Bernardo was born in Scarborough, Ontario. His mother, Marilyn, was the daughter of a wealthy Toronto lawyer. His father, Kenneth, was the son of an English woman and an Italian immigrant who created a highly successful marble and tile business, but was abusive towards his wife and children. Instead of entering the family business, Kenneth Bernardo became an accountant. After her father had disapproved of an earlier boyfriend, Marilyn married Kenneth in 1960. Like his father, Kenneth Bernardo was said to be abusive. Marilyn, after having given birth to a son and a daughter, began seeing a former boyfriend. She became pregnant with his child and gave birth to Paul Kenneth Bernardo on August 27, 1964. Kenneth Bernardo tolerated his wife's affair and is listed as the biological father on Paul's birth certificate.
In 1975, Kenneth Bernardo fondled a girl and was charged with child molestation; he also sexually abused his own daughter. Bernardo's mother became depressed over her husband's abuse, withdrew from family life and lived in the basement of their Scarborough home. Though the elder children felt the effects of the emotional and mental turmoil, young Paul appeared to be unscathed by it. In his book Lethal Marriage, Nick Pron describes the young Bernardo: "He was always happy. A young boy who smiled a lot. And he was so cute, with his dimpled good looks and sweet smile, that many of the mothers just wanted to pinch him on the cheek whenever they saw him. He was the perfect child they all wanted: polite, well mannered, doing well in school, so sweet in his Boy Scout uniform."
Following an argument between his parents when Bernardo was 16, his mother told him of his actual parentage. Repulsed, he began openly to call his mother "slob" and "whore".
Bernardo graduated from Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute, opting to work for Amway, whose sales culture had a deep effect on him. "He bought the books and tapes of famous motivational get-rich-and-famous experts." Bernardo and his friends practiced their techniques on young women they met in bars, and were fairly successful. By the time Bernardo attended University of Toronto Scarborough, he had developed dark sexual fantasies, enjoyed humiliating women in public and beating up the women he dated.
In October 1987, he met Karla Homolka. They became sexually interested in each other almost immediately. Unlike the other girls he knew, she encouraged his sadistic sexual behaviour, also encouraging his acts as the "Scarborough Rapist."
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