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October 16, 1999 A PERSONAL VIEW

A PERSONAL VIEW; What Causes Brutality? The People Nurturing It

When what was formerly commonplace fades to rarity, we come to think it bizarre. Whose mother still steps
behind the house to throttle a chicken for Sunday dinner? Who has seen a goiter or a face ruined by smallpox?
Serious private violence used to be routine, a way people settled disputes in the ages before access to courts of
law and police protection brought such violence under social control. Today, because many of us never
experience such violence directly even once in our lives, its origins seem inexplicable.
Yet theories abound. Sociologists often say that criminal aggressiveness originates in exposure to the mass
media, though homicide rates declined across the centuries when children joined eager crowds at public
executions. Psychiatrists often say that violent acts erupt unbidden from pathological mental states, though the
progressive decline of violence in the West as social control increased and the disparity of violence rates
between Europe and the United States today implicate social experience rather than individual psychology.
I have personal experience of violence. For two years as a child, I was beaten, starved and physically and
psychologically tortured by a stepmother whose amused malevolence authenticated the wicked stepmothers of
folklore. My older brother Stanley, a brave 13-year-old, saved us by going to the police wearing the fresh
welts of a beating. I gained 30 pounds in three months at the beneficent private boys' home where we
recovered. For people like me, violence is the minotaur; we spend our lives wandering its maze, looking for
the exit.
Before microorganisms were shown to cause most diseases, experts imagined that diseases arose from
multiple external causes -- mists and stinks, the influence of the stars -- or signaled imbalances of bodily
humors. Even though unsupported conjecture similarly obscures violence prevention today, I believe the cause
of violent criminality has been authoritatively identified. The explanation had been sitting on the shelf for half
a decade when I encountered it in 1997. An American criminologist, Dr. Lonnie Athens, had extensively
interviewed several hundred violent criminals -- men and women of varied ages, ethnic and social
backgrounds, classified as sane or mentally ill -- and isolated the distinctive pattern of noxious social
development common to them all. In his 1992 book ''The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals,'' he called
this four-stage process of social development ''violentization.''
They had all been brutalized -- had been violently dominated, had witnessed intimates being violently
dominated, had been coached that a violent response to provocation was their personal responsibility.
Eventually, growing belligerent, filled with rage and fantasies of revenge, they resolved to counter serious
provocation with serious violence themselves and discovered that victory gained them the fearful respect of
their intimates and peers. This intoxicating experience of violent notoriety had made them feel invulnerable
and deepened their resolve to use violence not only in fear and self-defense but also in anger, in frustration or
merely as an expression of contempt.
Dr. Athens's explanation fits the backgrounds of well-known violent persons as diverse as the Darien, Conn.,
rapist Alex Kelly; Lana Turner's daughter Cheryl Crane, who murdered Ms. Turner's lover, Johnny
Stompanato, in a notorious 1950's Hollywood scandal; Lee Harvey Oswald, and Mike Tyson. Violentization -not media exposure, genetic heritage, brain damage, mental illness or poverty -- demonstrably shadows every
episode of serious private violence, from school shootings to killings for hire, from the rampages of
disgruntled day traders to the parking-lot assaults of Saturday night drunks.
In her book about the Kelly case, ''Saint of Circumstance,'' Sheila Weller writes of witnesses' reports that Mr.
Kelly's father beat him and his older brother Chris with fists and belts and slammed them into walls. The

Kellys encouraged Alex to violence by minimizing his crimes, paying some $100,000 in restitution for his
adolescent burglaries of neighbors' homes to reduce his time in prison, then supporting their son's long flight
from prosecution for rape.
Mr. Kelly first directed his resentment and anger at being brutalized into athletics, where he got an early taste
of the rewards of even minor violent performances. At 14, Ms. Weller writes, he perpetrated his first known
rape, of a small, preadolescent 13-year-old. No violent notoriety followed, because the girl told only her sister
and the sisters kept their secret. Mr. Kelly then turned to burglarizing houses and pursued a violently abusive
relationship with a girlfriend. Only after serving two months of a three-year prison sentence for the burglaries
and returning to high school a dark hero, almost 18 years old, did he rape again. No doubt those two months in
prison contributed to his violentization: prisons are champion finishing schools for violent criminals.
Details of the upbringing of the boys who killed their schoolmates in April at Columbine High School in
Littleton, Colo., have not been revealed, but one of them, Eric Harris, was breaking windshields, posting death
threats, building pipe bombs, flashing weapons, getting into fistfights and planning mass murder for a year
before the massacre, evidence that suggests he had moved beyond brutalization into belligerency and
defensive violent performances and was approaching virulency, switching from provoked to unprovoked
violence -- the Columbine horror itself.
Luke Woodham, who stabbed his mother to death in Pearl, Miss., in 1997 before shooting a former girlfriend
and nine other students at school, said in a nationally televised interview that his mother had harangued him
for years about his worthlessness. He identified as his violence coach Grant Boyette, the 18-year-old leader of
an outcast group to which Mr. Woodham belonged. At his trial, Mr. Woodham testified that Mr. Boyette had
told him to kill his mother and take revenge at school. Mr. Boyette was charged as an accessory and pleaded
Violent socialization is not exclusively a family matter. Gangs use it to shape recruits; assigning novices to
slash strangers on the subway, as some New York gangs have begun to do, forces the recruits from defensive
to offensive violent performance and rewards them with social success. So, for soldiers, does encouraging rape
in war.
But families are the primary incubators of violence today, as they have always been. Social control of
violence, increasingly effective in the larger society, has only begun to penetrate the exempted zone of family
privacy. Dr. Athens's research led him to conclude that only people who had fully experienced and completed
all four stages of violentization became seriously violent. It follows that supporting families at risk with home
visiting programs and family community centers, swiftly removing children to safety from abusive homes,
countering violent coaching with nonviolent mentoring, establishing alternative programs for belligerent
students in their early teens rather than expelling them from school, can reduce the number of seriously violent
Criminal violence emerges from social experience, most commonly brutal social experience visited upon
vulnerable children. Ignoring it and tolerating the brutalization of children is equally violent, and we reap what
we sow.
Richard Rhodes, whose most recent book is ''Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist''
(Knopf, 1999). (Marion Ettlinger/Alfred A. Knopf)(pg. B9)