The subjects of Boston University sociologist Cottle's narratives don't have familiar names, but many readers will relate to their experiences. Cottle uses the "life study" or "story sociology" technique that he has developed over the decades to examine individuals' experience of being "at risk"--of health problems, within the family, in school, and in a society at large. Children and senior citizens, those who need help and those who provide it, offer their stories. In his introduction and afterword, Cottle explores the links between peril and injustice, and discusses the methodological issues raised by his approach.
At Peril: Stories of Injusticeby Thomas J. Cottle
At its heart, this book is a collection of personal accounts that speak to a variety of social concerns, from youth crime and domestic violence to public education and health care. Told by children as well as adults, these stories offer illuminating if sometimes disturbing testimony about the circumstances of life in the contemporary United States. One story, for
At its heart, this book is a collection of personal accounts that speak to a variety of social concerns, from youth crime and domestic violence to public education and health care. Told by children as well as adults, these stories offer illuminating if sometimes disturbing testimony about the circumstances of life in the contemporary United States. One story, for example, depicts the precarious world of a thirteen-year-old drug dealer. Another presents the searing narrative of a woman convicted of killing her abusive husband. Still another tells the painful saga of an "atomic" war veteran fighting the ravages of a disease induced and then denied by his own government.
If the stories gathered by Thomas J. Cottle seem removed from the experience of some Americans, his telling of them often blurs the line between the extraordinary and the ordinary. As he explains in his introduction, the rules and rituals, institutions and conventions that define our social life link us in a fragile web of interdependence, what Cottle calls "the ecology of peril." Viewed in this light, the lives we lead are all in some sense "at risk," ever vulnerable to the harsh vicissitudes of inequity and injustice.
Cottle organizes his narratives into four sections -- on the perils of health, family, school, and society at large. He concludes with an afterword that addresses some of the methodological issues raised by his approach. A blend of subjective insight and objective assessment, art and science, this book represents a vision of sociology as Cottle has practiced and refined it for more than thirty years. Alternately described as "story sociology" or "life study research," its aim is to recover the personal, human dimension so often overlooked in the scientific study of society.
University of Massachusetts Press
At Peril touches the soul -- and will inspire many readers to become involved in their communities.
...compelling reading, leaving us with a powerful vision of the underbelly of America.
Once again Cottle has used his lively style to remind us of the full depth of the human experience...
- University of Massachusetts Press
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- 6.28(w) x 9.38(h) x 1.00(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
CHILDREN AT RISK
The Case for Youthful Offenders
Several years ago in speaking with young people in jail, a boy of seventeen recounted a chilling tale of murder. Late on a hot, still Friday afternoon in the middle of summer, he told his listeners, a large group of kids gathered at a basketball court not far from the local middle school. Most of the youths knew one another, but some there were not part of the crowd. Suddenly this seventeen-year-old boy pulled a gun and fired two bullets into the head of a twelve-year-old whose name he did not know.
"I was just standing there, talking to my friends, figuring out what we were going do that night, right, when I see this kid, kind of over my shoulder, you know, and I notice he's standing on my shadow. There's this long black shadow, you know, you couldn't miss it, everybody could see it, and he's standing on it. So I tell him, `Would you mind getting off my shadow.' The kid doesn't move. I don't know if he doesn't hear or he hears me and he doesn't care. So I tell him again, loud, `Would you get off my shadow.' This time he's just looking at me, but he still doesn't move. Third time. `Hey, man, would you get the fuck off my shadow.' The kid just looks at me. So, I did it. I warned him three times, right, and I shot him."
In America we are once again in one of those periods when our outrage toward youthful offenders causes us to rethink the juvenile justice system, the methods of adjudication, and the punishments that ought to be meted out in cases of serious juvenile crime. Thisdebate has been reopened by the grizzly murders of children by children that we have witnessed recently in Colorado, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania, not to mention the false accusation of murder of two boys in Chicago, both younger than twelve.
The debate typically pits those who say, "If you do the crime, you do the time" arguing that crime is crime, be it committed by a thirteen-year-old or by a forty-year-old, against those who claim that something horrendous must have gone wrong for a child of eleven or thirteen to commit a murder or rape. This child may be immature, abused, or neglected, they say, but he is not evil and, quite possibly, because of his youth, he can be rehabilitated. Besides, the critics ask rhetorically, what could prison possibly do for the child other than permanently galvanize his furious impulses and turn the still malleable youngster into a hardened lifelong criminal? Then there is the matter of placing children in jail with adults, an act that many believe will eventually bring great harm to these children.
