Classification

The first large-scale attempt to provide a classification of fire-raisers was by Lewis and Yarnell. (13> Unfortunately, this pioneering study of over a thousand young arsonists had a number of methodological weaknesses (references to a number of more recent surveys are given by Prins(2)). In 1988, Faulk(.14> proposed two useful broad groupings: group I consisted of those cases in which the fire served as a means to an end (e.g. revenge, fraud, or a plea for help); group II consisted of those cases where the fire itself was the phenomenon of interest. In 1985, the author, in conjunction with two psychiatrist colleagues, examined the parole dossiers of a group of 113 imprisoned arsonists. From this small survey, a rudimentary classification (Table.,.?) was devised which a number of others have used as starting points for their own work.(l5) This classification, which was subsequently modified slightly,(2) has certain weaknesses. It can be seen that it collates the behavioural characteristics of fire-raisers, various types of fire-raisers and their motivations.

ICi IwiH-jiLÉhUw— i ■ |b1ij tr IwtfrtliT mjméJ ^ -KH i'

ICi IwiH-jiLÉhUw— i ■ |b1ij tr IwtfrtliT mjméJ ^ -KH i'

Table 2 A proposed classification of arsonists (fire-raisers)

A substantial contribution to the literature on motivation has recently been made by Rix (16). He studied 153 adult arsonists who had been referred to him for pretrial psychiatric reports. He broadened our original classification to include rehousing (which had not been identified in the literature before), carelessness (where a fire had been started accidentally), antidepressant (the motive allegedly being to relieve depressed feelings), and proxy (in which the offender had acted on behalf of another who had borne a grudge).

In addition, Barker(17), in a wide-ranging and careful study of the psychiatric aspects of fire-raising, has suggested that future classifications 'need to be elaborated in terms of multi-axial systems of description, analogous to that found in DSM III(R)'. She continues, 'such a system emphasizes the notion of the arson as merely a "symptom", to be viewed in the context of the whole person, not only to delineate different "syndromes" of arsonists, but also to identify individual points of therapeutic intervention and future dangerousness'.

Finally, Canter and Fritzon(l8> have considered the settings in which fire-raising takes place as a means of sharpening classificatory frameworks. They suggest four 'themes to arson'. Two 'relate to expressive acts, (a) those that are realised within the arsonist's own feelings, being analogous to suicide, and (b) those that are acted on objects, like the burning of symbolic buildings. The two others relate to instrumental acts, (c) those that are for personal indulgence, similar to personal revenge, and (d) those that have an object focus such as hiding evidence from a crime'.

It is clear that the recent work described above carries considerable potential for improving our current typologies. Some general characteristics of fire-raisers

Fire-raisers appear to be mostly young adult males and many of them have considerable relationship difficulties. A large proportion have problems with alcohol and some of them are of low intelligence. When women commit repeated acts of fire-raising and have some accompanying degree of mental disorder, however slight, they are more likely than their male counterparts to be given a psychiatric disposal. Despite the cautionary note sounded earlier about the dangers of medicalizing social problems, it is a good rule of thumb to ask for a psychiatric report in all cases where the motivation seems obscure or where there is a background or current history of mental disturbance.

Studies of fire-raisers indicate considerable evidence of unstable childhood and serious psychological disturbance. However, despite media presentations to the contrary, a direct sexual motivation for fire-raising is rare, although many fire-raisers have problems in making satisfactory sexual relationships. Those who engage in fire-raising for purposes of revenge are likely to be potentially the most dangerous. Such persons are like the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein who said 'I am malicious because I am miserable'. These are the fire-raisers who have problems in dealing with their feelings of anger and frustration at real or imagined wrongs.

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