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David Abrahamsen, 98; His Books Analyzed Nixon, ‘Son of Sam’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. David Abrahamsen, an internationally respected psychoanalyst and authority on criminal behavior whose books include a psychobiography of President Richard M. Nixon and an analysis of serial killer David Berkowitz (the “Son of Sam”), has died. He was 98.

Abrahamsen died Monday at his home in Hamden, Conn. The cause of death was not disclosed.

The Norway-born psychiatrist, who had helped write the New York state insanity law, was hired by prosecutors after Berkowitz’s arrest in August 1977 to determine whether he was fit to stand trial.

The 25-year-old former taxi driver and postal clerk had terrorized New Yorkers during a 13-month shooting spree in which he shot and killed six people, five of them young women. Most of them had been parked in lovers’ lanes.

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During a two-day competency hearing, Abrahamsen testified that Berkowitz “understands the charges against him, is able to aid in his own defense and is able to stand trial.”

But Berkowitz, who told detectives after his arrest that he took orders issued by a demon through dogs, pleaded guilty and never went on trial.

Although he received the maximum prison term for each of the six murders--25 years to life--New York state law required that his sentences be merged as a cumulative sentence that could not exceed 30 years.

Abrahamsen’s involvement with Berkowitz did not end with his imprisonment.

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He based his 1985 book “Confessions of Son of Sam” (Columbia University Press) on more than 155 letters Berkowitz wrote to him and more than 50 hours of interviews with the killer, his family and others who knew him.

Abrahamsen found that Berkowitz had become enraged as a young man to discover that his mother had not died giving birth to him but instead had given him up for adoption because he was an “accident, a mistake, never meant to be born.”

On one occasion, Berkowitz observed that “many unwanted children are brought into this world as the result of careless sexual encounters in automobiles ... It took me 24 years to erupt, to explode like a volcano. I reached the point where I couldn’t keep it in.”

Berkowitz, Abrahamsen wrote, manifested a “psychopathic personality, a form of character disorder.” By killing women, Abrahamsen contended, Berkowitz was achieving power over them and sparing other illegitimate children his fate.

Critics tended to dismiss Abrahamsen’s psychobiography of Berkowitz, saying the author’s writing was leaden and did not present much new information and didn’t make full use of his access to interviews and records.

Abrahamsen, who was a fellow of the American Psychiatric Assn. and of the New York Academy of Medicine, based his 1977 book “Nixon vs. Nixon: An Emotional Tragedy” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) on interviews with Nixon’s aunt, uncle, cousins and Whittier College classmates as well as Nixon’s taped White House conversations and other sources.

Abrahamsen, who described the book as a study of the emotional development of Nixon, concluded that the former president suffered from a serious “character disorder"--that he had “a great neurotic disturbance” and became “a self-absorbed paranoid.”

Abrahamsen contended that Nixon was incapable of rationally discharging his responsibilities as president and that Nixon based his decisions in the White House on his own “disturbed needs” rather than facts.

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Abrahamsen’s application of orthodox Freudian analysis methods without ever actually speaking to his “patient” generated controversy.

In responding to the criticism, Abrahamsen told the New York Times that he had “obtained the needed data” from members of Nixon’s family. “I also had available the daydreams and fantasies in [Nixon’s] own book, ‘Six Crises,’ which revealed the man in his own words.

“Even when the subject is not available for examination, analysis of the inner man is possible. In fact, second-hand material can sometimes reveal more than patients themselves.”

A member of one of the earliest Jewish families in Norway, he was born in Trondheim in 1903.

After receiving his medical training at the former Royal Frederick University in Oslo in 1929, he practiced medicine in Norway for two years. Later, he was a resident and assistant physician in neurology and psychiatry at the Psychiatric Clinic in Oslo and a psychiatrist with the Department of Justice, also in Oslo.

After arriving in the United States in 1940, he served as a psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C.; the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet; and Bellevue Hospital in New York.

He also served as director of research on treatment of behavior disorders in children at New York City’s Psychiatric Institute. He later was a member of the board of overseers of the Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence at Brandeis University.

Abrahamsen’s wife, Lova, died in 1966.

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He is survived by two daughters, Inger McCabe Elliott of Stonington and Anne-Marie Foltz of New Haven, both in Connecticut; a sister, Beile Hess of Amsterdam; two brothers, Aron of St. Augustine, Fla., and Abel of New York; five grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and three step-grandchildren.


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