FEAR OF CHILDREN

 


▪ CHAPTER TWELVE ▪
FEAR OF CHILDREN

“My father did not tell me how to live.
He lived, and let me watch him do it.”
Clarence Budinton Kelland

The staff at Saint Augustine Church was busy preparing for its biggest day of the year. Those who’d been around for a while correctly predicted a full chapel, but their prediction of a congregation gathered in happy anticipation of Christmas was very wrong. This year it would be more like a funeral, though different in one important respect: Mourners in a church are usually far from where their loved ones died, but those gathered at Saint Augustine’s that Christmas Eve would be just a few feet from where the bodies were found, one dead, one near dead.

Everyone at the mass knew about the grisly discovery, but not one person could claim to understand why two eighteen-year-old boys would stand in the shadow of their church and each shoot himself in the mouth with a sawed-off shotgun.

 

After every violent tragedy, loved ones are forced to take a hard look at everything in their lives. They begin an awful and usually unrewarding search for responsibility. Family members cluster at the two far ends of the spectrum: those who blame themselves and those who blame others. The kids their children spent time with, the other parent, the jilting girlfriend—someone will invariably be doused with the family’s shame and rage and guilt.

Often, a parent will blame the person who sold a child drugs, but James Vance’s mother went much further from home. She blamed a heavy-metal rock band named Judas Priest, and she blamed the mom-and-pop record store that sold their records. She insisted the proprietors should have predicted that the album Stained Class would compel her son to enter into a suicide pact with his friend Ray. She felt the store should have warned the boys about the lethality of that album.

 

When I was asked to testify in the case on behalf of the owners of the record store, I anticipated an interesting study into the media’s impact on violence. I did not expect it to be the only case of my career I would later wish I hadn’t taken. I had volunteered for many unpleasant explorations and performed with fairly unhesitating professionalism, but when the time came, I did not want to go into that churchyard, I did not want to feel the quiet depression and grief of Ray’s mother, nor challenge Mrs. Vance’s strong denial. I did not want to study the autopsy reports, nor see the photos, nor come to learn the details of this sad story.

But I did it all, and James Vance ended up as my unwitting and unlikely guide into the lives and experiences of many young Americans. From him, I learned how they feel about drugs, alcohol, television, ambition, intimacy, and crime. He would help me answer the question of so many parents: What are the warning signs that my child might be prone to violence? From the vantage point of that churchyard, I saw young people as I’d never seen them before. Much of what James taught me applies to gang violence, but it also helps explain the sometimes more frightening behavior of middle-class young men whose brutality takes everyone by surprise.

 

James Vance was obsessed with Judas Priest, attracted to the sinister and violent nature of their music and public persona. He liked the demonic themes of the artwork on their album covers, the monsters and gore, so at the instant he saw Ray shoot himself in the head, the sheer gruesomeness of it did not impress him. Like too many other young Americans, he had been getting comfortable with graphic violence for a long while, and images of gory skulls were fairly mundane to him.

Standing in the churchyard, he looked at his friend’s body and for a moment considered breaking the suicide pact they’d made. But then he figured that if he didn’t shoot himself, he’d get blamed for Ray’s death anyway, so he reached down into the blood, picked up the shotgun, put it in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. But he did not die.

 

In his less than enthusiastic positioning of that shotgun in his mouth, he failed to kill himself but succeeded at creating an unsettling irony: He became as frightening to behold as anything that ever appeared on the cover of a Judas Priest album. In his hesitation to murder himself, James shot off the bottom of his face. His chin, jaw, tongue, and teeth, were all gone, blown around that churchyard. I cannot describe how he looked, and I also cannot forget it. I’ve seen my share of alarming autopsy photos, of people so injured that death was the only possible result, people so injured that death was probably a relief, but something about James Vance living in a body damaged more than enough to be dead was profoundly disturbing.

Even lawyers who thought they’d seen it all were shaken when he arrived at depositions, a towel wrapped around his neck to catch saliva that ran freely from where the bottom of his face had been. His appearance had become a metaphor for what had been going on inside him. He had wanted to be menacing and frightening. He had aspired to the specialness he thought violence could bring him, and he got there… completely.

