Britain On The Couch: Growing pain of violence

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Last week the Daily Mail published two ill-informed articles by a pair of intellectual slogs arguing that Mary Bell is evil. One was written by a Catholic novelist (Piers Paul Read), the other by a burnt- out author who has turned his hand to making money out of trashy books about serial killers (Colin Wilson).

Only by turning to such ignoramuses (few, if any, clinicians or scientists who have actually made studies of violent people would have put their name to such tripe) could the Daily Mail achieve what I assume were its twin goals: fuelling their readers' basic instincts in order to sell copies of the paper; and distracting those readers from the real issues raised by Unheard Cries, Gitta Sereny's book about Mary Bell, which is finally published today.

Suggesting that Bell's behaviour was caused by a conveniently indefinable evil force that stalks the world is dangerous nonsense because it replaces rationality with superstition. Likewise, focusing on whether or not Bell should have been paid pounds 15,000 for giving up six months of her life to be grilled about extremely painful childhood memories is a comfortable distraction from the real issues. Trust "People's Princess" New Labour to have chinned in on this point, toadying to The Sun and Mail lynch mobs (but for once, I suspect, not catching the mood of the country).

There are two real issues here. Behaviour like that of Mary Bell (or of the murderers of James Bulger or that of adult violent men) is caused, in the first instance, by parental abuse and, in the second, by the failure of societies to provide social and economic environments in which parents are not driven to care for offspring in violence-inducing ways. This is the point that the Mail, Sun and New Labour are eager to divert us from, insofar as they have actually grasped it.

The second issue raised by this case is the extreme discomfort caused to us by the sheer horrendousness of the childhood suffering endured by violent people. As with Third World famines, we would rather not know the details. However, on top of this, if we have to confront the reality that violent people were themselves victims as well - indeed, that most violence is an attempt to make the victim feel how the offender once felt - it seems to excuse their behaviour and undermine calls for retribution rather than rehabilitation.

I have interviewed more than 150 violent men. In all but two cases, the extent and severity of the abuse they suffered match the ghastly tale told in Sereny's book. The scientific evidence bears this out. Disgusting and distressing though these issues are, only by acknowledging their ghastliness will we force the politicians who represent us to take the necessary steps to bring such cruelty to an end. For this reason, I follow Sereny in telling the story of a violent man, a story that is fairly typical.

Jim was 29 when I interviewed him. He was serving a long sentence for multiple crimes of severe violence, up to and including murder. His preferred weapon was the baseball bat, although once he shot a rival in the hand while high on LSD.

Like most violent men, he regarded his victims as the provokers. As he saw it, either they were trying to humiliate him or they posed an actual threat to his safety. "Only when they were down on the ground would I stop hitting them, because they didn't constitute a threat to me any more. I just saw it as protecting myself."

Jim's violence seems "senseless", "crazed", "vicious", or any of the Sun's other favourite adjectives, until you hear about his childhood. When he was five, both Jim's adoptive parents started sexually abusing him.

"The first time it ever happened I felt confused," he said. "I didn't know what was going on. They were asking me to go down on my mother and on my father. I knew that there was something strange and I felt very, very confused by it.

"My father would make me do things to my mother, you know ... play with her. A lot of what they did was sadistic. A lot of times he would beat up on me and then have sex with her. Once they tried to get me to have intercourse with them when I was about nine but they beat me up so bad I couldn't have done anything if I'd tried.

"They beat me up before and after sex, I suppose they got excited about that. When I was about nine years old, my old man died, and I was very, very happy about that. But within two weeks, my mother was abusing me again - doing the same sort of things she used to make me do when my father was alive. That went on until I was 10 or 11.

"Then, after another year, I was taken into care and I was happy. I hated my parents. If he hadn't been dead I would have killed my father. When I got older, for a good few years I was alone. I didn't want to know anybody. I felt, and I still do, that they had taken a large part of my youth away from me.

"About nine months after I went into the children's home I started to get violent. Whenever I got into a fight, I had visions in my head of what my parents used to do, and I felt quite happy. It was the same when I was a football hooligan. What my parents did to me was always on my mind."

In many of his fights, Jim felt as if he was reliving the experience of being beaten by his father - only this time getting the better of him. On one occasion, for example, he beat up a skinhead because he thought he looked like his balding father.

"I was punching my father in my mind, I was punishing my old man. In the end, though, I had forgotten about my hatred for my father. I would just beat up anyone who seemed a physical threat."

Precisely why Jim did not become a paedophile or a rapist, given that he was himself a victim of these abuses, is a minor (if intriguing) point. For all sorts of reasons, abusers do not always reproduce exactly the same behaviour that was inflicted on them. Likewise, it is true that there are men who have been abused who do not become violent in any form, but they are rare, and most of them direct their aggression towards themselves instead - they are depressed.

The real moral of this tale, and the hundreds of thousands like it, is that if you really take on board what it was like to be Jim as a child, it becomes much harder to blame him for his adult violence.

New Labour and the Mail would enjoin those like him who are on the cusp of a violent career to take responsibility for their actions: just to be non-violent. But once you understand what they have been through, the emotional imperative that drives them, it is hard to deny that Jim and Mary Bell and all the rest are even less culpable for their violence than infantry men during a war.

Oliver James's book - `Britain On The Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared To 1950 Despite Being Richer' - is published by Century.