September/October 2012 Featured Stories
Roots of Violence
by Julia Ingram
The morning after the massacre in a Colorado movie theater, I saw the college photo of the alleged killer and thought, “What a sweet face.” Then I wondered if he had once been a sweet boy.
James Holmes, 24, was charged with murder in the July 20 massacre during a packed showing of "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo. The rampage left 12 people dead and 58 injured.
As a psychotherapist, I am extremely interested in what series of events led Holmes to being capable of plotting and carrying out this evil act. As the case against Holmes is being built, a history of mental illness has been revealed.
More than a month before the incident, Holmes was identified as a possible safety threat by his own psychiatrist. Authorities at the University of Colorado were warned about Holmes in early June, a Denver TV station claimed. But school officials decided not to intervene because the doctoral student was in the process of withdrawing from the school.
According to NBC News, after the rampage, police recovered a package Holmes had mailed to the University of Colorado medical school that contained writings about killing people.
I’m hopeful that along with re-energized discussions about gun control in this country, that we can find the will and courage to confront the great sickness of our nation — violence.
Seeds of Violence
Where do we need to look first to begin to understand our violent citizens?
At the beginning — a child’s first nine months in the womb and his early upbringing. Robin Karr-Morse, a therapist and consultant to the Oregon legislature on children and family issues, and her colleague Meredith S. Wiley, wanted to know what factors lead to violent behavior in children, and more specifically in child murderers.
In their book, Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence, Karr-Morse and Wiley wove together case histories of children who have committed murder with research on the interaction of multiple factors: prebirth problems such as abuse of alcohol, drugs and tobacco by the mother, anxiety and depression of the mother, violence within the home or environment, and early childhood neglect and abuse.
One such child was Eric, the youngest person ever tried as an adult for murder — he was 13 when he tortured and brutally killed a four-year-old boy. When he finally confessed to the crime and was asked by the police what happened, Eric told them he “wanted to take [the victim] someplace and hurt him.”
Investigation into the social and biological factors contributing to Eric’s behavior revealed a family history of alcoholism and depression, his “strange” ears (which resulted in being belittled) and slow development likely caused by an anticonvulsant drug his mother took during Eric’s first few months of gestation.
In addition to a rough beginning, Eric was physically abused by his stepfather. He was diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder. It also looked like his mother was in denial of his problems, or just simply neglected to do anything about them. She certainly failed to protect him from being beaten.
The authors noted: “Experts believe [fetal alcohol exposure] is the largest factor setting up physical and neurological conditions that predispose American babies to aggressive and violent behavior.” The fetal exposure to nicotine, lead and cocaine has also been associated with later behavioral problems. There is more awareness today of this problem, and hopefully more pregnant women resist drinking alcohol and abusing drugs.
Karr-Morse and Wiley decry our nation’s neglect of our most vulnerable citizens. Shamefully, the problems they laid out when they published their book in 1997 are still with us and in many cases even worse: teen pregnancy in on the rise. The U.S. has the highest infant mortality rate among industrialized nations (and double that for African-American babies). The latest census indicates one in five children lives below the poverty line. And on average, each day five children are killed by abuse or neglect, and each day five children or teens take their own lives.
Since 1979, when child gun death and injury data collection began, 116,385 children and teens have been killed by wounds brought about by firearms. Black children and teens are disproportionately affected by gun-related injuries and fatalities. In 2009, for instance, black children made up 45 percent of all gun-related deaths, although they represented only 15 percent of the country’s child population.
Heal the Wounded
As a therapist, I frequently work with adults who were abused and/or neglected as children, or had difficulties prior to or at birth. Some clients — when in regression hypnosis were instructed to go to the source of their chronic anxiety, low self-esteem or anger toward and/or distrust of people — reported remembering or “knowing” that they were unwanted.
Two such clients discovered the reason was their conception by rape. Other clients report feeling overwhelmed and terrified they would not survive because of the violence in their mother’s life. Many of these clients were so badly treated as children, it is no wonder they treated themselves badly as adults, or conversely, as in the case of Eric, they turned their rage outward and hurt others.
What is heartening to me is that my clients have decided that, while they can’t change the world, or their past, they can do something about the cycle of violence within their own family.
One client recently has come to grips with how she used the same abusive child rearing practices raising her children as her father and mother used on her. After her own personal healing, she made amends to her adult children. Now she practices loving kindness when she is with her children, grandchildren and others within her extended family and community, and when appropriate, she seeks to protect those too young to protect themselves.
In the case study from Ghosts from the Nursery, Eric was an “at risk” child because of his mother's use of alcohol and an anticonvulsant drug. Had Eric gotten appropriate evaluations beginning as early as two years old, his future aggressiveness may have been mitigated. I wonder how much of Holmes' violence was in evidence as a child? Risk assessment needs to begin in preschool, and treatment and family support should be available to all.
I often repeat to clients what I once heard from a Native American elder, “If you heal something within yourself, you heal it seven generations back and seven generations forward.”
Julia Ingram is a therapist and New York Times bestselling author. To read an excerpt from her book in progress, Born Scared: When Anxiety was Created in the Womb, at Birth, or in Prior Lifetimes, visit www.juliaingram.com.