Lee — A Profile In Psychopathology

David Chirko*

Why did he do it?  November 22nd, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-63) assassinated U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy with a rifle from the sixth floor window of the School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas.  For his motives, let’s travel back a decade prior to that event, to review the observations of a psychiatrist who examined and diagnosed Oswald, thereby determining what type of person he was to begin with.  His evaluation will therefore frame the main premise for the purpose of this profile.  I will also be reviewing statements by other experts, throughout the course of my presentation.

First, Children’s Court of the City of New York:

March 27th, 1953, psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Milton Kurian (never called to the Warren Commission), examined Lee Oswald for truancy problems and found him at first impenetrable, paranoid, mistrustful and frustrated, with a feeling of abandonment and an unhealthy self-concept.  He also ascertained Lee was uprooted (his family moving 16 times; Lee attending nine schools) and potentially homicidal.

Next, Youth House, New York City:

April 17th, 1953, psychologist Irving Sokolow (absent at the Warren Commission, but his results were announced there) tested Lee’s IQ at 118 and found all his other scores above average.  We now know Lee was dyslexic—in spelling, making him disadvantaged, so he displaced his feelings over this through indifference and resistance.   He possessed logical—not emotional, intelligence, therefore lacked social and vocational skills found in avoidant personalities.

April 30th, 1953, psychiatric social worker Evelyn Strickman (who appeared at the Warren Commission), did notice a potential for violence in Lee, when she queried him about his fantasies and dreams, though they didn’t involve his mother (who found Lee a burden, therefore she ignored, and didn’t discipline, him).

May 1st, 1953, psychiatrist Renatus Hartogs interviewed Lee.  He originally didn’t find Lee potentially violent, or recommend institutionalization (although he reported differently to the Warren Commission, April 16th, 1964, until he recanted, when evinced of his 1953 report [Case No. 26996], which he hadn’t seen in over a decade).  What Hartogs said back then in his report was that “Le (sic) has a vivid fantasy life, turning around the topics of omnipotence and power, through which he tries to compensate for his present shortcomings and frustrations.” 

Hartogs also remarked that Lee exhibited no signs of a psychosis and his diagnosis—the only official one, by anyone who met Lee I could locate in the literature—of him was: “personality pattern disturbance with schizoid features and passive-aggressive tendencies” based, no doubt, on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM (1952).  This psychiatric taxonomy system was then in its infancy and has undergone numerous transformations since then, i.e., there are now, in lieu of personality “pattern” and “trait” disturbance descriptors, “Clusters” (and a multiaxial system, abandoned in DSM-V).  Lee’s typology would, in 2013’s DSM-V, fit under Cluster A (odd-eccentric) and Cluster C (anxious-fearful) designations. 

Vincent Bugliosi (2008), said Lee did not premeditate the killing or know entirely why he was doing it, but, as he explained to researcher Robin Lindley (2007), “…Oswald had delusions of grandeur.”

Aberrant Behaviours

Whatever the comorbidity of avoidant, paranoid (including delusional) and passive-aggressive, etc., disorders and/or traits witnessed in Lee, they had symptom patterns which responded to common stressors, like projection.  I will therefore allude generally to the aberrant behaviours described in the DSM-V and the psychoanalytic Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual in somewhat everyday parlance, as they pertain to his motives for killing Kennedy, now in the summation of my profile of Lee.

I believe that Lee’s killing of JFK was, for him, a magical and not a totally conscious act—the motives fivefold and overlapping.  The first four motives comprise a predisposition that developed over time and the fifth and last, the quietus, that drove Lee to the ultimate act.  Lee was, respectively, responding to: a political ideology that let him down, a world that ignored him, a father who never existed, a mother who didn’t love him enough, and a wife who rejected him.

First, a Communistic political ideology, adopted by Lee at age 15 to secure attention and acceptance of a solid identity and to better express his feelings, had now manifested itself against an anti-Castro America and its President.  Gerald Posner (1993, pp. 219-220), explains, “Oswald….  Failed…to find happiness in Russia or the U.S., rejected by the Cubans, barely able to make a living in America…and hounded, in his view, by the FBI…was desperate….  He had endured long enough the humiliations of his fellow Marines…the employers that fired him, the radio ambush in New Orleans, the refusal of…Communist leaders to acknowledge his efforts….  Lee. . .always thought he was smarter and better than other people, and…angered that others failed to recognize the stature he thought he deserved. 

