Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Sean Harris as Micheletto in "The Borgias"

I have before me a downloaded article called “Psychopathology, trauma and delinquency: subtypes of aggression and their relevance for understanding young offenders.”   http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3141659/   There are eight co-authors to this paper.  It’s long and complicated, so I’m going to reduce it to a kind of clinical case report of “Micheletto,” a fictional character from “The Borgias.

The essence of the paper is that the single-figure percentage of adolescents who get into trouble through aggression (violence), esp. those labeled delinquent by law enforcement, are under-studied.  Not surprising since they are resistant, elusive, and scary.  But that means they are treated as a uniform category when they clearly are not.  As a “first cut” (eek!) of sorting, the authors distinguished between two “kinds” of aggression.  One is “RADI.”  (Reactive, Affective, Defensive and Impulsive or “hot.”)

Sean Harris in "Deliver Us from Evil"

This kind is triggered by anticipation of negative situations and can include as reactions “fear, disgust, contempt, sadness, rage, frustration.”  Afterwards, when calm again, the person can be sorry though confused about what the trigger might have been.  Since emotional systems work in reciprocity -- arousal on one side met by restraint on the other side -- the problem might arise from either the strength of the stormy passion or from a weakness or even failure of self-control, recognizing options, or understanding the destruction they are wreaking. 

Sean Harris in "Prometheus"?

The second kind is “PIP.” (Planned, Instrumental and Predatory -- or if you feel that’s too pejorative -- Proactive)  That is, it’s with a goal in mind that benefits the person and it could be described as “cold.”  As I write, there is a murder case being considered in Missoula.  The outcome depends on whether the killer shot a student rummaging in his garage out of fear and self-protection (hot) or whether he had set a trap and deliberately shot the student (cold).  The word “callous” is used in this study in the way most people would use “sociopathic.”  We weight it as worse than an outburst.

"Serena" -- a "good guy" role

The claim is that the two kinds of aggression are controlled by different brain “neuro-architectural networks,” that is, connected features of the brain that create a “chord” or pattern of function.  The first one RADI (hot) appears to be a hard-wired threat response from the very early evolution of animals.  (It’s found in all mammals.)  The connections present at the moment of the outburst go from the medial nucleus of the amygdala to the medial hypothalamas to the dorsal half of the periaquaeductal gray.  Restraints against over-reacting are in the anterior cingulate, the ventrolateral and orbital-prefrontal cortex.  These activities are said to be confirmed by fMRI images, though I don't know how they got an enraged person into that tube.  Or was it the tube that triggered the response?

A first intimation of threat triggers freezing -- we see it in animals (deer in the headlights) who stand, lift noses, stare, re-orient their ears.  At a higher level, flight takes hold and there goes the deer with its white tail waving.  But if trapped, the deer goes up onto its back legs to fight, and strikes with its front hooves, which are quite sharp enough to disembowel a human.  This is not Micheletto.  It could easily be a Demon Father, fueled by alcohol -- let’s call him “Maximo,” and claim he has red hair, since Micheletto does.  Stag rampant, red eyes and maybe the kind of red nose a drunk gets.  This is the domestic abuser who repents the next morning, a familiar type.

Micheletto corresponds to the second category, PIP, which is complex and gradually develops through childhood.  It is at least partly created by Maximo, never knowing when an attack might come.  A simple neuro-architectural explanation is not possible because the response is learned: unemotional, calculated, deceptive, gaming.  The whole brain is involved and even the possibility of several aspects of consciousness, split identities or attitudes that war with each other or protect each other.  

Some animals, especially primates, are capable of scheming, but they have never been documented with bipolar or schizogenic behavor.  The character Micheletto is constrained only by loyalty, which puts him morally superior to the assassins who will change sides for a price.  In the series, Micheletto’s depravity is indicated by his being a “sodomite” which also justifies and forces his secrecy, just as incest makes Lucretia sneaky and desperate.  Which is worse: loving the same sex or loving a sib?  But the conceit of our times -- that love can redeem anyone -- keeps them sympathetic to a mainstream audience, though their love looks more like lust.  They both seem needy.

