Robert Fein, PhD

Throughout your life, what particular experiences and people have influenced you to be the psychologist you are today?

In 1974, I got my doctorate in clinical psychology and public practice from Harvard University. After getting my degree, I did an internship year at McLean Hospital. I had the great fortune of being supervised by McLean’s psychiatrist-in-chief, Dr. Shervert Frazier. At the end of the year, I had a career development talk with Dr. Frazier. I talked about working with disturbed kids or a geriatric population. Dr. Frazier looked at me and said, “I think it would be good for you to work with dangerous men.” I had no idea what he meant, but I trusted him.  So in 1976, I began work at the Massachusetts Department of Correction’s Bridgewater State Hospital, where Dr. Frazier had begun a McLean Hospital program of psychological and psychiatric services. Dr. Frazier continued to supervise and support me for the next nine years, as I worked to evaluate and treat men seen as severely mentally ill and violent, and ultimately led the McLean/Bridgewater Program.

Throughout his career, Dr. Frazier spoke about the importance of working with, listening to and learning from people who have acted violently. In nine years at Bridgewater State Hospital, I learned a great deal about violence and potentially preventable violence. Dr. Frazier pointed out that by sitting with and listening to, persons who have acted violently, a psychologist develops a kind of “moral authority” about violence that one cannot get by solely reading about violence.

In December 1980, Dr. Frazier returned from a meeting at the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in Washington and met with his Bridgewater team. He told us that he was serving on an IOM committee that was working with the U.S. Secret Service to help prevent assassination and that he had offered that his Bridgewater team would write “the definitive” paper on mentally ill assassins.

The week before he told us this, Mark Chapman had assassinated John Lennon in New York City. Picking ourselves off the floor, we said to Dr. Frazier, “We don’t know anything about assassins. Look to New York. They have an assassin there.” Dr. Frazier pointed out that there were a number of men at Bridgewater State Hospital who had planned and killed others.  He said, “Let’s start with what we know here.”  Several of us thought about what we had learned from men at Bridgewater State Hospital and wrote a paper for the March 1981 IOM conference on “Behavioral Science and the Secret Service: Toward the Prevention of Assassination.” (The conference occurred three weeks before John Hinckley shot President Reagan.) And a year or so later, I was invited to be a psychological consultant to the Secret Service.

After working as a part-time consultant with the Intelligence Division of the Secret Service for a number of years, I was asked by the director of the Secret Service to help conduct an operational study of assassination. The goal of this study was to provide operationally useful information to Secret Service agents and other law enforcement professionals who were charged with preventing what my Secret Service colleague, Special Agent Bryan Vossekuil and I came to call “targeted violence” attacks. So, for much of the 1990s, working full time with the Secret Service, Bryan Vossekuil and I examined the “pre-attack” thinking and behavior of the 83 persons in the United States who from about 1950 to 1996 had selected a target by virtue of that person’s prominent public status and had either attacked, or attempted to attack, the target. We called this the “Secret Service Exceptional Case Study Project.”

After the Columbine shootings in 1999, the Secretary of Education asked Special Agent Vossekuil and me to conduct a similar study of school shooters. We did so, together with a number of colleagues. In both the assassination and the school shooter studies, we asked this question: might there be observable or identifiable “pre-attack” behaviors that authorities could learn about that might help them prevent targeted violence attacks? Reports and threat assessment guides from each of these studies are available on the Secret Service website.

After 9/11, I wanted to see if I could help in the prevention of terrorist attacks. Since then I have worked with a number of defense, law enforcement and intelligence agencies as a national security psychologist. This included seven years of service on the Intelligence Science Board (ISB) where I chaired an ISB study on the future of interrogation and intelligence interviewing. I have also continued to work in the emerging field of behavioral threat assessment.

I’ve been blessed with wonderful mentors and colleagues over the years. In particular, U.S. Secret Service Director John Simpson, a national leader in criminal justice in the 1980s and early 1990s was a mentor. Dr. Frazier, who was a mentor for many years and who recently passed away at the age of 93, was another wonderful teacher and supporter. I learned much from Massachusetts Commissioner of Mental Health Edward Murphy who in 1986 invited me to be the first assistant commissioner for forensic mental health for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Serving in this position for six years, I had the privilege of working with Dr. Walter Penk, a distinguished and senior Div. 18 psychologist, who has been a psychological hero of mine. And for many years, I have worked closely with my colleague and friend, now retired Secret Service Agent Bryan Vossekuil.

What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your career?

Working in public service with people, including psychologists, who use their knowledge and experience to help prevent violence, has been rewarding. I have been grateful for opportunities to conduct operational research studies and to develop and offer information and perspectives to other professionals, which might help prevent targeted violent attacks.

For example, we discovered in our study of school shooters that in about 80 percent of the 37 incidents of targeted school violence that occurred from 1976-2000, other kids knew that the shooter was going to commit an attack or otherwise do something bad in school that day. However, very few of those kids told a responsible adult.  This finding has encouraged schools, colleges and universities to be much more alert to what “bystanders” might know. I’m pleased that the Secret Service’s Safe School Initiative provided some data and understanding to help people prevent school attacks.

Do you have advice for budding psychologists or psychologists in training on how to get to the level of your expertise, especially for those of us interested in national security and forensics?

I try to encourage people, early in their careers, to work with persons who are seriously mentally ill and/or have acted violently and in the systems that assess and care for them. I think that such experience gives a good foundation for working in areas of forensic psychology and, perhaps, national security psychology. Working with persons with serious mental illnesses and/or who have acted violently helps one get beyond all-too-prevalent stereotypes and provides a psychologist with a personal/professional database of experience.

Many years ago, I evaluated a man whose last name ended in a vowel. I asked him what he did for a living.  He said, “I’m a Mohawk Indian, and actually I’m the chief of the Mohawk Indians.” I paused to consider this, then said, “I’ve never met anyone who identified himself as a Mohawk Indian, let alone the chief. How do you know you’re the chief of the Mohawk Indians?” He replied, “Doc, it’s just a gut feeling.” That experience led me to think about experienced gut feelings. So, I encourage psychologists to have the kind of experiences that will lead them to have experienced gut feelings.

What do you think is next for you?

I want to continue to work to help prevent terrorism and other kinds of targeted violence. I enjoy working in national security psychology. I look forward to continuing to talk with, and hopefully support, younger psychologists with interests in public service.