Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics

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The Possible Motives of Atlanta Day-Trading Mass Murderer Mark O. Barton

Aubrey Immelman

July 31, 1999

Part I: Personality Profile

    Atlanta brokerage-office shooter Mark O. Barton appears to fit the profile of individuals described in the psychopathology literature as "sadistic borderline" personalities, a pattern that Theodore Millon calls "explosive psychopathy" (Millon & Davis, 1998) or "explosive sadism" (Millon, 1996) These individuals typically manage their behavior sufficiently well to cope with the demands of their daily lives, careers, and relationships, but lack the necessary psychological strength and cohesion to maintain control in all situations, periodically erupting "with precipitous and vindictive behaviors." As Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell told NBC’s "Today" show in the aftermath of the rampage, it would be "too simplistic" to attribute Barton’s final act solely to financial losses on the stock market. And Helen Morrison, a forensic psychiatrist, told MSNBC that she agreed with Campbell about avoiding simplistic answers, noting that psychiatric tests conducted in 1993 suggested that Barton was predisposed to violence.

    Millon and Davis (1998) describe the explosive psychopath as follows:

The explosive psychopath is differentiated from other psychopathic [or sadistic] variants by the unpredictable and sudden emergence of hostility. These "adult tantrums," characterized by uncontrollable rage and fearsome attacks upon others, occur frequently against members of the [explosively sadistic] psychopath’s own family.

Such explosive behavior erupts precipitously, before its intensive nature can be identified and constrained. Feeling thwarted or threatened, these psychopaths respond in a volatile and hurtful way, bewildering others by the abrupt change that has overtaken them, saying unforgivable things, striking unforgettable blows. As with children, tantrums are instantaneous reactions to cope with frustration or fear. . . . [T]he explosive behavior . . . is not primarily an instrumental act [i.e., designed to achieve a particular objective], but rather an outburst that serves to discharge pent-up feelings of humiliation and degradation.
    Disappointed and feeling frustrated in life, these persons lose control and seek revenge for the [perceived] mistreatment and deprecation to which they feel subjected. In contrast to other [types of] psychopaths [or sadists], explosive individuals do not move about in a surly and truculent manner [i.e., they can be seemingly easy-going and affable]. Rather, their rages burst out uncontrollably, often with no apparent provocation. In periods of explosive rage, they may unleash a torrent of abuse and storm about defiantly, cursing and voicing bitter contempt for all. This quality of sudden and irrational belligerence, as well as the frenzied lashing out [which in extreme cases can include physical assault] distinguishes these psychopaths [or sadists] from the other subtypes. Many are hypersensitive to feelings of betrayal or may be deeply frustrated by the futility and hopelessness of their lives.
    When explosive psychopaths are faced with repeated failures, humiliations, and frustrations, their limited controls may be quickly overrun by deeply felt and undischarged resentments. Once released, the fury of the moment draws upon the memories and emotions of the past that surge unrestrained to the surface, breaking out into a wild irrational, and uncontrollable rage. (p. 166)

    The key to understanding Barton’s motives in the Atlanta rampage may be this:

Whether justified or not, certain persons come to symbolize for explosive psychopaths the sense of frustration and hopelessness that sparks their explosive reactions. . . . [As sadistic borderline psychopaths] see it, these symbolic figures must be obliterated. . . . The mere presence of these symbolic individuals stirs deep feelings of failure and reminds them of the ways life has violated their hopes and their integrity. Because they are unable to resolve the real sources of their resentment and frustration, they come to feel that these symbols of futility and hopelessness must be removed from the scene. Confronted by their inadequacies, explosive psychopaths may be provoked into panic and blind rage. The resulting violence is a desperate, lashing-out act against symbols rather than reality.

Millon and Davis’s analysis provides a chilling insight into the motives of Mark Barton.

    Finally, Millon and Davis suggest that physical attacks against strangers or casual acquaintances may occur when verbally unskilled psychopaths seek to terminate altercations in which they feel incapable of responding adequately:

Unable to verbalize what they feel and why, feeling outmaneuvered and humiliated, the [explosively sadistic] psychopaths respond in the only way possible [as they see it] to remove the irritation. Thus impotence and personal failure become the source of these aggressive acts, which serve to release accumulated tensions. Because these explosive psychopaths may be provoked by otherwise innocuous interactions [or unrelated events], their victims often seem rather incidental and arbitrarily selected. The explosions are not so much a [reasoning] social response as an [irrational] emotional release.

