Our national consciousness has been altered by haunting images of mass slaughters in American high schools, carried out by troubled young boys with guns. It's now clear that no matter where we live or how hard we try as parents, our children are likely to be going to school with boys who are capable of getting guns and pulling triggers. What has caused teen violence to spread from the urban war-zones of large cities right into the country's heartland? And what can we do to stop this terrifying trend?
James Garbarino, Ph.D., Cornell University professor and nationally noted psychologist, insists that there are things that we, both as individuals and as a society, can do. In a richly anecdotal style he outlines warning signs that parents and teachers can recognize, and suggests steps that can be taken to turn angry and unhappy boys away from violent action. Full of insight, vivid individual portraits, practical advice and considered hope, this is one of the most important and original books ever written about boys.
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About the Author
James Garbarino, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Family Life Development Center and Professor of Human Development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Read an Excerpt
THE EPIDEMIC OF YOUTH VIOLENCE
PROLOGUE: CHICAGO, JANUARY 1994
I lived and worked in Chicago for almost ten years, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. My children grew up there. Throughout 1993, the Chicago Tribune published in-depth profiles of every kid who was killed in Chicago that year. As an expert on violence and trauma, I spent a lot of time talking with reporters in an attempt to help them make sense of what they had found during their investigation of each case. The reporters worked on the project all through 1993, and in a single issue at the beginning of 1994 the Tribune published the photo and name of every single child and teenager who had been murdered during the previous twelve months. It was a chilling and haunting sight to see the rows and rows of names and faces -- sixty-one in all.
The same night the Tribune published the death toll from 1993, my seventeen-year-old son Josh was heading out for an evening on the town with his friends. "Be careful," I said. "It's dangerous out there, and I worry about you." He turned to me, with the Tribune in hand, and said, "Don't worry, Dad. Just how many white faces and names like mine do you see in the newspaper?" The reality was that in 1994 he could reassure me by this simple reference to the facts of the matter; you had to look long and hard at those rows of photos in the Tribune to find a white teenage face with a non-Hispanic surname. Even though we lived in the city, within walking distance of some of the most violent streets in America, Josh felt safe.
When my son's observation forcedme to confront this reality, I recalled a meeting I had attended just weeks before. I was the lone white person on a panel of African American and Hispanic professionals for a community forum on violence. During the coffee break we panel members began chatting among ourselves, and it turned out that all of us had teenage sons. As we talked about being parents of teenagers in the city, it became clear to me that while I worried when my son went out at night, my African American and Hispanic colleagues felt dread, because they thought of their boys as part of an endangered species, even though the actual number of children killed that year was less than one hundred in a city of three million. But that number is a compelling feature of the violence problem; even a relatively small number of deaths can stimulate a profound sense of threat and insecurity in a community. Homicide is the leading cause of death for minority male youth, and each new death creates tremendous psychological reverberations. The feeling of extreme apprehension my colleagues experienced was neither paranoid nor far-fetched.
That was 1994. Fast-forward to 1998. By May of that year, I was living and working in Ithaca, a small university town located in the rolling hills of central New York State. Ithaca is a lovely place, mostly known for being the home of Cornell University. For many years and for most of its citizens, Ithaca has been a kind of idyllic paradise where the big news is likely to be the awarding of a prize to a member of Cornell's faculty or a local school board meeting (among vegetarians it is famous as the home of the Moosewood Restaurant, which inspired a popular cookbook).
On May 22, 1998, my fifteen-year-old daughter Joanna and my fourteen-year-old stepson Eric sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper, which that morning was filled with accounts of the shooting of twenty-four students in Springfield, Oregon, by fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel. Looking up from the front-page story, Joanna, shaking her head, said, "I wonder who it's going to be at our school."
NO ONE IS IMMUNE
The 1997-1998 school year will go down in American history as the turning point in our country's experience and understanding of lethal youth violence. October 1, 1997, Pearl, Mississippi: after killing his mother, sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham opens fire at his high school, killing three and wounding seven. December 1, 1997, West Paducah, Kentucky: fourteen-year-old Michael Carneal kills three students at a high school prayer meeting. March 24, 1998, Jonesboro, Arkansas: thirteen-year-old Mitchell Johnson and eleven-year-old Andrew Golden open fire on their schoolmates, killing four of them and a teacher. April 24, 1998, Edinboro, Pennsylvania: fourteen-year-old Andrew Wurst kills a teacher at a school dance. May 21, 1998, Springfield, Oregon: after killing his parents, fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel walks into the school cafeteria and shoots twenty-four classmates, two fatally.
These cases made the national and international news. All the assailants were middle-class, white teenagers from small towns or the suburbs. But these headline-grabbing shooting sprees reminded some families and victims of youth violence of crimes that, although similar, did not seem to merit the attention of the national and international media. Standing just offscreen, beyond our gaze, were hundreds of other kids who had committed acts of lethal violence. Most of us never heard about the adolescents who shot and killed other kids in the inner-city neighborhoods of Houston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit during that same school year. They remained mostly anonymous.
What about the fourteen-year-old African American kid who shot an eighteen-year-old convenience store clerk? The fifteen-year-old Hispanic kid who opened fire with an assault rifle on a street full of kids? The sixteen-year-old African American who gunned down three teens outside his apartment building? The fifteen-year-old Asian boy who executed a sixteen-year-old with a single shot to the head? Rarely do cases like these make the national news, and when they do, the perpetrators are usually described in dehumanized terms ("cold-blooded," "remorseless," "vicious") that lead us to speculate on whether or not these kids are even human. Rarely do we hear of inquiries into their emotional lives or of efforts to make sense of their acts. Why is that?
Is it because the high-visibility cases all involved white kids from the small towns and suburbs of the American heartland while the anonymous killers were poor kids, predominantly African American and Hispanic, living in inner-city neighborhoods? Is it easier for the media and the general public to forget or demonize the low-income minority kids who kill? Some informed observers of the role of race and class in our society have said publicly that they think the answer is yes.
Given our society's history of institutional and interpersonal racism, it would be naive to think that poor minority kids automatically get the same attention and concern as white and middle-class kids do. A number of respected African American psychiatrists, psychologists, lawyers, and community leaders addressed this point in interviews conducted by journalist Zachary Dowdy in 1998. Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint said, "When white middle-class kids kill, there is always a public outcry of why and a search for what went wrong, but when inner-city minority kids kill, the public is warned of demons and superpredators." Bill Talley, a public defender who has spent years representing inner-city kids in court, put it this way, "No one's calling these white youths 'maggots or animals.'" Judge Milton Wright noted that when Kip Kinkel committed his murders in Springfield, Oregon, Newsweek began its coverage this way: "With his shy smile and slight build, 15-year-old Kip Kinkel has an innocent look that is part Huck Finn and part Alfred E. Neuman -- boyish and quintessentially American." Wright went on to say, "Quintessentially American? That always means white."
