Their Choice—or Ours?
Society reaps what it sows in nurturing its children. Whether abuse of a child is physical, psychological, or sexual, it sets off a ripple of hormonal changes that wire the child’s brain to cope with a malevolent world. It predisposes the child to have a biological basis for fear, though he may act and pretend otherwise. Early abuse molds the brain to be more irritable, impulsive, suspicious, and prone to be swamped by ﬁght-or-ﬂight reactions that the rational mind may be unable to control. The brain is programmed to a state of defensive adaptation, enhancing survival in a world of constant danger, but at a terrible price. To a brain so tuned, Eden itself would seem to hold its share of dangers; building a secure, stable relationship may later require virtually superhuman personal growth and transformation.
At the extreme, the coupling of severe childhood abuse with other neuropsychiatric handicaps (for example, low intelligence, head trauma, or psychosis) is repeatedly found in cases of explosive violence. Dorothy Otnow Lewis and Jonathan Pincus have analyzed the neurological and psychiatric history of violent adolescents and adults. In one study they evaluated all 14 juveniles condemned to death in four states and found that all had suffered head injuries, most had major neurological impairment, 12 had subnormal IQ’s, 12 had been severely physically abused as children, and 5 had been sodomized by relatives. In another study, they reviewed the childhood neuropsychiatric records and family histories of incarcerated delinquents. What might have been a tip-off to those who later were arrested for murder? The future murderers were distinguished from other delinquents by psychotic symptoms, major neurological impairment, a psychotic ﬁrst-degree relative, violent acts during childhood, and severe physical abuse.