Shock and Awe:
How Child Abuse and Dissociation Drive Violent Crime

by Abby Stein, Ph.D.

"But if you speak with these killers about their childhoods, or read their case files, you will not feel the need to consult the human genome project about the causes of their violence. The scenarios are all there in the offender's early biography.
-- The author

I gave this paper as a presentation at the 2008 International Association for Psychohistory Convention. A funny thing happened on the way to the podium. My presentation, originally submitted with the title "How Child Abuse and Dissociation Drive Violent Crime" was misprinted in the original mailing as "Child Abuse, Dissociation, Shock and Awe." Of course, I called to notify the appropriate authorities of the mistake and make sure it was fixed in subsequent mailings.

Following my initial reaction, I started to think--wait a minute--Freud (1960) said there are no accidents. I wondered if "Shock and Awe" might indeed be a better title for a presentation about child abuse and criminal violence than the one I had originally intended.

"Shock and Awe" is best known as a modern military doctrine. Most of us became aware of it during the carpet bombing of Baghdad in 2003. The real name of the battle plan was "rapid dominance" (Ullman, Wade, & Edney, 1996). But it has come to be known as "Shock and Awe" because the purpose of that type of attack is not really to take physical control of a country. "Shock and Awe" demonstrates the massive psychological power you wield over a people. These campaigns are spectacular displays of force that paralyze the senses, destroy perceptive capacities, colonize the mind, demolish the will and, as we have seen in Iraq, lay the groundwork for future violence.

Honestly, I cannot really think of a better way to describe the ongoing effects of child abuse. So consider this a presentation about Shock and Awe campaigns that happen in the home. And about the devastating collateral damage such tactics cause in all our lives.

On a fateful day at Bellevue Hospital many years ago I met my first murderer. I remember mainly that the man asked to be sedated and manacled to a chair because he feared he might hurt someone on the psychiatric team. Somewhere during the interview he recalled being tied to a tree for punishment when he was little and, oh yes, having learned his multiplication tables with his father's pistol cocked to his head. In my naivete, I was sure I was seeing someone with a uniquely shocking story, a statistical outlier, an extreme case. Or--as the forensic staff would constantly insinuate--maybe the man was just an outright liar, an evil seed malingering a terrible past to avoid paying for his crime.

Such moral ambiguity concerned the psychiatric team not at all. Because the Supreme Court (Dusky v. US, 362 U.S. 402 1960) has offered only vague outlines for what constitutes incapacity to stand trial, for all practical purposes if the defendant isn't completely unmoored from reality he is usually considered competent to proceed. And so we sent him back to the jail cell that he came from. I went back to where I had come from-two floors above the prison-on the child and adolescent ward. There, I was training to perform abuse and neglect evaluations of children.

It was holding this lucky combination of jobs-screening abused children and adult criminals at the same time--that gave me a unique vantage point from which to view the transgenerational transmission of violence. Of course, we have known for years that violence in the home foreshadows violence in the streets, but we have lacked a compelling theory for exactly how that happens.

Are children just imitating their sadistic caretakers? Are they sustaining subtle kinds of brain damage, injuries that make them reckless, incapable of managing their anger? Many believe it is trickle down predation: the boss humiliates the father, the father belts the mother, the mother smacks the kid, who kicks the dog, who bites the social worker.

Because of the nature of my work, I came to see the two groups-the brutalized children and the brutalizing adults--as the bookends of a terrible tragedy. I wanted to understand what happened in between. Let me walk you through the evolution of that understanding.

My firsthand experiences with hospitalized kids revealed how annihilating childrearing practices could be, and led me to suspect that the story told by my first murderer was, perhaps, not so easily dismissed. Thanks to the groundbreaking work of C. Henry Kempe, a pioneer in the medical recognition of child abuse, we were learning how to document maltreatment. In what seemed the most surrealistic of tutorials, interns learned how to differentiate one brand of steam iron from another by tracing the circular impressions the scalding had left on a child's back.

Invariably, the children I interviewed insisted that their injuries were self-inflicted, even when the wounds occurred in impossible to reach places. "I sat on the radiator by accident", is how the kids would explain striations on their buttocks. "I fell out of bed" was the mantra recited to explain broken arms, missing teeth, concussions, and black eyes. Kids even swore that they themselves had provoked sexual abuse--by curling up in an adult's lap, by disrobing before a bath, or by asking to be tucked in at bedtime.

No one ever blamed their caretakers. Quite the contrary. One 15 year old girl told me that her mother--who had been manually examining her to make sure her hymen was intact since the age of four-was doing it "because she loves me so much, and just wants to make sure I'm not raped by my step-dad, like she was by hers".

On the prison ward, I was learning that these preposterous self-blaming narratives only hardened with age. Men told me that they were only beaten as children because they were "too black" (for punishment, this man's father would leave him in the closet for the KKK), or as one guy told me "I was only beaten for doing something really not eating."