 

Aided by his mother who helped interpret his unusual speech during the days he was questioned, James told lawyers about his case, and also about his time. I listened carefully. I learned that he and Ray had wanted to do something big and bad, though not necessarily commit suicide. It was the violence they wanted, not the end of life. They had considered going on a shooting spree at a nearby shopping center. Unlike thousands of teens who commit suicide, they were not despondent that night—they were wild. High on drugs and alcohol, their choice of music blaring, they destroyed everything in Ray’s room, then jumped out the window with the shotgun, and ran through the streets toward the church.

They were not unique among young people who commit terrible violences, and neither were their families. Mrs. Vance was not the only parent to bring a lawsuit against a rock band; in fact, such suits are becoming fairly frequent.

During the Vance case, there were plenty of other teenagers around the country who did horrible things. Three boys in a small Missouri town, one of them the student-body president, invited their friend Steven Newberry to go out in the woods with them to “kill something.” Steven wasn’t told that he was the something, though that became apparent when they began beating him with baseball bats. He asked them why, and they explained to the near-dead boy, “Because it’s fun, Steve.”

Within hours, they were caught and confessed matter-of-factly to murder. Like James Vance, they were fans of heavy-metal, but these teenagers did not blame a musical group. They jumped right over Judas Priest and went directly to blaming Satan. Just like Michael Pacewitz, who said the devil instructed him to stab a three-year-old to death. Just like Suzan and Michael Carson, who blamed Allah for telling them to kill people. But families can’t sue Satan or Allah, so record stores and musical groups are sometimes all they’ve got.

James Vance referred to the members of the band as “metal gods.” He said they were his bible and that he was “the defender of the Judas Priest faith.” Of his relationship with these people he’d never met, he said, “It was like a marriage—intimacy that developed over a period of time, and it was until death do us part.”

Can specific media products compel people to violence that they would otherwise not have committed? This is, perhaps, a reasonable question.

 

Could that record store have predicted that the Stained Class album was dangerous and would lead to the shootings? This is a less reasonable question, but great controversies are often tested at the outside edges of an issue.

When researchers in my office studied hazards that were supposedly associated with music albums, they found one man who had gotten sick after ingesting a vinyl record, another who had a heart attack while dancing to some jaunty polka music, another who made a weapon out of shards from a broken record. (The range of things people might do with any product makes it next to impossible to foresee all risks.) Researchers also found an article with a headline that at first seemed relevant: “MAN KILLED WHILE LISTENING TO HEAVY-METAL MUSIC.” The victim, it turned out, was walking along listening to an Ozzy Osbourne tape on headphones when he was struck by a train. On the news clipping, a dark-humored associate of mine had written the words “killed by heavy metal, literally.” The heavy metal in trains surely has resulted in many more deaths than the heavy metal in music, even so-called death metal music.

 

The group Judas Priest did not create James Vance, of course, but in a sense, he created them. When he was asked about a particular lyric, “They bathed him and clothed him and fed him by hand,” he recited it as “They bathed him and clothed him and fed him ahand.” So he had done more than just react to the songs; he had actually rewritten them, taken a lyric about someone being cared for and turned it into something about cannibalism. Even his admiration was expressed in violent terms. James said he was so enamored of the band that he would do anything for them, “kill many people or shoot the president through the head.” He told lawyers that if the band had said, “Let’s see who can kill the most people,” he would have gone out and done something terrible. In fact, the band said no such thing, and he did something terrible anyway.

As part of my work on the case, I studied fifty-six other cases involving young people who involved a music star in their violent acts, suicides, attempted suicides, or suicide threats. This sampling provides a window through which to view the topic:

  • A teenager asked a famous singer to send him a gun he could use to commit suicide.
  • A young man threatened to commit suicide unless a female recording artist visited him. He wrote to her, “I even tried to put myself into a coma in hopes that my mom would get ahold of you and you would come see me.”
  • A man took an overdose of pills in order to “travel through time” and reach a recording artist.
  • A man wrote to a female recording artist, “If you don’t marry me, I’ll take an overdose.” (In a turning of the legal liability tables, he sent along the lyrics to a song he had written for her entitled “Suicide Is on My Mind.”)
  • A young man who believed that a female recording artist was his wife and that she was hiding from him attempted suicide by cutting his wrists.
  • Another wrote to a media star in terms reminiscent of James Vance: “I smoke pot and listen to rock music; basically, my story is in the vinyl. Life as I live it really isn’t worth it. I’ll tell you this, when I attempt suicide it won’t be an attempt.”

Could the parents of all these people and the thousands like them reasonably blame some distant media star for the challenges their families faced, or would the answers be found closer to home?