An Opportunity

Now, by chance, he had an opportunity that…would only happen once in his lifetime.”  Subsequently, for this haughty Lee, and as far as America would be concerned, as psychologist and writer duo Victor & Mildred Goertzel (2004, p. 342), once said, ironically, “Sometimes becoming famous is a matter of chance, of being in…the wrong place at the wrong time….” 

These authors also address the notion that, if someone like Lee really did have a talent (as Posner touched on), and experienced frustrating disappointment over being rejected, there should be someone around—which there wasn’t—to help channel such feelings into a constructive outlet.  So, naturally, this instigated the heavy grudge Lee shouldered against anyone—like the Kennedys—more endowed with success, prestige, opulence, beauty and authority.  Lee personally did not dislike the Capitalistic Kennedys, however, he would have to suppress any tincture of positive sentiment in order to make his political statement of sabotage against the American body politic.

Second, as a corollary of the previous asseveration, just before the assassination a querulant Lee was beleaguered by enormous shame.  After all, as was just explained, his life and world were in shambles: living in the tiny quarters of a rooming house on weekdays, with his family estranged from him, and doing dreaded, menial work, which collectively irritated him. Also, Lee, iconoclastic and timid, had an incessant fear of rejection by a larger world; superseded by an irrepressible rancor when he snapped. 

The stage was set, as he was now safely “up there,” a self-contained and powerful person, where the “disloyal crowd” down below in Dealey Plaza—that felicitous world he could not mix with, let alone confide in or depend on—could now be supremely avoided and reduced, as he exacted his revenge.  Those violent fantasies of ultimate power from his youth would now be fulfilled, as he rationalized obliterating what others loved, to acquire theirs and the world’s recognition.  He projected his personal shortcomings onto individuals in that world; externalizing all the reasons for his failures on that same world.  But now, as estranged wife Marina described when she later visited him in jail after the shooting, he was finally, no doubt pleasurably, at peace with himself.

Missing Father

Third, Lee was so traumatized by his shame and guilt over the death, or nonexistence, of his biological father, that this, as Rami Tolmacz and Mario Mikulincer (January, 2011, p. 77), said about such individuals, led to “…feelings of being wronged which, in turn, can bring…a strong sense of entitlement.”  Lee wanted to be a father, unlike the father he never had, to a boy he would like to have had, and been—but was not.  JFK symbolized the father he never had and somehow felt disentitled by.  Lee—and the little boy yammering,  yet smirking, inside of him—could now risk scoring adroitly and independently big in front of that world, by displacing his accumulated anger, aggressing on that larger than life and powerful person. 

Fourth, the shooting was the only way Lee believed he would receive the desired, affectionate attention from a self-absorbed, neglectful mother—who held many jobs and did not wish to begin at the bottom—whom he identified with and loved.  Lee experienced painful frustration and helplessness over this, defending with a sense of exaggerated entitlement (as an extension of the above observation),  in other areas of his life—believing he deserved to do whatever he pleased, in denial as to how this made others feel.  In childhood he had often fruitlessly retreated from social contact and conversing, to protest his mother’s treatment of him; but here, now available upstairs in a building, lurked the inimitable scenario for protest.

Breaking Point

Fifth, and finally, what had triggered Lee’s decision to kill JFK was Marina’s refusal to reconcile with him the night before the assassination.  JFK biographer and historian William Manchester (Ellis and Gullo, 1971, p. 223), was quoted saying, “That was the breaking point.  He had nothing left, not even pride.  In Marina’s later testimony, ‘He stopped talking and sat down and watched television’….   In fact, he was going mad.  Madness does not strike all at once…Oswald’s…had been in process all his life.  Unquestionably, his mother’s influence had contributed to his weakness….”  Moreover, Dale Cameron, one of three psychiatrists (the others being Howard Rome and David Rothstein) which comprised a panel that reported to the Warren Commission, July 9, 1964, stated, “…Marina had a chance to. . . unconsciously. . . veto his plan…but…didn’t….” (executive session transcript, Posner, 1993, p. 221, n.).  Inevitably, this time in his life Lee would do something successfully—by just pulling the trigger.


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* The author, David Chirko, has a B.A. degree from Laurentian University. He currently belongs to the American Psychological Association, APA; Division 23, Society for Consumer Psychology and Division 26, Society for the History of Psychology. He previously belonged to the APsaA (American Psychoanalytic Association).