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What lies behind violent and grave crimes

Written by  Rachel Wingfield Schwartz (16/12/11)

In a recent interview about his role in the film ‘We Need to talk about Kevin’ actor Ezra Miller playing Kevin describes himself as being ‘haunted’ by playing the role of a teenage boy who commits horrific acts of violence and murder. He says he feels the film has a lot to say about ‘the anger of today’s youth’: ‘If an offspring is not given proper attention it just does whatever it has to, to get attention. People are entitled to nothing in the world except for the one initial thing, the one thing that is so intrinsic for human development – the love of a mother or guardian’.

The young people’s stories in the My Story project reveal that what lies behind the violent and grave crimes they committed is a lot more complex and more violent than simply lacking the love of a mother or guardian. Nonetheless, Ezra Miller makes a crucial point here.

As early as 1944, in his groundbreaking work ‘44 Juvenile Thieves’ researcher and psychoanalyst John Bowlby established the link between what he then termed ‘maternal deprivation’ and criminal behaviour in children. We now understand ‘maternal deprivation’ to mean the abandonment and neglect of the child by the adults who are meant to be its caregivers. Researchers since Bowlby have continued to establish this link between deprivation of care, a lack of a secure base with reliable attachment figures, and crimes of violence committed by young people. Long periods of separation, multiple changes in caregivers, and loss of attachment figures are all significant in the histories of violent young offenders, including the three young people who tell their stories in My Story. Currently, one third of young people in prison grew up in the care system. One of our three young interviewees also spent most of his life in care.

In addition to deprivation of care, the My Story project demonstrates that the narratives of young people who end up committing grave violent crimes also include severe, multiple and prolonged forms of trauma. These additional traumas are key in enabling us to understand the roots of their crimes. By the time of their index offence, these children and teenagers had themselves had many serious violent crimes committed against them. But as we read more specifically about the nature of the traumas and violence in these young people’s histories, we should not forget that at the centre of their stories is the lack of ‘that one initial thing to which all human beings are entitled’: the child’s most basic need for the love and care of a secure attachment figure. As Bowlby puts it: ‘Nothing substitutes for a secure base’.

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