The Six Cases

Please imagine, dear reader, that you are a psychotherapist. At the outset, I present six individual anonymized cases. (I will reveal the names of the “patients” during the discussion.)  We may visualize these patients coming to an analyst with a range of mental and health conditions (addictions, mood disorders, sleep disorders, suicidal thoughts, self-loathing, etc.). In the course of anamnesis and therapy, their childhood backgrounds emerge. What follows is only a brief summary of these cases.

In case A, “A” was the first surviving child after two mis-

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carriages; at the age of five, he almost died of smallpox. After an accident in childhood, his left arm was also injured, and it remained crippled. The father was a violent alcoholic who beat his wife and children. A’s father beat him almost daily and after one assault, blood discolored his urine for days. One day his father even tried to strangle A’s mother. When A was 11 or 12 years old, his parents separated, and the father later became a vagrant. A’s mother also physically abused her son and forced him into training to become a priest. Thus, A spent five years of his adolescence in a seminary, which was characterized by rituals of submission to authority, humiliation by clergy, powerlessness, and punishment.

In case B, “B’s” mother originally wanted to abort the fetus; during pregnancy, she already perceived the fetus as a difficult child who was restless and kicked her. After his birth, his mother did only what was necessary for the infant and was uncaring. Soon after came the separation of his parents. The single mother was overwhelmed early on and asked the authorities for help. As a two-year-old, B was therefore accommodated in out-of-home care over the weekends for some time. All along, the mother neglected and beat her son while also abusing him emotionally. She behaved in a “sexualized” manner toward him and told him that she wished he were dead. She probably suffered from borderline personality disorder. Most of this information comes from a three-week inpatient admission to a psychiatric facility as a four-year-old (along with his mother). An assisting psychiatric team was extremely concerned after their assessment and demanded that the mother and son be separated. When the father then attempted to gain custody, he failed.

Cases C and D are about two brothers; their father was physically violent toward his children and died early of cancer. Their mother was alone and neglected the children, who grew up in poverty and appeared neglected. The mother became seriously ill and asked the authorities for help. They in turn placed the two boys in a children’s home that was very far away, and thus neither the mother nor the other siblings could visit the brothers; they could only phone them. A few months after being placed in the home, the mother died, presumably of a drug overdose.

In case E, “E” was rejected as a fetus; his mother tried to abort him, but she failed. E lost his father early and went to live with an uncle who regularly beat him and called him the “son of a cur.”  E’s uncle was considered an argumentative, moody person,

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 and was an obstinate admirer of Adolf Hitler; he was eventually imprisoned for his veneration of the Nazis. Thus, E had to return to his mother. She had found another husband in the meantime, and E was once more not welcome. The stepfather was brutal and beat him. There was also neither running water nor electricity in the family’s home, with humans and animals living together under one roof. During cold winter nights, the family slept crowded together on the dirt floor to keep each other warm. Because E was fatherless and an outsider, he was also teased mercilessly by the other children in the village and often beaten by them.

In case F, during her childhood, “F” experienced escape from the Red Army. Her father died when F was five and her mother died when she was 14. Before then, she experienced severe conflicts and marital crises in the parental home after her mother’s affair, followed by her mother experiencing suicidal moods. Her mother then abandoned her on several occasions (at children’s home and with relatives); the first time, F’s mother passed her to the children’s home at the age of six for about half a year. (Later, F wrote the screenplay for the German film Bambule [1970], which depicted the hardship and attempted resistance of female adolescents in institutions!)  In the meantime, her mother had also fallen in love with a fellow female student and seems to have devoted herself entirely to this relationship and her university education. According to F, after her mother’s death, the whole world died for her; she had become an orphan. Although her mother’s girlfriend became a foster mother, she neglected the adolescent.

Analysis

As analysts, can we discern connections between these childhoods and the patients’ suffering and mental state or do we rule them out? I can imagine that we recognize connections and thus reflect upon the general research situation. Since the pioneering work of Dr. Vincent Felitti in the late 1990s, research into so-called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has expanded tremendously. ACEs typically include stress factors such as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse; neglect; parental separation; witnessing domestic violence; growing up with mentally ill or addicted family members; and witnessing the incarceration of family members.

