Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Children’s Stories

with 4 comments

I wrote nearly an entire blog post earlier today, and then the computer crashed, and there I was, with everything wiped out.

Maybe it was just as well, because that blog post was largely a reaction to Melanie Phillips’s article, and as with a lot of my reactions to things like that, it was pretty scattered.

And that was too bad, because I am near the end of MacIntyre’s book now, and he has returned to stressing what he started:  that any attempt to understand any individual human life, or the life of any community, on moral terms, must exist first and foremost as narrative.

That is, it’s not only that, in the history of the human being on this earth, we have largely passed along our moral codes as stories, rather than as sets of rules, but that we are unable to understand even our own individual lives and the life of the people we live among without identifying them as stories.

I agree with Cheryl and Cathy and the rest of you who have said that the use of the insanity plea in our courts–or at least the courts of the US–is very rare, and resorted to only in cases where the defendant is clearly psychotic.

But it’s the use of “insanity” as an element in the social narrative of such cases that interest me.  Donald Miller’s parents clearly frame their son’s personal history as a story in which the motivating factor was his “mental illness.”   It’s possible that, being his parents, that is the only way they can frame that history without completely breaking down.

But Melanie Phillips has no such intimate connection with James Bulger’s killers.  Even so, it’s obvious from her article that she has a very distinct and maybe unbudgeable narrative about those killings, and about all other violent crime, and that narrative identifies violent behavior as something not-really-natural, the result of “horrendous” childhoods or damaging relationships.  Human beings, if raised well and without abuse, do not resort to violence either as children or as adults.

It’s the narrative I reject here, the implied narrative that underscores almost the entirety of  Phillips’s article and that underscores the narrative of Donald Miller’s parents as well. 

I do not think it takes horrendous childhoods, or physical or sexual abuse, or damaging relationships or any of the rest of it to create killers.  I think human beings have been killing each other for millennia, and will go on doing so until the end of time.  I think that some people have a taste for violence–for killing, yes, but also for torture and rape and other nasty violent things–the way other people have a taste for Vermeer paintings or sex in open fields of wildflowers.

I think our bad impulses are as much a part of us as our good ones.

I think the difference between a killer–or a rapist, or a torturer–and the rest of us is not that he has these feelings, but that he acts on them.  As with any other taste for any other thing, I expect that there are quite a few people out ther with the itch who decide not to scratch it. 

I am less sure about what happens after he’s scratched that itch–I am not sure whether it is possible to learn to restrain oneself after one has indulged, at least if one is an adult when he engaged in violence.  One of the reasons for treating child murderers differently from adults is preciesly the fact that it is possible that they are more likely  at a stage where they could learn self-restraint than an adult is.

But before I’d buy into the narrative of “violence is caused by horrendous childhoods or child abuse or damaging relationships,” before I could accept the idea that “good people are normal and bad people are damaged,” I’d have to have proved to me not that most people who murder have had such backgrounds, but that most people who have such backgrounds go on to murder.

And they don’t.

This is just another version of the Rousseauian fallacy–the idea that we are born blank slates and made into what we are, which means we could be made into something else if the conditions of our upbringing were only changed enough.  The older I get, the more convinced I am that human beings are not really very malleable at all. 

At least, not on the level of their basic impulses.

That said, I agree for other reasons than the above that children should not be treated as adults in matters of crime.  Some of that has to do with their ability to learn better habits, as I said above, but part of it has to do with their tenuous grasp on at least some aspects of reality.  Children take a while before they understand the permanance of their actions, and even longer to get to that stage where they can anticipate the consequences of their actions–or even think of anticipating them.  Children do a remarkable amount of screwing around thoughtlessly and only realizing what they’ve done in the aftermath.

That’s why I never thought it was much of a point in favor of the inherent nastiness of Venables and Thompson that, after they killed Jamie Bulger, they tried to cover it up and make it look like an accident.  I think it’s entirely within the realm of possibility that they started playing around, did a few things without thinking, everything got out of hand and then–well, there’s this dead body, and they can’t even remember how it all started, and they weren’t expecting it, and…

In other words, once it was all over, they could look back at it and realize what it was.  I’m not a hundred percent sure they could, at the ages they were at the time, look forward and see what was coming.

