It is the stuff of nightmares. A man in his early twenties falls asleep while watching Saturday Night Live on television. The next thing he knows, he’s staring into his horrified mother-in-law’s face. His memory is patchy after that. He’s in his car, a knife in his hand, and then he’s at the police station, telling the police that he thinks he might have hurt someone. He had. Twenty-three year old Kenneth Parks had murdered his mother-in-law and rendered his father-in-law unconscious. Parks went to trial but was eventually acquitted. According to the defense, and the assessment of psychiatric and neurological experts, Parks had committed the murder in his sleep. He did not remember doing so and had not intended to attack or kill his in-laws.
The case report, published in the journal Sleep in 1994, reads like a film script. There are details. The night before the murder, Ken had slept badly. Saturday morning he played rugby with friends and received a mild blow to his right temple. That evening’s episode of Saturday Night Live was hosted by Dennis Hopper. A scene from the movie Blue Velvet was shown. (If anyone could drive you to homicide in your sleep, Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet would be a likely candidate.)
In many ways, Parks was the perfect suspect. He had started gambling, betting on horses, and heavy losses drove him to steal money from work. He took money from the family savings and forged his wife’s signature. His theft at work was eventually uncovered and he was fired from his job; he and his wife put the house up for sale to cover his debts. It would not have been so surprising then, to find out that he had tried to murder his in-laws in a desperate attempt to access money or to prevent them from finding out what he had done. (Parks was apparently very close to his in-laws.) Instead, a medical assessment of Parks and his family showed a history of sleep disorders. Parks had wet the bed until he was 11 – 12 years of age; he was a chronic sleep talker; he slept very deeply and did not remember his dreams; and had a history of sleepwalking. The conclusion was that Parks had committed these acts of violence in his sleep and therefore he was not responsible. He had a keen sense of remorse for what he had done and was reported to be in a “deep state of emotional despair” after the crime.
I heard this story for the first time at a lecture (at the MNI) on parasomnias, or sleep-related disorders, given by Dr Antonio Zadra, a researcher and clinical psychologist at the Centre du Sommeil at l’hôpital du Sacré Coeur. It is, apparently, not the only case of homicidal somnambulism. (see “Rough Night?”) According to Zadra, sleepwalking is not considered a “disease of the mind” which means that to plead somnambulism as a defense for murder is not the same as pleading insanity. Parks was acquitted, not committed to a mental institution. (He did receive psychotherapy after the trial and took sleeping pills.)
Zadra and his colleagues at the sleep centre are looking for an objective protocol to confirm the diagnosis of parasomnias, including sleepwalking, since much of the diagnosis rests upon anecdotal evidence, often from the sleepwalker’s family. Although episodes are seen in the sleep lab – Zadra showed video footage of people moving and talking in their sleep, including one man who thought he had dropped his baby and was searching for it in his bed – they happen less frequently in laboratory conditions than at home. He and his colleagues have found that sleep deprivation in conjunction with “forced arousals” (disrupting people’s sleep in the lab), increases the frequency of episodes. This allows researchers to further study what is happening in the brain when these episodes occur, and confirm that a person is indeed suffering from a sleep disorder.
Most episodes of somnambulism are relatively harmless, but as Parks’ story demonstrates, for some it is a matter of life and death.
For a funnier (although still somewhat disturbing) story of someone suffering from a sleep disorder, check out this story by Mike Birbiglia on the Moth podcast.
posted by Maria Schamis Turner @ 6:27 PM
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