It is sobering indeed to learn that possibly the most dangerous person in America is the sixteen-year-old boy drifting about after school with no place to go and having access to a gun. "Juvenile crime triples starting at four P.M.," Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek. Not yet old enough to drink (legally, that is) or join the army, he is, however, old enough to drive; in some states drop out of school; and most definitely kill if he has the opportunity, the inclination, the desire, or just a momentary urge that quite often even he can't explain?
What our society elects to do with a young offender depends on how we choose to perceive him, which means the decision has something to do with how we conceive of the child or what we believe him to be, although we would normally say "know him to be" More generally, the decision has something to do with how we define and view the child at risk. For in looking at children's risky behavior, we in fact are examining children at risk, children who for various reasons, social and personal alike, are unable to make it safely through to adulthood in a manner that society judges proper, mature, healthy, and moral. In this essay, I focus on the most extreme form of children at risk, those who find their way into crime and ultimately the juvenile court system, and discuss their expressed attitudes, and their explanations for their behavior as well as others' explanations for it.
It may help to begin with some facts on the general state of American children. According to government statistics, one in five children grow up in poverty, and one in four girls and one in seven boys report some form of abuse. A 1989 Fordham Institute index on children's social health, which comprised rates of infant mortality, child abuse, child poverty, teenage drug abuse, suicide, and high school dropouts, revealed that American children were faring far worse than they had in the seventies. Only teenage drug abuse has abated somewhat in the last few years, and this trend, too, may be in the process of reversing itself. As shocking as these findings seem, they pale next to the following data gathered by the Children's Defense Fund in 1990. Consider that in one day in America, 67 infants will perish before their first month of life; 2,800 teenagers will get pregnant; 135,000 youths will bring a gun to school; 30 youths will be wounded by and 10 will die from guns; 1,850 will be abused or neglected; 6 will commit suicide; and 3,300 will run away from home.
In the last half of the 1980s, juvenile arrests for murder doubled nationally from about one thousand to two thousand. Experts who predict a 7 percent increase in the juvenile population foresee that by the end of 2000 the number will have climbed to six thousand. Federal statistics also reveal that about 10 percent of all homicide arrests are youths younger than 18, more than 90 percent of whom are male. Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicate that juvenile arrests for weapons offenses have doubled in the 1990s, while aggravated assaults committed by teenagers have increased by 70 percent. The number of juveniles arrested for murder has increased by one-half. The only optimistic note in all of this is that murder continues to be a relatively small, although obviously unacceptable, percentage of youth crime.
Finally, more than a decade ago, it was demonstrated that cities contain communities notable for their high degree of poverty, where physical injury and death emerge in disproportionate frequency given the number of people living there. Not surprisingly, these areas, appropriately called "death zones" are found to be the very neighborhoods in which, over the years, most murdered children have been killed.
In attempting to discover who these child murderers are, social scientists invariably report similar sorts of findings. To begin, there is no question that certain juvenile murderers are conscienceless people, clear-cut psychopaths, who either were born this way, which I believe is doubtful, or somehow learned to separate a violent act from its consequences, something, quite frankly, America inadvertently teaches through the epistemological structure of its popular culture. Everyday, children receive all sorts of messages that seemingly have nothing to do with one another, which I think in effect teaches them not to hunt for cause-and-effect associations between and among stimuli and events. The result of this subliminal learning may be the inability to construct or perceive temporal and behavioral interconnections, which in turn may explain some of the alleged psychopathy.
More to the point, what psychologists continually find in their studies of juvenile murderers is the degree to which these children have experienced abuse of some sort. The data in this regard are overwhelming. Abusive parents and other child batterers as well as molesters leave their physical, cognitive, neurological, and psychological marks, and no one, especially not children, escapes unscarred. The association, moreover, between abuse and juvenile murder is strong. Some research, for example, suggests that early childhood abuse tends to increase the likelihood of a child's developing chronic aggressive behavior. In addition, researchers have observed in these children what they call "biased and deficient" patterns of dealing with people generally. Said simply, the abused child lives with anger all too close to the surface, and one false move, or perhaps merely a thirst for entertainment, will bring forth that anger, and then some.
