The Tsarnaev women: In deep denial over Boston bombings

Katherine Russell and Zubeidat Tsarnaev are probably not innocent, and most assuredly in a state of denial. Photo: AP Photos/North Kingston High School Yearbook/ABC News

LOS ANGELES, April 26, 2013—The behavior of Katherine Russell Tsarnaev and Zubeidat Tsarnaev indicates they are in deep denial. As the FBI slowly unravels the mysteries and motives behind the Boston Marathon bombing and its suspects, the potential involvement of these two women in Tamerlan’s and Dzhokhar’s actions is getting greater attention, and their state of mind before and after the bombings may take on greater importance.

I spoke with Dr. Anne Friend (not her real name), a psychologist with extensive background in the treatment of women imprisoned for murder, and victims of physical and sexual abuse. Dr. Friend could not give a definitive professional diagnosis about the two women and their pathology without actually sitting down with them. However, based on Dr. Friend’s knowledge of behavior, the reporting done and statements up to this point, she was willing to give impressions and insights into each woman’s state of mind.

Katherine Russell Tsarnaev is currently only speaking through her legal counsel DeLuca and Weizenbaum. The 24-year old wife of the late Tamerlan Tsarnaev claims she had no knowledge about the terror plot. In a statement issued on Tuesday, her lawyers stated, “The reports of involvement by her husband and brother-in-law came as an absolute shock to them all. As a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, Katie deeply mourns the pain and loss to innocent victims - students, law enforcement, families and our community.”

What we know of Katherine’s past is that she was a promising artist. She pursued her studies at Suffolk University, and aspired to work in the Peace Corps. All of that changed when she met Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2009. Despite a domestic abuse charge against Tamerlan (later dismissed), Katherine married him in June 2010, went through a rapid conversion to Islam and abandoned her studies to be a wife and mother.

Dr. Friend frames Katherine as a “dependent personality. She gave up herself, her free spirit, to be with this man [Tamerlan].”

The UK Daily Mail reports that Katherine worked 80-90 hours a week as a home medical aide. It appears that Tamerlan stayed home with their daughter, while also using this time to lay the groundwork for the Boston attack.

“Katherine Tsarnaev had a different dynamic going on,” Dr. Friend continued, “She reflects a lack of ego strength—she found her definition through her man. Usually these types of women have no true confidence in themselves.”

Federal authorities are now looking more closely at Katherine after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s pre-Miranda interviews with the FBI revealed it was she who alerted Tamerlan of the circulating photos and videos released on Thursday, April 18. This appears to contradict her lawyer’s statement above.

How could Katherine not have known what her husband was up to? Dr. Friend responded, “On some subconscious level, she knew something was wrong. But having worked with women who suffer under abusive men, they often blame themselves for what goes wrong. It is possible for someone to be in such denial, that they see what they want to see.

“Now that she realizes how bad it is, it appears she is trying to distance herself.”

On the other hand, Zubeidat Tsarnaev, the mother of the suspects, is willing to talk to any— and everyone about her grief, her sons and how America has taken them from her. Zubeidat has been interviewed from her home in Dagestan, Russia by The Wall Street Journal, ABC News and CNN, among others. Each nightly newscast gives us new insight into her state of mind.

Zubeidat maintains her sons were framed by the United States government, even going so far to say that the bombings were staged, and that the blood in the streets was simply paint. Tell that to the 282 victims who suffered loss of limbs, hearing, and other serious injuries. Statements like this make Zubeidat come off as anything but sympathetic.

Dr. Friend presents her impressions of Zubeidat’s psyche. “The mother’s behavior reflects the tragic break within the Tsarnaev family. They came to America with the hopes and dreams, and something along the way went sideways. That’s the hard part to figure out: Where it went sideways.

“It is very hard to believe that your own sons would do something like this. Accepting that means you’d have to accept that you have done something wrong. Wouldn’t it be easier to think it’s some conspiracy?”

Zubeidat’s Wednesday interview with CNN was her most disturbing to date. As she told the reporter, “If they are going to kill him. I don’t care. My oldest son is killed, so I don’t care. I don’t care if my youngest son is going to be killed today. I want the world to hear this. And, I don’t care if I am going to get killed too. And I will say, ‘Allahu Akbar!”

Zubeidat may also come under closer scrutiny because she was instrumental in encouraging her son’s radical views. The Wall Street Journal reported, “The upheaval in the household was driven, at least in part, by a growing interest in religion by both Tamerlan and his mother.” Both mother and son were added by U.S. authorities to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) database, a collection of more than a half million names maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center.

“Obviously, the mom was not adverse to Islamic extremism,” Dr. Friend said. “She saw the son being devout, and deemed it as a positive thing.”

Zubeidat spoke highly of her daughter-in-law, having lived with the couple before returning to Russia. In Zubeidat’s interview with ABC News, she described Katherine as “a serious, good, American girl who converted to Islam as if she had always been a Muslim. We all love her a lot.”

This bond between mother and daughter-in-law will continue to be explored as investigators continue to gather evidence against Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. Perhaps the cloud of denial where both women exist will shift, and we will discover whether they are skilled actors obfuscating their involvement, or simply enmeshed in a situation beyond their control.

Dr. Friend ended with this thought, “When we see things in the media, we err on the side of they must have known. It is possible to live in this bubble of denial. It’s a very weird thing that goes on in the head.”

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Jennifer Oliver O'Connell

Jennifer Oliver O’Connell is the "In My Orbit" columnist for Washington Times Communities, writes on Los Angeles Faith and Community for, teaches Yoga, and coaches on careers and reinvention.

You can keep up with what's in Jennifer's orbit through her As the Girl Turns website: (

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