A week after her father, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, allegedly set off a bomb near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds more, 3-year-old Zahara Tsarnaev was seen happily playing on a slide in her grandmother’s backyard in Rhode Island.
Zahara is likely oblivious to her father’s suspected crimes and perhaps to her father’s death in the early hours of April 19, when he was shot by police trying to apprehend him and his brother, Dzhokhar, who ran him over with a car in a desperate attempt to escape the police.
But, the children of other killers say, the father’s crimes will cast a long shadow over the girl’s life. Of course there will be questions about the man she knew and the road that led him to carry out extreme violence against innocence. But other questions will also arise: How does his crime relate to me? Is there an inherited element to his actions? Could I do the same thing?
“Generally when these kids get older, they wonder, ‘Is it me? Am I carrying this gene?’ ” says Dr. Helen Morrison, a child and adolescent psychologist and forensic psychiatrist in private practice in Chicago who has interviewed more than 135 serial killers around the world.
Certainly the notion of “the bad seed” has taken root in the public imagination, and such suspicions have a decades-long history in the scientific literature. In the 1960s and ’70s, early genetic research seemed to link violent crime with so-called super-males—men whose genetic makeup was XYY instead of the more standard XY—until that theory was disproved. Then in the 1990s, researchers found that 14 members of a Dutch family had committed crimes and that all 14 had a similar genetic variation that could lead to excess aggression—a mutation that turned out to be specific to that family and not applicable to any larger populations. Just this month, researchers at the University of Connecticut announced plans to investigate the DNA of Adam Lanza, the killer who terrorized the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 20 children and six adults.
There are many skeptics of this kind of research who believe that the nature-nurture interface is so complicated that a strict genetic component that would unify mass killers is unlikely to be found. “It is almost inconceivable that there is a common genetic factor” to be found in mass murderers, Dr. Robert C. Green, a geneticist and neurologist at Harvard Medical School, told The New York Times. “I think it says more about us that we wish there was something like this. We wish there was an explanation.”
“Complex human behavior does not distill down to a single gene or even a single set of genes,” Green tells Newsweek. “Human behavior is a very nuanced mixture of environment, family, early-childhood experience, and probably genetic predisposition. It is a gross misrepresentation to imagine that there is a single gene that pushes someone in one direction or another, particularly in the area of criminal behavior.”
Morrison, who has studied the psychological histories of the siblings, parents, and some children of the murderers she’s met, has found no violence correlation between the killer and their kin. But most kids of killers seem to disappear into thin air after their parents’ deeds become public, making cohesive research on murderers’ offspring next to impossible. They change their names, move to other cities or countries, and disassociate themselves completely from their families, Morrison says. “No one wants to talk about what they are associated with,” she says.
And that fear and secrecy point to the bigger risks to Zahara: social and psychological ones.
Growing up with the last name Tsarnaev won’t be easy. Melissa Moore knows this all too well. Her father, Keith Hunter Jesperson, was known as the Happy Face Killer for the murders he committed from California to Washington in the early 1990s before he was imprisoned for life. He murdered at least eight women and was infamous for signing confession notes sent to police departments and the media with smiley faces.
The last time she saw her father before he was arrested was for breakfast one morning before school. “‘I have something to tell you, but you’re going to tell the police,’ ” Jesperson kept telling Moore, who was a freshman in high school. “I went to the bathroom and when I came back the conversation was dropped,” Moore says.
As soon as the news broke about her father, Moore tells Newsweek, she was isolated from her friends and her community. She switched high schools to try to escape the media frenzy. The first time she visited her father in prison, he told her to change her last name. “That’s when I realized it was a done deal,” she says. “My name was forever intimately tied to this murderer. I could never get past my name.” In order to cope with her family’s history, she wrote a book, Shattered Silence: The Untold Story of a Serial Killer’s Daughter.
“The community rejected me because they rejected my dad,” says Moore, who struggled throughout her childhood and early adulthood to come to terms with her father’s deeds. “Parents didn’t want their children around me,” she says, “maybe they thought I knew something, maybe because I was damaged by being raised by him. I felt ashamed and unworthy.”
Beyond the social elements is the psychological journey that the child of a killer needs to go through, and experts say that one of the most important steps will be for Zahara, as she grows up, to acknowledge and accept her father’s act of evil while absolving herself from any responsibility or guilt.
That will likely include animosity toward her father for what he did to both the larger community and her own family. The children of killers can “experience anger at the relative for putting them in such a conflicted position,” Michael Price, a professor of evolutionary moral psychology at Brunel University in London, told CNN. That conflict includes “strong psychological and emotional incentives to defend and remain loyal to a family member, and to delude and self-deceive themselves about the reality of their relative’s guilt,” Price said.
Travis Vining went on an emotional journey that spanned decades. He remembers when his father, John Vining, admitted that he was the serial killer responsible for the murders of five people in Orlando in the late 1980s. Travis who was in his early 20s at the time, became his father’s unwilling confidant, even helping his father burn a car where Travis suspected a corpse was stashed. “There was an inability to comprehend the overall meaning of what is happening to you when it’s someone you love,” says Vining, who eventually reported his father to the police.
Vining tells Newsweek he repressed all memories of his father and his killing spree for nearly two decades, until he was “brought to his knees” by physical signs of trauma: migraines, back pain, sleep apnea, and horrible nightmares. “We are not capable of burying these things,” he says.
Vining and Moore say the only way for Zahara Tsarnaev to lead a peaceful life will be for her to understand that evil is not in her blood.
“If you spend your childhood waiting for the other shoe to drop, you have more anxiety and worry for the rest of your life,” Morrison says.
Vining says connecting with families of his father’s victims has also brought him peace. “Very few people connect in the way that we can connect to each other,” he says. He speaks often with the son of one of the women his father murdered. “We end every phone conversation with ‘I love you,’” he says, “I can’t tell you how much that means to both of us.”