To explore that, I started a hypothetical list of the hundred most significant influences, the PINs that might precede teen violence. An addiction to media products is somewhere on that list, but alcohol and drugs are closer to the top. They, unlike media products, are proven and intended to affect the perceptions and behavior of all people who ingest them. James Vance offered support for this position when he described an acquaintance who had attempted suicide a number of times. Asked if that individual had a drug problem, he replied, “Yes, that goes hand in hand.” He also stated, “An alcoholic is a very violent individual, and when you drink excessively, you become violent, and that has been my life experience.” (I wonder with whom he gained that experience.)

The list of PINs includes a fascination with violence and guns, which was a central part of James’s personality—to the point of his planning to become a gunsmith. Both he and Ray regularly went target shooting and played games involving guns. As part of what James called his “training to be a mercenary,” he often played “war,” pretending to be in gunfights. “There would be two cops and one criminal. The criminal would be behind you and would have to flush you out, you know, how cops check a house out. Ninety-nine percent of the time I always got both of the cops.” About his less violent friend Ray, he said: “I would usually get him because, you know, just watching TV, you learn. TV is a really good teacher.” James said he watched the news and saw “a lot of violence and killing and fighting go on.” He summarized all this succinctly: “Violence excited me.”

Finally, he unknowingly described one of the leading PINs for attention-getting violent acts: He said he felt “ignored for 20 years.” Explaining how Judas Priest motivated the shootings, he said that he perceived the song “Hero’s End” to be about how one has to die to be recognized.

When James was asked if anything other than the lyrics might have caused the shootings, he responded, “A bad relationship? The stars being right? The tide being out? No.” Though he was being sarcastic, any of these is probably as reasonable as blaming the lyrics on an album for what happened, for once he excluded family life and parenting from the inquiry, he might as well have cited anything. By pointing his trigger finger at a rock band, James washed away all of the scrutiny that might reasonably have been focused on himself, his family, or even his society.

After all, James was not the only young man who spent more time consuming media products than he spent on any other activity in his waking life. He was an avid patron of the violence division of the entertainment industry. In Selling Out America’s Children, author David Walsh likens it to “a guest in our families that advocates violence, but we don’t throw him out.” He notes that since children learn by modeling and imitation, the 200,000 acts of violence they will witness in the media by age 18 pose a serious problem. Dr. Park Dietz has said that “the symbolic violence in an hour-long episode of a violent television show does more harm, when summed up over the millions of participants, than a single murder of the usual variety.” Finally, writer (and mother) Carrie Fisher says that “television exposes children to behavior that man spent centuries protecting them from.”

The content of media products matters, but the amount may matter more, whether it is watching television too much, playing video games too much, listening to too much rock music, or for that matter listening to too much classical music. It isn’t only the behavior this consumption promotes that concerns me. It’s the behavior it prevents, most notably human interaction. I would admittedly be happier if my children chose Tina Turner or Elton John or k.d. lang over Judas Priest, but the bigger issue arises when media consumption replaces the rest of life.

No matter what their choice of music, in the lives of too many teenagers, recognition is more meaningful than accomplishment, and, as it was for James, recognition is available through violence. With the pull of a trigger, a young person whose upbringing has not invested him with self-worth can become significant and “un-ignorable.”

If you took away James’s obsession with Judas Priest, you would have just another young man with goals and ambitions that changed day to day, with unrealistic expectations of the world, and without the perseverance or self-discipline to succeed at any endeavor. At various times, James planned to write a book, be a gunsmith, be a member of a band, even be a postal worker, but in the end he will be most remembered for just a few seconds in his life—a few seconds of barbarism in a churchyard.

 

The court eventually decided that the proprietors of the record store could not have predicted the shootings, but James Vance did not get to finish his search for someone to blame. He died, finally, from that single shotgun blast to the head, though the complications took a long time to kill him, longer than anyone could have expected. I never got to ask James about his early years and never learned about the childhood which the lawsuit so effectively eclipsed.

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Some parents are unable to blame anyone for the violence their children commit because they are themselves the victims. Children kill their parents far less frequently than parents kill their children, but the cases so fascinate the public that it might seem they happen frequently. In fact, any kind of murder by a young person is relatively rare. Though Americans under eighteen make up almost 25 percent of the population, they commit less than 10 percent of the murders. Even so, people are afraid of teenagers, and at times with good reason.

