Published July 01, 2013
Most of America now knows that Aaron Hernandez, the star tight end of the New England Patriots, who inked a $40 million contract to catch footballs and run fast with them, has been charged with the murder of semi-pro football player Odin Lloyd.
Hernandez is being sued civilly for allegedly shooting a man in the face several months ago (causing the loss of his eye). He is now also being investigated in a 2012 drive-by shooting that left two other men dead in Boston.
It has also been reported that Hernandez was questioned by police in 2007, following the shooting of two men after a University of Florida football game that the Gators lost.
Much has been made of the fact that, when he was 16, Aaron Hernandez suddenly lost his father Dennis, who died of complications from hernia surgery.
After that, Hernandez supposedly descended into darkness, allegedly keeping company with troublemakers in Bristol, Connecticut and smoking marijuana.
Eventually, he allegedly came to associate with the Bristol Bloods, a notorious street gang known for extraordinary acts of violence, including shootings and slashings.
But the death of one’s father, when one is 16, even out of the blue, even when a young man reveres his dad, does not a gang member make. And complicated grief does not turn people homicidal (if Aaron Hernandez is guilty).
The loss of empathy that allows a man to participate in a drive-by shooting (if that that turns out to be true), to pump a bullet into a man’s eye (if that is true) and to participate in the execution of another man (if that is true), almost always begins before age 16.
Usually, it begins early in childhood. And, so, if the death of Dennis Hernandez impacted Aaron and seemed like it turned him toward darkness, that had to be a kind of “last straw,” not the singular event that would explain it.
If Terri Hernandez, Aaron’s mother, were to sit down to talk with me for 50 minutes, I could guarantee her a roadmap with lots of signposts on the way to the hell now surrounding her son. Because I promise you that Aaron, if guilty of the crimes alleged against him, was not born evil; he was born as good as any other kid. Then, multiple events—not one—made him unable to resonate with the suffering of others (cold-blooded).
And, just so we don’t start writing a story that accepts anything that sounds like a Hallmark card: Some of my questions for Aaron’s mother Terri would relate to whether Aaron’s dad really was such a positive influence on her son.
Terri’s next choice for a husband was Jeffrey Cummings, who reportedly was later imprisoned for slashing her with a knife. She divorced him while he was in prison.
I have never evaluated Aaron Hernandez, but, as a forensic psychiatrist with almost twenty years spent evaluating violent men and women, testifying in their trials and writing their biographies (like,"Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson" and "Inside the Mind of Casey Anthony"), I would wonder whether the recipe for making a disaster of Hernandez’ life might include traumatic events that were deeply troubling to him in childhood.
For example, a bond with his father that might have seemed like a partial solution to those troubling events. The sudden loss of his father. His burying those feelings of loss and helplessness and rage under a haze of marijuana smoke, his seeking to feel more powerful (rather than helpless) by associating with a gang.
His pumping himself up with the applause of crowds who appreciated and fanned his lack of fear on the gridiron, repeated episodes of head trauma when he was thrown to the ground by defending players (which can cause changes in personality, impulsivity and mood swings) and the addition of a huge dose of narcissism via a $40 million dollar payday, courtesy the New England Patriots.
If that is the recipe for disaster that brings the seemingly inexplicable case of Aaron Hernandez before us, then it isn’t all that unusual, save for Hernandez’ day job and his pay grade, courtesy an industry—the NFL—that could seemingly care less whether its stars are well-balanced or on the edge (witness Kansas City Chief Jovan Belcher and Carolina Panther Rae Carruth and Philadelphia Eagle Michael Vick).
Childhood psychological trauma, feelings of helplessness, drug use, repeated head trauma and exposure to street gangs is the textbook trajectory that leads to spending decades in prison.
To make it even more textbook, I would bet you could add no one (including the New England Patriots) apparently demanding that Hernandez be thoroughly evaluated psychiatrically after a stark sign of possible catastrophic trouble: Being sued civilly for shooting a man in the face.
I’ve met men like Aaron Hernandez plenty of times—occasionally, when someone convinces them to get help in my office before somebody ends up dead. But, usually, I interview them in jail cells and I always wish I had met them sooner.