THE PRIMARY CAUSE of violence is child abuse. It is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause, but it is a highly likely one that becomes reinforced by later social and cultural forces. Children who are physically, sexually, or emotionally terrorized and exploited, and whose real needs are neglected by adults, become damaged. They suffer from a pervasive sense of shame, lack self-esteem, and believe themselves flawed, defective, and unworthy of getting their needs met, especially the most basic need for love. This sense of worthlessness is usually unconscious.
While the golden rule of ethics teaches us to do unto others as we would have others do unto us, the leaden rule of the unconscious compels us to do unto others as significant others have done unto us. The most important lessons that affect our way of relating to the world occur before we are three years of age, when we are so utterly helpless and dependent on the kindness of our care givers. Child abuse during this period and later is much more pervasive in our society and worldwide than is commonly recognized. In fact, there is massive personal and cultural denial about child abuse. Many children who are violated will take violent revenge upon others later in life, most frequently not on their abusers, without ever knowing the real causes of their own hatred.
Extreme shame, resulting from child abuse and aggravated by other factors, is the root psychological cause of all violence.8 It is a necessary but not sufficient cause of violence, since, as shown above, shame is universally experienced by all humans at some time or other, but most people have nonviolent means of coping with it.
Severely abused children are at high risk of becoming either self-destructive, violent toward others, or both, unless they are fortunate in being recognized for who they are and supported by at least one compassionate, empathic witness, who helps them feel their pain, discover and express their true feelings, and learn that the abuse they suffered was not their own fault. The earlier such a witness intervenes in their lives the better, but even later interventions can make a difference for all but the most seriously damaged.
Children are weak and defenseless in relation to adults. Much corporal punishment in homes and schools is even legal. Any hitting, beating, or spanking of children is abusive, and it ought to be criminal, as it would be if adults were similarly assaulted. However, worldwide 90% of adults believe in beating children for their own good. In the U.S., only one state, Minnesota, has outlawed parental corporal punishment of children, and only 11 nations worldwide have done so. Beating children in schools is still legal in twenty-three states. Texas, which had the highest rates of capital punishment under governor George W. Bush, also leads in corporal punishment in the schools with 118,000 beatings administered per year. Nationwide, children are battered in schools with wooden paddles on their buttocks from 400,000 to 1 or 2 million times annually, according to varying estimates.12 School disciplinarians specialize in punishing children physically, “This punishment is given for minor offenses usually in the form of paddling on the buttocks… There is a graded scale of different forms of corporal punishment aimed at meting out ‘discipline.’” Such legal abuse needs to be outlawed.
Six U.S. children are reported abused or neglected per minute. This amounts to over 3,100,000 cases a year and 63 million over a generation. We can reasonably assume that much child abuse is never reported, however. Children are often threatened with even worse abuse, or the murder of their pets, for example, if they dare report how they are being abused.
While virtually all violent people were once abused children, only some abused children become violent. Therefore, child abuse is a necessary, but not a sufficient cause for violence. Depending on the degree, extensiveness, and age of onset of child abuse, there are different outcomes. The earlier the abuse occurs, the more intense it is, and the more sustained and repeated over time, the worse the effects are and the more likelihood there is of resulting violent pathology. When they grow up and become parents, many who were abused children repeat the abuse on their own innocent offspring.
The most severely abused, who never received help, become the violent psychopaths, also called sociopaths. They are the sadists, predators, murderers, serial killers, assaulters, batterers, rapists, abusers of power, dictators, terrorists, and necrophiles attracted to death and decay. They may also become destructive political leaders who send others to their sacrificial deaths in wars.
