Kids who seem to have been born evil. As a criminal justice academician, I have read details of some of the most hideous crimes ever committed. I have a PhD in criminal justice.
Currently I teach criminal justice to undergraduate students eager to begin their careers in accountability, making their communities safer and more livable. Crimes where people were tortured and killed. Crimes committed by people who seem evil. I ask my students when evil begins. Are certain people born evil? Is evil embedded in their DNA? Almost immediately several students respond, yes, some people are born evil. I then ask my students to imagine a serial killer as a one month old infant. I ask each student to imagine holding a one month old infant, can they imagine seeing evil? Have you ever held an evil infant? Can you imagine an evil infant?
I don’t buy it. I have never held an evil infant. I don’t believe people are born evil. I don’t believe infants are ever evil. I believe evil is nurtured. I believe is evil is cultivated. So, if evil is cultivated who should be held accountable? Parents? However, weren’t those parents once infants? Who cultivated their evil? How do we stop it?
In the late 1990’s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego conducted a study of 17,000 adults in Southern California. The lead researchers of the study were Dr. Vincent Fellitti and Dr. Robert Anda. The study, “Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults” (1998), revealed that 10 examined childhood adversities/traumas were directly related to negative health and life outcomes for the adults studied. The study has been duplicated and the results hold true.
The more of these traumas a person experiences as a child the more likely they will have serious, negative health outcomes like heart disease, cancer, diabetes. The more of these traumas a person experiences as a child the more likely they will struggle with addiction, experience homelessness, experience unemployment, experience poverty, commit crime, engage in violence or I would say — be “evil”?
Childhood trauma changes a brain. Growing up in an unsafe, unpredictable environment makes the “fight, flight, freeze” safety mechanism in a brain stay turned on triggering the constant release of chemicals in the body like cortisol. Chemicals that are good in the short term to save a life when faced with immediate danger. Humans depend on their brain having the ability to click into “fight, flight, freeze” when faced with danger.
However, a child’s brain developing in an environment of instability and perceived danger like neglect, abuse, losing a biological parent (even losing a parent to divorce), cannot turn off “fight, flight, freeze”. The survival pathway in the brain becomes the primary pathway in the brain. What may seem non-threatening to a person whose brain is not stuck in “fight, flight, freeze” may be unconsciously perceived as life-threatening to someone who has a stuck brain. Their executive functioning shuts down.
Think about this: When you are faced with a life-threatening situation, like a bear jumping out in front of you on a trail, are you able to consider your 10-year goals? Do you think you could plan strategically or compute a complex algebra problem? Of course not. Your brain is focused on survival. Your executive functioning shuts down and you’re unable to access rational thought. What if your brain is permanently stuck, and you can only respond to every situation using “fight, flight, freeze”? Now what? There is no cure?
But not everyone who experiences trauma/adversity gets stuck. Some even find success. They show true resilience like my professional colleague, author, Shenandoah Chefalo. Her book, Garbage Bag Suitcase: A foster care memoir (2016), details her harrowing childhood filled with trauma. Yet, today she sits across from me in our office coordinating her next speaking engagement as she also finalizes notes from her latest business mentoring meeting. How is this possible?
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University released a paper, Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper 13. http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu (2015). This paper reveals why some children experience adversity and thrive despite it, while others do not. They found the one difference/intervention between a child who thrives, shows resilience, and the child who does not is ONE, ONLY 1, positive, stable, adult relationship. They found three interventions, but the most effective was one, positive, stable, adult relationship. They also found a positive, stable, adult relationship can build resilience and heal trauma in an adult brain. Any time a person has an encounter with a positive, stable, adult the brain moves out of “fight, flight, freeze”. The brain can access executive functioning, understand consequences and weigh consequences. The brain can access compassion.
Here are the three interventions
- One positive, stable, adult relationship,
- Being part of a faith tradition or cultural tradition (again it’s about healthy relationships),
- Mastery of life circumstance or mastery of a skill.
So can you be the one, positive, stable adult for someone else? Even if it is just moment like at the grocery store or at the drive-thru window? I believe it is our responsibility in every interaction we have and every moment with others to build resilience and prevent “evil”.
Every moment is an opportunity we can “see” someone and be a positive, stable presence or we can trigger “fight, flight, freeze” brain actions. I believe we have a responsibility to prevent “evil” and hold “evil” accountable in every interaction we have with them.
I do believe that people who commit crimes should be incarcerated. I do believe juveniles deemed dangerous should be detained for the safety of the community and their safety. But, during that incarceration or detention we must demand interventions happen so the brain can heal and begin building new pathways of compassion ending the cycle. In holding “evil” accountable we must hold ourselves accountable in what power we must build resilience. We must nurture resilience in every moment and in every interaction.
Dr. Cathy Fialon, founder of Good Harbor Institute, dedicates her professional time training and consulting with non-profit and for-profit organizations building a resilient workforce. She has 25 years of diverse professional experience working in higher education, law enforcement, emergency management, and domestic violence/sexual assault court advocacy. She holds a PhD in criminal justice from Capella University, a Master of Liberal Studies with concentrations in education and emergency management from Eastern Michigan University, a Bachelor of Science in journalism, and a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy from Iowa State University. More about her work at Good Harbor Institute may be found at www.goodharborinst.com