 

So you’ll know which times those are, I want to inform your intuition accurately: Most people killed by teenagers are known to them, but about one in five is a stranger killed during a robbery, either because the teenager panicked or because of peer pressure. Murder is most likely to occur when two or more juveniles jointly commit a crime, so fear in that context is appropriate. A recent study shows that an astonishing 75 percent of homicides by young people occur when they are high or drunk, so encountering criminal teenagers under the influence is most dangerous.

Though teenagers are generally not as dangerous to you as adults are, some juvenile offenders, like Willie Bosket, acquire remarkable criminal credentials early in life. By the time he was fifteen, he had stabbed twenty-five people and been in and out of detention facilities for an estimated 2000 other crimes. When authorities finally released him, a jailer made the prediction that “One day, Willie Bosket is going to kill somebody.” That prediction was doubly accurate: Willie killed two people, saying he did it “for the experience.” (Being a minor, he was incarcerated for only five years, but is now back in prison for other crimes. Even there, his violence continues: he has reportedly set fire to his cell seven times and attacked guards nine times. “I’m a monster the system created,” he says. The statute that allows the state of New York to try juveniles as adults is now called the Willie Bosket law.)

Steven Pfiel is another young person who was relentless in his efforts to hurt others. At age eight, he dropped bricks onto traffic from a freeway overpass. At nine, he assaulted another boy with an ax. School officials designated a separate bus stop for him because he regularly threatened to kill other children. By fourteen, he was abusing drugs and reportedly drank entire bottles of hard liquor in single sittings. At seventeen, he committed his first known murder, that of a young girl. (A court ruled that his parents could be sued for negligence because even knowing about his past behavior, they gave him the knife he used to kill the girl.) While awaiting trial, he killed his older brother.

In the brilliant book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes seven key abilities most beneficial for human beings: the ability to motivate ourselves, to persist against frustration, to delay gratification, to regulate moods, to hope, to empathize, and to control impulse. Many of those who commit violence never learned these skills. If you know a young person who lacks them all, that’s an important pre-incident indicator, and he needs help. Another predictor of violence is chronic anger in childhood. If you know a child who is frequently or extremely angry, he too needs help.

 

There are usually plenty of warning signs for teen violence, as with eighteen-year-old Jason Massey, who killed a fourteen year-old boy and his thirteen-year-old step-sister. He was missing all the abilities Goleman cites, but it was the lack of an ability to control impulses that probably explains the gruesome things Massey did, like cutting off the girl’s hands and head. The warning signs were obvious: He idolized serial killers Ted Bundy and Henry Lee Lucas, studied everything he could find on Charles Manson, and avidly followed his favorite music group, Slayer. In the years before he killed people, Massey slaughtered cows, cats, and dogs. He kept the skulls. He often spoke of wanting to kill girls. He robbed a fast-food restaurant. He stalked and terrorized a teenage girl for five years, sending her letters about slitting her throat and drinking her blood. People knew all these details, and yet denial prevailed.

Unlike James Vance, Massey was forthcoming about his goals: “All I want is the murdering of countless young women. I wish to reap sorrow for the families.” This kind of anger at family does not come out of nowhere.

Many young murderers kill within the family, often shooting abusive fathers or stepfathers, which is no surprise. You will, however, be surprised at how young they can be. A boy I’ll call Robbie shot and killed his father after watching his mother being beaten. The drunk father had left a gun on the table and though Robbie confessed to the killing, few people initially believed that he could have done it. That’s because he was only three years old. After gunpowder tests confirmed him as the killer, he explained to authorities: “I killed him. Now he’s dead. If he would have hit my mother again, I would have shot him again.”

In his compelling and disturbing book When a Child Kills, lawyer Paul Mones unflinchingly explores parricide. He observes that unlike with most murders, events which occur twelve years before a parricide are as important as those which occur twelve hours before it. The single most reliable pre-incident indicator of parricide is child abuse. It is recognized that most runaway children in America leave their families to escape abuse or to call attention to it, but some of those who stay at home, Mones explains, “lay family secrets bare with the report of a gun.”

Children who kill their parents are usually found to have been beaten, degraded, sodomized, tied up, or tortured in other ways. Mones tells of one sixteen-year-old, Mike, whom prosecutors described as “just one of those violent, rebellious, degenerate teenagers who are cold hearted killers.” But there was much more to the story than that.

