In the field of criminology, there exist an exhaustingly high number of theories that attempt to explain the reasons for criminal behavior. Among them are: biological, genetic, learned, environmental, and psychological, to name a few. One can find a degree of validity in each but, in my opinion, few provide us with a direct correlation between child abuse and juvenile crime, with the exception of one. Dr. Lonnie Athens, viewed by many as a maverick, devised a unique method to study the criminal mind. His method, coupled with his life experiences, is presented in Richard Rhodes’ book "Why They Kill." For the purpose of this article; I will focus on the effect child abuse has in the creation of juvenile offenders. It should come as no surprise that I gravitated toward, and embraced the theory of a maverick.
A brief history of Lonnie Athens is necessary to help us understand how and why his theory differs from those presented by such respected and well known criminologists as Joseph Wilson, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. Unlike the others; Athens was a victim of abuse from his father, a Greek immigrant. According to Rhodes, it is not uncommon for some who are victims to seek explanations. “Hypervigilance is in any case one price children pay for childhood abuse.” (Rhodes, pg. 14) While the majority of criminologists rely on various statistics and other forms of empirical data; Athens chose to take a more hands-on approach. From Rhodes:
"Much later Athens would write scornfully of academic criminologists who present themselves as experts on criminal violence without ever had personal experience of such violence or contact with violent criminals. Their usual rebuttal to his challenge, he noted, was that “one need not actually have heart trouble or some other terrible disease to discover a cure for it.'That was true, he agreed,'but one must at least see, touches, smell, and examine actual diseased hearts if he ever hopes to know anything about them.' Athens had certainly seen, touched, smelled and examined more than enough violence in his tumultuous childhood to know what he was talking about."
I plan to address Athens’ approach in a future article but for the sake of brevity; I will focus on the theory itself. His theory on “Violentization” is composed of 4 stages. The first stage being Brutalization which translated refers to various forms of abuse. The first form, Violent Subjugation, concerns the most common and recognized cases of child abuse. “During this experience, bona fide or would be authority figures from one of the subject’s primary groups uses violence to force her to submit to their authority.” (Athens, L. (1992) The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals. Pg. 28)
Athens refers to the second form of brutalization as Personal Horrification. This has proven to be equally damaging but is rarely presented to the public by the media. The absence of sensationalism is a likely explanation for its absence. “Here the subject does not himself undergo violent subjugation, but witnesses another person undergoing it.” (Athens, pg. 38) The long term effects of personal horrification are considered to be equally contributory to eventual juvenile crime and beyond. Both forms instill a sense of helplessness in the child.
The third and final form of brutalization is Violent Coaching. This form is far more common than most would think. I was fortunate in the sense that I was never subjected to any of these brutalization practices but witnessed violent coaching on more than one occasion. Once again, I will defer to Dr. Athens to explain this form. “Novices are taught that they should not try to pacify, ignore, or run from their protagonist, but should personally attack them” It is little wonder that the transition from Phase1-Brutalization, to Phase 3-Violent Performances, is both understandable and almost natural. My intention is not to condone this metamorphosis but attempt to explain it. Dr. Athens himself is evidence that not all children follow this path however its influence is indisputable.
I chose to skip Stage 2-Belligerency, for the simple fact that I don’t wish to lengthen this article any more than is necessary (in other words, I don’t want to bore you). My intention is not to minimize the importance of Stages 2 and 4-Virulency, which is why I strongly recommend anyone interested to purchase Dr. Athens’ book. As previously stated, the transition from brutalization to violent performances is understandable and illustrates the need to recognize and address abuse as early as possible. “The subject, now belligerent, awaits only the proper circumstances to test his newly developed resolve to attack people physically with the serious intention of inflicting grave injury upon them.” (Athens, pg. 63) It is reasonable to argue that, at some point, we are all capable of distinguishing right from wrong. It is also reasonable to argue that a juvenile who has been subjected to years of violent subjugation, personal horrification, and violent coaching does not necessarily possess the capability to differentiate between the two. What they perceive to be “normal” can be vastly different from what is socially acceptable behavior.
The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the implications of ignoring the plight of abused children. The longer a child is subjected to any kind of abuse; the greater the cost is to society. My friend Mike Tikkanen writes in his book Invisible Children: “Nationally, four years is the average length of time for sexual abuse of a child within a toxic family before they are removed.” Four years of any form of abuse will inevitably lead to psychological problems that may require therapy. The likelihood that many will turn to crime further adds to the cost, not to mention the danger that will be incurred. Programs and services designed to prevent and address these issues are the first to be slashed by our short-sighted legislators. Perhaps if they took the time to consider the long-term effects and costs that result from their ignorance; they may look elsewhere when confronting budgetary woes.
I strongly recommend that anyone interested or concerned purchase the following books:
1)The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals by Lonnie H. Athens. Available at Amazon for $20.00
2) Invisible Children by Mike Tikkanen. Available at www.invisiblechildren.org for $16.95