Columns » Ranger Rich

The making of monsters

Ranger Rich



How does a human being get so twisted?

We stared at the face of accused Aurora movie-theater killer James Holmes in that courtroom a few weeks back — the twitchy, far-away look, the big-eyed stare — and we wondered when his brain began misfiring.

(There is no doubt that something is grotesquely wrong in the head of a person who can do the things Holmes is accused of, but perhaps, just maybe, his lawyers coached him into those bizarre facial expressions. Lawyers with plans for an insanity defense do things like that.)

While we don't yet know enough about Holmes' infancy and childhood, thousands of James Holmes-like creatures wander this world. And as far back as the 1950s, some medical experts believed they knew why.

University of Chicago psychiatrist, Bruno Bettelheim (a fairly twisted fellow himself) outlined his research in his 1950 book Love Is Not Enough, claiming that children abused or neglected in infancy never make a complete recovery. A child beaten or neglected in the first 12 months of life suffers permanent emotional and psychological damage, damage so complete that no amount of love, understanding or counseling in ensuing years can undo it.

Often, they grow into monsters.

Bettelheim and others claimed that negative and stressful experiences in infancy cause brain damage, biological and neurological injuries to brain tissue, and damage to the firing mechanisms that signal the brain how to react in situations. The culprits are adrenaline and cortisol, the hormones produced by stress. In infancy, a steady overload of either begins to mutate genes, the scientists say. It is irreversible.

You don't have to look very hard to find examples. Infant beatings are regular, steady news in our own village. Mothers and fathers and grandparents, too, themselves often damaged by neglect and violence as infants, react to a crying baby with a fist or a shake.

Back when he was our police chief, Lorne Kramer talked about the staggering amount of bad parenting he and his officers saw.

"There have always been examples of terrible, abusive parents," Kramer said nearly two decades ago. "But today, we see more of it. Parenting is hard. It is challenging. It is troubling at times. And we're doing a lousy job at it right now."

Colorado Springs police even then routinely picked up children off the streets. Sometimes, they'd take the kids home.

"We knock on the door at 2:30 in the morning, 3 in the morning, with a 12- or 13- or 14-year-old child," Kramer said back then. "Most often, the parents are asleep. Their 12-year-old is out at 3 a.m., and they're asleep.

"And a lot of them aren't even home. We see that all the time. They're out partying, getting drunk or high. Sometimes, when we find out what's going on, the little boy or girl will start to cry."

Charles Manson, who orchestrated the infamous killings of eight people in Los Angeles more than four decades ago, said at his 1969 trial: "You can't kill me. I'm already dead. You killed me. I am an extension of you. I am a product of your system."

Researchers say Manson, horribly abused from birth by his mother, was right. Dr. Ken Magid of Golden, a psychiatrist and expert on the problems of children, put it this way: "When a child grows up without a conscience, there is not much hope."

And so across our nation, children kill. They unload their guns and their sickness at an alarming rate.

At Columbine High School in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold massacred 12 students and a teacher. They had plotted the savage killings for months. How does a parent not know that something is terribly wrong?

Like Kramer, former El Paso County social services boss Lloyd Malone saw far too much of the damage.

"We have lots and lots of kids in Colorado Springs out on the street by the age of 10 and 12," he said. "No one cares about them. Since infancy there's been no love, no support ... kids who didn't get their diaper changed for two days, and when they cried because of the pain of the diaper rash, their mother or father came in and slapped them.

"But most damaging, they just left them alone. They didn't love them."

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