Mike had been beaten by his father from kindergarten on. Though he was an athletic and coordinated boy, he had constant injuries from “falling off his bike,” “tripping,” or “cutting himself.” During the trial, he was asked to strip to a bathing suit so the jury could see the scars his father had given him over the years.

 

The abuse ended abruptly one night. Mike had returned home late and his father was waiting for him with a pistol. “You got two choices,” he explained to the boy. “You kill me or I kill you.” The ultimatum had been offered before, but this time Mike’s father actually held the gun out to him, and this time Mike took it and shot his father in the head.

Another young boy who killed a parent told Mones that living in prison is better than living with the abuse at home. He describes himself as “locked up but free.”

Some people believe that children who kill shouldn’t have been so docile during their abuse; they should have at least reported the abuse long before it reached the point that murder seemed their only way out. Proponents of these ideas may have forgotten that adult victims of rape or hijacking are often just as docile as children, and we don’t later blame them for failing to do something.

The warning signs of parricide and other awful violence are shown to parents, teachers, policemen, neighbors and relatives. It is they (often we), not children, who must report these cases.

 

Of all the violence discussed in this book, being killed by one’s own daughter or son is the easiest to avoid. A precaution that is virtually guaranteed starts years before the child is big enough to hurt anyone: Be a loving parent.

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Unlike teens, pre-teens who kill within the family are more likely to kill a sibling than a parent. As with other violence, it doesn’t happen without warning. Most of these cases have involved an abused or severely disturbed child whose prior attempts to kill a sibling were not taken seriously. That’s because many people believe that violence by children against children is a natural part of growing up. It may be, but when a child does something that places another child in serious hazard, it should not be ignored. I recently testified in a case where it was, and after reading what follows, few parents should ever feel blind confidence when sending their children off to school.

 

The offender was a grammar school student I’ll call Joey. He sodomized a seven-year-old boy in the school bathroom. Though he acted alone, he was aided by some astonishing negligence on the part of the school system, and the principal in particular. The school district claimed Joey’s rape couldn’t have been predicted, but there had been a striking pre-incident indicator a month earlier: Joey had actually been arrested for victimizing another boy the same way in the same bathroom!

Because this was not my only case involving disturbing negligence by schools, and because school policies and personnel are not what you think they are, I want to take a moment and give some background.

 

First of all, though they claim otherwise, schools are in the business of high-stakes predictions. School teachers and administrators regularly face these predictive questions:

Will this visitor seek to kidnap a child?

Will this teacher molest a child?

Is this child being abused at home?

Will this child bring a lethal weapon to school?

Though most people cannot imagine that young boys can rape anyone, the school district in Joey’s case knew better. For years they’d had a specific written policy entitled “Child-On-Child Sexual Abuse.” Since the existence of that policy makes clear that such things happen, it in effect raises a predictive question for every principal.

 

Imagine that all the students are gathered in the auditorium and the principal surveys the group with this question in mind: Who among these students might sexually abuse another child? Through his behavior, Joey stands up in this imaginary assembly and calls out, “It might be me,” but the principal chooses to ignore the boy.

The administrators at Joey’s previous school had made the whole matter simpler for the principal: they actually predicted—in writing—that Joey would act out in sexually inappropriate ways, and they sent his records to the school where the rapes ultimately occurred. It is hard to imagine that anyone could have ignored the warning signs he wore like a banner: carrying a knife, threatening homicide, threatening and attempting suicide, lighting a building on fire, pouring gasoline on his mother and trying to light a match, displaying fascination with sex and sexual organs, inappropriate sexual conduct toward other children, exposing himself, aggression, violence. As if all these warning signs were not enough, the principal took no effective action when he learned of Joey’s sexual assault of another student. Is this kind of negligence really possible? This and more.

 

After the first rape accusation, the principal chose not to take the obvious step that might have increased supervision of Joey at the school: He did not tell the boy’s teachers anything about what had happened. It gets worse. When one teacher found Joey to be unmanageable, he was sent to another class of younger, smaller boys! By this action, the school provided him a virtual “beauty contest” of victims, and he chose one.

The presence of security guards at a school may add comfort for some parents, but understand that at this school, part of one of the nation’s largest school districts, security guards received absolutely no training on any aspect of student safety. They received no written guidelines, no post instructions, no policies on the topic whatsoever. Even if they’d known what their jobs were supposed to be, they weren’t informed about the rape accusation, not even told anything as simple and easy as “Be extra alert,” or “Keep an eye out.” When organizations of any kind are pressured to improve security, a typical response is to hire guards. Everyone sighs and feels the matter has been addressed, but if guards are not trained or supervised or properly equipped, if there is no intelligent plan for them to follow, their presence can hurt more than help. That’s because, having taken this expensive step, everyone stops looking at safety and security.