Similarly discouraging are the results of a study of young men arrested in Michigan. According to this work, the majority of juvenile murder arrests were youths with divorced parentsand likely fathers who were absentwho either had been expelled from school or had dropped out. Most of the young men, furthermore, revealed histories of alcohol and drug abuse. These patterns, of course, are familiar to all of us. What we perhaps don't think about often enough is their link to more general patterns of poverty, a link that is painfully complex, but not so complex that we should avoid examining it.
A publication from the Children's Defense Fund (CDF) confirms this emerging picture. According to CDF, "a black baby born in Boston in 1988 had less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in Panama, North or South Korea, or Uruguay." In addition, American children in general rank fifteenth in childhood immunization against polio; America's black children age one year or younger rank forty-ninth. To the dismay of those valuing teacher-student closeness and the benefit of having teachers know their students and be able to watch out for possible trouble signs, America ranks nineteenth in teacher/student ratios, behind countries such as Libya, Lebanon, and Cuba.
Given these statistics, it's ironic that, according to the Nickelodeon/Yankelovich Youth Monitor, 61 percent of America's children believe their family is like most other families and want it to remain this way. (Not surprisingly, the percentage is lower for children of divorced parents.) Eighty percent of America's children think it is better to have a sibling than to be an only child, and 76 percent report that they wish they could spend more time with their parents.
If that's not sufficiently bittersweet, a study of middle and high school students published several years ago indicated that of all the concerns facing American children and adolescents, and with all the talk about jobs, money, music, sex, esteem, school, homework, sneakers, girls, boys, brothers and sisters, the matter most important to these young people was the physical well-being of their parents. For those who may be interested, the number one concern for children of the Soviet Union that same year was achieving world peace.
Having considered some of the more general statistics and findings, let's now look more closely at the profile of the typical boy, if there is such a person, brought to the attention of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services. From such an examination we learn these facts:
According to statistics compiled in 1995, the average young Massachusetts offender is a sixteen-year-old male with roughly a 50 percent chance of being white, 28 percent chance of being African American, and 24 percent chance of being Hispanic. There is a 50 percent chance that he is coming from a residential placement situation, which means that he has not been living with a parent or guardian. Importantly, he is a school dropout (44 percent of youthful offenders have left school by ninth grade), reads at only a fifth-grade level, and has a one in two chance of requiring special education attention.
In addition, there is an 86 percent chance that the boy uses alcohol (the average age at which American children generally begin to drink is eleven), a 75 percent chance that he smokes marijuana, and a 50 percent chance that he smokes it at least once a week. (The average age at which American children begin using hard drugs is twelve.) Finally, there is a better than 50 percent chance that he has been arrested for personal assault and battery. Needless to say, the crime that finally got him an assignment with the Department of Youth Service was by no means his first; most likely he is a repeat offender.
Equally interesting are the facts pertaining to his parents. On average, their annual income is roughly $11,000. There is only a one-in-seven chance that they are married to each other and a one-in-eight chance that both are the guardians of the young man. Half of the mothers and 60 percent of the fathers are unemployed, and fewer than half of the parents have completed high school. Obviously, none of these figures comes close to resembling the American average for adults.
There is something else in the profile, something that comes to us from personal accounts and interviews. The typical young offender is the product of abuse. He has been physically, sexually emotionally, verbally, or spiritually abused, or any combination of the above. Most likely, and this fact is often forgotten, he also has witnessed the abuse, if not actual deaths, of family members and friends. In fact, he probably has attended numerous funerals.
Indeed, attending the funerals of friends is for some young people at once an extraordinary and commonplace occurrence. In a study of one thousand middle and high school students in Chicago, 35 percent reported having witnessed a stabbing, 39 percent had witnessed a shooting, and 25 percent had witnessed an actual murder. Half of all of these victims were friends, family members, classmates, or neighbors.
