Like so many of you, I’ve been stunned and saddened over the carnage in Aurora last weekend. I cannot shape my mind around any adequate words to address the sense of loss, of anguish, of sorrow — particularly for the families of victims, but also for all of us whose sense of safe-home has been a bit further eroded. Our human instinct is to do something, yet we do not know what.
It reminds me of a parable I share in the epilogue of my book: Three villagers are strolling along the bank of their community’s river, and suddenly to their dismay they see a child, then another, then many children, being swept past them in the water’s swift current. One villager without hesitation dives in to try and save at least one or two; another dashes up the street to a shop in order to call for rescue help. (There are no cell phones in this parable.) The third villager simply runs away, which shocks her companions. They are stunned by her insensitivity and apparent apathy to this tragedy. But she is neither insensitive nor apathetic; she runs her heart out up-river to see how she might prevent the children from falling into the river in the first place.
Let me first say that what I’m writing here is not about blame, it’s about seeking understanding. It’s about going upstream and finding the slippery slopes.
We don’t know yet what complex interplay of factors (his individual psychology, family situation, social environment, etc.) led to the Aurora killer James Holmes’ horrific actions; psych-pundits are already offering diametrically opposing speculations. Whether schizophrenic, sociopathic, psychopathic, delusional, desperately depressed or some inscrutable combination thereof, we do tend to want to label it (“deranged,” “monstrous”) so we can place it “out there” far away from us — distant, other, foreign.
But the fact is, other than schizophrenia — which is indeed a sudden-onset mental illness with symptoms beginning in late adolescence / early adulthood — most mental illness and emotional disturbance leading to violence finds its roots not “out there” at all but where few people are looking: at home, and more specifically, in the nursery.
In their monumental work on the roots of violence, Ghosts in the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence, child welfare experts Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley point out that while there is a complex interplay of many factors that contribute to such tragically extreme antisocial outcomes, they highlight the little-acknowledged fact that “a majority take root in the nursery, where few people are looking.”
They distill a massive amount of research into the conclusion that “the loss of the ability to regulate the intensity of feelings is by far the most far-reaching effect of early trauma and neglect.”
…a growing body of scientific knowledge demonstrates that maltreatment during the nine months of fetal growth and the first twenty-four months after birth often leads to violent older children and adults. …Through the interplay of the developing brain with the environment during the nine months of gestation and the first two years after birth, the core of an individual’s ability to think, feel, and relate to others is formed. Violent behavior often begins to take root during those thirty-three months as the result of chronic stress, such as domestic or child abuse, or through neglect, including the prenatal ingestion of toxins. Even where violent behavior does not occur as a direct result of these stressors, maltreatment of a baby may lead to the permanent loss or impairment of key protective factors — such as intelligence, trust, and empathy — that enable many children to survive and even overcome difficult family circumstances and later traumas.
“Maltreatment” during gestation may be due to nothing more malicious that Mom’s unintended undernourishment or her unwitting experience of intense or chronic stresses; and during the first two years, maltreatment may not be intended or even conscious, but rather stemming from parents’ own lack of inner capacities and resources. Brand new research suggests that the tolerances for what can cause prenatal changes are dauntingly narrow and seemingly unforgiving: even slightly less-than-optimal nutrient supply during gestation was associated with changes in neuro-cognitive maturation in late adolescence! Nature appears to be an incredibly strict task-mistress.
And yet her rules are not so complicated. To assure psychosocial wellbeing, infants and young children need mainly just relationship: connection with a very small number of consistent, predictable, attuned, well-regulated adults — presumably mothers and fathers. Maybe an extended family member or trusted hired caregiver. As Burton White found in his landmark Harvard’s Preschool Project (whose results were wildly unpopular because they were inconveniently at odds with burgeoning women’s lib) and reported in his classic The First Three Years of Life, “I remain totally convinced that, to get off to the best start in life, babies need to spend a great deal of their waking time during the first three years of life with older people who are deeply in love with them. Although this ideal circumstance does not always prevail in families, it is much more often found there than in any substitute-care arrangement.”
While it may be more reassuring to believe in bad seeds and deranged genes, violently antisocial personalities are usually made and not simply born. I’m hoping for his sake and for ours as a country seeking understanding, psychiatrist Bruce Perry has a chance to interview the Aurora shooter. As the nation’s leading authority in the traumatic early roots of extreme mental disturbance Perry has a keen understanding of how conscience and civilized behavior develop — or fail to.
In his book Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential — And Endangered Perry and co-author Maia Szalovitz trace one such human tragedy whose contours are most likely not so uncommon, if somewhat more extreme. Out of nothing more evil than simple ignorance — together most likely with their own early lack of close nurturance — a wealthy, successful couple hired a nanny to care for their son Ryan, since the father worked full-time and the mother wanted to continue with her full schedule of social and philanthropic activities. That fact alone wouldn’t have necessarily posed a problem for baby Ryan’s development, since his young nanny provided him with the soothing, closeness and responsiveness he needed for his social brain to wire up well, and for empathy to flourish.
Ryan’s parents believed in quality time with their boy, and spent about an hour or so with him each day. When Ryan was eight weeks old his mother was distressed to notice that he fretted when she held him, but smiled and cooed at the nanny. The nanny was fired for being “over-involved” and a new one was hired. Ryan had eighteen nannies by the time he was three. As a decorated high-school athlete already accepted to an Ivy League college, Ryan lured a developmentally disabled neighbor girl to his eighteenth birthday party at his house, gang raped her with his friends, made her “put on a show” for them, and never flinched. With sangfroid he related his story to Perry with indignant conviction — that he didn’t “know what the problem was, really,” and that “she never would have gotten laid by anyone as good as us.”
Building Beautiful Youth
Besides the tremendous suffering, cruelty, and injustice of the Aurora shootings — which can leave us feeling hopeless about making a difference — there have also emerged astonishing stories of selfless bravery by young, loving men, which should serve to give us great hope (even as we ache for their loved ones).
If you are raising a child – or even taking part in the raising of a child as a teacher, mentor or caregiver — to have social intelligence and empathy, I hope you can appreciate what an imperative, long-view piece of activism you are contributing far up the river.
Like FDR said, “We can’t build the future for our youth, but we can build the youth for our future.”
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
About Marcy Axness
I'm the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers," and also the adoption expert on Mothering's expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I'm delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I'm happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I'm offering "A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool."