Is it in the Genes
My daughter, just 17 (I have another daughter who is 21, whom I will save for another day and blog), has several key attributes, although I am sure she would disagree with me, but that’s what adolescents do at times, argue just to hear the sound of their voices, with no real point. However, she is very loving and I have to say I dote on her, sometimes despite some of her attributes:
- In the morning she moves down the hallway of our bungalow in a ‘flopping’ motion, almost as if unfolding as the Octopus does when it comes out of the tiniest of places where it hid overnight. As she nears the kitchen and the lounge, flopping her feet forward as opposed to walking, comes her second attribute:
- If one makes the mistake of engaging her, before she has fully accepted she is in the same state of consciousness as everyone else, one can be treated to a series of grunts, varying in pitch, varying in duration, a language in itself perhaps, but yet in 17 years I have yet to decipher the meaning of any of the grunts;
- Perhaps this form of communication belongs to the state of adolescence I call “definitely not a morning person”, which our friends tell us is common amongst those still members of this large tribe. Another factor in identifying this subset of humans includes the “upset strop”. Say the wrong combination of syllables, or even the wrong tone, and be prepared to be greeted to a roll of the eyes, a harsh grunt of disdain, and a storm from the room as flopping feet are flopped hard on the floor. I speculate that even David Attenborough would find studying this group a challenge, cousins to the primates skilled at adorning themselves with garish war paint, reflecting their mean moods and heavy ear decoration.
- However, finding this subgroup is made easier by the trail of morning devastation, completely disproportional to the amount of time spent between waking (even if only slightly) to leaving their modern cave, which is left behind them before they disappear for the day, oblivious to the outside world as their fingers tap out messages and their ears are assaulted cocooned in headphones. Behind them is left make-up sprayed over the mirror and left open around the lounge, straighteners abandoned on the floor, bowls and cups left where they were dumped, clothes deposited by gravity where they were flung and an avalanche of shoes left sprawled from the shoe rack when she attempted to find “the right pair that matches this outfit – of course!”
- My flopping, moody baby does also have a vast expanse of intelligence; she is academically quite gifted, and will certainly succeed in her endeavours. When she enjoys and is engaged by the subject there is no stopping her. I’m no intellectual sloth and she has reached a stage where she can hold her own against me, especially in our verbal joking and jousting of sarcasm, she is more than able to catch me out at times. When she does it makes me smile to myself in a form of pride. But I am proud of her academically, not because of the results of her exams, which are impressive, but because she works hard, tries hard and can look me in the eye and say “I did the best I could”. When this is the case my pride in her is simply uncontainable.
- As she looks to her University options, she has her mind set on becoming a Criminal Psychologist, of all things. Such a tough profession, which I know well from my own career history. However, I know that look in her eye, that singular determination; it’s not an unfamiliar look, It is one I have seen many time in years gone by as I look in the mirror. That spark in those deep beautiful brown eyes of hers, comes from the ability to focus on what one wants to achieve, needs to achieve, will achieve regardless of how hard it may be – I do recognise this trait, it is as familiar to me as my own image.
This last point means my baby-girl will achieve whatever she sets her mind on but it also makes me speculate is it nature or nurture that gives her that spark in her eye, as I have similar traits to my personality, or is it how my wife and I have brought
her up? The ego part of me, wrapped in a well fitted coat of Father’s vast pride for his daughter, would definitely claim credit, as I am sure her Mother would if it was not for her natural modesty. I must confess to have less modesty and rather more ego, and therefore I stake my claim in it being a case of nurture.
But does this, nurture that is, take account of the acts of evil perpetrated on society by the likes of Fred West, or was he born with the facets needed to become one of the most infamous serial killers in the UK, along with Ian Brady & Myra Hindley, Doctor Harold Shipman, Dennis Nilsen & let’s not forget Beverly Allit. Certainly Fred West was abused by both his father and his mother from a young age. In fact he was said to have had a sexual relationship with his mother well into his late teens. Then this was complicated by a motorbike accident damaging his frontal lobe, which made him completely disinhibited and impulsive, a highly sexualised monster was unleashed on society. West was seen as having a low IQ that definitely put him as having a level of learning disability, intellectually challenged. A monster born with difficulties, moulded by experiences, affected by occurrences during his life, all of which let loose this evil without any remorse or fear of consequences.
Finding a partner in his sickness named Rose, a girl he moulded into a deviant beyond words. They tortured, raped, and murdered many young women in the most evil of sexual sadistic acts, including their own children. So West never escaped his genes, his upbringing or his head injury, but this was and is no excuse. Others go through similar experiences, horrors in childhood that I don’t even want to speculate about, but yet they make positive contributions to society. So my question is:
I have met people of violence and aggression, society’s extreme deviants, those bent on sending society to hell without any regard for anything. I worked in a high security Centre for adolescent ‘lifers’ and people being held relating to cases of murder, arson, sexual offences (rapists, paedophiles), etc., all of whom were under 21. They were a group of adolescents who were the furthest thing from a benefit to society that you could possibly get – polar opposites of my daughter. A few of the cases in this centre of 4 housing units, were convicted and sentenced to multiple life sentences, 5 or 6 life sentences was not uncommon in this most unusual collection of adolescent humanity. Some would even brag how many life sentences they had, but you could see in their eyes that they knew they would hit 21 and be transferred to a ‘normal’ adult prison, and never experience any freedom for the rest of their lives. Certainly there were what would be classified as ‘serial’ rapists, ‘serial’ killers, ‘serial’ arsonists, and yes part of me was fascinated by them. Don’t we all watch documentaries about prisons, prisoners, ‘Lifers’, death row inmates (Sir Trevor McDonald recently did a series on death row inmates in America), dramas, films (Shawshank Redemption for example), there are even a couple of channels dedicated to crime on Sky. So perhaps I wasn’t alone in my fascination.
