From the sixth chapter of Lloyd deMause’s The Emotional Life Of Nations:
THE CLINICAL STUDY OF HUMAN VIOLENCE
Because those societies which have the harshest child-rearing practices have been shown to produce low-esteem adults who have the highest incidence of murder, suicide and war, the study of human violence can most fruitfully begin with examining the findings of clinicians who have closely interviewed murderers and determined their motives.
Most of what we usually believe about interpersonal violence is unconfirmed by statistics. Homicide is not regularly higher in big cities; cross-cultural studies find there is “no significant associations between community size and homicide or assault.” Nor do men assault their spouses more often than women do; studies in various countries show “wives hit their husbands at least as often as husbands hit their wives,” although men do more damage with their assaults. When war is counted as violence, men constitute at least 75 percent of the victims of lethal physical violence in the United States, and die from two to five times as often from personal violence as women do world-wide. Mothers are not more often gentle while fathers mainly do the hitting of children; in fact, American mothers today abuse their children nearly twice as much as fathers.
Both statistically and clinically, researchers have found violent adults have only one thing in common: poor childrearing. Studies of homicidal youths, for instance, found 90 percent could be documented as coming from severely emotional, physical or sexually abusive families. James Gilligan summarizes his decades of interviewing murderers:
In the course of my work with the most violent men in maximum-security settings, not a day goes by that I do not hear reports–often confirmed by independent sources–of how these men were victimized during childhood. Physical violence, neglect, abandonment, rejection, sexual exploitation and violation occurred on a scale so extreme, so bizarre, and so frequent that one cannot fail to see that the men who occupy the extreme end of the continuum of violent behavior in adulthood occupied an extreme end of the continuum of violent child abuse earlier in life … As children, these men were shot, axed, scalded, beaten, strangled, tortured, drugged, starved, suffocated, set on fire, thrown out of windows, raped, or prostituted by mothers who were their “pimps”…
The cause of adult violence, says Gilligan, is a “collapse of self-esteem” triggered by an incident in which the murderer imagines himself or herself to be humiliated and shamed, resorting in what he calls a “logic of shame, a form of magical thinking that says, ‘If I kill this person in this way, I will kill shame–I will be able to protect myself from being exposed and vulnerable to and potentially overwhelmed by the feeling of shame.'” Gilligan points out that shame is at the root of mass violence too, pointing out that “Hitler came to power on the campaign promise to undo ‘the shame of Versailles’–and clearly that promise, and the sensitivity to shame from which it derived its power, struck a responsive chord in the German people as a whole.” Though criminologists report that in homicides “the most common altercation was of relatively trivial origin: insult, curse, jostling, etc.,” these shaming events turn childhood traumas into current rage, what Katz terms “righteously enraged slaughter,” producing a “tremendous rush [that is] almost orgasmic” for the murderer as they avenge all their past hurts and humiliations. “All violence,” says Gilligan, “is an attempt to achieve justice.” As we shall shortly see, this includes mass violence as well, which also involves imagining one achieves justice through violent, righteous vengeance for earlier wrongs.
THE NEUROBIOLOGY OF VIOLENCE
People start wars when something changes in their brains, neurotransmitters, hormones and cellular neuropeptide systems. This “something” is the result of a developmental process that begins before birth and is turned into a capacity for violence during childhood. Contrary to the views of Freud and Piaget, children are actually quite empathic toward others from birth if treated well. Neonates cry in response to the crying of another baby; “even 6-month-olds … responded to distressed peers with actions such as leaning toward, gesturing toward, touching or otherwise contacting the peer.” Babies who are treated well can be quite generous with their love, gently touching and patting other babies and even their mothers when they notice they look sad.
But the majority of children throughout history–particularly boys, who are physically and emotionally abused more than girls–feel so helpless and afraid that they grow up in what has been called a “culture of cruelty,” where they graduated from violent families to form gangs and try to dominate and hurt each other in order to be perpetrators rather than victims, thereby preparing themselves for cooperating in the violence of war. In one study, for instance, Lewis and Pincus report “a significantly greater proportion of very violent children demonstrated … paranoid symptomology [and] believed that someone was going to hurt them … constantly feeling the need to carry weapons such as guns and metal pipes for their own protection…” The more violent children, Lewis reports, “had been physically abused by mothers, fathers, stepparents, other relatives and ‘friends’ of the family. The degree of abuse to which they were subjected was often extraordinary. One parent broke her son’s legs with a broom; another broke his fingers and his sister’s arm; another chained and burned his son; and yet another threw his son downstairs … Several children witnessed their fathers, stepfathers, or mothers’ boyfriends slash their mothers with knives. They saw their siblings tortured with cigarette butts, chained to beds, and thrown into walls.” Severe neglect and emotional abuse have been shown to be equivalent to and often worse than physical abuse in producing lasting traumatic effects upon children.
The neurobiological affects of trauma upon children have been extensively studied. As we have discussed earlier, serotonin levels are reduced by trauma, and are found in reduced levels in adult antisocial personalities, because the lower level of their inhibiting ability allows less control over impulsivity and therefore higher rates of violence. External stress also increases corticosterone production, decreasing the effectiveness of the hippocampal system which evaluates the emotional meaning of incoming stimuli. Psychopathic personalities have been found to be “actually slower to respond emotionally than the rest of us … Even when they’re just sitting around, antisocial individuals are more low-key than the average person” because their noradrenergic behavioral inhibition systems were crippled due to excessive early neglect, traumas and over control by caretakers. Very early maternal neglect in particular produces an undersized orbitofrontal cortex–the brain region behind the eyes that allows one to reflect on one’s emotions and to empathize with the feelings of others–resulting in such a diminished self and such a low capacity for empathy that the baby grows up literally unable to feel guilt about hurting others. Thus swaddled babies abandoned to cribs in dark rooms–as most children were in history–who totally miss the mother’s gaze and loving interaction in their early years are programmed for later impulse disorders, psychopathic personalities and the need for killing in war, simply because they never have developed what today we consider “normal-sized” orbitofrontal cortexes through sustained eye contact and mutual play with the mother.
Read the entire chapter here.