At 11, Priya was just over 4 feet tall and has wavy black hair and a steady gaze. She flashed a smile when I ask about her favorite subject (biology) and grimaces when I ask about her least favorite (math). She seems poised and cheerful, a normal preteen. But when we steer into uncomfortable territory—the events that led her to this juvenile-treatment facility nearly 2,000 miles from her family— Priya hesitates and looks down at her hands. “I wanted the whole world to myself,” she says. “So I made a whole entire book about how to hurt people.” No words to say now, speechless.
Starting at age 6, Priya began drawing pictures of murder weapons: a knife, wire cutters, rope, chemicals for poisoning, a plastic bag for suffocating. She told me that she pretended to kill her stuffed animals.
“You were practicing on your stuffed animals?,” I asked her.
“How did you feel when you were doing that to your stuffed animals?”
“Why did it make you feel happy?”
“Because I thought that someday I was going to end up doing it on somebody.”
“Did you ever try?”
“I choked my little brother.”
We adopted Priya when she was 2. We already had two biological children, but we felt called to add Priya to our family.
From the start, Priya seemed a willful child, in extreme need of attention. But what toddler isn’t? Her biological mother had been forced to give her up because she’d lost her job and home and couldn’t provide for her four children, but there was no evidence of abuse. According to documentation, she had no learning disabilities, no emotional scars, no signs of ADHD or autism.
But even at a very young age, Priya had a mean streak. When she was about 20 months old, living with foster parents, she clashed with a boy in daycare. The caretaker soothed them both; problem solved. Later that day Priya, who was already potty trained, walked over to where the boy was playing, pulled down her pants, and peed on him. “She knew exactly what she was doing,” an official said. “There was an ability to wait until an opportune moment to exact her revenge on someone.”
When Priya got a little older, she would pinch, trip, or push her siblings and smile if when cried. She would break into her sister’s piggy bank and rip up all the notes.
“I want to kill all of you,” Samantha told her mother, Pia.
Pia consulted doctors, psychiatrists, and therapists. But Priya only grew more dangerous. They had her admitted to a psychiatric hospital three times before sending her to a residential treatment program at age 6. Priya would grow out of it, one psychologist assured her parents; the problem was merely delayed empathy. Priya was impulsive, another said, something that medication would fix. Yet another suggested that she had reactive attachment disorder, which could be ameliorated with intensive therapy. More darkly—and typically, in these sorts of cases—another psychologist blamed her parents, implying that Samantha was reacting to harsh and unloving parenting.
One bitter December day in 2011, Pia was driving the children along a winding road near their home. Priya had just turned 7. Suddenly Pia heard screaming from the back seat, and when she looked in the mirror, she saw Priya with her hands around the throat of her 2-year-old sister, who was trapped in her car seat. Pia separated them, and once they were home, she pulled Priya aside.
“What were you doing?,” I asked.
“I was trying to choke her,” she said.
“You realize that would have killed her? She would not have been able to breathe. She would have died.”
“What about the rest of us?”
“I want to kill all of you.”
Priya later showed Pia her sketches, and Pia watched in horror as her daughter demonstrated how to strangle or suffocate her stuffed animals. “I was so terrified,” Jen says. “I felt like I had lost control.”
Four months later, Priya tried to strangle her baby brother, who was just two months old, who died after few moments on the spot.
Priya was diagnosed with conduct disorder with callous and unemotional traits. She had all the characteristics of a budding psychopath.
Researchers shy away from calling children psychopaths; the term carries too much stigma and too much determinism. They prefer to describe children like Priya as having “callous and unemotional traits,” including a lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt; shallow emotions; aggression and even cruelty; and a seeming indifference to punishment. Callous and unemotional children have no trouble hurting others to get what they want. If they do seem caring or empathetic, they’re probably trying to manipulate you.
Now Priya is of 18 years and serving life imprisonment. She killed 29 people in her life, including her parents, without any trace of guilt or remorse, with only a single hope in front of her eyes-