When I asked another man on the prison ward about the origins of an old burn mark on his arm, he explained perfunctorily, "Oh, that's a brand--all babies got to get it to keep from being stolen." Maybe that's what he was told, or maybe that's the story he made up to explain why his parents put their cigarettes out on him. In his magical narrative, being burned becomes a kind of security; a proof of his parents love. His scar becomes a talisman against separation or abandonment (Stein, 2007).

History has taught us that children are easy targets. Sociologists Richard Gelles and Murray Straus (1988), who documented extraordinary rates of violence in American homes, offered an elegant causal explanation for the ubiquitous brutality in a chapter titled "Because They Can." Indeed. Parents abuse their children because they can. And, I might add, because it was done to them. And because there is rarely any social support to not hit, slap, kick, or punch someone over whom you can have ...what was the military term? Rapid dominance.

Children as a class are disempowered by virtue of their small physical and cognitive stature, and their economic and emotional dependency. But unlike other mechanizations used to break the wills of entire classes of people, child abuse-although widespread--occurs in secret. Its victims are utterly alone, left to process their terror and pain in complete isolation (Masson, 1986). Each traumatic encounter within the claustrophobic dyad of brutal caretaker and injured child presents the child with the same grim choice: either merge with the abusing parent or lose the only attachment you have ever had.

Abused children grown up may be driven to recreate this toxic attachment, to share the dread and torment that they once experienced-by finding victims of their own. Their internal worlds are hopelessly split, between victimhood and perpetration, between innocence and guilt, between the immediacy of then and the ephemera of now. I first saw this incredible splitting in a little girl of four.

A lovely, delicate looking preschooler in braids was brought in for an evaluation; her mother was suspected of selling the child's sexual services in exchange for drugs. Doll play proceeded conventionally until a male doll was introduced, at which point the child became very agitated, eventually picking the male doll up by the ankles and banging his head furiously against the table's edge, while screaming "you bastard" at the top of her little lungs. The enactment was so violent that we feared the girl would injure herself. The quick-witted psychiatrist doing the evaluation, Dorothy Lewis, quickly grabbed another male doll and announced "Hello. I am a police officer. I am going to arrest this bad man." At which point the girl looked up, relaxed (almost trance-like, we all agreed later) and-rubbing her stockinged foot against the crotch of the policeman doll-implored: "Please don't take him away, I need him" (Stein, 2007).

What is happening to this little girl? Why does she ricochet in this way, from child to batterer to whore? To fuse with her abuser offers the illusion of prediction and control. However, the price of this union is an internal, and perhaps eternal, enthrallment to violation.

I heard this Orwellian conflation of perpetrator and victim again and again in the stories of adult offenders. One man told me his 4 year old daughter had seduced him, a narrative originally formed to exonerate the parents who had used him for their own sexual pleasure when he was small. Caesar Rodriguez, who beat his 7 year old stepdaughter Nixmarie Brown to death after weeks of torture, said that he had only been protecting his family, and contemplated entering his "World's Greatest Dad" coffee mug into evidence at the murder trial (Shifrel & Conner, 2008). John Atchison, a former State prosecutor, wrote in an FBI affidavit after his arrest that he was "always gentle and loving" when he had sex with five-yearolds (Bunkley, 2007). Dennis Rader, better known by his nickname "BTK", which stands for his modus operandi: bind, torture, kill, said at his trial that he hoped to be reunited with his victims in the afterlife (Wilgoren, 2005). He felt that much "bonded" (his word) to them (Dateline/NBC, 2005).

I have come to believe that these stories of complicit victims and loving predators are not mere rationalizations, excuses to the police when one is caught with their pants down. I am convinced instead that they are deeply believed in imaginings, culled from one's own childhood nightmares about what constitutes love, caring, and attachment. I think about it this way: a violent crime is a kind of dissociated enactment.

During early, intense, and repetitive trauma, there is an adaptive disengagement: a dissociation from any meaningful assessment of fear, or pain, or horror. Because to be fully present for it--and to process its implications-would quite simply overwhelm the brain.

This dissociation may help one survive the initial traumatic situation but-because information about the threatening experience has remained unformulated--it cannot be reflected upon or learned from.

Those who study brain development and physiological responses to trauma have discovered fascinating things about the way that the brain formats abusive experiences. The perceptual--affective flood engendered by a traumatic encounter-the Shock and Awe-is configured mainly as an autonomic reply to danger; a fight or flight response. Basically this means that incoming information is coded in the most primitive areas of the brain without any accompanying linguistic elaboration. People are literally scared speechless (Elin, 1995), rendered incapable of creating a narrative line to understand what is happening to them. Regions of the brain that are implicated in the ability to reflect upon mental contents, first by attaching emotional significance to them and then by representing intentions symbolically, are especially hard hit. Permanent hormonal and neurochemical changes, even deformations of neuroanatomical structure may follow intense or prolonged exposure to threatening stimuli (van der Kolk, 1996, p. 220). Bessel van der Kolk writes:

The experience is laid down, and later retrieved, as isolated images, bodily sensations, smells and sounds that feel alien and separate from other life experiences. Because the hippocampus has not played its usual role in helping to locate the incoming information in time and space, these fragments continue to lead an isolated existence. Traumatic memories are timeless and egoalien (van der Kolk, p. 295).

