate what forces create a cannibal


That Nathaniel Bar-Jonah may have fed human flesh to unsuspecting friends and neighbors could make this the most ghastly crime in Great Falls\' history.

What drives a person to cannibalism? Experts contacted by the Tribune gave theories ranging from early childhood trauma to simple evilness.

Dr. Clancy McKenzie, professor of psychology at Capital University in Washington, D.C., worked with cannibal Gary Heidnik, a Pennsylvania man who kidnapped women, kept them locked up as sexual slaves and fed them dog food mixed with the ground-up remains of other victims.

McKenzie believes such psychotic behavior nearly always is related to previous trauma, particularly in infancy.

During the second half-year of life, when children are weaned from the breast, they fantasize about devouring the entire mother, McKenzie said. Regression to this stage of development may be triggered by later trauma, especially if the baby suffered some trauma at that critical young age.

The trauma of separation from the mother gives the baby -- or the adult flashing back -- a feeling of utter helplessness and panic, he said.

McKenzie said he thinks Bar-Jonah suffered a traumatic separation from his mother when he was 12 to 17 months old.

Ironically, Bar-Jonah\'s return from a mental hospital to life with his mother and brother may have added to his likelihood of committing new crimes, McKenzie said.

Returning to the original family, with all its "emotional expression," makes a predator more likely to repeat the problem behavior, he said. "I shudder when they let people out of institutions and send them back home."

On the other hand, Dr. Park Dietz, a national expert on criminal psychosis who testified at the Jeffrey Dahmer trial, says not to look too closely at early childhood. Millions of people who suffer childhood trauma do not become psychotic criminals, he said.

And not all pedophiles act out their problems in criminal ways, he said. One likely trigger is massive, sudden stress. Dahmer, for example, killed his first victim after his mother and brother moved out and his father took up with another woman.

Similarly, Bar-Jonah\'s mother, his support system, left town just before Zachary Ramsay disappeared.

One motive for cannibalism may be as basic as hiding proof of the crime, while serving human flesh to others could be an attempt to further abuse the victim and torment the survivors. Feeding human remains to others also is a way to deeply victimize those one resents "and quietly enjoy knowing you got them," Dietz said. "As practical jokes go, it\'s on the extreme end."

Dr. Ashok Bedi, director of the Milwaukee Psychiatric Hospital at the time of Dahmer\'s trial, figures Bar-Jonah may be a man stuck in his mother\'s castle, trying to break out.

By killing a 10-year-old, a predator seeks to kill the 10-year-old part of himself and become a man, he said. "It\'s not about sexuality so much as the pathological attachment to the parents."

Another motivation could be a desire to take a life of crime to an ultimate level. Cannibalism "is beyond the pale -- the last frontier of being a bad boy," Dietz said.