Thursday, October 8, 2015

Robert Durst

We watched the HBO miniseries, The Jinx, which focuses on two murders for which Robert Durst has been tried and one missing person case in which he has been implicated. Like most television productions, this is two or three times longer than it needs to be given the actual content, so I don't particularly recommend it unless you happen to become interested in the story. This was useful to me because it provides interviews with Durst, his acquaintances and family members, and these allow me to perform my own evaluations directly rather than relying exclusively on conventional news coverage. Durst interests me for a number of reasons, chief of which is that he is a good test for my theories of human nature. Also, he is only seven years older than I am and grew up in Scarsdale, New York, a few miles from where I grew up. Additionally, he owned a health food store in Middlebury during the early 1970's. The similarity ends there, because he is a wealthy real estate heir and, apparently, a murderer. If Durst ever goes to trial again, it is likely to be a major media event.

Durst may be guilty of six or more murders, though so far he has been convicted of none. He was a suspect in the disappearance of his first wife, Kathleen, in 1982. Her body was never found. In 2000, his longtime friend, Susan Berman, was murdered in her house, and Durst is expected to go on trial for that. He was arrested in 2001 and tried in 2003 for murdering and cutting up a neighbor. Although he admitted to shooting the neighbor, he claimed that it was an accident that occurred during a struggle with his gun. Despite the fact that he carefully cut up the body and disposed of it, the jury acquitted him in part because the head was never found and forensic experts were therefore unable to confirm or deny his version of what happened. As a result of his recent publicity, he is currently a suspect in the disappearance of three different women, one in 1971 and two in 1997. The 1971 case is that of Lynne Schulze, a Middlebury College student. What especially drew media attention was Durst's off-camera recorded statement in the final episode of The Jinx. While presumably thinking that no recorders were on and no one was listening, he said to himself: "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

I'm sure much, much more information about Robert Durst will filter out over time, but for the moment I am looking at him in the context of mental illness, eusociality, morality and the effects of wealth. There is some evidence that Durst is not mentally healthy, but for now he doesn't seem that unusual to me. He seems to have some anti-social tendencies and could possibly have very mild schizophrenia or autism symptoms or perhaps a little psychopathy, but my impression is that he is not severely impaired in any way. Over his life he seems to have had female friends, and others report that he and his first wife were quite happy together initially. No doubt mental illness will be emphasized by his lawyers if he goes to trial, but in a court setting it will probably be little more than a legal strategy.

Durst doesn't strike me as particularly intelligent, because, even though he has fared quite well so far as a criminal, if he actually committed all of the crimes that I think he did he has been a little sloppy and cavalier from time to time. For example, he haphazardly threw plastic bags containing body parts into Galveston Bay without realizing that they would just float around by the shore. After he was arrested in 2001, while out on bail he failed to appear in court and was arrested for shoplifting in a supermarket even though he had $500 in his pocket and $37,000 in cash in his car. There is also evidence in the Susan Berman case that, based on his handwriting and spelling, he wrote a note to the police that only the murderer could have written. On the other hand, he seems to be wily about presenting himself in just the right light for people to rule him out as a dangerous person.

The sense I get is that Durst would have fit a fairly normal psychological profile except for the fact that his financial resources have had the effect of turning him into a self-centered, wealthy American version of Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov. He started out acceptably, probably with a normal moral sense, but because he had the resources to do whatever he liked and wasn't under much pressure to behave according to conventional moral standards, he gradually fell into a pattern of doing as he pleased and then covering it up whenever the consequences to him were undesirable. My guess is that this all started when he assaulted a woman and she resisted. Fearing what might happen, he killed her and disposed of the body without ever being discovered. He may have proceeded in this manner with little threat of arrest for about thirty years. It also seems plausible that he feels guilt about what he's done. I do not get the impression that he is seeking publicity, which so far has only drawn negative attention to him and will most likely work against him when he goes to trial. While he is accustomed to obtaining the best legal defense possible, he can only be making his legal vindication more difficult than it would be otherwise. I suspect that he feels really bad about what he did.

So, in terms of what I've written earlier, Durst may have an innate moral sense that he was born with as a eusocial being. The point here is that eusociality in humans doesn't necessarily work on its own at all times and requires appropriate social reinforcement. Robert Durst's life may have been poisoned by too much money along with too little adult supervision. I would wager that money made him desirable to women even though he wasn't charismatic, physically attractive or ambitious. He never seems to have suffered from a shortage of women who would be willing to back him up. Money also made it less necessary for him to compromise with others during the course of his life. He always had far more money than almost anyone without even having to work. Never compromising is the same as always having your way, like an overgrown spoiled brat. However, Durst can't escape his conscience, and that may be what is playing out now. I much prefer this kind of analysis to the dated narratives of Christian moralists who would rather leave biology out of the discussion entirely. The origin of morality is biological, not theological.

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