I have seen firsthand verification of this class and race bias. When I began working on issues of lethal violence and violent trauma in the lives of inner-city kids more than a decade ago, it was hard to get the attention of most Americans, beyond the professionals and parents who lived or worked in inner-city minority communities. The rest of America could afford to ignore the violence when it seemed to be "them," not "us." Perhaps the worst example of this came when a staff member from a congressional committee visited me in my office in Chicago to discuss the issue of lethal youth violence. He found out the problem was mainly confined to inner-city minority populations, and when he communicated this fact to the legislators he represented, they decided it wasn't worth holding hearings on the matter. Nasty, indeed, but brutally honest as an expression of politics as usual.
But the lack of interest among mainstream white America has its origins in more than racism and class bias. Until recently, most American parents could count on the fact that random youth violence was not their problem but a problem for others. After all, 84 percent of the counties in the entire country recorded no youth homicides at all in 1995, and parents and children in most places must have felt a kind of immunity -- if they thought about it at all -- because they, like my son in 1994, didn't see themselves in the pictures of the killers and the killed. But that was before Jonesboro and Paducah and Springfield, before the cast of characters expanded, and young middle-class Americans, like my daughter, came to see that this could happen to them and their schoolmates.
Now new voices of concern are heard, new faces appear in the newspaper, and new people show up for my lectures and my workshops on violence, trauma, and kids who kill. The killings in the small towns and suburbs during the 1997-1998 school year have served as a kind of wake-up call for America. But this is also an opportunity for Americans to wake up to the fact that the terrible phenomenon of youth violence has been commonplace for the past twenty years and to learn from the experiences of those who have lived with this problem for the last two decades.
In June of 1998, I was speaking at a meeting of mothers who had buried murdered sons. There were more than a dozen mothers in the audience, mostly African American and Hispanic women, bearing the black-draped photos of their dead sons and wearing the commemorative ribbons as testimony to an epidemic of lethal youth violence that is all too familiar to them. But they are no longer alone. The old faces and voices have not disappeared or grown silent but, rather, have been added to as every parent in the country now wonders, Where next? Is my child safe? Could it happen here? What can we do?
WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE PAST?
What do the large number of anonymous killings have to do with the highly publicized killings in Jonesboro and Paducah and Springfield? What do they have in common? In this book we will find answers by moving beyond the surface differences between the two groups of violent boys -- principally class and race -- to see the profound emotional and psychological similarities that link them together. By getting to know the circumstances under which the epidemic of youth violence first took hold, among low-income minority youth in inner-city areas, we can begin to gain some insight into the lives of the boys in places like Jonesboro, Paducah, and Springfield.
My goal is to understand why kids kill and to help other parents and professionals understand so that they can do something to prevent it in the future. Certainly, there are individuals and cases that defy explanation; some youth violence is committed by kids who have totally lost touch with reality. But these truly are the exceptions. I believe we can make some sense of youth violence from the inside out, that is, by looking deeply into the lives of kids who kill and by listening closely to their own stories. In doing so we can see how problems accumulate and recognize the sequence of events in the life of a child that leads from childhood play to lethal violence, whether these events occur in urban war zones or in the small towns and suburbs of the heartland.
For the past twenty-five years I have studied children and youth in many different settings. My research fills books. Hardly a week goes by that I don't talk with a journalist or get on an airplane to go lecture to professionals or concerned citizens about murder, child abuse, war, and other violent trauma. How do I know what to say to people? Where do I find clues to understand how an innocent infant grows up to be a killer? In my work I always try to combine two sources of information: First, I listen to children who have killed to hear their individual stories. Second, I examine systematic research on the causes of violence in the lives of children and youth. In the pages and chapters that follow, I blend these two sources, drawing upon one to illuminate and make sense of the other, always with the intent to show how what we have learned about the epidemic of killing among inner-city boys can shed light on the boys of the American heartland who are the new casualties of that epidemic.
HOW MUCH KILLING IS THERE?
The FBI reports that there are about twenty-three thousand homicides each year in the United States. In about 10 percent of these cases, the perpetrator is under eighteen years of age. If we extend the age cutoff to include youth up to the age of twenty-one, the figure is about 25 percent. But while the homicide data, which are used widely for comparative purposes, may be reliable, their meanings are not transparent or unambiguous. There are many complexities and subtleties to be considered in making sense of the numbers.
For one thing, improved medical trauma technology has meant that an injury that would have been fatal just twenty years ago is today much less likely to result in death. Children survive gunshot wounds and stabbings that once were fatal, just as a 90 percent cure rate saves them from certain childhood cancers that forty years ago promised a nearly certain early death. An example of the change with respect to homicide is seen in Chicago, where from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s the number of serious assaults (attacks that could lead to the death of the victim) increased 400 percent while the homicide rate remained about the same. This factor is particularly important when we try to look at long-term historical trends, such as when we compare the homicide rate of the nineteenth century with that of the twentieth century or when we compare data from the first half of this century with data from the last ten or twenty years.
Furthermore, any consideration of the overall homicide rate should be tempered by an appreciation of the role of age and gender in this crime. For instance, it is well known that young men are about ten times as likely as young women to commit murder. Thus, historical comparisons may be skewed by changes in the population's age and gender profile. For example, if a society with an average age of fifteen has the same total homicide rate as a society with an average age of thirty, it probably means that the first society has much less lethal youth violence than the second one.
American homicide data are subject to distorted analysis if one fails to consider two important facts: First, the average age of perpetrators of homicide decreased in the United States from thirty-three years of age in 1965 to twenty-seven years of age in 1993. Second, while the overall homicide rate has been relatively constant over the last thirty years, the youth homicide rate has risen. The period of greatest growth was from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, when the youth homicide rate increased by 168 percent. In other words, the problem of youth homicide is obscured when one looks at the total national picture, because the increased numbers of older Americans dilute the effect of rising youth homicide rates on the overall rate for the country as a whole.
Much has been made in the press and in city halls around the country of the welcome news that the total national homicide rate took a dip from 1991 to 1997. Similarly, after more than a decade of steady increase, homicides by juveniles dropped 17 percent between 1994 and 1995 (which still leaves the rate more than 50 percent higher than it was in 1980). Does this mean the problem is under control? Not necessarily, according to criminologist James Fox of Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice. For one thing, homicide rates in general and our juvenile homicide in particular remain much higher in the United States than they are in other industrialized societies, such as the countries of Europe. Closer to home, Canada is reporting a youth homicide rate about one tenth as high as the United States.
What is more, criminologists expect fluctuations because of the many influences on the number of murders there are each year. For example, higher rates of incarceration for lesser offenses take some likely killers out of circulation. The lethal violence associated with the highly competitive nature of illegal drug dealing has been associated with the extraordinary levels of youth homicide reported for some inner-city neighborhoods. But since the mid-1990s, the drug business in some cities has settled down and become better organized, resulting in a decrease in the youth homicide rate. And several communities have been undertaking major campaigns to curtail violence in their inner-city areas. In the mid-1990s Boston was able to cut its youth homicide rate to zero for a period of two years. As we shall see in Chapter Seven, these city programs have a great deal to teach suburban and rural communities.
