Inside the minds of 'affluenza' teen Ethan Couch and his mother Tonya

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Back in 2013, Ethan Couch, then 16, killed four people on a highway outside of Fort Worth, Texas, was tried in juvenile court and given a sentence of 10 years’ probation. The judge apparently accepted the testimony of a defense expert witness who asserted that Couch suffered from something dubbed “affluenza” – never having learned limits or respect for the lives of others from his overly indulgent parents.

Recently, Couch fled to Mexico with his mother, Tonya, after he missed a meeting with his probation officer and was videotaped at a party where people were drinking – possibly violating his probation and risking jail time. He and his mother were arrested on Monday and will be arraigned back in Texas.

I have never met or evaluated Ethan or Tonya Couch, but the facts known about them provide enough of a window for a psychiatrist to peek through.

Sometimes, seemingly bizarre decisions by a judge turn out, in retrospect, to have merit. There may be no psychiatric diagnosis of “affluenza” in the official American Psychiatric Association handbook, but something infected Ethan Couch as a child and deprived him of his ability to know right from wrong or to abide by laws that govern adult behavior.

And that wasn’t the devil. Couch wasn’t a “bad seed.” (There’s no such thing, by the way.) The thing that infected him was probably his mother. The court that tried and sentenced Couch and any subsequent services provided him apparently failed to rid him of that interpersonal virus, given that Couch ran away to Mexico with his mom.

Long ago, long before age 16, he should have run away from her. He should have run for his life.

I served as an expert witness once in the murder trial of an 18-year-old who shared his father’s name. Let’s call him Lewis Ramson, to preserve his confidentiality. He was involved in a gang fight, lost his cool and stabbed another gang member. As a kid, he’d worn out his capacity for equanimity. He was severely beaten by his father and watched several times as his father beat his mother unconscious. He told me once, “Sometimes, I think the wrong Lewis Ramson is in jail.”


Tonya Couch is likely guilty of much more than being complicit in giving her son “affluenza.” That’s where the expert witness at Ethan’s trial may have gotten it wrong. Her fleeing the country with him, rather than facing the implications of his possibly having violated probation, should make any psychiatrist wonder whether she occupied her son’s being so completely, probably from early childhood, that he never developed into anything like a full human being at all.

I’m not sure that psychiatry has a formal diagnosis for that, but I’m sure that being owned and operated by another person psychologically is something worse than being a slave, since slaves at least have the freedom to consciously hate those who keep them captive.

Seen in this way, it would come as no surprise that Ethan Couch would want to drug himself with alcohol, or keep drugging himself, or kill others. It’s the psychological zombies among us who take the lives of others. And they weren’t born zombies; they often just grew up with parents who feasted upon them and left them bloodless, spineless and wandering the highways of life, causing mayhem.