Friday, March 04, 2016

"SAVAGE SPAWN: Reflections on Violent Children." by Jonathan Kellerman

“Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children” by Jonathan Kellerman is a quick roundup (120 pages) of the state of research and observation in 1999.  Keying off of school shootings, he traces out the inextricable interactions of biology, culture and individual life experience (some of them little more than a decade long, a few even less) that one can see in retrospect much more clearly than as predictors.  Surely if we could see cause-and-effect instead of only co-incidence, we would take action to prevent tragedy.  Right?  This is a narrative crime writer in a nonfiction mode.  You won't be bored.

The research on neurology and head trauma was only beginning at the time of Kellerman’s writing.  Everyone liberal agreed that stigma, poverty, and broken families were associated with violent children, but no one, not even Kellerman, was thinking about the kind of forces described by Michael Rice in a post on  In the past such stories have been filtered through reporters, editors, and media investors and advertisers.  Of course, it is explicitly a pitch for clemency.

Kellerman is a tough thinker, basing his attitudes on much experience, some of it bitter.  He is a commercial writer — that is, he writes to sell and is edited, advertised, consulted by law enforcers, and rewarded with prizes.  It looks to me as though his title, “Savage Spawn” has an ironic dimension though I’m sure it helps sales.  In his favor, he works constantly as a child clinical psychologist to at least pull a few kids out of the quicksand.  If that’s what it is.  But his own life is very nice, though dominated by writing since his wife and children are also writers.

In this book much space is allotted to trying to distinguish between kids who even at a young age are dangerous because that’s the only path to survival in a world of child-hating boyfriends and zonked out mothers.  But there are also kids who are not capable of empathy and therefore not able to connect or care about anything.  The five years I spent at animal control taught me that this second kind of kid, though rare, is undoubtedly biologically based.  That is, some dogs are biters because they misinterpret what’s going on, some are fear-biters because they’ve been abused, and some simply have broken brain wiring.  These are not pit-bulls.  They can be any kind of dog.  One looks in their eyes and sees something alien. 

There is a phenomenon called “spaniel rage” that is like rabies: the dog attacks everyone and everything but is not infected with the rabies virus.  It’s rare and not well understood, but the equivalent of some of the   kids who are school shooters.  And the only thing that can stop that dog is to shoot it.  We only had one case while I was there, a golden retriever, but it was memorable.  Even then, there is an aspect to kid shooters that dogs can’t model, which is cold-blooded planning over time, often very clever.  (How can anyone call a mass shooting “intelligent”?) 

What Kellerman goes on to clearly describe is family dynamics that create monsters: assigning one kid to be the repository of all the hatred and frustration in a family; overt approval of the standard culture of nice suburban families while covertly endorsing guns, defiance, self-destruction until it bursts out in an abscess like the grown men who seize some territorial exemption from the rules that ends in shoot-outs with law enforcement.  Dogs DO form packs that kill and maim other animals, actions they never did alone.  This means attachment to each other at the expense of everything else.

Maybe this is a good place to refer to Michael Rice (linked above) who describes how the social culture influenced him by making the terms of everything into money.  Drugs =
money.  Money IS a drug.  Money will not give a person safety or status or love, but if you’re young and stupid, the idea gets to a person and translates into violence.  In early adulthood with a “quality” prison system — Kellerman is the only person I’ve ever heard talk about a “quality” orphanage! — a legal criminal can recover and rebuild a life, but the wounds can reinfect.

Kellerman talks about “cold blooded” violence versus “hot blooded” violence.  Where I live there is plenty of both.  That is, rage and desperation are often flammable, esp. when soaked with alcohol.  On a rez there is a legitimate political dimension that feeds the flames.  Not so much cold-blooded determination to get money or status because the population density isn’t thick enough for real profit.  But there is a hunger for intense experience that can create increasing callousness, a need for more extreme events to trigger arousal.  We all hunger for arousal, but most people can take it in through stories or adventures.

Always a few youngsters become hooked on defiance, the storm of fighting all authorities and restrictions.  For a while it was thought that it was due to the authorities all being white or white-owned, so the tribe started its own detention facility staffed with locals.  It didn’t take long for some kids to end up duct-taped to chairs with hoods over their heads to keep them from spitting, a short step from torture.  The program was closed down.  We are very suspicious of the nearby contract prison.

In the old frontier days sociopathic (not the same as psychotic) kids — both white and not — became loners and outlaws and the environment itself snuffed them young, because in hard times and places, one needs community to survive.  Where the demographics are thick, there are generally enough predators to form a pack or at least a profit-making network.  Of course, as any police-based TV series shows, it takes violence to keep that network in line.  Kids are part of it as low-level runners and smugglers easily controlled without weapons -- just beatings and drugs.

What Kellerman aptly calls “the nature-nurture tango” is certainly key.  He is disgusted by bleeding hearts like celebrities who take on killers because they are “gifted” and try to keep them as pets, no different from people who acquire dangerous animals to show they are privileged.  I helped bring in a pet lion.  After I left, there was a tiger.  A kid had an aquarium of rattlesnakes.  Everyone loves a good shot of adrenaline — life becomes technicolor.  Those who respond to a phrase like “savage spawn” love the special effects of vomiting pea soup and bursting into flames.

That means the potential for any culture to teach their children previously transgressive behavior now considered normal (only yesterday grounds for punishment) goes mostly unrecognized.  Until one tries to teach, esp. as a substitute, in today’s schools.  It’s simply amazing and a bit scary, and I’m talking about conservative small white country towns.  The contempt for leaders and managers could easily elect Trump, a clown.  (I can't keep John Wayne Gacy out of my head even though it's extreme.)

One can see that we're suffering the results of global tumbling and too much information coming too quickly to get sense out of it.  But so many of these things, like global warming or massive erosion or rising chemical pollution, are hard to see and seem impossible to control. 

One of the advantages of buying used books is that the previous owner often underlines with good insight.  Here’s what someone marked in my book:  “. . . A study measuring dangerousness in a group of delinquents found a triad of factors to be strongly predictive of violence: psychopathy, low IQ, and love deprivation, with the last the single most potent factor.”  Sort of a self-fulfilling prophesy that not being able to love the dubious, dangerous and deficient is one of the factors that increases them.

So what do we do but bungle our definitions of psychopathy; let lead contaminate our water systems; write laws that keep the great majority of people struggling to pay for shelter and food while allowing a small fraction of the prosperous to taunt them with fine cars, fancy restaurants, and walled subdivisions; let the professions deteriorate into fiefdoms; celebrate sexuality and fertility as the apex of achievement; and penalize poverty with major fines leading to incarceration in sucking holes.

Mass shooters

Is Mental Illness to Blame for Mass Shootings? 
It's not all in their heads. While gun-related tragedies often prompt assumptions that the culprits were psychologically disturbed, a new study shows that mental health issues aren't the best predictor of dangerous behavior. Researchers assessed more than 1,000 repeat offenders and found that only 12 percent of their violent acts were preceded by symptoms of psychosis. In fact, most murders stem from anger, revenge, jealousy or drunkenness. And one expert notes that while millions of people are angry, fearful and in despair, "most will never shoot anybody."

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