To reach a true understanding of why children kill, we need to look beyond short-term trends. Certainly, the long-term trends are very disturbing. According to the FBI, juvenile arrests for possession of weapons, aggravated assault, robbery, and murder rose more than 50 percent from 1987 to 1996. Looking back still further, we can see a sevenfold increase in serious assault by juveniles in the United States since World War II. But perhaps the most disturbing trend is that while the overall youth homicide rate dropped in 1997, the rate among small town and rural youth increased by 38 percent. And that last statistic highlights my conviction that no longer can any of us believe that we and our children are immune to lethal youth violence, because today almost every teenager in American goes to school with a kid who is troubled enough to become the next killer -- and chances are that kid has access to the weapons necessary to do so.
KIDS WHO KILL THEMSELVES
Throughout this book we will be looking closely at children who lash out at other children or adults. But we shouldn't lose sight of the young people who turn their violence inward, the kids who kill themselves. Suicide among juveniles is a serious problem. According to recent statistics, each murder committed by an adolescent is matched by a suicide -- about twenty-three hundred each year. And just as youth homicide rates have risen dramatically in recent decades, so too have youth suicide rates sky-rocketed -- 400 percent since 1950.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of youth, 15 percent of high school boys seriously considered suicide in 1997. About 12 percent of boys made a suicide plan, and 5 percent actually attempted suicide. Two percent of the boys attempted suicide in ways that required medical attention. The CDC study also shows that while girls are more likely to contemplate, plan, and attempt suicide, more boys than girls complete the act, reflecting the more lethal methods chosen by boys. Boys use guns while girls tend to use pills.
Harvard University psychiatrist James Gilligan points out in his in-depth look at the world of incarcerated violent men that acts of self-destruction and the destruction of others often have a similar source in the psychology of men involved in lethal violence, namely, the sense that life is intolerable. Thus, the links between suicide and homicide for boys are an important part of the problem facing anyone who cares about kids. Sometimes only at the last minute does a boy choose between killing himself and killing others; sometimes he does both.
In some cases, the act of killing others is itself intended as a suicide attempt. The phrase "suicide by cop" has been used by journalists and police to denote the act of provoking a confrontation with the intent to be killed by police. The first words spoken by fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel when he was wrestled to the ground by fellow students after his shooting spree in Springfield, Oregon, were reportedly, "Kill me! Kill me!" Understanding the frequent self-destructive impulses in kids who kill is a necessary element of the overall task before us.
WHERE DID THE EPIDEMIC OF YOUTH VIOLENCE START?
As I noted earlier, the federal government's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that 84 percent of all counties in the United states had no juvenile homicides in 1995 and 10 percent reported only one; in fact, 25 percent of all known juvenile homicides that year were committed in five cities: Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Houston. Together these cities contain about 10 percent of the nation's population. Why was there such a concentration of youth violence in these cities?
Think about the characteristics that increase a teenager's risk of joining the ranks of boys who kill. As a result of their research, Chicago-based psychologists Robert Zagar and his colleagues published a paper in 1991 that offers a picture of this risk. These researchers found that a boy's chances of committing murder are twice as high if he has the following risk factors:
* He comes from a family with a history of criminal violence.
* He has a history of being abused.
* He belongs to a gang.
* He abuses alcohol or drugs.
The odds triple when in addition to the aforementioned risk factors the following also apply:
* He uses a weapon.
* He has been arrested.
* He has a neurological problem that impairs thinking and feeling.
* He has difficulties at school and has a poor attendance record.
The odds increase as the number of risk factors increases. This is a general principle in understanding human development. Rarely, if ever, does one single risk factor tell the whole story or determine a person's future. Rather, it is the buildup of negative influences and experiences that accounts for differences in how youth turn out. This is one of the most important things to remember in understanding boys who kill. If we try to find the cause of youth violence, we will be frustrated and confused; we may even decide it is completely unpredictable and incomprehensible. It is important to recognize the central importance of risk accumulation. Understanding comes from seeing the whole picture of a boy's life, whether he is a troubled middle-class boy in a town like Springfield, Oregon, or a troubled poor child in inner-city Los Angeles.
Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Houston have in common large and numerous inner-city "war zone" neighborhoods where many children experience a buildup of the risks identified by Zagar's group. These neighborhoods have the highest rates of adult criminality, child maltreatment, gang activity, illicit drug sales, possession of illegal hand guns by kids, health problems in newborns, and school failure. In addition, most of the children in such neighborhoods have experienced the ravages of racism. Sociologists have long recognized that the experience of racial discrimination provokes feelings of rage and shame, which play a potent role in stimulating violence.
Interestingly, the U.S. populations most affected by the epidemic of youth violence are the ones that have been disproportionately influenced by the particular historical and cultural patterns found in the South. Social analyst and journalist Fox Butterfield, who explored this Southern effect, reported that the highest homicide rates in the United States are found among those who have roots in the Old South. For example, in 1996 all of the states that constituted the Confederacy during the Civil War were on the list of the twenty states with the highest homicide rates. The ten states with the lowest rates were located in New England and the northern Midwest. Thus, for example, in 1996 Louisiana's homicide rate was twelve times that of South Dakota. This pattern was as true in the nineteenth century as it is today.
In his book Murder in America, historian Roger Lane of Haverford College points out that until the 1960s America's big cities had murder rates lower than the national average because Southern states had the highest rates and were predominantly rural. What is the reason for this connection between Southern culture and violence? Historian Samuel Hyde at Southeastern Louisiana University has explored this phenomenon and has concluded that it reflects the special cultural and political history of the South, notably the system of Slavery and the violence associated with the prosecution and aftermath of the Civil War.
Institutionalized violence plays a role in breeding a cycle of violence across generations. But religious tradition is important as well. Sociologist Christopher Ellison at Duke University found that the public religious culture of the South plays an important role in legitimizing violence by making revenge a moral requirement. Those who transgress against one's honor or kin must be punished.
Psychologist Richard Nisbett and his colleagues at the University of Michigan have also studied this phenomenon and confirm that it is the code of honor that is passed on from generation to generation through childrearing that accounts for this cultural susceptibility to homicide. Nisbett's research has found that when a young man from the South encounters an insult (e.g., being bumped and called a jerk by a fellow student in a school hallway), his pattern of response differs from that of a young man from the Northeast. Southerners tend to react with anger, and their bodies show an increase in stress-related hormones. Northeastern young men are more likely to respond with laughter and without any detectable rise in hormone levels. Whereas Fox Butterfield has detailed these issues in his work, it is beyond the scope of this book to further explore the cultural and social forces in Southern history. Yet these forces do play a role in lethal youth violence. How?
One place to look for answers is in the fact that the African Americans who constitute the bulk of the population in inner-city neighborhoods have their origins in the Old South. This is not simply a matter of long-ago generations making the trip from the South to the cities of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit; it is common for younger generations to spend time in their family's ancestral homes in the Old South. When I interview boys in prison, I often hear them speak about summer trips to Alabama or Mississippi or being sent back to Louisiana or South Carolina when they get in trouble "up North."