In fact, the typical youthful offender, not to excuse his crime, reveals practically every symptom psychiatrists outline as constituting posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He reports heightened anxiety; intense distress and agitation; sleeplessness or night terrors; the experience of flashbacks; outbursts of rage stimulated, seemingly, by nothing at all; an inability to concentrate; intensive levels of masturbation; a characteristic hypervigilance, as if he were constantly on guard against some inevitable attack; recurrent and intrusive memories and thoughts; and, most characteristically, a feeling of detachment, isolation, and alienation. Needless to say, he is predisposed not to trust anyone, something that may change, though, if he becomes a member of a gang.
Interesting, too, are the studies involving schoolwork and the lack of academic advancement. A 1990 study indicated, for example, that not only were children who had experienced abuse found in disproportionate numbers in special education classes, but they were far more likely than their nonabused peers to be forced to repeat a grade or grades in school. Not surprisingly, the national test scores of abused children were significantly lower than those of their nonabused classmates.
Finally, in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, we read, "the worse or more enduring the trauma, the greater the likelihood of developing PTSD ... About half the patients recover within a few months; others can experience years of incapacity." While this may be true, child psychiatrists suggest that PTSD in children normally is chronic and debilitating.
From A fifteen-year-old boy who has been in jail five months: "What do you want me to tell you, man, that I stay up all night waiting for people to come and get me? That I think I hear my father coming down that corridor out there, like I'm ever going to see him again? Like maybe my mother is going to come in and tuck me in bed? Or maybe she's going to come and knock the shit out of me for something maybe I did, or maybe one of my brothers did, or maybe no one nowhere ever did? This is a good place for me, here, believe me. You don't trust no one, not the man, not the guy to the left, not the guy to the right. Turn your head away just one time, man, and they'll take your food, or grab a part of your body, you know what I'm saying? You learn a good thing here: Don't rely on no one but yourself. You're the only person looking out for you. You don't learn that here, you ain't never going to learn it. Then at night sometimes, I tell myself, who am I kidding? I don't even trust me. You know what I'm saying?"
This is a boy who lives with a sense of a foreshortened future. He would scoff at Jesse Jackson's familiar mantra, "Keep Hope Alive,' for he cannot imagine living too much longer, much less achieving a successful career, marriage, or family. Further, he reveals a restricted range of emotion, almost a numbness, which most people discern at once but often fail to consider when he is unable to exhibit the slightest sense of regret, remorse, or guilt. Only naturally, we see the emotionless kid standing before the judge with that characteristic posture that veritably screams, "I couldn't care less about anything" as a prime example of a psychopath, a macho thug, a heartless animal, or the embodiment of evil. Only rarely do we think of him as a traumatized patient. Only rarely might we think of the child's emotionless bearing as a self-protective means of preserving boundaries between himself and the entire world. If we do, we are quickly labeled bleeding-heart liberal, and few take our diagnosis seriously. In fact, there are many who would oppose even the label "child at risk" inasmuch as it emphasizes the child as victim rather than perpetrator or instigator.
Who, for example, would be sympathetic to any sort of explanation for the murder of an innocent child merely because he stood on someone's shadow? For years, this scene of a boy first warning the child and then killing him in cold blood for where he stood perplexed me. Of course I could never excuse the crime, but somewhere in this ostensibly meager rationale, there had to be a rational psychological premise. All I could associate to this reckless act was, first, the familiar notion of construing an action as being one of presumption and disrespectyoung people speak all the time of "dissing" peopleand, second, the peculiar and mysteriously hostile expression about walking on cracks in the sidewalk: "Step on a crack, break your mother's back."
The explanation ultimately was found among the more subtle symptoms of posttraumatic stress. Many people who have been traumatized develop something psychologists have termed "omen formation." Innocent, meaningless acts and expressions assume extraordinary import because it is believed they bespeak one's fate. Hardly bizarre, familiar superstitions are something we all experience, although usually without extreme reactions: "Never walk under ladders" "Beware of black cats" "Step on a crack" "I told him three times, `Get off my shadow.'"
Granted, society must do something about the criminal, be he young or old. After all, laws must be observed if there is to be civil order. The offender represents a risk to us personally, as well as to that desired civil order. Yet the sheer epidemic proportions of youthful offenses indicate that a host of factors has placed these very same children, now standing before a judge or sitting in jail, at risk. The epidemic alerts us to a slew of young people, wounded not by intrapsychic processes and conflicts, but by actual experiences that others witnessed as well. How do these children control such horrific thoughts, such intense emotions? How do they come to feel any satisfactions, any sense of reward, when their interior worlds remain in utter disarray and the exterior world provides nothing that resembles genuine satisfaction, gratification, or reward?
