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THE MENENDEZ BROTHERS : Jose Menendez Gave His Sons Everything. Maybe Even a Motive for Murder.

July 22, 1990|JOHN JOHNSON and RONALD L. SOBLE | John Johnson and Ronald L. Soble, Times staff writers, are working on a book about the Menendez case for New American Library.

The priest who officiated at the funeral in Princeton, N.J., also is incredulous at the police account. "I would be shocked if they could speak about their parents the way they did and be able to do that much violence to them," says Father Brendan Scott, who watched Lyle hold a large crowd spellbound during a 30-minute eulogy built around his father's favorite themes: success and the importance of being a good man.

There are certain patterns in parricide cases, and psychologists say some are reflected in the Menendez family history. Children who kill their parents, says Dr. Lenore Walker, a Denver psychiatrist, frequently do so because their parents exert so much control over their lives that they are robbed of their own identities. In most cases, physical abuse is involved. Crimes like this often are elaborately planned and take place in middle-class or affluent environments, where family problems can be more easily hidden, experts say. They often involve teen-age boys who seem to be reasonably well-adjusted, but whose rage erupts suddenly in a spasm of revenge. Astonishingly, said L.A. attorney Paul Mones some months ago, such killers sometimes return to normal, "happier" behavior after the crime. Although Walker cannot comment on the innocence or guilt of the Menendez brothers, she notes similarities between this case and others. "This father seemed to have an extreme need for control, to make sure the boys did it his way," Walker says.

Jose Menendez was a larger-than-life character who possessed great charm and intense drive. He was in command of every situation, arrived first at every conclusion and out-hustled every competitor. He also exercised great power over his household and hammered into his sons the ethic of success and achievement.

When the boys were 12 and 9, the elder Menendez started them on a demanding regimen calculated to make them into tennis stars. He paid for coaches, supervised practices and attended many matches. He also wanted excellence off the court: He expected them to be able to hold their own in dinner-table discussions of arms control and international politics. "I was not delivered unto this world in defeat, nor does failure course in my veins," Lyle would recite from his father's favorite motivational text. And when Jose wanted to drive home a point to his sons, his lectures could last hours and resemble a business meeting.

As the boys grew up, he didn't relinquish control, as most parents do: He took great interest in whom his sons were dating, how their studies were going and all the details of their lives. Walker notes that, as young people mature, they need an increasing amount of psychological freedom. "The kind of intensity between the father and the sons smelled to me of real power and control issues," Walker says.

"My father suffered from being a perfectionist," Lyle said in an interview last fall. "It carried over into his home life, and it was sometimes difficult for Erik and me. So much so that he really couldn't do something well enough. It wore on him tremendously mentally. And it wore on us."

Still, what Jose Menendez wanted for his sons was no more than what many success-oriented families want for their children. If he drove them hard on the tennis court, yelling and coaching from the sidelines, so do many others. No one can remember Jose Menendez ever striking his sons. After all, he prided himself on his insight into human nature. He wasn't a ham-handed disciplinarian. If he was tough and prone to lecture, he also hugged his kids frequently to show that he loved them, according to friends and relatives.

"We know they had trouble on the tennis court," says Seena Hamilton, who founded the prestigious Easter Bowl tennis tournament for junior players in Miami and who was acquainted with the family. But, she adds, the profile of Jose Menendez as a demanding, pushy father fits that of the parents of dozens of talented tennis players; the behavior of such parents verges "on the edge of child abuse." "If, indeed, that was a cause for murder," Hamilton says, "we would have wholesale slaughter in the U.S. in the juniors."

"It makes you feel sad about the American dream," says a family friend. Hard work, ambition, looking after your own--"It's what they tell you to do, and (Jose) did it. Then this happens."

The boys took much of Jose's advice to heart. But there were signs of rebellion beyond the tennis court, and in the two years before the murders, the friction between Jose and his sons worsened as the brothers engaged in behavior not usually associated with model kids. Lyle was suspended from Princeton for plagiarism in the first term of his freshman year; Erik was accused of committing burglaries one summer. And Lyle clashed with his parents over his problems at school, over his girlfriends. It was not easy, the boys sometimes confided to friends, to be a son of Jose Menendez.

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