It is not race per se but, rather, the role of race in the situation created by all the other influences that makes the difference in homicide rates. In 1994 the African American youth homicide rate was eight times the rate for white youth. Butterfield's analysis makes clear that this disparity has much more to do with the Southern origins of black youth than with their African heritage. Speaking to this point, psychiatrist James Gilligan reports that the homicide rates of blacks living in Africa are generally no higher than the homicide rates in other countries. And in the United States, the rate for African Americans outside inner-city neighborhoods is no higher than that of the rest of the population. The combination of racism and cultural values that promote violence as a response to perceived insult exerts a devastating influence on children wherever it is geographically concentrated and coupled with economic deprivation, such as is the case with blacks in South Africa, who have been shaped by apartheid, and the aboriginal peoples of Australia, who suffered through generations of cultural genocide. In fact, these two groups have homicide rates that are among the highest in the world.
What I have attempted to show is that the origins of lethal youth violence lie in a complex set of influences. The Southern culture in the United States as a single influence does not explain everything, of course. A code of honor by itself, no matter its origins, does not explain everything. Indeed, no single factor -- neither racism nor economic deprivation nor child abuse -- can provide the answer to the question of why kids kill. But this does not mean we are powerless to make sense of what is happening. Quite the contrary. We have at our disposal concepts that can take us far in our efforts to understand why our sons turn violent and how we can save them. Most important, these ideas shed light on the influences at work that are spreading the epidemic of youth violence.
The risk factors that Robert Zagar and his colleagues identified in 1991 as correlated with a boy's chances of committing murder continue to increase:
* Child abuse: According to the best study we have on the rate of child maltreatment, from 1986 to 1993 child abuse and neglect rose from 14 per 100,000 to 23 per 100,000. These statistics refer to children who have already experienced harm. If the standard used in defining maltreatment includes Children who are at risk for imminent harm -- what the study calls "endangerment" -- the increase is even larger, with the rate nearly doubling, from 22 per 100,000 in 1986 to 42 per 100,000 in 1993.
* Gangs: According to research compiled by the federal government, more and more communities are facing the problem of youth gangs. Surveys find that more and more children and youth report that there are gangs active in their schools and community -- up 50 percent from 1989 to 1995.
* Substance abuse: Hard drugs have spread throughout the United States; virtually every community in the country has a drug subculture. For 1997 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, in the annual "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance," that 9 percent of all high-school-age males had used cocaine. Moreover, 50 percent of adolescent boys reported having used marijuana, and 30 percent had used it in the previous month. After a decline in overall drug use among teenagers, which started in 1976 (when 45 percent admitted to some drug use) and continued to 1994, the reported overall rate is on the increase again and now stands at 36 percent. What is more, heavy alcohol use among teenage boys is common: 37 percent of the boys reported that they drank five or more drinks on one occasion at least once in the previous month.
* Weapons: Surveys attest to an extraordinary increase in the likelihood that kids will carry weapons. They do so primarily because they feel threatened and can't count on adults to protect them. The most recent data, from the 1997 CDC survey, reveal that 28 percent of adolescent boys carried a weapon -- a gun, a knife, or a club -- in the previous month, with 13 percent carrying a weapon to school in the previous month. Fascination with guns often begins at a very young age. Eleven-year-old Andrew Golden of Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, were among them; both spent much of their time immersed in the gun culture.
* Arrests: Arrests of youth under age eighteen have increased dramatically since 1980 -- up 50 percent from 1980 to 1994 for serious offenses. In addition, law enforcement agencies in many communities have taken a much more active approach to arresting juveniles in response to community pressures, political directives, and court rulings that limit their discretion and their authority to use informal means of redirecting delinquent juveniles (e.g., taking kids home and confronting parents or ordering kids to make restitution without arresting them and involving court sanctions).
* Neurological problems: Surveys point to a significant increase among children with conditions such as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), which may reflect neurological problems and which certainly result in behavioral difficulties. Improved medical care for highly vulnerable babies means that more and more premature infants who might have died in previous decades are surviving today. For example, in 1960 only 10 percent of newborns weighing less than two pounds survived; by the early 1990s that figure had risen to 50 percent. This appears to mean that more and more kids are living with neurological difficulties, as a result of their prematurity, that can impair the processes of thinking and feeling. The rate of learning difficulties in children who were born prematurely is about 25 percent higher than the rate for those not born prematurely. The use of drugs and alcohol by pregnant women compounds this problem.
* Difficulties at school: Data show that for any thirty-day period, about one in three high school kids reports having skipped school at least one day. The likelihood of skipping is greatest among kids who live in a family constellation other than a two-parent household (the rates are 30 percent for two-parent households, 24 percent for mother-only households, and 37 percent for all others). The declining proportion of kids living in a two-parent household corresponds to an increase in truancy. What is more, research reveals increasing rates of behavioral, emotional, and intellectual problems that affect the ability to succeed in school. Since 1969 the percentage of high school students who have cheated on a test increased from 34 percent to 68 percent. According to the 1997 CDC survey, 20 percent of all high-school-age boys reported that they were in a physical fight on school property in the past year, and 26 percent of the boys said their property had been stolen or deliberately damaged on school property. Four percent of high school boys said that on at least one day in the previous month they felt too unsafe to go to school.
More children and youth across the country are experiencing the specific negative influences that increase the risk of youth violence. Where and when these negative influences show themselves in actual acts of aggression may differ from group to group. For example, the kids who committed the infamous school shootings in the 1997-1998 school year killed and injured multiple victims in a single incident and did not have some secondary criminal motive such as robbery or drug dealing. This is different from most of the lethal violence committed by inner-city kids. Also, while for most middle-class teenagers school is a very important social setting and what goes on there of vital emotional significance, for many inner-city kids, in contrast, school has lost its significance by the time they reach adolescence, and they have already dropped out. But once the shooting stops, the net result is the same for parents, friends, teachers, and civic leaders who must cope with the aftermath.
Epidemics tend to start among the most vulnerable segments of the population and then work their way outward, like ripples in a pond. These vulnerable populations don't cause the epidemic. Rather, their disadvantaged position makes them a good host for the infection. That the exact nature of the problem may change a bit as it spreads is not surprising. It is not uncommon for infections to mutate as they spread, with one strain being particularly successful in invading a particular host. The Black Death of the Middle Ages started in the poorest and most deprived homes and neighborhoods, where sanitation conditions and nutrition were most primitive, but it eventually reached into the palaces of the nobility. Unmarried teenage pregnancy over the past thirty years has shown the same pattern: the high rates observed among low-income, inner-city minority girls in the 1960s are to be found throughout America today, among small town, suburban, and rural girls. The same is true of the phenomenon of "latchkey children." Finding young children at home without adult supervision was once common among low-income families but almost unknown among the middle class. Now it is common everywhere.
The same epidemic model describes what is happening with boys who kill. The first wave of lethal youth violence in schools peaked in the 1992-1993 school year, when fifty people died, mostly in urban schools and involving low-income minority youth. In response to what we now call Stage One of the epidemic, inner-city high schools scrambled to devise and implement measures to teach teenagers nonviolent conflict resolution techniques, to disarm students before they could enter the school building, and to remove them if they did enter the school with weapons. American high schools have become the major market for worldwide sales of metal detectors. We are now in Stage Two, the spread of youth violence throughout American society. How did we get here?
