I've worked in the field of mental health for 20+ years,
so I took an interest in your question.
You note your familiarity with the relatively new topic
of the biological bases for Borderline Personality
Disorder, or BPD. In this article by Larry J. Siever,
M.D., on the BPD Sanctuary site, he documents some of
the biological differences which can be seen in the
biochemical nature of a person with BPD, with regard
to both affective instability and impulse aggression.
He then goes on to note that these differences are
likely the result of early abuse:
"It is also clear that the environment plays an important
role in the development of borderline personality disorder
and may even influence the biology of impulse and affect
regulation. One prominent environmental antecedent to BPD
is a history of abuse or neglect. Many studies suggest a
high proportion of borderline patients have experienced
some form of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, during
their development. While it is not clear that BPD over
other personality disorders always have a demonstrated
increased history of abuse, there is no doubt that the
history of abuse is common in personality disorder
patients, particularly in BPD patients."
"New studies suggest that abuse may sensitize or alter
the activity of the stress system such as the
hypothalamopituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and may have
long term effects on the monoamine systems as well.
Some studies even suggest that certain kinds of trauma
or early abuse may actually cause structural changes
in a central part of the brain involved in emotional
memories, the hippocampus."
Much more on the page:
This certainly supports the idea that abuse can serve
as a significant precursor to the psychobiological
sensitivities which contribute to a variety of mental
disorders, including the mental state of those who
commit incest, since abuse in the history of one or
both of the parents of incest victims has a high
In my research, there is probably no documentation of
the factors surrounding incest which is more complete
than the 56-page treatise, in pdf format, entitled:
'CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE: TREATMENT, PREVENTION AND DETECTION'
by Rod O?Connor, Senior Research Fellow at Monash University
The pdf file can be downloaded and viewed here:
Or you can read it in your browser from Google's cache:
In section 4.3.1, he notes:
"Fuller (1989) reported a sample of 154 cases of
intra-familial abuse where the offender was a
biological father or step-father (legally or de
facto). The data indicated that the mothers were
more likely than the offenders to have experienced
sexual abuse, with 50% of mothers having been
directly sexually abused as a child, as opposed to
27% of the offenders (compared with an average of
about 21% for women and 7% for men in the general
population; see Finkelhor, 1986)."
He also notes:
"Goodwin et al (1982, cited Alter-Reid et al, 1986) also
found that mothers of physically or sexually abused
children had a much lower rate of successfully disclosing
sexual abuse during their childhood compared to non-abusing
mothers who had been victimised as children. In other words
it is not only the child sexual abuse of women that is a
factor, it is the fact that women never disclosed (or had
disclosed) the abuse."
A vast variety of other factors are analyzed in this
very thorough discussion of the topic, and it would be
pointless to paraphrase them when the author has done
such an excellent job of organizing and elaborating
on them. The conclusions which are reached are as follows:
1) The process of sexual abuse can be subtle and binding.
With a significant number of incest victims, the child
may love, need, or depend on the perpetrator.
2) There is limited information regarding the nature of
extrafamilial abusers (ie. offenders against children
not of the same family), versus intrafamilial abusers
(those committing incest, or sexual abuse of family
members). However it is possible that extrafamilial
abusers are more child fixated, in the sense of engaging
in more compulsive, repetitive and indiscriminate abuse
than do intrafamilial abusers.
3) Approximately half of mothers of sexually abused children
in incest cases have been sexually abused themselves.
They tend to have a negative attitude to sexual behaviour,
and a poor relationship with the daughter that may
contribute to a low capacity to protect the daughter.
4) Disclosure of the abuse may be important in reducing or
preventing intergenerational transfer (the abused girl
becoming the mother of an abused child).
5) There is evidence that many incest families have multiple
forms of dysfunction.
6) The friends and siblings of the abused child should be
considered to be themselves at high risk.
7) There is little evidence for a single factor explanation
for intrafamilial abuse. For example, the idea that all
or nearly all the fathers were themselves molested as
children was not supported.
8) Many incest fathers (but certainly not all) tend to be
passive, with low self-esteem, and an impaired sense of
masculine identification, consistent with their having
been abused (physically and sexually) and neglected by
their own fathers.
9) Only a minority of incest fathers may have a focussed
deviant sexual attraction to children in general.
10) Incest fathers exhibit lower empathy and bonding with
their daughters, suggesting a lack of concern for the
well-being of their daughter, as is an awareness of the
consequences of their actions for the feelings of others.
This lack of empathy and concern may be related to a
lack of involvement in the early care of the child,
although it could also be a symptom of pre-existing poor
11) It should finally be noted that virtually all studies
represent biased samples, in that the subjects have
disclosed or been disclosed.
Because of this and given the tendency for incestuous
fathers to deny their abuse, the more normal appearing
and less disturbed abusers may be more effective at
preventing disclosure. All the above conclusions arrived
at could be weaker if they included undetected abusers.