Part II: Acute Stress-Induced Symptom Disturbances Superimposed on the Underlying Personality Pattern

    According to Theodore Millon (1996), "[t]he affective instability and diminished controls that characterize the [borderline personality] pattern result in the periodic emergence of a number of Axis I [mental] disorders" (p. 671), among them anxiety syndromes.

    Millon (1996, p. 671) writes: "Brief eruptions of uncontrollable emotion" occur in individuals with borderline personality disorder, "who often experience states of generalized anxiety" as Barton has apparently experience since last October, based on the account in his suicide note. "For various reasons, traceable to particular vulnerabilities or coping inadequacies" borderline personalities "fear the imminence of an impending disaster or feel that they are being overwhelmed or will disintegrate from the press of forces that surge within them." Considering feelings of impending doom, the stock market uncertainty in the second half of 1998 may well have played a role. As for overwhelming inner forces, the sadistic component of Barton’s apparent personality pattern is characterized by an underlying character structure whose "eruptive" morphologic organization, according to Millon (1996) comprises "powerful and explosive energies of an aggressive . . . nature [that] threaten to produce precipitous outbursts that periodically overwhelm and overrun otherwise competent restraints" (p. 488). [Note: "Morphologic organization" refers to the overall intrapsychic architecture that serve as a framework for the individual’s psychic interior; in other words, the structural strength, interior congruity, and functional efficacy of the personality system that serves as a primary determinant of an individual’s ego strength.]

    The generalized anxiety that erupts periodically in individuals with underlying borderline personalities "may follow a period of mounting stress in which a series of objectively trivial events cumulate to the point of being experienced as devastating or crushing" (Millon, 1996, p. 671). At other times, a "dramatic upsurge and emotional discharge" may be triggered by the activation of unconscious impulses, and the consequent breakdown of intrapsychic controls (p. 671). Both of these psychological pathways to an acute anxiety state may plausibly have been at work in the case of Mark Barton. In his case, the unconscious impulses in question most likely were powerful sadistic impulses of an explosive, aggressive nature, exacerbated by the low threshold for hostile discharge and intolerance for frustration associated with antisocial elements in his underlying personality.

    Mark Barton’s suicide note suggests that in the days or weeks prior to his killing spree, he may have developed acute panic attacks. Millon (1996) writes: "There are . . . more intense periods when a sweeping disorganization and overwhelming panic disorder take hold [in borderline personalities]. The individual’s inner controls disintegrate and he "is carried by a rush of irrational impulses and bizarre thoughts that often culminate in a wild spree of chaotic behavior, violent outbursts, . . . suicidal acts, and so on" (p. 671) In the case of Barton, sadistic elements in his underlying personality apparently contributed to the inclusion of mass murder in his "wild spree of chaotic behavior." Millon notes that these extreme behaviors may escalate to the level of a brief psychotic disorder, characterized by "transitory states of both intense anxiety and ego decompensation [i.e., breakdown of psychological controls and defenses] that terminate after a few hours, or at most no more than one or two days," following which the individual "regains his or her normal equilibrium" (p. 672) This, too, is consistent with the intrapsychic character structure of borderline individuals, who, according to Millon, experience "periodic schisms" in their psychic order and cohesion, "often resulting in transient, stress-related psychotic episodes" (p. 662).

    Barton’s suicide note suggests that his hypothesized psychotic breakdown presented as an acute delusional episode, characterized by projection, in which Barton defensively disowned his undesirable, sadistic personal traits and motives and attributed them to others – for example, his father ("The fears of the father are transferred to the son. It was from my father to me and from me to my son"), his wife Leigh Ann ("one of the main reasons for my demise"), and unidentified others ("people that greedily sought my destruction"). Millon (1996) asserts that sadistic personalities are particularly prone to delusional syndromes by virtue of their "hypersensitivity to betrayal." Sadistic personalities, according to Millon, "have learned to cope with threat by acting out aggressively and, at times, explosively." In what appears to be a good fit for Barton’s rampage, Millon writes: "Faced with repeated failures and frustrations, their fragile controls may be overwhelmed by undischarged and deeply felt angers and resentments. These hostile feelings, spurred by memories and emotions of the past, may surge unrestrained to the surface, spilling into wild and delusional rages" (p. 492). Tragically, for his victims the consequences of Barton’s troubled inner life were lethal.


Millon, T. (1996). Disorders of Personality: DSM-IV and Beyond (2nd ed). New York: Wiley.

Millon, T., & R. D. Davis (1998). "Ten subtypes of psychopathy." In T. Millon, E. Simonsen, M. Birket-Smith, & R. D. Davis (Eds), Psychopathy: Antisocial, Criminal, and Violent Behavior (pp. 161-170). New York: Guilford.

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Last updated April 20, 2000