HOW DO EPIDEMICS OF VIOLENCE SPREAD?
My use of the word epidemic to describe what's been happening with youth violence is deliberate. The study of epidemics (epidemiology) provides some useful tools for analyzing and understanding the situation of violent boys. For one thing, it helps explain how conditions can change so dramatically and quickly. One of these tools is the concept of the "tipping point," the moment in the development of an epidemic at which only a small change in the presence of the germ produces a big change in the rate of infection. Although the tipping point is characteristic of epidemics of physical illness, it is true of social epidemics as well.
Jonathan Crane, a geographer in Illinois, has identified the tipping point in the social decline of neighborhoods. He found that when the proportion of "affluent leadership class" families in a neighborhood drops below 6 percent, there is a rapid increase in such social pathologies among teens as delinquency, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and dropping out of high school. Once this tipping point is reached, the neighborhood is ripe for becoming an "inner-city war zone." This is clearly what happened in many neighborhoods in cities like Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, setting the stage for the dramatic upsurge of youth violence that occurred during the 1980s.
Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson documented this phenomenon in Chicago and other cities by demonstrating how an end to strict racial segregation allowed affluent and middle-class African American families to leave the ghettoes to which they had been confined by segregationist laws and policies and find homes in middle-class and integrated communities, thus leaving behind an ever-poorer and more isolated population to deal with the decline of the industrial sector jobs that had sustained them in earlier times. Neighborhoods that were once complete and resilient communities became homogeneously poor and socially troubled environments, the perfect "host" for an epidemic of violence.
Public policies have played a direct part in the latter process, for example, by clustering public housing in large projects, rather than dispersing it as scattered site housing, and then forcing middle-class families out of public housing by setting income limits. I know this from firsthand experience. As a three-year-old child, I lived in a large public housing project in New York City, a racially integrated project that included families of many varieties. Five years later my family was forced to move out because my father's income exceeded the ceiling set by shortsighted policy-makers and administrators. As a result, what had been a very livable community in the 1950s joined the ranks of the urban war zones by the 1960s. Unfortunately, that story has been repeated over and over again in city after city around our country.
War zone neighborhoods are places where almost every fourteen-year-old has been to the funeral of a playmate who was killed, where two-thirds of the kids have witnessed a shooting, and where young children play a game they call "funeral" with the toy blocks in their preschool classroom. Since the 1960s, such war zones in the biggest, most crime ridden cities have been the primary sites for kids who kill, but in the last two decades additional cities have spawned war-zone-like neighborhoods.
The change came first with the addition of a second tier of medium-to-large-sized cities like Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, which had long been held up as paragons of civic virtue and social well-being. These cities increasingly spawned microenvironments exhibiting the plague of gunfire in the climate of fear and pervasive insecurity that came to symbolize inner-city life. In some cities it may be only a few square blocks, but it is there nonetheless. Even Salt Lake City, Utah, the home of the Mormon Church, isn't immune, as I learned when I was invited there to address a gang violence task force in 1994. As the years have gone by, smaller cities have joined the ranks. Now, even places like Battle Creek, Michigan, the home of Kellogg Cornflakes, have had drive-by shootings. And in my own small town of Ithaca, New York, there is a small section of town from which there are regular reports of shootings, stabbings, gang activity, drug dealing, and all the other accoutrements of the urban war zone.
This development has a special significance for small cities, towns, and rural areas. In big cities the large population base has allowed for multiple large public high schools and for the maintenance of private high schools by affluent families and by others who wish to escape from the threat of inner-city youth violence. This means that "trouble spots" can by and large be avoided by most affluent families. But outside the largest cities, avoidance is not possible. For example, in Ithaca every teenager goes to the one public high school. This brings the problems of the micro-war-zone home to my daughter, who now goes to high school in Ithaca, in a way that was not experienced by my son, who went to high school in Chicago a few years ago. Ironically, she feels more threatened going to school in small-town Ithaca than he did going to school in big, bad Chicago.
But this account of the rise of micro-war-zones in small cities and towns is not the whole story. Another implication of the tipping point theory is that conditions in families and neighborhoods throughout society may deteriorate for years before suddenly achieving a critical mass for lethal youth violence. I have witnessed this in my professional lifetime. As a young graduate student, I accompanied my mentor, psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, on a trip to the American heartland in 1970. We attended a community meeting in Racine, Wisconsin, a small city nestled in the American Midwest. Bronfenbrenner was there to talk to a group of civic leaders and parents about the trends he was detecting in American society that he thought boded ill for coming generations of children and youth, trends he had recently described in his book Two Worlds of Childhood. The assembled group listened politely to what he had to say, but their questions and comments following his presentation revealed that their overall reaction to his analysis had been, "This is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with us here in Racine?"
A quarter of a century later, I was invited to speak to a similar group of community leaders and parents in Racine. The meeting was held in the same room where Bronfenbrenner had spoken twenty-five years earlier. I was there to talk about my 1995 book Raising Children in a Socially Toxic Environment, in which I had taken Bronfenbrenner's analysis into the 1990s. The audience listened avidly as I described the unfortunate changes that were occurring in American life, changes that I said were "poisoning" more and more kids. At the end of my speech outlining the problem and what it would take to turn things around, there was sustained, loud applause. I then asked the group, "How many of you think what I have said today is relevant for the situation you face in Racine?" Every hand went up. One man exclaimed, "Yes. This is exactly what we are dealing with here. We have to act now!"
When I reported back to Bronfenbrenner, now retired but still active, his response was not a smug "I told you so" but, rather, one of sadness. He said, "Twenty-five years ago, when this was just starting, how much easier it would have been to turn things around. Now..." He sighed. Now we have come to the tipping point -- and gone beyond it in many places in our country. In almost every community in America, growing numbers of kids live in a socially toxic environment.
Though they may weight the odds in one direction or the other, social conditions alone do not cause boys to kill. Those conditions must be incorporated into the way kids think and feel about the world, about their world, and about themselves. Ultimately, it is on the inner lives of boys that environmental influences take their toll, setting in motion the chain of events that results in the horror of Jonesboro, Springfield, or Paducah.
The surface conditions that we find associated with the inner damage to kids in, say, Washington, DC, and Detroit may not be entirely the same as those that play a critical role when the epidemic comes to the suburbs and small towns. As I mentioned earlier, school may be the site for some kids while the street plays that role for others. Exploring the links between external social conditions and the psychological conditions inside boys is the focus of later chapters, where I outline the role played by depression, shame, rage, alienation, and bloated self-centeredness in the origins of youth violence. I am concerned first and foremost with understanding why kids kill; I know that many individuals are desperate for answers, but do we as a society really want to know?
MAKING SENSE, NOT EXCUSES
Sometimes as I listen to people talk about violent youth, I doubt that they really want to understand the dangers that our boys face and to make sense of how their violent acts flow from their experiences in our society. Sometimes it seems that few people really care about hurt little boys who have grown up to be violent teenagers, except as potential threats to the community. It is as if we want to forget how they got to be kids who kill in the first place. We are willing to incarcerate them but not to understand them. Perhaps we feel that understanding them is unnecessary because punishment is the only issue, or perhaps we feel that an attempt to understand them is dangerous because it might excuse their actions.