As for how "the child/victim's cognitive and emotional
processing of information and experiences is affected and
how this may influence behavior (with perpetrator, others,
and throughout life events.)", Section 2.1 of the treatise,
titled 'The impact' notes the following:
"Plunkett and Oates (1990) in their review of methodological
considerations in sexual or child sexual abuse, noted that
consistent trends in the reported effects of child sexual
abuse were low self-esteem, depression, low levels of social
interaction, feelings of social isolation, poor family
relationships when adults, substance abuse, and anxiety."
Two other studies are cited as well.
Additionally, this page on the Talent Development Resources
site, entitled 'Cognitive Accommodations to Childhood Sexual
Abuse' by Douglas Eby, offers a 10-page discussion of the
effects of childhood sexual abuse on the victim. Once again,
I cannot comment on a way which will improve the content:
And, finally, you may also be interested in the contents of
this previous question which I answered, which examines the
topic of physical abuse toward children, since incest is
often a matter of abuse, moreso than pedophilia. The difference
between these two is discussed in the treatise above by
Rod O?Connor (see Section 1.2 of the document):
Please do not rate this answer until you are satisfied that
the answer cannot be improved upon by way of a dialog
established through the "Request for Clarification" process.
A user's guide on this topic is on skermit-ga's site, here:
Additional information may be found from an exploration of
the links resulting from the Google searches outlined below.
Searches done, via Google:
"biological basis" "Borderline Personality Disorder"
"risk factors for incest"
incest "biological factors"
Clarification of Answer by
17 May 2004 18:54 PDT
Some of the 'traits' you listed in your original question
are actually diagnoses, such as obssessive-compulsive and
narcissistic personality disorders. I'd prefer not to leave
you with the impression that people with certain diagnoses
are more likely to be perpetrators of incest, so I just
want to clarify that up front.
Also in the document authored by Rod O'Connor, he makes it
clear, in Section 4.4.2 on page 24, that:
"While some studies reported some fathers with evidence of
psychological disturbance, Williams and Finkelhor found
that the majority of incestuous fathers are unlikely to
manifest severed [sic] psychiatric impairment. Indeed,
they felt they could state with confidence that 'there
are an important group of incestuous fathers, at least a
quarter or a third, who seem virtually completely normal,
and who would likely pass psychological testing or
psychiatric evaluation without problem.'"
That being said, the traits of the abusive personality can
be found summarized nicely on The Recovery Web site:
- Uncontrolled temper.
- Extreme Jealousy. (See Love Addiction.)
- Intense fear of abandonment.
- A background involving physical, emotional or sexual
abuse, abandonment, ACOA [Adult Children of Alcohlics]
- Unrealistic expectations of a relationship. (To "fix"
them or solve their problems.)
- Isolation and antisocial temperament.
- Recklessness. (dangerous sexual behavior, reckless
driving, drug use etc.)
- Inability to accept responsibility for their behavior
and actions, even in the face of dire consequences.
- Cruelty to children/animals.
- Threats of violence.
- Low self-esteem, shame.
- Codependent personality disorder and/or Love addiction.
- Inability to respect interpersonal boundaries, a
compulsion to violate boundaries.
- Drug or Alcohol Dependence, self medication.
- Emotional volitility - fear of being "out of control".
- Need for power and control to compensate for the above.
- Bipolar disorder and / or Borderline Personality Disorder.
- Abuse generally escalates when the partner leaves.
Many of the characteristics above are documented trauma based
adaptations to childhood emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Since, as I mentioned before, there is somewhat of an overlap
between the abused/abusive personality and those who go on to
commit incest, this is a good starting point.
As Rod O'Connor notes, however, the traits of incest
perpetrators cannot be so neatly generalized, with a
good percentage of them appearing quite normal.
This is borne out by an article in the Direction Journal,
a Mennonite forum, on 'Child Sexual Abuse in the Church',
by Irene Loewen, under 'PROFILE OF THE AGGRESSOR', about
a third of the way down the page:
"Sexual offenders of children come from all sectors of
society, are intelligent, and are most often between 35
and 40 (though grandfathers have been apprehended).
They are not the 'crazed sex perverts one might expect'
(Butman, 1983), but were often physically and/or
sexually abused themselves . . . almost always
unreported (Groth, 1979). By outward appearances,
the majority are good providers, the religious heads
of their homes, active in their church, and hard working.
Internally, one finds persons who were themselves
emotionally deprived by their fathers. Fathers were
either absent frequently or preoccupied. The role
modeling then was that of a distant, authoritarian
Much more on the page:
So it isn't surprising that a search for the terms
"traits of abusers" results in 38 results, while
adding the term 'incest' or searching specifically
for "traits of incestuous" reduces the useful results
to almost zero. I have illustrated this in the search
Additional searches done, via Google:
"personality disorders among abusers
"personality disorders among incest
"personality disorders of incest
"personality disorders of perpetrators
"personality disorders in abusers
"personality traits in abusers
"personality traits of abusers
"traits of abusers
"traits of abusers" incest