 

I’ve noted the precautions the principal failed to take, but there is one precaution he did take. After the first rape accusation, he arranged to have the dangerous boy escorted whenever he went to that bathroom. This may sound like a reasonable precaution until I tell you that the principal had Joey escorted not by a teacher or security guard, but by another student! I do not imagine that any parent would have volunteered his or her son for the job of escorting a violent criminal, particularly one that even experienced teachers could not handle.

If an adult employee at the school, say the janitor for example, had Joey’s background and was arrested for raping a student, would the principal have let him come back to work? I can’t answer even this obvious question with any certainty. I know only that Joey leaped on the stage of that imaginary assembly and yelled, “It is me, I am the child-on-child sexual offender,” and the principal turned away.

 

Joey was finally taken out of school and placed in a treatment facility (where he sexually attacked two people in one day). The investment of abuse and neglect in Joey’s own childhood will continue to pay dividends of pain and violence for others, including those he will likely kill one day. As I write this sad but accurate prediction, Joey is only nine years old.

As I did after describing other cases in which blindingly obvious warning signs went unheeded, I want to acknowledge that the principal at Joey’s school was probably doing the best he could with the skills and knowledge he had at the time. This is not some legal disclaimer—it is what I believe, but I also believe that cases like these involve organizational and individual laziness, as well as the hope that something will just “go away” if it is ignored.

 

Advising on another case in which a young child was sexually assaulted at school (this time by a non-student), I reviewed the school district’s entire policy book. It will not be reassuring to parents to learn that the topic of safety wasn’t even raised until page 10, and that reference was about faculty safety when breaking up fights. The policy contained three full pages and twenty-one separate items about the protection of keys, but didn’t even mention the topic of danger to students until page 91.

Children require the protection of adults, usually from adults. Their fear of people is not yet developed, their intuition not yet loaded with enough information and experience to keep them from harm. The lesson for parents in the cases I’ve cited is to take nothing for granted when it comes to the safety of your children. I suggest that you request a copy of the school’s safety policies and then settle in for a very discouraging read. Go to the school and ask them every obvious question you can think of and see if the answers make you feel better or worse. Just the fact that you ask puts safety on the agenda and forces the school to focus on it. Ask about the school’s background screening process for employees. If they have security personnel, ask to meet them and see how they respond to probing questions. Ask about previous crimes at the school. This last question is particularly important. Federal law requires that colleges maintain campus crime statistics and make them available upon request. This is so college students and their parents selecting a school can evaluate security and safety. There is no law requiring grammar schools or high schools to keep such statistics, but I wish there were.

Rather than relying on government, you can make at least as vigorous an inquiry of your child’s school as you should of your child’s baby-sitter, because if you assume that the school is addressing the matter of your child’s safety as seriously as you would, you may be very disappointed. (See appendix 7 for a list of suggested questions.)

Though Joey was only nine, he already had the widely established risk factors for future criminality. They are: poverty, child abuse (in the form of violence, witnessing violence, humiliation, or neglect), drug addiction in a parent, drug or alcohol abuse by the child, and a single-parent childhood. Joey had another hugely significant risk factor, one that is often overlooked: the absence of a father in his life. David Blankenhorn, author of Fatherless Americanotes that 80 percent of the young men in juvenile detention facilities were raised without fully participating fathers. Fathers are so important because they teach boys various ways to be men. Sadly, too many boys learn from the media or from each other what scholars call “protest masculinity,” characterized by toughness and the use of force. That is not the only way to be a man, of course, but it’s the only way they know.

 

Some people seriously ponder the question of whether males are even necessary for raising children, and we do little to encourage the role of fathers. In fact, as Blankenhorn points out, building prisons is our number one social program for young men.

Recently, I met with a group of men graduating from that social program. As a court-ordered part of their recovery from heroin addiction, I was asked to discuss with them the experience of growing up with violence and drugs.

 

Joined by some graduates of a women’s prison, we sat in what looked like a schoolroom. In a sense it was, for here each person learned the benefits and blessings of 12-step programs (the founding of which Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, calls “the greatest positive event of the twentieth century”). Ideally, such programs would teach these prisoners to accept their pasts, for only then could they learn responsibility for their present.

