The murder of JonBenét Ramsey is one that continues to haunt Americans — so much so that the 20th anniversary of her murder has brought a spate of TV specials discussing the mysterious unsolved crime. In an interview with Dr. Phil, JonBenét's older brother Burke, who was nine at the time of her murder, watched video of a psychologist interview with him a few weeks after her murder. The 20-year-old video reveals that Burke did not draw his sister in the family portrait, and from the perspective of developmental psychology, Burke's drawings without his sister are very telling.
In the interview, Dr. Phil asked Burke why he didn't draw JonBenét when her death was so recent. In a response characteristic of Burke's seemingly terse and understated statements throughout the interview, he told Dr. Phil "I don't really know what was going through my head, but she was gone, so I didn't draw her."
For anyone with even a cursory understanding of childhood psychology, the way children draw their families can have many implications regarding their home lives. For Burke to draw his family without his sister so soon after learning of her death seems, to me at the very least, to give viewers a look into the damaged psyche of a child whose world was turned upside-down by both tragedy and the ensuing media circus.
In a 2014 study published in the Attachment & Human Development journal, researchers found that children whose home lives are dysfunctional or chaotic tend to draw their families in ways that communicate emotional distance — family members might be far apart or parents might tower over the child, for example — while children in "high-functioning" households draw family units that appear closer, and with more pleasant expressions. While this study focuses on children who are six and seven years old, because they are less likely to be subject to outside expectations than their counterparts even a few years older, Burke, at age nine, was not far from the age range of this study.
I am, admittedly, not a childhood or developmental psychologist, but as someone interested in the subject and with a basic understanding of developmental psychology, the fact that Burke didn't draw JonBenét in his family drawings causes me to pause. No, I don't think he killed his sister, nor do I have any prevailing theory one way or the other about who did. But at its face, it seems to me that Burke was clearly troubled by the loss of his sister and had already internalized the reality that she was dead, and that his family of four had been reduced to three.
While conjecture about JonBenét's older brother ranges from Twitter users who think he's "creepy" to Dr. Phil himself calling Burke "socially awkward," it's important to remember that he was likely duly traumatized by the initial death of his sister and by the media circus that has reached fever pitch frequency multiple times in the last 20 years. When watching the so-called "secret interrogation" of Burke as a child being interviewed by a therapist so soon after his sister's death, my heart went out to him — here was a child who had experienced incalculable loss, and would be defined for the rest of his young life by theories about who killed his sister. JonBenét's murder was horrifying enough, but the untold ways it affected her family, and her brother especially, make this scandal one of the worst tragedies in American history.
Image: Dr. Phil Show (1)