Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Montreal massacre ... 20 years later

On December 6, 1989, a 25-year-old man walked into Montreal’s École polytechnique and murdered fourteen women. The event is still being debated … twenty years later.

We know the immediate cause. The murderer, Marc Lépine, felt that places like the École polytechnique were training women to take jobs that had been mainly held by men like himself. In April 1989 he had met with a university admissions officer and complained about how women were taking over the job market. Earlier still, he had spoken out to men about his dislike of feminists, career women, and women in traditionally male occupations such as the police, saying that women should remain at home and care for their families. This resentment may have been exacerbated by his inability to find a girlfriend. He was generally ill at ease around women, tending to boss them around and showing off his knowledge in front of them

For many people, the debate stops there. Marc Lépine resented women, especially ‘feminists’, and this resentment led to the Montreal massacre. For others, such resentment does not in itself explain what happened. Lépine’s personal history points to a longstanding tendency toward asociality, short-temperedness, and ideation of violent behavior, particularly after he reached puberty in the late 1970s:

Late 1970s – When his sister made fun of him for not having a girlfriend, he fantasized about her death and made a mock grave for her.

September 1981 – He applied to join the Canadian Armed Forces as an officer cadet but was rejected during the interview process because he seemed antisocial and unable to accept authority.

1982-84 – At junior college, colleagues saw him as being nervous, hyperactive, and immature.

1987 – He lost his job at a hospital because of aggressive behavior, disrespect of superiors, and carelessness in his work. He was enraged at his dismissal, and at the time described a plan to go on a murderous rampage and then commit suicide. His friends said he was unpredictable and would fly into rages when frustrated.

Some people trace this behavioral pattern to his early childhood, specifically as the son of a Catholic French-Canadian mother, Monique Lépine, and a Muslim Algerian father, Rachid Liass Gharbi. The latter’s psychological profile looks very similar to Marc Lépine’s:

Gharbi was an authoritarian, possessive and jealous man, frequently violent towards his wife and his children. Gharbi had contempt for women and believed that they were only intended to serve men. He required his wife to act as his personal secretary, slapping her if she made any errors in typing, and forcing her retype documents in spite of the cries of their toddler. He was also neglectful and abusive towards his children, particularly his son, and discouraged any tenderness, as he considered it spoiling. In 1970, following an incident in which Gharbi struck his son so hard that the marks on his face were visible a week later, his mother decided to leave. (Marc Lépine - Wikipedia)

His mother had divorced his father over the issue of abuse, which had extended to the children. Beaten by his father, Rachid Liass Gharbi, for such minor problems as singing too loudly or failing to greet him in the morning, Lépine had learned to fear him.

"He was a brutal man," Monique Lépine told the court, "who did not seem to have any control over his emotions... It was always a physical gesture, a violent gesture, and always right in the face." Monique's sister confirmed these details to the judge, although Gharbi protested that they were not true. Nevertheless, the judge awarded custody to Monique. Still, young Gamil was not free of the man until he was 7 years old, and the exposure for that long to Gharbi's temper and beliefs had a strong influence. The boy so hated him that when he was 13, he changed his name to Marc Lépine.
(Ramsland, 2004)

The hypothesis here is that Gharbi exerted a profound influence on his son’s future psychological development. Some rightwing bloggers go so far as to suggest that Marc Lépine himself became a Muslim, as evidenced by the beard he grew as a young man. This is unlikely for several reasons:

– He was baptized a Roman Catholic and received no religious instruction. His mother describes him as "a confirmed atheist all his life."

– He had no contact with his father past the age of 7.

– At the age of 14, he legally changed his name from Gamil Rodrigue Liass Gharbi to Marc Lépine. This was motivated partly by hatred of his father and partly by a desire to avoid being treated as an Arab at school.

– His suicide note contains no Islamic references. In fact, his use of several Latin expressions (Ad Patres, Casus Belli, Alea Jacta Est) suggests he still felt some connection with Roman Catholicism.

– As for his beard, he grew it to cover up his acne.

O.K., so Marc Lépine was not a crypto-Muslim. But maybe he unconsciously imitated his father’s behavior. We often hear this kind of argument at trials where a violent offender is shown to have had an equally violent father. The offender should thus be judged more leniently, given his poor role-model.

In Marc Lépine’s case, this kind of argument is at the limit of credibility. Remember, Gharbi was a hated parental figure who had left Lépine’s life at the age of 7. More to the point, we see the same psychological similarity between parents and their children even when the children are taken away shortly after birth and put up for adoption:

… compared to genetic children, American adoptees have a higher overall risk of contact with mental health professionals, specifically for eating disorders, learning disabilities, personality disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder … They also have lower achievement and more problems in school, abuse drugs and alcohol more, and fight with or lie to parents more than genetic children …

… Adoptees may be genetically predisposed to negative outcomes at higher rates than the general population. Genetic factors clearly contribute to alcohol and drug addiction, as well as to some mental disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia …. An association between nonviolent criminality has been found between European adoptees and their genetic parents … Furthermore, research with Swedish adoptees suggests 55-60% of their educational performance is explained by genetic factors, and that the number of years of school adoptees complete is significantly related to how many years their genetic mothers completed
(Gibson, 2009).