In the days after the Jonesboro, Arkansas, shootings in March 1998, an opinion poll revealed that about half the adults in America believed that the two boys who shot their classmates should receive the death penalty. Throughout the months of their incarceration prior to the trial in August, the jail where they were being held received numerous letters containing death threats aimed at the boys. In the days leading up to and following the trial and the verdict, reporters recounted firsthand accounts of adults in the community explicitly stating that they would kill the boys if they were released. These threats continued when the verdict was made public (the boys were sentenced as juveniles, to be held in custody until their juvenile status ended).
In our anger and fear, many of us seem ready to impose the ultimate penalty against children. When fifteen-year-old Kip Kinkel in Oregon went on his killing rampage, it seemed that every newspaper account mentioned -- often, it seemed, regretfully -- that although he could be tried as an adult under Oregon law, the boy was too young to receive the death penalty. After the Jonesboro shootings, a Texas legislator gained national attention by bemoaning the fact that an eleven-year-old couldn't be executed in his state and announcing his intention to remedy the problem by lowering the age for imposing the death penalty to eleven.
A couple of weeks after the Jonesboro shootings, I was on a radio talk show to respond to some questions about the development of boys who commit such violence. One of the hosts said that at first she had thought the death penalty was justified for such an act but that now, as she learned about the boys' backgrounds (including the report that at least one of them had been sexually abused), she was changing her mind. She was learning about the life experience of boys who kill. This kind of learning is essential if we as a society are to choose the path of understanding, which leads to humane treatment and rehabilitation, rather than savage punishment to feed our hunger for revenge. This latter path produces an unending chain reaction of pain and suffering for our entire society. We build more prisons to punish these boys, and in those prisons their rage and despair hardens, so that they emerge even more dangerous than when they entered. Such a course of action only serves to validate the ancient proverb "If you start out on a journey of revenge, begin by digging two graves, one for your enemy and one for yourself."
On one side stands a simple moralism that says if kids can kill, kids should die (or at least serve long prison terms), as if they were adults. On the other side stands an impulse to understand and, if understanding is possible, to rescue the troubled and hurt child from inside the killer. I stand with the latter, which is why I do what I do to help people understand. But it's no easy task.
WHO CARES ABOUT THE CHILD INSIDE THE KILLER?
In 1995, I was called to testify as an expert witness in the trial of a Denver teenager charged with murder. The defense wanted my testimony to explain how this boy's history of abuse and exposure to violence in the community was relevant to an understanding of his motives and actions. By then I had become accustomed to hearing about the violent acts boys commit, so I was prepared to deal with the details of this boy's crime. What surprised me most about my experience in the courtroom was the prosecutor's response to my testimony. He had access to the same records I did and had heard the boy's account of life in his family and on the street. Nonetheless, the prosecutor denied the relevance of the boy's childhood experience, declaring indignantly, "Who cares what happened to him when he was a child?" As the prosecutor saw it, the only thing that mattered now was the crime the boy had committed. Nothing more. The only relevant question for him was, "Did he do the crime?" It's not enough.
Each of the violent teenage boys I meet moves and intrigues me as I come to know him as a human being rather than as just a "host" to an epidemic of violence. Many have committed monstrous acts. Their victims are testimony to that. And yet when I meet one of these boys, I can see beyond the facts of his crime. He is a sad woman's son, a young girl's brother, a baby boy's cousin. While never forgetting about the victims of his violence, I always seek to see him as more than a perpetrator, as more than his crimes. He is a boy, a dangerous boy to be sure, but still a boy. Sometimes I discover that the boy loves basketball or baseball, as I did as a teenager, or that he excels in a school subject that was particularly dear to my heart when I was in school. One boy I spoke with shares my love of mystery novels. Another shares my birthday.
Some of these boys appear so tough on the outside. But when I get a glimpse of their inner life, I am deeply touched by their vulnerability and their pain, and I come to see their toughness as a survival strategy, as something that helps them get through another day. In many ways their cold exterior is a defense against overwhelming emotions inside. They puzzle me, seeming in some ways so much like my own teenage son yet in other ways so alien. These boys are incarcerated as criminals, and they sometimes have long records that include multiple lethal assaults and armed robberies. Yet, young or old, they often seem naive and childlike as they talk about their life. More than one of the boys I have interviewed even sucked his thumb as he recalled the events of his life for me.
It was these experiences that led me to refer to them as "lost boys." Some boys get lost because they are systematically ted into a moral wilderness by their experiences at home and on the streets, where they are left to fend for themselves. These are the boys upon whose behalf I testify in court, trying to help judge and jury see the injustice of their experiences and how they have been robbed of their childhood by abusive and neglectful parents, by malevolent drug dealers, and by the sheer viciousness of their daily life. And I argue that to simply punish them with death or decades of incarceration only compounds the injustice imposed upon them by the world in which they grew up.
Other troubled boys are better understood as having gotten lost through unfortunate accidents of human development. In their cases, no one set out to abuse or neglect them, but they ended up feeling rejected and humiliated nonetheless. Adults in their lives made ordinary efforts to teach them how to live in society, but these ordinary efforts were not enough. Sometimes the unfortunate circumstance is the absence or withdrawal of positive adults from a boy's life, a void that occurs not through some plan but as a result of the parents' fumbling efforts to deal with problems in their own lives -- for example, a divorce -- and their own disappointments. It is always something outside that becomes deadly when filtered through the lens of a boy's tormented inner life.
These boys fall victim to an unfortunate synchronicity between the demons inhabiting their own internal world and the corrupting influences of modern American culture. They lose their way in the pervasive experience of vicarious violence, crude sexuality, shallow materialism, mean-spirited competitiveness, and spiritual emptiness. These factors affect us all to some degree, but they poison these especially vulnerable kids. The unforgiving nature of modern life puts so much pressure on kids to grow up perfectly -- perfectly powerful, perfectly sexy, perfectly rich, perfectly resistant to day-to-day pressures. However, whether they are deliberately misled or just unintentionally lost, some boys find their way to lethal violence. Every boy has his limit; some reach it earlier than others. With at least one gun in nearly half the households in the country, with two-thirds of our teenagers reporting they could get a gun in an hour, with virtually every kid exposed to vivid movie and television scenarios legitimizing violence, we live in dangerous times.
In my desire to understand these boys better, I needed to know how a parent, guardian, teacher, or coach might have diverted them from their downward spiral. And I needed to know how these boys could stop the violence in their lives once it started and how they could change the path they were on so that they would not spend their teenage years in prison or end up in the morgue when they should have been in school. I learned that I could only answer my questions by digging deeply into the lives of violent teenagers. I decided that rather than surveying large numbers of kids, where I might only have the results of a paper-and-pencil survey, or conducting an hour-long interview to get inside the head or heart of a number of boys, the best way for me to proceed was to focus on a small group of lost boys, taking time with each one to build a trusting relationship and to hear his story in depth.