"Mission Impossible 5"

The authors of this study of delinquents say they are trying to understand how to help both aggressive types, RADI and PIP.  They can suggest specific pharmaceutical strategies to damp down passion or even the fear and rage in a Maximo.  AA might be a good start towards self-understanding.  (There don’t seem to be drugs that will strengthen the restraints.)  But they are still at a loss about how to help Michelletto.  He’s a bull-fighter who has taken on the minotaur and survived.  Maybe he even killed the minotaur.  Maybe he had learned from his mother how to duck, dodge, placate, seem to repent and engage.  He’s likely to interpret all the people around him in those terms.  How does one break through?  Love/lust makes him weep, but he still murders his lovers.  Violence and intimacy are mixed.

"Tears of Blood"

It’s not that Micheletto is hopelessly evil.  It’s just that he plays all the odds and suspects all motives.  He IS capable of loving in a way, but circumstances force him to kill what he loves and he finds in that a strange and terrible intimacy, to hold someone close as they die.  He cries out for help, asking God to say something, but -- he tells his patron -- God’s answer was “nothing.”  Silence.  Not even advice from the Devil.

Micheletto is in a double-bind.  He knows that any sign of weakness will attract Maximo types trying to make him suffer without any of the constraints or recognition of father to son, minimal as they may be.  They just want to eat his pain.  He’s done it himself.  But he also knows that puffing up, pretending to be powerful when he really isn’t, allowing anyone to see the constant anxiety that flares up into terror if he lets it -- all that takes enormous energy.  He is invested in constraint, dares not investigate his own inner life.  But if he finds he can seduce others, put them to work in his own interest, then he becomes very good at deception.

Among the boys in groups I’ve known, mostly in the classroom, on and off the Blackfeet rez, there have been both of these “types.”  Complex Michelettos were only reachable occasionally, usually by art.  Writing.  Performance arts, like music or theatre.  This can lead to redemption to some extent, but too many find it’s not enough to damp down aggression enough to be in control.  Too many, when caught in a truly terrible situation can be catapulted into suicide as the only flight available.  

Sean Harris specializes in these roles.  His part as a mass shooter in “Southcliffe” is an example.  Deep empathy, a psychoanalyst would claim, can help a PIP, but mostly society just denies anything is wrong.  They’re too scary.  They don’t confront like, say, an oppositional defiant kid.  It's always a big surprise when they begin to shoot people.

These two “types” of aggression are so different that I’m not sure there’s enough similarity to justify bracketing them together, except that we don’t like their behavior.  RADI is the result of brain hard-wiring but PIP appears to come from deeply constructed assumptions about the nature of the world that developed because of experience.  To what extent are we making assumptions about people who appear to have no conscience, no empathy as though it were the fault of the individual instead of the society?

What interests me and is open to further investigation is the social tolerance of macho Maximo, his bad temper and drinking, his abuse of wife and children, that produces the next generation which is “callous.”  There is some anecdotal understanding, but maybe it overlooks the degree to which Micheletto needs a primary powerful figure in order to operate: a cardinal, a king.  He is the shadow of the throne, so why not remove both, as we rightly did in the case of Watergate?  (Nixon as RADI, Gordon Liddy as PIP.)

One argument would be that the two types are part of a larger ecology of society that supports both RADI and PIP.  The evidence would be the multitude of popular storylines about the intemperate hero (dad) and the enabling partner (mom or sidekick).  The connecting tissue is economic, and I include the research sociologists, always looking for funding of their own underlying investigative architecture that justifies "serving society", trying to find ways to control youngsters -- but without disturbing the legal structures already in place and by expanding the usefulness of pharma-solutions to control and suppress.   Both are major money-making bureaucratic enterprises.

The planetary connectome of cultures includes brain architecture that evolved millennia ago and was basic to survival -- interacting with the consequences of what today’s culture teaches our children, but not enough to prevent war.  Somewhere in the welter and scramble is a real-life Micheletto, a suffering soul.

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