One after another, they gave their three-minute life stories. Each told of violence, fear, abandonment, and neglect. All of the men had been physically abused as children, and all but one of the ten women had been sexually abused by family members. A few told of the regret and horror they felt at having grown up to be violent to their own children.

 

I wept as I heard about the progress they had made, for though this locked halfway house was a long way from the mainstream of our society, it was also a long way from the hell these people had all occupied, and caused others to occupy. I wept because the stories were moving, they were personal, they were mine, and also because my mother had not found the routes out of addiction that these people were finding.

When it was time for me to give a forty-five-minute talk, I related some of my experiences as a child and a teenager. The similarity of our stories was immediately apparent to everyone there.

 

When I finished, several people had questions. The first hand to go up was that of a man about my age, but I’d have thought we had little else in common. He was tattooed, scarred, overly muscular, and weathered. He was the kind of man most people would fear on a dark street, and during much of his life they’d have been right to fear him. His most recent long stay in prison had been for arson. He’d broken into an apartment to steal anything he could sell. (“I didn’t need money just for drugs. I also had to pay my lawyer because I had a court appearance coming up on another burglary charge.”) To cover up any evidence of the burglary, he had set a fire that destroyed several apartments and sent one person to the hospital badly burned.

He looked me up and down and asked, “Why are you sitting over there and I’m over here?” I didn’t understand the question, and he explained, “You and me had the same childhood, but you’re in that nice suit and probably drive a nice car. You get to leave today. You’re sitting over there—how’d that happen?”

This question had often presented itself in my work and my life, first as a curiosity, later as more than that. I could have been a likely and welcome resident of the world of violence (as opposed to the tourist I became), but somehow I followed a different route. Some people come through awful childhoods and become productive, contributing adults, while others become people who do anti-social or even monstrous things. Why?

It is similar to one brother asking another, “Why did you grow up to be a drunk?” The answer is “Because Dad was a drunk.” The second brother then asks, “Why didn’t you grow up to be a drunk?” The answer is “Because Dad was a drunk.”

Some more complete answers are found in Robert Ressler’s classic book Whoever Fights Monsters. He speaks of the tremendous importance of the early puberty period for boys. Before then, the anger of these boys might have been submerged and without focus, perhaps turned inward in the form of depression, perhaps (as in most cases) just denied, to emerge later. But during puberty, this anger collides with another powerful force, one of the most powerful in nature: sexuality. Even at this point, say Ressler and others, these potential hosts of monsters can be turned around through the (often unintentional) intervention of people who show kindness, support, or even just interest.

I can say from experience that it doesn’t take much.

 

Ressler’s theories on the childhoods of the worst killers in America have an unlikely ideological supporter, psychiatrist and child-advocate Alice Miller. Her emotionally evocative books (including The Drama Of The Gifted Child and The Untouched Key) make clear that if a child has some effective human contact at particularly significant periods, some recognition of his worth and value, some “witness” to his experience, this can make an extraordinary difference.

I have learned that the kindness of a teacher, a coach, a policeman, a neighbor, the parent of a friend, is never wasted. These moments are likely to pass with neither the child nor the adult fully knowing the significance of the contribution. No ceremony attaches to the moment that a child sees his own worth reflected in the eyes of an encouraging adult. Though nothing apparent marks the occasion, inside that child a new view of self might take hold. He is not just a person deserving of neglect or violence, not just a person who is a burden to the sad adults in his life, not just a child who fails to solve his family’s problems, who fails to rescue them from pain or madness or addiction or poverty or unhappiness. No, this child might be someone else, someone whose appearance before this one adult revealed specialness or lovability, or value.

 

This value might be revealed through appreciation of a child’s artistic talent, physical ability, humor, courage, patience, curiosity, scholarly skills, creativity, resourcefulness, responsibility, energy, or any of the many attributes that children bring us in such abundance.

I had a fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Conway, who fought monsters in me. He showed kindness and recognized some talent in me at just the period when violence was consuming my family. He gave me some alternative designs for self-image, not just the one children logically deduce from mistreatment (“If this is how I am treated, then this is the treatment I am worthy of”).

 

It might literally be a matter of a few hours with a person whose kindness reconnects the child to an earlier experience of self, a self that was loved and valued and encouraged. Sadly, for children who didn’t have nurturing even in infancy, there isn’t any frame of reference, no file in the mind in which to place kindness and recognition so that they might be seen as part of life. (All of this shows the great value of mentoring and of programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters. See appendix 2).