Of course, I think that’s also the case in most violent adult crime, but being able to look forward and guage the consequences is something we expect adults to do because we know adults can do it.  And adults who won’t do it, or who haven’t learned to do it yet, are dangerous to themselves and other people, and not likely to be able to learn to behave differently.

I suppose I have that really terrible conception of human nature that Phillips was talking about. 

And I have it to a high enough degree to agree that there are in many of these cases a sort of lynch mob mentality among the general public.

That said, I doubt if everybody who has reacted so strongly against the release of Venables and Thompson has such a mentality.  I wonder if some of them are simply protesting, in the only way they know how–by demanding that Venables and Thompson should stay in jail for life–against the narrative Phillips’s presents as an explanation for the murder of Jame Bulger.

From what I’ve read that particular narrative has become the default position for courts and legislatures across Europe.

Maybe the populations of Europe, or just the population of the UK, aren’t buying it.

The Phillips article is here, for those of you who haven’t seen it:


Written by janeh

March 9th, 2010 at 8:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Children’s Stories'

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  1. There are several narratives which could be taken as a ‘broken and in need of repair’ response to human evil, and they aren’t all based on Rousseau. The basic Christian view is that we are all broken and in need of repair – and that those who offend can and must be taken back into society, under certain conditions. The post-enlightenment version assumes we aren’t all broken – either we start out as a blank state, or in a perfect state – but can be fixed taken back. Only the agency changes, from Christ acting alone and through humans to humans acting alone. And the source of the problem changes – from something innate to human nature to something innate to human society – making the common current approach far more susceptible to focusing on causes than the practicalities of what we do now with the wrong done to the dead, the grieving survivors, the vengeful neighbours, and the provedly dangerous human who was the immediate cause of it all. I don’t want to say that causes aren’t important, that we shouldn’t be trying to ensure that children shouldn’t’ be neglected or abused, or that a certain percentage of those children will become dangerously criminal; just that sometimes that the focus is too tightly on that.

    But I don’t entirely think that reactions the the rage and obsession demonstrated in the Venables case is an example of people protesting, however inarticulately, against either of these narratives of failure and redemption/cure. I think it’s the same thing that led the Romans to cheer at criminals being eaten by lions and vigilantes in the American west to chase down and hang them, and people everywhere to riot and burn and destroy whoever they see as the enemy. Humans like excitement and violence and being part of a group, and if they can indulge in all this while attacking an evil, they get excitement and the satisfaction of demonstrating their own virtue (surely it’s a virtue to attack evil any way you can?) at the same time.


    9 Mar 10 at 9:24 am

  2. I checked. Leopold and Loeb, Charlie Starkweather and Ed Gein all had better childhoods by the usual social definitions than many people I knew in the military and some family members–or almost any of Jane’s students. To contend that they were the victims of their environments is to go down to the level at which each environment is unique, and to argue that theirs must have been horrendous because they did terrible things. The arument from heredity seems eqully circular thus far.

    Which is not to say how we raise out children or treat our neighbors has no consequences. It’s to say that barring real insanity–a brain no longer capable of functioning–either we are all responsible for our conduct or none of us is.

    As for the howling mobs of the UK and the committees of vigilance, how would you keep order and keep honest citizens safe in a 10,000 man mining camp? Answer: the same way as anywhere else–by holding individuals responsible for their conduct. When a government is suspected of not doing this–when, as in this case, it withholds the vital information which will permit citizens to see whether justice is being done–an irate response from the citizens seems normal and healthy.

    Save the Roman stadium parallels for the people renting movies according to how much gore is shown..


    9 Mar 10 at 8:54 pm

  3. And here’s a different view, this time from the left:


    I agree with the last paragraph in particular.


    10 Mar 10 at 3:51 am

  4. I would be more impressed by claims that ‘irate responses’ from citizens were driven by suspected government incompetence if the irate citizens appeared to actually know anything much about the situation they are protesting. Knowledge of their own legal traditions would help too – so many of them don’t bother to wait for a trial before howling for blood, and are unwilling to accept any possibility that convicted criminals might have completed the punishment required by their own government and belong back in society. They’re missing that entire improvement in the legal system brought about by removing punishment for wrongdoing from the family and mob and handing it over to the state, and find movies, however gory, a poor substitute to the direct action based on emotion and self-righteousness.


    10 Mar 10 at 10:25 am

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