Anders Behring Breivik grew up a twenty-minute drive from my parents’ home near Oslo, Norway. We frequented the same movie theaters and cafes and no doubt crossed paths at some point. Although he didn’t look like a terrorist then or does now, he murdered seventy-seven people and wounded hundreds more five years ago, on July 22, 2011. In shock and disbelief, I asked myself how something like this could happen in my native country. How, in Norway, the second wealthiest nation in the world, with the second highest gross domestic product per capita, and its Nobel Peace Prize?
Breivik was not born a killer. In fact, the psychiatrists who observed him as a child concluded that Breivik was a docile boy, showing no signs of violent behavior. So how did he become one of the worst mass murderers in history?
Any country can produce madmen, one might argue. Unconvinced by that easy explanation, I went on a mission to discover how this seemingly normal young man could become a mass killer. I needed to know if there were any way to stop the next massacre by the next Breivik, regardless of his country.
As I studied other lone wolves, including the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, I discovered that the lone wolf doesn’t murder for fun, profit, or as a shortcut to suicide. This killer is so shut off and shut down from humanity that the only way for him to matter is to connect so completely with a cause that he is compelled to kill for it.
Breivik’s childhood could match that of anyone growing up in Norway in the 1980s, including mine. He was born in 1979 to economist Jens Breivik, a diplomat stationed in London and Paris, and Wenche Behring, a nurse. Soon after Breivik’s birth, the marriage fell apart, and Wenche decided to return to Norway, settling in Skøyen, an area within Oslo’s affluent West End.
So far, there was nothing exceptional about Breivik. But underneath the appearances, his childhood differed from mine. Before entering grammar school, when he was three years old, his mother began showing signs of erratic behavior. Neighbors gossiped about her smothering her son with inappropriate affection, having him sleep in her bed with her, and then suddenly turning on him with a mix of anger and fear, as if she were frightened for her own safety.
Due to exhaustion, Wenche requested help from the State Center for Child and Youth Psychiatry around the time Breivik turned four. Child Protective Services, upon hearing that she was frightened of her small son and that she was emotionally unstable, recommended that young Breivik be sent to a foster home. Breivik’s father made an attempt at obtaining custody, but the court decided in favor of Wenche, and Breivik remained in her care.
In school, Breivik’s hunger to succeed and be recognized found little nourishment. A misbehaving or openly ambitious child was quickly put in his place by the teachers and fellow students. Sticking out, even in a positive way, was unacceptable in Norwegian schools, and Breivik experienced both bullying and exclusion.
The attachment issues Breivik experienced as a young boy with an unstable mother and a distant father no doubt contributed to his difficulty in developing meaningful relationships and his rejection from every group with which he tried to connect. Breivik’s childhood was not worse than many others, but the lack of emotional nourishment was catastrophic for his development.
All the lone wolves I researched were intelligent and highly sensitive. Some psychologists refer to them orchid children, because of their fragile personalities. If neglected, orchid children wither. But if they’re nurtured, they not only survive, they flourish.
Few people recognize the killer among them when that killer is a lone wolf with no paper trail. Had I sat in a classroom beside Breivik in those early days, I doubt that I would have found him unusual, let alone dangerous. I might have even related to his need to be more than a sheep following the rest of the herd into Norwegian mediocrity. Perhaps that is one reason I wrote my book—to understand how a culture contributes to the making of a killer. More important, I wished to find a way that will allow law enforcement to identify a killer like Breivik before he strikes.
Norwegian born Unni Turrettini is an attorney and the author of The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer: Anders Behring Breivik and the Threat of Terror in Plain Sight from Pegasus Books.