I know that some boys who enter into the world of lethal violence do find their way back into the mainstream of American life. I came to know one such success story quite well. His name was Julio, and he was a student in a course I teach at Cornell University. Julio had gone to a maximum security youth prison at age thirteen for the shotgun shooting of another kid who was competing with him as a drug dealer for a bit of turf. Julio had all the risk factors identified in Zagar's study: he came from a family steeped in criminality, he had been neglected and abused by his parents, his mother was a drug addict and his father a drug dealer, he was recruited early into a gang, and he lived in an urban war zone in New York City. As luck would have it, the boy he shot survived; Julio was therefore charged only with attempted murder, and he faced the prospect of release from prison within a few years' time.
Like many kids with the deck stacked against him, Julio developed a pattern of aggression that was well in place by the time he was ten years old. At thirteen, he was standing at the edge of the abyss, with one foot over the edge. But unlike so many other boys, Julio used the opportunity of being exposed to the prison program to turn his life around, to learn to read, and eventually to parlay his high intelligence, strong will, and sense of divine intervention into a college scholarship that put him on the road to a career in social work. What Julio found in the youth prison to which he was sentenced was not just more of the same but, rather, an opportunity for reflection and personal development in a safe setting. He became a monk in prison -- reading, reflecting, and praying -- and started the process of rebuilding himself from the ground up. Julio's path exemplifies the monastic model I will introduce in Chapter Eight as a strategy for reclaiming boys after they are lost. When I talk with kids who kill, I always hope and expect to find others like Julio so that I can deepen my understanding of why some kids turn their lives around and how we can use their experiences as a guide.
PSYCHOLOGICAL AND LEGAL REALITIES
One thing I have learned from talking to violent boys is that homicide is just part of the violence in their lives. Legally, there is a world of difference between violent assaults that end in death and violent assaults that fail to produce a dead body. I see this in the cases of boys I know. Michael shot two police officers; one died after being hit by one bullet while the other survived four bullets to the chest. He now faces the death penalty. Larry shot a police officer seven times, and the man spent only two nights in the hospital; Larry is serving two years. Conneel fired an assault rifle into a crowded playground and killed no one; he served three months on a weapons charge. Thomas fired a single "warning shot" from his .22-caliber pistol and felled a sixteen-year-old boy with that one small bullet; he was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.
The legal system feasts on these distinctions, but I find them to be of very limited psychological significance in most cases. Thus, my concern is with potentially lethal violence as much as it is with homicide. We must look at kids who engage in assaults that can kill, even if they don't actually end a human life. It is very hard to predict with precision which boy will end up taking a life. Much more practical is to identify the boys who are at greatest risk for engaging in potentially lethal violence.
As I noted earlier, according to the surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in any thirty-day period, nearly 30 percent of our boys attending high school carry a potentially lethal weapon around with them as they go about their business in the community, and 12.5 percent of our boys have carried a weapon to school. Recent research suggests that less than 10 percent of all juvenile killers are psychotic, that is, have symptoms of severe mental illness such as delusions and hallucinations. The rest commit acts of lethal violence in connection with, in roughly equal proportions, conflicts (such as disputes or arguments that get out of hand) or crimes (such as robbery or rape). This means there is always great potential for lethal violence in the day-to-day world of boys who attend American high schools. I talk mostly with the boys who have fulfilled that awful potential. Where do I find these boys who can help us understand youth violence? Sometimes they find me -- or, rather, their lawyers find me and I am called upon to testify as an expert witness at their trials. But mostly I find them in a project I run with my partner, Claire Bedard, at youth prisons maintained by the New York State Office of Children and Family Services.
The Austin MacCormick Center is located in a wooded section of central New York State, about fifteen miles from Ithaca. MacCormick is generally regarded as a model facility, and kids routinely report that it feels safer than any of the other secure facilities in which they have spent time. Still, it can be dangerous to work with these boys. In one two-month period in 1997, three staff members were sent to the hospital as a result of struggles with boys on the units: In one incident, a staff member had his nose broken as he tried to restrain a boy. In another incident, two staff members required stitches from a melee that ensued from their attempts to confiscate a razor blade found in the sock of a boy who had just arrived from another facility.
When I first see the boys I will come to know at MacCormick, they are usually part of a group walking down the hall. At first glance they are rather anonymous, with their generally guarded expressions and their MacCormick uniforms of red shirts, khaki pants, and white running shoes (the colors of the laces differentiate the boy's degree of progress within the facility's system).
Some are tall and very muscular, some are short and compact. Some have acne and the disproportionately developed bodies common to teenagers everywhere, and others are strikingly handsome. Some affect the "gangsta shuffle" they learned from rap music celebrities; other just walk. Most display a guarded expression, but some flash a menacing scowl and a few even smile. As I get closer, I see that many of them carry scars on their hands, arms, and face from beatings and fights, recent and long ago. With their shirt and pants on I can't know how many of them also carry physical reminders of wounds on their chest, back, and legs.
Like most teenagers in a group confronting adults, they don't want to let on that they are anything other than just like everybody else. I have to spend time with each boy alone, without the weight of peer scrutiny and the baggage of the "us versus them" attitude if I want to see and hear more; That's when I really meet a boy, when it is just the two of us alone in a small room and safely distanced from the outside world. At times there is instant rapport. Malcolm, sentenced to a term of four to ten years for second-degree murder, was such a boy.
The night before I met Malcolm, his mother called to tell him that his girlfriend, six months pregnant with his child, had been shot and killed while walking on the streets of his old neighborhood. Malcolm's loss is by no means unusual for violent boys. If anything, such loss is a common thread (not long after Malcolm's girlfriend was shot, the girlfriend of another boy was killed).
Malcolm's mother told him that the baby-to-be had died too. He recounted this as I sat with him in one of the facility's two isolation rooms, used both to punish boys who were in trouble and to keep a watch on boys who were sick or were thought to be suicidal (a reminder that more violent individuals die at their own hand than are put to death by a society committed to the death penalty).
Troubled as he was, Malcolm still was ready to talk. I learned later that talking was one of his strategies for coping with the traumas of his life. As the months went by, Malcolm opened up to me more and more, and I saw many sides to him. I discovered that he had started reading books while at MacCormick. Sometimes we talked about the books he was reading; the Autobiography of Malcolm X was a favorite of his (and of many of the other boys as well). His interest prompted me to buy a copy of a book he wanted to read but could not find in the prison library -- Street Soldiers by Joe Marshall. When I gave it to him as we sat together, he looked at it, his head down, for a few moments. Then he looked up at me as a tear rolled down his cheek. "This is for me, really? Thanks, man. Nobody ever gave me a book before." A single tear is a precious commodity in the emotional economy of boys like Malcolm.
When the boys first speak of their experiences with violence, they are often cool and matter-of-fact about it. However, eventually, weeks or months later, some of them talk to me about the residue of trauma that results from living in a world where violence is so intense and pervasive. Inside almost every violent teenager I've spoken to is an untreated traumatized child. How do they cope? Each has his own strategy. Malcolm told me that he tried not to be alone, and he talked all the time. He once said, "When I'm alone, I see the faces of the people I killed in front of me, in a line. They be like ghosts. It's most bad at night, because then there's nobody to talk to, nothing to do except listen to those ghosts. It's bad, man." Then this tough, violent boy let a tear escape. Another single tear.