On the specific issue of male aggressiveness, we see moderate to high heritability when adopted children are compared with their biological parents. A heritability of 40% is suggested by a meta-analysis of 51 twin and adoption studies (Rhee & Waldman, 2002). A later twin study indicates a heritability of 96%, the subjects being 9-10 year-olds from diverse ethnic backgrounds (Baker et al., 2007). This higher figure is due to the closer ages of the subjects and the use of a panel of evaluators to rate each of them. According to the latest twin study, heritability is 40% when the twins have different evaluators and 69% when they have the same evaluator (Barker et al., 2009).

This is not to say that the Montreal massacre was genetically inevitable. If Lépine had found a girlfriend, who would have put up with him, he would have probably become a man like his father but nothing more serious. The tragedy on December 6, 1989 resulted from three interacting factors: 1) a latent predisposition to violence, probably in the form of low thresholds for ideation and expression of violent behavior; 2) lack of close friends, especially female friends; and 3) an enabling ideology.


Baker, L.A., K.C. Jacobson, A. Raine, D.I. Lozano, and S. Bezdjian. (2007). Genetic and environmental bases of childhood antisocial behavior: a multi-informant twin study, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116, 219-235.

Barker, E.D., H. Larson, E. Viding, B. Maughan, F. Rijsdijk, N. Fontaine, and R. Plomin. (2009). Common genetic but specific environmental influences for aggressive and deceitful behaviors in preadolescent males, Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, early view.

Gibson, K. (2009). Differential parental investment in families with both adopted and genetic children, Evolution and Human Behavior, 30, 184-189.

Lépine, Monique & H. Gagné. (2008). Aftermath, Viking.

Lépine, Marc. (1989). Lettre de Marc Lépine,

Marc Lépine - Wikipedia

Ramsland, K. (2004), Gendercide – The Montreal Massacre.

Report of Coroner’s Investigation

Rhee, S.H., and I.D. Waldman. (2002). Genetic and environmental influences on antisocial behavior: A meta-analysis of twin and adoption studies, Psychological Bulletin, 128, 490-529.


Tod said...

A genetic predisposition for aggression could maintain itself in the population by increasing reproductive success in men.

I don't see how schizophrenia or the related schizotypal personality disorder could do that.

starviego said...

Ya think the fact that his mom put him and his sister into foster homes so she could go pursue a graduate degree might have had something to do with it?

Tod said...

I doubt that schizophrenia spectrum disorders belong in the same category as things like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD is adaptive in certain contexts according to Harpending and Cochran, it's easy to imagine a similar explaination for aggression and risk taking behaviour (which often goes along with substance abuse).

Agree with (1) as the reason Lépine reacted to his circumstances as he did, but the reason he found himself in the circumstance of being a self selected social outcast can hardly be due to any heritable personality factors. A heritable tendency to socially isolate oneself would disappear over many generations as those carrying it failed to find mates; it's behaviour that could never achieve reproductive success in any real world context I think.

Factors (2) and (3) are consistent with many of the DSM IV-TR's criteria for Schizotypal personality disorder.

Anonymous said...

Tod (or anyone),

Can you give me a short explanation of in what environments ADHD might have been adaptive?


Anonymous said...

"Societies where men live off women".

In Our genes.

"Children that are in some sense “difficult” may have a survival advantage [...]. One study found that a sample of difficult infants survived a drought at a higher rate than easy infants. The 7R allele may facilitate risky “show-off” behaviors that exhibit good genes: cad societies are characterized by male posturing and machismo, “protest masculinity” in an older terminology. Most obviously, energetic unpredictable adult males may enjoy a competitive advantage in the face-to-face male competition and violence that characterize these groups. Chagnon (19) has shown that there is a fitness payoff to warriors and those with such a reputation among the Yanomamo of Amazonia"

Peter Frost said...


It depends on the social environment. What works in one environment does not in another.

It would be wrong to conclude that Marc Lépine wished to isolate himself. He wanted to have friends, especially girlfriends. This was apparently a factor in his decision to change his name and his concerns over his personal appearance (acne).

Unfortunately, his personality profile was repulsive to the people in his milieu. Girls saw him as being bossy and a braggart. People in general were frightened by his volatile temperament.


"Ya think the fact that his mom put him and his sister into foster homes so she could go pursue a graduate degree might have had something to do with it?"

Your facts are inaccurate. Not long after the separation, Gharbi defaulted on the mortgage payments and the family home was seized by the creditors. At the same time, he reneged on the alimony payments. Monique went back to nursing and took courses to improve her salary. It was during this period that the children were placed in foster care.

I know many people who grew up in foster homes, including my mother. They were not violent individuals. I suppose you could find a statistically correlation between foster care and violent behavior, but I'm not convinced that the causal link runs in the direction you're assuming.

Anonymous said...

Clicking on the above link ......... could do all sorts of damage so don't.

LichenCraig said...

I think that perhaps you missed the larger point about the enabling ideology. The father WAS a practicing Muslim, and because of that "religion" felt women were put on earth to serve men, and that physical punishment is justified when women disobey, and that women should not be in male professions or outside the home for that matter. That comes straight from modern day Islamic teaching. Regardless of whether Levine equated that view with Islam, he picked it up, obviously, from the most influential male in his formative years. Islam IS part of this story!