Right now the news here in England is reporting a spate of extraordinarily painful revelations about child abuse, including some almost unbelievable stories of children as young as ten who have become vicious abusers themselves.
On first thought, one would think that people who had themselves been abused would be more sensitive, not less, to the pain and damage abuse inflicts. Once in a while this happens, but more often than not, children who are abused themselves grow up to be abusers.
I think there are three reasons, two psychological and one bio-chemical.
Children who are abused by their caretakers, especially by one of their parents, often convince themselves that they deserve it. They are abused, they believe — or at least partly believe it – because they are bad. Awful as this conclusion is for a child, it is less terrifying than believing that it is their parent who is a bad person who does not love them. Because then the child is absolutely alone, vulnerable and helpless in a terrifying world in which they have no protection, no place to lie down, no food, no guidance. It is less hopeless for the child to believe that by being a better person he can do something to make things better. They tell themselves that they are abused because their parent or caretaker loves them and are trying to teach them to be better.
An abused child also grows up to be an abuser because he or she has been taught that it is the bigger bully who gets what he or she wants. He doesn’t learn from being abused not to abuse. Just the opposite: he learns that the abuser is the one people give into; the abuser is the one who gets what he wants by sheer threat. So he learns how to be a bigger bully than those around him or her.
And lastly, abused children often have not been given the opportunity to put themselves in another person’s place, to learn to understand what it must feel like to be in somebody else’s position. There is some evidence that this is not only a psychological difficulty, but is actually reflected in stunted neuro-physiological development.
So I think the judge who looked at a young man convicted today of torturing a darling two-year-old toddler and said he was the epitome of evil was wrong. I think he was almost certainly an abused child himself.