Maltreated children are characteristically frozen in the traumatic moment, feeling like someone, but not really themselves, and with no real demarcation among past, present, and future. Devoid of historical perspective, absent the learned link between cause and effect, the abused child grown up proceeds without premeditation. Indeed, only the bad act itself announces the intention to commit it.

In one research study I did (Stein, 2007) with 65 offenders, the vast majority of the men, roughly 80% I would say, were horrifically abused in childhood: Broken bones, loss of consciousness, attempts on their lives by parents or parental surrogates. About a third of those I interviewed were sexually abused, often by more than one caretaker. This is a relatively common historical portrait of serious offenders.

Of the 65, the eleven most pathologically dissociated offenders had committed the most vicious crimes: kidnapping, attempted matricide, murder, arson, serial rape, aggravated assault, and armed robbery. Five of these men professed amnesia for their offenses, although they did not deny committing them. This is actually low as a national average. Research (Partwatiker, Holcomb, & Menninger, 1985; Taylor & Koppelman, 1984; Bradford & Smith, 1979) indicates that as many as a third of violent offenders may not remember committing their crimes; some studies have found that percentage of offenders claiming amnesia for their acts climbs as high as 50% when the crime is homicide (O'Connell,1960).

But even when dissociation is not so complete as to induce amnesia, it is still severs memory in notable ways. For example, despite the destruction they have wrought, almost all the felons I have worked with describe themselves as peaceful; their violent selves feel like what psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan (1956) called the "not me" part of personality:

"I'm not that type of person. I would never hurt anybody". (The victim was bound and gagged. The baseball bat on the bed was covered in blood, which had also sprayed the ceiling.)

"I'm a peaceful person". (The victim was decapitated.)

"I couldn't even picture myself doing it". (The victim was stabbed in both eyes, before a knife was plunged into her chest.)

After such cases, the newspapers scream that such a criminal monster must be the spawn of the devil. Even noted academics persist in the belief that murderers are born, not made, they are some biological anomaly, the product of mutant genes. But if you speak with these killers about their childhoods, or read their case files, you will not feel the need to consult the human genome project about the causes of their violence. The scenarios are all there in the offender's early biography. The brutality he endured as a child has become the bloody signature of his adult criminality.

Although many criminologists prefer to think that crime is the outcome of a rational cost-benefit analysis by the criminal, or signals the indulgence of some perverse hedonistic fantasy, my data demonstrate the opposite. Like James Gilligan (1996, p. 84), who used to run Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, concludes that there is only one problem with the rational self-interest theory of crime--it's completely wrong! In my experience too, most criminals act with little thought to the consequences of their crimes, either to others or to themselves.

Second, regarding the fantasy hypothesis of crime, I have found that many offenders' so-called fantasies are really just highly ritualized reenactments of early abuse scenarios to which they are driven to return. To call these things "fantasies" is to miss something fundamental about their nature; it ignores the difference between a liberating flight of fancy and a perpetual enslavement to reality.

My interviews with felons suggest that it is not the perversion quotient of their fantasies, but the underlying deviance of their early attachments that makes the interpersonal landscape so toxic. It is the tendency for symbolization processes to rapidly deteriorate in the face of perceived threat, coupled with a lust for symbiotic merger, which lays a foundation for the perverse, violent reenactment of dissociated traumata (Stein, 2004).

And yet, I disagree with those who would label dissociation the pathological domain of a few mentally compromised offenders.

The degree to which violence against children is institutionalized and practiced worldwide is the degree to which dissociation functions not only as an individual psychopathology but as a shared cultural artifact. We socially approve some kinds of dissociative splitting because society cannot function without a certain level of aggression, and violence cannot be enacted without this obligatory psychic splitting. Thus was an executioner, who participated in 19 executions, able to insist that he had "never killed anyone" with the same conviction as every other murderer with whom I have spoken (Lewis, 1998).

We like to believe that the ones we harm are agents of their own mistreatment. The prisons are full of pedophiles who tell you that little children have seduced them, rapists who believe their victims wanted it, and killers who killed because of a fancied disrespect on the part of the people they attacked. So too are homes, schools, and churches filled with authority figures who punish children because "they need it." And of course, governments are filled with leaders who topple distant regimes "for the people's own good." Indeed, were dissociation not ubiquitous in the human condition, there would probably not only be no crime, there might be no infanticide, no raping and pillaging, maybe even no war.

All violence is in some way a story of dissociation. It begins in the cradle. But it ends on your doorstep.

Watch where you step.

Abby Stein, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor in the Interdisciplinary Studies Program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She has published a book entitled, Prologue to Violence: Child Abuse, Dissociation, and Crime. New York: The Analytic Press, 2006.. An analysis of how early trauma shapes adult violence, based on personal interviews with 65 incarcerated men. Check out her website.

The author's article, "Shock and Awe: How Child Abuse and Dissociation Drive Violent Crime", appeared in the Spring, 2009 issue of The Journal of Psychohistory. Reprinted with permission.


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