From Malcolm to Kip and Luke and Andrew and Mitchell and...
Malcolm and most of the others at MacCormick are among the most visible of those infected by the American epidemic of youth violence. But as we shall see in the chapters that follow, many of the elements of the stories I hear are also present in the lives of most young people who display lethal violence, wherever they come from.
These elements are often hidden and muted when a boy is from Springfield, Paducah, or Jonesboro rather than the inner city, but white boys from the American heartland reveal many of the same patterns in their most intimate and important relationships and in their inner lives as do their brothers at the Austin MacCormick Center. They may come from what appears on the surface to be a "good family" from the right side of the tracks, rather than one that is obviously dysfunctional. They may appear to be doing well in school, rather than dropping out for life on the streets. But the accumulation of risk factors is there to be found if we look carefully, deeply, and without prejudice. They are all our sons.
The risk factors are there to be found in the more subtle forms of psychological maltreatment, in alienation from positive role models, in a spiritual emptiness that spawns despair, in adolescent melodrama, in humiliation and shame, in the video culture of violent fantasy that seduces many of the emotionally vulnerable, and in the gun culture that arms our society's troubled boys.
There is an epidemic of youth violence, and no community is immune. This is the story I must tell in the chapters that constitute Part One of this book, as I trace how the inner life of a boy develops to the point where he is a candidate to become lethally violent. But we are not powerless. We can do more than simply watch this happen. What we can do will be the focus of Part Two.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Dr. James Garbarino's Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them. We hope they will provide you with new ways to address the many vitally important issues raised in this remarkable, compassionate study of youth violence and what we can do about it.
1. Garbarino has spent his career trying to understand why kids turn to violent crime. "I know that many individuals are desperate for answers," he writes, "but do we as a society really want to know? Sometimes as I listen to people talk about violent youth, I doubt that they really want to understand" [p. 20]. Do you believe that as a society we want to find answers, or would we rather not understand the reasons for youth violence? Why might we choose to turn our backs on this subject? Why has the American public largely chosen to ignore a crime rate that blights the lives of inner-city children?
2. Much of Lost Boys deals with the emotional dissociation resulting from pain and shame, and the desensitization that follows from such dissociation. Does Garbarino's explanation make sense to you? Can you see the same pattern in people, both young and old, who are not violent? Would you say that dissociation and desensitization are to some degree characteristic of our culture? Why or why not?
3. How does our culture define masculinity, and how do our ideals regarding masculinity contribute to violent behavior in young boys? Which of these ideals are the most destructive? Which, on the other hand, might be helpful in assisting boys to grow into healthy and productive men? How does Garbarino define "androgyny" [p. 169-70], and how might this concept help our children—and ourselves?
4. What does the psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan mean when he says that "human behavior is more simply human than otherwise" [p. 94]? What qualities, both good and bad, go into being human? What part does the "dark side" play in human nature? Is the "dark side" implicit in our very beings, or is it learned or cultivated?
5. How can we, as individuals and as a society, foster what psychologist Dan Goleman has called "emotional intelligence"? What values and characteristics make for emotional intelligence, and in what ways does our culture undermine these?
6. Garbarino discusses what he calls a "betrayal by adults" [p. 109]: adults, he says, have not kept their part of the social contract; they are not caring for children, and they are not in control of them. What, if any, evidence of this betrayal do you see in the culture at large and in your own community in particular? How has the situation changed since you were a child? Do you think that children and young people are justified in withholding their trust from adults?
7. Do you agree with Garbarino's thesis that "morality" is a relative term, highly dependent on context, and that extremely violent youths tend not to be immoral or amoral but simply operate by different moral standards, standards determined by the culture they have created? What are these standards? In what ways are they fatally at odds with the moral standards that American citizens uphold (or claim to)?
8. The experiences of kids in suburban and rural high schools are very different from those in urban areas. But what experiences do these groups of teenagers share? In what ways are contemporary middle-class kids under greater pressure, and more likely to act violently, than their counterparts of thirty years ago? What factors have caused this situation, and how might it continue to evolve?
9. Do you agree with Garbarino that trying teenagers as adults in ordinary criminal courts is absolutely wrong? What about executing teens? Have Garbarino's arguments influenced your thoughts on the death penalty? On the criminal justice system? On the juvenile justice system?
10. One of the boys Garbarino works with says that anyone would commit violent acts if placed in the circumstances under which he and so many others live their lives. Do you agree? Do you see the actions of these boys as a strategy of adaptation to their surroundings? As a way of gaining control? Or simply as license to behave immorally?
11. Garbarino believes that television has caused our youth great emotional damage and desensitization to violence. How would you respond to the question he poses: "Are we willing to accept tragedies like those in Jonesboro, Paducah, and Springfield as part of the cost of being an American, or are we willing to pay the price for a less violent society by depriving ourselves of violent imagery on television and in the movies, at least so far as children are concerned" [p. 199]? If you have children, will this book affect your monitoring of their television viewing, or even influence you to get rid of the television set altogether? What about interactive "point-and-shoot" video games?
12. Some Americans believe that the sale of guns should be heavily controlled or even made illegal; others argue that "guns don't kill, criminals kill" [p. 201]. What position do you take on this issue? What relevance, if any, does the Constitution's guarantee of the right to bear arms have on the question? What do violent crime statistics from other countries imply about the effect of easy access to firearms?
13. Garbarino contends that as a society "we are politically incapacitated by our distrust of public institutions" [p. 204]. How does this distrust manifest itself in the way we deal with children and youth? How does it manifest itself in other areas of our lives? What events in our history might have caused such distrust? To what extent must we overcome it if our children are to grow up safe and happy? What public institutions can and must be given power?
14. Do you agree with Garbarino's theory that large high schools are potentially dangerous for teenagers? What do your own experiences, or those of your children or friends, bring to bear on this question?
15. "Some people in the legal system and in the larger society scoff at the idea that being abused as a child should play a role in evaluating and judging a boy who has committed a violent crime, and use the term 'abuse excuse' to refer to this line of defense" [p. 217]. Is the term sometimes used too loosely? Have you ever been inclined to agree with these skeptics? Has this book changed your opinions on the subject? Is there any good way to legally define "abuse"?
16. Garbarino believes that the current "boot camp" style of rehabilitation is "most unsuited" to violent boys, given where they come from psychologically and who they are developmentally and spiritually. Might "boot camp" rehabilitation have a good effect on other types of troubled or difficult teens, or is it entirely flawed as a model? Do you like Garbarino's alternative "monastery model"? What elements of this model might be most effective? Can you find any flaws in it?
17. Why is the notion that society should lock up these boys and throw away the key gaining success in so many state legislatures? Do voters and legislators really believe this is the only solution, or are they simply unwilling to take on the onerous, expensive task of true rehabilitation?
18. What flaws has Garbarino pointed out in contemporary "family values," "just say no" political rhetoric? Has this book changed your response to this sort of rhetoric?