VIDEO: Dr. James Garbarino on Connection Between Violent Men and Childhood Trauma

Watch an excerpt from PsychAlive’s exclusive interview with Dr. James Garbarino.

Dr. James Garbarino talks about how traumatic childhood experiences influence men’s actions as they grow.

Dr. James Garbarino: I do a lot of work with men on death row and murder cases and imprisoned men. I’ve come to see them mostly as untreated, traumatized children often inhabiting the bodies of very scary men. And one thing that makes them so scary is their unconsciousness about that wounded child. And the anger of that child and the fear of that child. And now, in a big body, they’re doing things on behalf of that child without even having an awareness of it. And sometimes, it’s almost hard to believe how unaware they are.
I mean, one example is a guy I was interviewing who had murdered a police officer. And like a lot of these guys, he had been abandoned by his mother as a child. And, you know, you can sort of make cultural sense of being abandoned by your father. It’s common enough. But to be abandoned by your mother, it’s pretty hard to see how you would swallow that. And he had been abandoned when he was about 3 or 4. His mother, very explicitly, left him behind, took his older brother and her drugs and left. And you look in the records and you see that he was thrown out of kindergarten for assaulting his woman kindergarten teacher and thrown out of first grade for assaulting his woman first grade teacher and in third grade, it was the woman bus driver and in fifth grade, it was the woman counselor.
So I knew all this from the record and I said to him, “You know, it sounds like you’ve had a lot of trouble dealing with women in any position of authority in relation to you.” He said, “Yeah.” And then I said to him as gently as I could, “Do you think it could have anything to do with your mother abandoning you when you were three?” And he said, “Man, I never thought of that before!” And in a sense, he probably never had because it’s such a big thing. How would you approach that on your own without support and without help?
I’ve really been struck by how many of these very violent men have maternal abandonment in their background. I was interviewing a guy recently. I’d been told, “This guy won’t talk to you. He doesn’t like to talk to people, certainly (not) professionals.” And I knew that his mother had died when he was 8. So when I went in, the first thing I said to him was, “I understand that your mother died when you were 8 and I’m really sorry. It must have been awful for you.” And you couldn’t shut him up. Because somebody had spoken about the biggest fact in his life that he couldn’t spontaneously talk about.
So I think it’s that kind of dynamic. Those are obviously very extreme, dramatic stories where parental influences are so powerful and often so hard to shake.

About the Author

James Garbarino, Ph.D. James Garbarino is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Cornell University and at Loyola University Chicago. From 2006-2020, he held the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology and was founding Director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago. From 1995-2006, he was Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Development and Co-Director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Garbarino has served as consultant or advisor to a wide range of organizations, including the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, the National Institute for Mental Health, the American Medical Association, the National Black Child Development Institute, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, and the FBI. Among the books he has authored or edited are: Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned from My 20 Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases (2015), Miller’s Children: Why Giving Teenage Killers a Second Chance Matters for All of Us (2018), Children and the Dark Side of Human Experience (2008), See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What We Can Do About It (2006). And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence (2002); Parents Under Siege: Why You Are the Solution, Not the Problem, in Your Child’s Life (2001); Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (1999. Dr. Garbarino has won many awards from his work in the fields of trauma and abuse. He serves as a consultant for media reports on children and families. Since 1994, he has served as a scientific expert witness in criminal cases involving issues of violence and children.

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One Comment


It is interesting that violent people do not stop to question why they attack other people. Unfortunately recognising a link between abandonment and acting out is only the start of finding healthier ways to express your needs and desires. Maybe it is a bit simplistic to think that merely being aware of why a criminal attacks women may curb the problem. After all, the primary abuser in most households is the father and little boys grow up to mirror their father’s behaviour and do not tend to attack men for abandoning them or hurting them. Violent men tend to target nurturing women as partners to give them the nurturing they missed, whereas women tend to attract violent men if they endured a history of domestic violence. Violent men are drawn to vulnerable people as a source of acting out their aggression on a safe target.

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