Have you ever wondered what drives some people to act in heinous, inhuman even evil ways, only to then show no remorse or empathy for those who suffer as a result? Have you found yourself feeling enraged and disgusted when hearing about a terrible crime that seems beyond comprehension? Found yourself asking “how could anyone possibly do such a thing?”.
These are questions I often get asked, usually at a party or in the pub when I’m least in the mood to draw my attention to the dark side of life. But, it shows how baffled people are by the behaviours of others, especially when they seem so contrary to human nature. Just scanning down the TV guide of an evening gives an indication of how curious we are about “true crime” and “the mind of a murderer”, and there are lots of experts out there who have dedicated their lives to helping us to make sense of criminal behaviour. But should we try to understand?
Depending on my mood when I’m asked, I might attempt to enlighten, but most of the time I point out that once you know what has gone on with someone to drive them to act in such ways, there is no going back. To understand is in some way to become connected to, and contaminated by, that understanding. Whatever the motivation for wanting to know more, be it morbid curiosity, fear, excitement, intellectual enlightenment, or a desire to prevent future crimes, once we dive down the rabbit hole into “wonderland” we will never be the same again.
Over the years my patients have taught me just how significant our early life experiences are in how we progress through life. How we treat others is massively influenced by how we are treated when we are learning to distinguish ourselves from others. As children our brains are still forming, the messages we get about ourselves and others during that time in our lives becomes part of the hard-wiring of our brain into adulthood. Keep telling a child they are a “little shit” and they will grow up embodying the belief that they are a “little shit”, worthless and nothing but trouble. At the extreme end of things, when a child is left to fend for themselves from as young as 4 or 5 years old, they lack the love, attention, physical and emotional nurturance and security necessary for their healthy development. They soon become attached to others who offer this to them, and sadly this is when they can fall prey to predatory older children and adults, who seize the opportunity to pretend to meet the child’s needs in return for the opportunity to offend against them.
What sort of messages does this child develop about themselves and others as they grow up subject to such a life? They are worthless, they are disgusting, they are less than others around them who have seemingly comfy loving homes and families that look after them. They learn that all they are good for is as sexual objects, the only way to get their needs met is to be exploited, and then to exploit others. They never feel good enough to fit in with everyone else, they always feel different and defective somehow. After all, wasn’t it their fault that their family didn’t love them enough to look after them? Wasn’t it their fault that they allowed their bodies to be abused in order to be fed, dressed, taken on trips, made to feel special?
To the outside world, of course it’s not their fault, but they have been so contaminated by the legacy of others’ shame that they cannot truly believe they were not to blame.
There is an old biblical saying that often comes to mind when thinking about the people I work with “the sins of the father will be visited upon their sons”. The damage inflicted upon children by their parents/carers, that is often as a result of the parents/carers’ own childhood experiences, creates shame, which in turn blocks compassion and empathy. That child grows up into an adult who cannot care about the needs of others because they have never experienced genuine care themselves, or worse, they have been subjected to such abuse that they cannot see beyond their own pain. Offending (amongst other harmful behaviours) then serves as a way of hitting out, keeping others at bay, getting revenge, numbing that pain, attempting to relieve that intolerable shame just for a few minutes or hours. Some of my patients have talked about wanting others to know what it feels like to be them, even for just a minute, in the hope that they can finally feel understood and maybe get some relief.
Of course, it never works! Inflicting pain or humiliation on others is never the road to recovery. But sadly, so many people live with this every day of their lives, never knowing that the shame is not theirs to carry, not theirs to pass on to others. If they are insightful enough to realise the impact of their actions on others, then the shame deepens and becomes reinforced by their actions.
For example, whatever had gone on in Ian Brady’s childhood to have caused his personality to become so damaged and fragmented that he was capable of killing children and incapable of acting with remorse or compassion, we will never know. It may be his crimes were driven by a desire to re-enact his own abuse, to “save” those children from what he suffered, to get some relief from his own traumas, I don’t know. But what I do know is the continual vilification of him in the popular press, calling him a monster and evil, will simply have served to reinforce the messages he learnt about himself as a child, forcing him to maintain the strategies he had developed to protect himself from the pain of abuse and the shame of being himself.
No one is born evil, there is no mechanism in the brain for that to be the case. My years of working with really damaged and damaging people has taught me that it is the legacy of shame inflicted on our children that creates their potential to harm others.
So if you are curious and want to know why someone could possibly commit such heinous offences, look through the eyes of a compassionate and benevolent parent at the life once lived, rather than with the gauze of fear and hatred, and let me know what you see.