Tragically, crime is one of the ways that injured or traumatized boys react to earlier wounds. It will take a great deal of work to get them in touch with the pain, humiliation, and sense of shame in them that stems not from a perception of themselves as having done bad, as we would hope, but rather from their knowing themselves to be bad. And although many traumatized children believe they can do something to stop the trauma or believe, somehow, that they will be rescued from it, other childrenand these may be the young men we meet in jailimagine that they can punish the "cause" of the trauma.
The crimes, ironically, only confirm the boys' fundamental image of themselves as bad, worthless, and pathetic. How counterintuitive to think, for example, that cutting another person or, better yet, oneself actually might serve to soothe a child. If crime, in some perverse manner, is not a coping strategy, then at least it proves that one is alive. How strange to think that intense action like committing a crime could allow a boy to feel that he is alive or that the broken bits of himself for a few precious moments fit together in some sort of wholeness and bring joy, no matter how twisted. But let us hold in mind the notion, from psychiatry, that in cases of PTSD the unconscious is always at work, attempting to recapture or, even better, replicate some early experience. Psychiatrists call this phenomenon "action memory." Essentially, when some external event or stimulus evokes an earlier hurt, the original event comes forth in memory along with internal emotional reactions attendant to that event. Examples of the outward manifestations of action memories are adolescents' familiar thrill-seeking experiences along with their need to take total command of certain social situations.
From a sixteen-year-old boy in jail less than one month: "I'm going to tell you the same thing I told everyone else who's been here. There is no feeling in the world like putting a knife at someone's skin. You haven't seen no blood yet, you hear me, you haven't seen nothing. All you got in front of you is that steel blade about to go right into the person's skin. Doesn't make no difference to me if it's my skin or your skin or her skin or his skin, no matter who you are you got to feel the rush, or you are one dead person. Then whip, in it goes, and the blood starts, first slow, then big. Another rush. You want to touch it, you want to taste it, you want to put your whole face in it. Then, seconds later, and I don't know for sure why this happens, comes the sting. Whoa, the pain, like a burn, like somebody put a torch to you and for some reason I can never explain to no one, it feels like nothing you have ever felt before, no matter how many times you done it. It's like you are coming alive all over again, all over again, all over again. It's like you been dead to that point, like you hadn't eaten in centuries and here comes your feast. Not the blood; I ain't no vampire. It's the sensation in your body, like you've been jolted into another planet. It's like you been electrocuted only this electrocution doesn't put an end to you, it makes you comes alive, which it does every time you pull that knife. Your whole body's breathing, my man, every last bit of it"
If the arguments presented here seem far-fetched, let us recall that the logic or "psychologic" of the injured mind is hardly the logic of the healthy one. In fact, it is the nature of this logic that prompts our definitions of psychological health or illness in the first place. Still, psychology has answers for why it is that people in pain but unable to feel that pain, constantly undertake actions that somehow make the pain with which they cannot connect go away.
Felonious actions are symptoms as well as crimes. They are representations of the way the inner world comes to be expressed or, as the clinician might say, "presents" One presents what one is feeling, no matter how well the feeling may be disguised in the act. Typically, boys are said to "act out" their symptoms, aggressiveness being an example, while girls "act in" for example, with eating disorders. In commenting about his book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, psychologist William Pollack noted, "A boy in pain will initially' retreat. He wants to be silent and alone. It's what I call the timed silent syndrome."
Essentially it is the hurt of early experiencesthe word trauma means "wound"that the child is attempting to forget or keep away from. Acting out symptoms is a way the boy can keep memory out of sight and hence, he imagines, out of (conscious) mind. Actual amnesia will come to his rescue. Without amnesiaand people are able to recall a great deal of the horrors of their childhoodthe child must play all sorts of mind tricks in order to keep away not only from these events, but from the feelings generated by them. Let us not forget, in this context, that Freud proclaimed well-known defense mechanisms such as denial, repression, and displacement to be conceits or mind tricks.
More generally, there is now evidence to suggest that the brain stores traumatic events and experiences in places apart from where it stores normal, unthreatening experiences. Indeed, recent evidence points to the notion that trauma alters the very neurology of a child, thereby affecting processes such as the ability to reason and regulate emotion. Psychologists Janae Weinhold and Barry Weinhold cite the work of Bruce Perry, who takes these notions one step further. According to the Weinholds, Perry argues that "early experiences in the family of origin produce a `socio-cultural DNA' that if left unchanged will be transmitted from generation to generation. His research indicates that if the child's home environment is characterized by structure, predictability, nurturing and enriching, emotional, social and cognitive experiences, a vulnerable and powerless infant can grow to become a happy, productive, insightful and caring member of societycontributing to us all.'" Unfortunately, the Weinholds comment, "the family is the most violent place in the U.S."
It is in the mind tricks and the recognition that the mind operates in this mode of self-trickery that we begin to make some sense of the offender's behavior and expressed psychologic. Feeling weak, distrusting, vulnerable, alone, and at risk causes him to take risks, appear tough and invulnerable, compete, eschew closeness and intimacy, and at all costs pride himself in needing no one. The child has moved from a healthy position of dying to please to killing to displease. He cannot face reality, which means his own actions and the repercussions of them, for to face this reality would mean having to confront the realities of the interior world, as well as the original trauma, which means the return of the pain.
One is reminded here of the notion put forth by the Canadian psychiatrist Allan Young that anger is pain remembered. Not ironically, anger is also one of the early responses to death. In mere instants, horror turns to pain and fury. When one cannot get beyond the pain of death, there is a good chance one will remain preoccupied with death and hence wish to recreate it, as if in some mysterious manner one is able to expiate the pain associated with it. The trick of the mind, therefore, is returning to the scene of the crime or, more precisely, to the emotions or internal framework that existed or more likely erupted at the original crime scene. The novelist Bernhard Schlink wrote of this matter, "The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive."
The ultimate mind trick to holding back the pain and humiliation caused by childhood trauma is simply to stay away from the remnants of the trauma, or any reminders of the trauma, which means staying away from oneself. Keep the lines of communication with oneself tied up at all times. One does this by trying to forget, never speaking intimately about past experiences or present feelings, and, for that matter, working hard not to have any feelings whatsoever. The game is to pretend that one is totally armored when in fact one is totally vulnerable. So the child, most likely incapable of intimacy, becomes a superb actor. In this context, we might remember that in the wake of extreme trauma, the normal (and normative) uses of play and imagination generally are impeded, if not lost altogether.
Ironically, it probably helps the boy that our culture teaches him not to reveal his inner feelings, be strong, "suck it up" so that no one, not even he himself, knows what is going on inside his mind. Adding to this psychic noise and confusion is the child's internalization of the family's disorganization, what popular culture calls dysfunction. It may be argued that within all of our minds live the sound and pictures of our families, their individual personalities, their unique styles of communication, their messages, and the needs that each of the members in one way or another has imposed on us. Some psychologists even theorize that our very personalities are little more than the accumulation of the roles that as children we played in our families and the psychological residue of the attachments we make to family members.
More intriguing, some theorists allege that without proper attachment to parents, or at least one parental figure, the child can only rarely control impulses and hence achieve compliance to any authority. Said differently, the very process of socialization, which ensures compliance, the sense of responsibility, duty, and ultimately civility, is predicated on power. Yet it depends as well on internalizing the psychological attachments we make to (and with) authority figures. From this internalization we develop a capacity to speak to ourselves and ultimately to reason with ourselves about such matters as morality. In this context, Felton Earls and Mary Carlson suggest that children emerging from so-called democratic families emphasizing nurturance, security, and the achievement of intimacy reveal such personality characteristics as warmth, friendliness, responsibility, loyalty, honesty, and moral courage.
Indeed, proper attachment, it has been theorized, affects not only the child's sense of contentment, something each of us can observe in babies, but the actual brain chemistry of the baby, which ultimately affects the maturing child's capacity to control impulses. Let us recall that brain chemistry plays a significant role in a child's ability to learn and assume another person's perspective and outlook, as well as contemplate the consequences of actual or imagined action. So while we often focus on the injuries of the soul or spirit of the child at risk, we must think as well of very palpable wounds to the brain that ensue as a result of breakdowns in parenting. Neuropsychologists refer to the wounds of this sort in their models of "dysregulation" and the biochemistry of stressors.
