Ghosts from the Nursery

Ghosts from the Nursery
Friday June 01, 2007

Dear Alice, I s there any way that you can inform your reader about the following book? I am including the review from the New York Times. Sincerely (and hopefully) M. E.-S., (retired family therapist and current child advocate).

May 10, 1998
Thugs in Bassinets

Tracing the Roots of Violence.
By Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley.
364 pp. New York:
The Atlantic Monthly Press. $25.

In the past decade, two notable changes have taken place in two distinct sectors of American society. One has occurred in the laboratories of scientists who study the development of the human brain. New imaging techniques have shown that babies’ brains are not, as once thought, hard-wired, but extraordinarily malleable, and that their neural circuitry undergoes tremendous elaboration and refinement during the first three years of life. The other change is evident in the schools and on the streets of towns like Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss. According to the F.B.I., the number of juveniles arrested for weapons offenses more than doubled in the last 10 years, and aggravated assault by teen-agers jumped 70 percent. The arrest of juveniles for murder has increased by half.

It is the unhappy theme of ”Ghosts From the Nursery” to bring together the new understanding of brain development and the growing threat of violence perpetrated by children. Through abuse, neglect and other childhood insults, the authors argue, most youthful offenders have sustained lasting neurological damage that interferes with their ability to reason, to feel and to regulate their emotions and behavior. And in most criminal children, they assert, signs of imminent felony are present by the age of 4.

More important, the factors that put children at risk of developing violent personalities are operating even earlier — in some cases, before birth. Chapter by chapter, Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley describe how prenatal development, temperament, parents’ addictions and physical and psychological trauma relate to behavioral disorders and impulsive violence. It turns out that babies require sensitive and consistent care not just for their happiness, but for the healthy development of the most basic brain chemistry. Damage to this development — and to the stress response in particular — can rob a child of the resources to concentrate, to organize and articulate feelings, to control impulses, to appreciate other perspectives and to recognize the consequences of behavior.

The conclusions of ”Ghosts” are familiar: alone or in combination, neglect, abandonment, abuse, drug use and malnutrition wreak havoc on a child. The authors do a good job of explaining how these miseries can translate into neurological injury, and how injury could be linked to eventual violence. What’s missing is a candid discussion of the limits to this explanation. Karr-Morse and Wiley do not acknowledge, for example, that most abused and neglected children do not become violent. Nor do they note the profound differences between the sexes in their responses to abuse: it is mostly boys who act out through violence, while girls dissociate, becoming passive and withdrawn. And the authors fail to demonstrate that early risk factors have increased enough in recent years to account for the kindercrime wave.

Nevertheless, ”Ghosts” is ominous and persuasive. In their final two chapters, Karr-Morse and Wiley argue that the child welfare and juvenile justice systems get involved too late to counter the effects of early childhood insults. Both writers have experience with these systems: Karr-Morse as the former director of parent training for the Oregon child welfare system, and Wiley as a member of the state legislative staff who helped redesign Oregon’s protective services. The two join a growing chorus of child development experts in insisting that, to be effective, programs seeking to insure the welfare of children must intervene even before birth. But the unspoken message of ”Ghosts” is more sobering still. It seems that we have strayed so far from common sense and sensitivity in child rearing that we must rely on brain scans and F.B.I. statistics to remind us of what babies have always needed to thrive: attention, nourishment, stability and love.

AM: I know the book and both of its authors whom I met in New York in 1998. I loved their book; it is brave, honest, very informative and written with heart. I mentioned it repeatedly, above all in my book “The Truth Will Set You Free” and do it with pleasure by publishing here your letter and the review. I would like to add that by abusing and neglecting children, we not only produce unhappy children and adults but also many child abusers among them. This dynamic of passing on cruelty is still unmentioned, ignored or denied by most authors.