Other abused children become the dominators in relationships, politics, and business. Inwardly empty, they are driven to win. They desperately want to appear successful in others’ eyes. They seek rewards for themselves no matter what the expense to others. When narcissistic corporate leaders despoil the environment, use workers instrumentally, and ignore human rights, they are displacing their own shame. For example, the real estate entrepreneur Donald Trump names most of his towering constructions after himself to prove his own grandeur. His books are replete with bragging about his triumphs and vindictiveness toward anyone who opposed him: “I’m screwing people against the wall, and I’m having so much fun. People say it’s not nice, but I really believe in getting even. I believe in an eye for an eye.” With regard to an environmentalist who had opposed one of his schemes, Trump wrote, “Often you appreciate a good fight, and you respect your opponent, But in this case I really liked grinding her into the ground.” Trump’s grandiosity and narcissistic contempt for his “opponent” reveal the shame from which he is trying to defend himself by humiliating her. His preoccupation with his image is so extreme that it extends beyond his own lifetime: “One of my biggest fears concerns how I will be perceived after I am gone.” Trump is far from unique among successful business leaders in such behavior, which usually derives from having been abused. Even Bill Gates, the world’s wealthiest individual, is known for temper tantrums against employees and berating them with such humiliating words as, “That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard.” A person with a stable level of self-respect who is capable of empathy for others would never demean them in such ways. Clearly, no amount of net worth can give a person self-worth.
Many abused children grow up to manifest their damage through psychosomatic illnesses, depression, self-destructive addictions, and becoming submissive, masochistic victims in relationships with abusive partners. They also may elect or follow destructive political, religious, or ideological leaders, all of whom are essentially parent figures. This includes cult leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Charles Manson, Muktananda and Reverend Moon. The followers are blind to the character flaws of those to whom they submit because their leaders are similar to their early abusers whom they did not dare to criticize, could not see for who they were, and whom they may even idealize. Many eventually leave the fold, either because they awaken to the irrationalities, abuses, and contradictions they notice, or because they undergo a shock that leads them to choose an independent life over continued subjugation. However, the followers and victims of some necrophilic, charismatic leaders and dictators are not always so lucky in being able to escape. For example, Jim Jones commanded the mass suicide of all the members of his intentional community, and few survived.
Another group of abused children become idealists, altruists, helpers, and activists. They have become sensitized to injustice and may adopt any number of callings and causes. They are among the environmentalists, animal rights activists, peace and justice protesters, social workers, and psychotherapists, for example. Some recognize their own original wounds, usually with the help of an empathic witness. Others project their hurt onto the causes they choose to champion. The latter can be recognized by such signs as dogmatism, intolerance of diversity within their movement, extremism, and vehement anger that hurts rather than helps their cause.
The discussion above provides only a partial indication of how different people adapt to having been abused more or less severely in childhood. It is not intended to exhaust the possibilities, but only to show that violence is not a universal result of child abuse.
Psychiatrists working in U.S. prisons with convicted murderers, serial killers, and rapists have been able to document in at least 90% of cases that these destroyers of life were themselves extremely abused children. They were, for example, the objects of attempted murder, usually by parents or other close relatives. They saw other family members murdered. They had been tortured and maimed, shot, hit with axes, burnt, prostituted, sexually abused, frozen, starved, locked in confining spaces, shaken violently, beaten into comas, had their bones broken, were smeared with excrement, and were subjected to relentless verbal and emotional abuse.
What we know about the serial killers within our society regarding child abuse is relevant to the tyrants. In every case for which there is data, including Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, we discover that these cruel dictators who condemned millions to violent deaths had themselves once been defenseless children who were beaten mercilessly and repeatedly. Tyrants command the slaughter of millions of sacrificial victims while avoiding feeling the terror from their own childhoods that dominates their unconscious minds. They inflict it all around them without ever recognizing its source in themselves. Information about their childhoods also shows that America’s war-making presidents, including F.D. Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagen, Bush the first, Clinton, and others were once neglected and abused children.
We have so far been speaking of physical child abuse. What about sexual abuse? Standard statistics from government agencies report that one-third of American girls have been sexually abused before the age of eighteen. The actual rates are almost double that. Lloyd deMause calculated, on the basis of in-depth studies, that sixty percent of girls and forty-five percent of boys have been sexually molested, with the average age of abuse being seven. As far as technologically advanced democracies go, the U.S. is highly likely to be a leader in child abuse since the murder rate here is from 5 to 10 times higher than in any other industrialized or post-industrial democracy.
From The Plague of Violence: A Preventable Epidemic
by Mitch Hall (2002)
Mitch Hall is mental health counselor for underprivileged children and youth from diverse backgrounds, a peace and children’s rights activist, an inspirational educator and speaker, a gifted writer, a skilled scholar and a certified yoga teacher. Mr. Hall contributes to cultivating inner and outer peace, nonviolence, children’s rights, social justice and well-being.
To read Mitch Hall’s entire article, see