Attachment, therefore, is essential for the proper development of interior dialogues and discourses regarding issues as disparate as solving conflicts and self-soothing. Attachment makes possible such musings as, What would dad do in a situation like this? and How did mom comfort me? In the end, our personalities may be merely the products of all these internal musings and conversations, features of what some psychologists call "self-speak."
The magnitude of our internalization of attachment figures has lead some psychologists, moreover, to speak of people as being relationships rather than as having relationships. It is for this reason that worshipful attraction to popular cultural figures, the notorious role models from sports and entertainment worlds, rarely, if ever, provides the psychological stuff required to calm impulsive drives. Amorous attraction, after all, is not to be confused with the rewards and ramifications of genuine attachment and intimacy.
Only naturally would the mind want everything to go away. It does this magnificently with amnesia, leaving a person feeling practically bereft, empty. The traumatized person may feel precisely this. In fact, some victims of trauma cannot get in touch with their own bodies; for them the physical has vanished as well. All of life is perceived as being foolishly superficial, without substance, skin deep. At last, as someone once remarked about Oakland, California, there is no there there.
From a fourteen-year-old boy in the custody of the Department of Youth Services: "I don't think I'm any different from nobody else. If you give me some wishes, like a genie, you know, I'd make a whole lot of things go away. Maybe I'd make half my life go away; maybe more. Come to think of it, I can't come up with much from my childhood I'd keep. The genie can have it all. Like I say, most of this stuff isn't worth the saving. We're not talking about money here. But like, some of the stuff, you sort of want to get a hold of, have back, you know, like, you don't have to deal with it, but it would be nice to know if someday you wanted to deal with it, you could. But I can't. I'm, like, the guy whose room's so messy he can't find nothing, and his mother keeps telling him, `Straighten it up, straighten up so's you can find things you need.' But I don't know what I need so I don't ever bother to straighten it up. So what you do is you sort of walk all over the stuff, step right on it, like you was walking on mud or something. I have no idea what's underneath all that mud. Maybe I don't even want to know. Maybe if the genie said, `Go ahead, man, you can look under the mud, take whatever you want,' I'd be like afraid to do it, you know. So I, like, play it safe, keeping all that mud up there in my room, but I'll never know if old genie gave me the chance I could even find something that I, like, wanted to find. I feel, like, even if it was there, I couldn't, like, touch it. Couldn't touch it"
How then to fill the emptiness and regain the power and sense of control? How then to be comfortable living with the emptiness? How then to regain the capacity that almost defines the healthy person, that of asking people to assist you, teach you, and care for you? How then to soothe yourself, for, clearly, part of feeling healthy is the capacity to self-soothe.
Criminal action, no matter how seemingly illogical or perverse, answers a lot of these questions. Crime empowers; it makes one highly visible and filled with feeling. It surely draws attention, even a form of care, and for an instant makes one feel impenetrable and invincible; the actor finally has gained his audience. Crime may not pay, but for a certain cadre of injured boys, it, like drugs and alcohol, provides an uncanny experience simultaneously of numbing and soothing; almost magically, the self is mastered. It does this by responding, as it were, to the symptoms of trauma, but of course not to the actual root trauma itself. It represents a momentary resolution of the conflicts, nay, crises of the interior world, as well as of the physiological stresses caused by the exterior world. When the frightened child finally admits he would give anything to go back minutes before the crime took place and refashion his life from that point on, not only is he telling us he feels remorse, he is attempting to get in touch with the defining moments of childhood trauma he might wish to have reenacted; redone; or, even better, undone.
By this same psychologic, crime has one more appeal. It has an almost perverse spiritual element. It allows one to rise to the level of some higher power, even if that power normally is associated with the demonic. Whatever the substance of this spirituality, it serves to take a person out of himself and his present circumstances, rid himself of his ego, and feel as though there is nothing inside him. It is not surprising, therefore, that in describing their crimes, young offenders often appear transported, as if recounting a meditation in which their emptiness is experienced as comforting.