When a child’s primary caregiver delivers both praise and brutality, it is a virtual coin toss as to which will attach itself to the child’s identity. Terribly unhealthy families damage children in many ways, but one of the saddest is the destruction of the child’s belief that he has purpose and value. Without that belief, it is difficult to succeed, difficult to take risks. Perhaps more to the point, it may seem foolish to take risks, “knowing,” as such people do, that they are not up to the task.

 

The way circus elephants are trained demonstrates this dynamic well: When young, they are attached by heavy chains to large stakes driven deep into the ground. They pull and yank and strain and struggle, but the chain is too strong, the stake too rooted. One day they give up, having learned that they cannot pull free, and from that day forward they can be “chained” with a slender rope. When this enormous animal feels any resistance, though it has the strength to pull the whole circus tent over, it stops trying. Because it believes it cannot, it cannot.

“You’ll never amount to anything;” “You can’t sing;” “You’re not smart enough;” “Without money, you’re nothing;” “Who’d want you?;” “You’re just a loser;” “You should have more realistic goals;” “You’re the reason our marriage broke up;” “Without you kids I’d have had a chance;” “You’re worthless”—this opera is being sung in homes all over America right now, the stakes driven into the ground, the heavy chains attached, the children reaching the point they believe they cannot pull free. And at that point, they cannot.

 

Unless and until something changes their view, unless they grasp the striking fact that they are tied with a thread, that the chain is an illusion, that they were fooled, and ultimately, that whoever so fooled them was wrong about them and that they were wrong about themselves—unless all this happens, these children are not likely to show society their positive attributes as adults.

There’s more involved, of course, than just parenting. Some of the factors are so small they cannot be seen and yet so important they cannot be ignored: They are human genes. The one known as D4DR may influence the thrill-seeking behavior displayed by many violent criminals. Along with the influences of environment and upbringing, an elongated D4DR gene will likely be present in someone who grows up to be an assassin or a bank robber (or a daredevil). Behavioral geneticist Irving Gottesman: “Under a different scenario and in a different environment, that same person could become a hero in Bosnia.”

In the future, genetics will play a much greater role in behavioral predictions. We’ll probably be able to genetically map personality traits as precisely as physical characteristics like height and weight. Though it will generate much controversy, parents may someday be able to use prenatal testing to identify children with unwanted personality genes, including those that make violence more likely. Until then, however, we’ll have to settle for a simpler, low-tech strategy for reducing violence: treating children lovingly and humanely.

▪ ▪ ▪

Frank Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel, says that “Life’s miseries fall disproportionately on children,” and this is certainly true. Throughout history, half of all children have failed to reach adulthood. Considering this and all that we know about violence against children, they have much more reason to be afraid of us than we have to be afraid of them. Even so, the mistreatment we invest in children does come back to us, and is already costing us our safety and our peace.

 

A Federal research project selected 1,600 children who had been abused or neglected and followed them for nearly twenty years. As of last year, fully half of them had been arrested for some crime. Still, even though it is so expensive for us, mistreatment will probably continue until we take an entirely different view of children, not as temporary visitors who will someday grow into citizens, but as full-fledged, fully contributing, fully entitled members of our society, just as they are right now. Children are often seen as burdens to society, no more than hapless victims of their circumstance, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Recognize that children are the primary child-care providers in America. Siblings caring for siblings and children caring for themselves represent an important part of our economy. They also care for the elderly, cook meals, take cigarettes out of the hands of sleeping parents, and contribute in countless other ways.

If only more abused children could know that they are the residents of their homes, not the architects, then they might believe that where they are will not limit where they might go. Until America focuses shame on perpetrators instead of victims, these children will have children, and the war they thought was over won’t be over, for them or for us.

 

We can, of course, continue ignoring these children, but a few of them will grow up and commit the one crime which is impossible to ignore: assassination. While that may feel distant from your life, I raise the topic here for a very practical reason. Just as the members of a troubled family are forced to look inward when their teenage son gets into serious trouble—after years of signaling that he would—the assassin makes us look at ourselves as a nation. The assassin makes us look at the media, at attention-seeking crimes, at our huge harvest of handguns, at violence, and at child rearing. Understanding the assassin, who may seem the most remote of criminals, can help you understand and be safer from the least remote of criminals.






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