As when one feels compelled to ride a rollercoaster, that certain fascination, working at the centre was certainly mixed with a healthy dose of anticipatory anxiety. There wasn’t a day on duty I didn’t feel scared of what these young people could do. The trick was to control this, allow the fear to keep you hyper vigilant at all times, ready for any eventuality, and these young people could get up to anything! Unfortunately these eventualities occurred near daily. Put a group of adolescents together in a confined space, add in their ability to be extremely violent for very little reason or gain, give them no hope of every getting out, stir it with raging hormones and a propensity to blame staff for their predicament, and you had a lot of violent outbursts. With years of time on their hands, endless days, even though we tried to keep them busy with activities, education, sports, and so forth, they still had enough time to plan disruptions and disturbances that had to be dealt with. What could one say or do to someone who was on multiple ‘life’ sentences and nothing to lose, it was certainly a challenge, sometimes it felt more like an endurance race that allowed the participants to beat each other up randomly. One young man once told me that he “acted out” (this was PC for going completely nuts and trying to kill anyone or anything near him) most days because it was fun and occupied him. Incentive and reward programmes were in place and well established but they only had limited effect. It was hard to remove someone’s rewards who already feels they have lost everything; to them it was a case of “so what, f – off!”
But they were in this Centre for rehabilitation and this formed some of the engagement one to one time they all had every day. A big part of this individual work was to do ‘life-story’ type therapy, walking them through their childhood from their earliest memories, to discover the root of their societal dysfunction. Often one would uncover abuse, neglect, experiences that made me want to weep for them, but one never forgot what they were capable of, what they were convicted of, what they had become. To keep one grounded, there was also work on making these young people face what they had done. These were the early days for offender therapy, which eventually lead to modern programmes of ‘Reconciliation’ and the like. But to help them face what they had done also meant I had to read all the case files that convicted them, Court and interview transcripts, pictures of post-mortems, crime scene pictures, and a 100 and one reports that had been done on them by the time a Judge sentenced them to ‘life’ without possibility of parole. There were many occasions that I felt sick and quite traumatised by the graphic nature of it all. It certainly stopped me feeling sorry for them and stopped me seeing the experiences that contributed to creating them as an excuse. This was one of the reasons why we had to see their files, their crimes in the flesh as it were, to stop us forgetting the evil that could be unleashed by the charming 15 year old in front of me.
The Centre’s therapy was based on Social Learning Theory, which, when you cut all the psychobabble out effectively states behaviour is learnt and moulded from experiences, from people who influence us as we grow. Therefore if behaviour is learnt, it can be replaced with positive behaviour and new positive experiences, which are learnt through dedicated therapy, establishment boundaries of behaviour reinforced through reward and positive role modelling by the staff. This last point always made me smile; staff being positive role models when we spent a reasonable proportion of each day rolling around on the floor trying to restrain the little darlings and avoid getting a right hook on the hooter. But we did try to fulfil our function, our mission to de-programme them from their violent ways and help them learn not to be a risk to society. Was it miss-spent time, I did wonder this a considerable amount, why we would do years of containment, management and therapy just to send them to adult prison for the rest of their lives once they hit 21.
There was a lot of self-harming behaviour and, on occasion to an extent that you wouldn’t believe if I told you, some of these young people had scarring up and down their arms and legs. They were very imaginative and would use any little bit of metal or broken plastic to lacerate their skin. On some occasions they would insert these pieces of plastic and metal into the cuts they had made to ensure they became infected. This was sometimes accompanied by rubbing their own faeces into the wounds to ensure they festered. I can’t explain why, each case was different. Some, I surmised, were just desperate to let out the pain they felt or even cover the mental pain with physical hurt. Others gave not a damn about themselves or anyone else, and with an environment controlling and containing them perhaps this was the one thing they dictated, they controlled. There are so many theories about self-harm but it was more prominent amongst the young women in the Centre. The guys/boys tended to go in for displaying how much they were hurting by hitting out at others. I did wonder if the very act of restraining them from harming themselves or others was in itself physical reassurance they could handle, that was ok and not abusive. To be held and to find comfort from their pain through being held, it’s a possibility.
Perhaps or perhaps not, who knows, but I do know that I was fascinated by them, their behaviour, and whether it was nature, nurture or both? I will however never forget those troubled teens. I think they are scarred into my memories as deeply as some of the scars they carried for self-harm and life. This brings me back to my daughter. Is it nature or nurture that she wants to work with offenders, the worst society has to offer, the very same fascination as I had – did I pass this onto her in the genes or in the upbringing?
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