Surely these meditations are aided by the enormous amount of entertainment violence that enters into the lives, really, of all of us. Merely watching movie and television violence for fun, violence for action, violence for relief of tension in some manner must teach young people the exhilarating connections to be made between psychological feeling states of all kinds and the felt sense of real and imagined criminal activity. In this regard, I recall sitting in a movie theater one night and hearing a man behind me tell his friend as the lights dimmed, "There better be a lot of killings in this flick, 'cause I have had one miserable day!"
Still in the context of the felt sense of crime, it is interesting to think of the historical antecedents of anorexia nervosa. We recall the figures known as Anorexia Mirabilis, female saints in whom fasting denoted purity, holiness, and humility. As for the miraculous maids of the Reformation, the destruction of the body revealed divine intervention. Is it possible that in the psychologic of the young male criminal, the destruction of the body, in this case, someone else's, bespeaks an appeal to divine intervention? Is it possible that boys' criminal offense has been all these years the symptomatic counterpart of characteristically female anorexia?
Again, our society must do something about this youthful offender, the child at risk, for he represents a risk to us personally and to the social order, not to mention himself. Something must be done in response to his immoral or amoral conduct. But in light of the line of youthful offenders who continue to file through the Department of Youth Services offices in every state, one might also argue that something must be done about all these children at risk. If the child is immoral, then so, too, are the conditions that spawn his immorality. Indeed, the whole notion of the child at risk rests in great measure on the notion of immorality in the society. A child in trouble here or there, every so often, and we take another philosophical position. But generation after generation of offenders tells us that social pathology and immorality, must breed this condition. And these young people, hurt and hurtful, raging inwardly and outwardly, will keep on coming; of this we can be certain. As they say, the parade of the princes of our disorders seemingly is endless.
We are again in one of those periods when our outrage toward youthful offenders causes us to rethink the juvenile justice system. Productive or not, changes will come. But we might do well at this time to rethink the morality of a culture that continues to perpetuate a population of children seriously at risk. These aren't children falling between the cracks; children are too big to fall between any cracks. These are children shoved away, out of sight, out of mind, or just plain shoved. Clearly, it is far easier to think about political and legal change than it is to consider the development of moral character, moral courage, motive, and turpitude. It is far easier to label children with the name of some disorder than take a detailed history, a genuine accounting of their lives. It is also easier to think about so-called good kids and the victims of crimes than so-called bad kids and the perpetrators of these crimes.
In the absence of thoughtful moral reasoning about these children and, more precisely, the conditions that create their personal trauma as well as their internal deliberations and outward conduct, be they witnessed or not, we will forever be left with debates about legal changes in the juvenile justice system and an ever growing population of youthful offenders for this system to adjudicate. And so the children will continue to live at risk.
In the end, the entire argument of this essay may be summarized in the most personal, almost cinematic of terms. We watch on television as the reporter provides a gruesome account of a man who has just killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself, while his four-year-old son watches. My God, we wonder, what must that child be thinking? How can a child live through something like this? What ever will become of that child?
Now fast-forward, say, twelve years. The scene is that proverbial one of the judge admonishing the youthful offender for his history of criminal activity, his remorseless manner, his practically uncivilized demeanor. Sixteen years old, and what has he got to show for it other than a list of offenses as long as his arm! What, furthermore, does he envision his future to be, and what possibly is his role in life?
The answer to this last question is simple: his role in life is witness to crime and keeper of trauma. He does in fact have something to show for all these years: the experience of the murder of his mother and the suicide of his father. Then again, the judge may be right, for trauma rarely shows, only the symptoms and repercussions of it do. Whereas some of these symptoms are sufficiently poignant and touching that we feel compelled to aid the child, others are so ugly and repellent that we apparently forget the very questions we ourselves asked twelve years before: What ever will become of that child?
What People are saying about this
(Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, from the foreword)
[Cottle] offers a compelling perspective for considering the issue of 'peril' in human experience. [His] conception is probing and thoughtful. It does not fall into -- in fact, it resists -- the typical social science preoccupation with pathology, with crisis, with deprivation, and focuses instead on the broader cultural, economic, developmental, social, and psychological threats that may imperil the healthy growth of all human beings in our society.
Meet the Author
Thomas J. Cottle is professor of education at Boston University. A clinical psychologist as well as a sociologist, he is the author of more than twenty-five books.
University of Massachusetts Press
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