Between 1998 and 2018, 789 professional articles focused on various consequences of ACEs. Additionally, 38,411 English-language professional articles related to child maltreatment were

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published between 2000 and 2018. A large meta-study (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016) evaluated 111 such studies. They included data for a total of 160,927 children; 99% of the studies found harmful effects of physical violence against children and no positive effects; 17 types of negative effects were recorded, including, for example, aggression, antisocial behavior, mental health problems, low self-esteem, lower cognitive ability, lower internalized morals, alcohol and drug abuse, and approval of corporal punishment against children. Another review and meta-analysis that included 253,719 respondents from 37 international studies found that adults who were exposed to four or more ACEs were seven to eight times more likely to be involved in interpersonal violence (violence victimization or perpetration) and 30 times more likely to attempt suicide than adults with no ACE exposure (Hughes et al., 2017).

ACEs were found to a strikingly high degree in the population of (violent) offenders/criminals. For example, Baglivio et al. (2013) examine the prevalence of ACEs in a population of 64,329 juvenile offenders in Florida: “Only 3.1% of the males and 1.8% of the females reported no ACEs.…  Of the males, 27.4% reported five or more ACEs compared to 45.1% of the females” (p. 7f). One study of young murderers (mean age = 14.7) also found clearly destructive childhood backgrounds, that is, dysfunctional families (96%), emotional abuse at home (83%), physical abuse (55%), and sexual abuse (10 %). In addition, 52% of these children/murderers had suicidal thoughts (Myers et al., 1995). Severe and multiple forms of child abuse were likewise endemic in a sample of men on death row: 59.46% were sexual and 94.59% were physically abused, 89.19% were verbally abused, 100% were neglected and 83.78% witnessed violence as a child (Lisak & Beszterczey, 2007).

Meanwhile, the costs associated with adverse childhood experiences are coming into focus. A 2019 study, funded by the World Health Organization (WHO), calculates the annual cost due to ACEs to be $581 billion in Europe and $748 billion in North America (Bellis et al., 2019). “How Much More Data Do We Need? Making the Case for Investing in Our Children” is the title of a recent article that makes the case that the consequences of child maltreatment are finally extensively researched and that it is time to invest heavily in children (Berger et al., 2021).

I believe that you are a good “psychotherapist” if you recognize the connections and do long-term trauma therapy with your above-mentioned “patients.”  However, my experience is that these

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relationships are often faded out or denied when it comes to the political realm, especially in dictatorial/authoritarian forms of government, extremism, terrorism, war, and hostile/destructive politics. Thus, these extreme forms of behavior are rarely associated with ACEs.

Resolution

Who were the individuals mentioned above? (The sources for each of the childhoods discussed above are in parentheses.)  Patient A is the mass murderer and dictator Josef Stalin; patient B is the Norwegian Right-wing terrorist and mass murderer Anders Breivik; patients C and D are the Islamist terrorists Chérif and Saïd Kouachi who attacked the editorial office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015; patient E is the Iraqi mass murderer and dictator Saddam Hussein; and patient F is the Red Army Faction (RAF) founding member and German far-Left terrorist Ulrike Meinhof.

I could imagine that your assessment of these personalities might now change somewhat. There is a danger that the actions of these individuals would be excused if we relate them to correspondingly destructive childhoods. There is an equal danger of losing sight of the victims of the perpetrators when we focus only on the victims that these perpetrators once were. We also need to realize that most people abused and traumatized as children do not become mass murderers and terrorists. However, as psychotherapists, we would do well not to hold against our (real) patients that other people with similar childhood backgrounds do not have an addiction problem or suicidal thoughts. Several influences (including the lack of protective factors) must come together for a person to become a perpetrator, even a mass murderer. These influences are undoubtedly always complex and not just dependent on childhood. Certainly, the step to commit the crime is also a decision of the respective perpetrator, and they have to answer for their crime(s), no matter what their childhood was like. We do not have to excuse their actions, but we should understand so that prevention becomes a goal.

The much more essential and central question for me is this: Would these persons have become perpetrators if they had experienced a largely loving and violence-free childhood? Or, with the horrors of childhood remaining the same, would they have become these perpetrators if they had received help, support, positive compensatory experiences, and psychotherapy early on?

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In my Childhood is Political! book, I show that the countries and regions (e.g., Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Palestine, Cambodia, El Salvador, and the U.S.) that strike us as “problematic” in terms of world politics and that undergo severe political conflicts, social imbalances, war, terror and/or recruitment regions for terrorists, experience an enormously high level of violence against children and often other stress factors for them at the same time. I have conducted extensive studies and case analyses/biographies on extremists/terrorists (e.g., Andreas Baader, Zacarias Moussaoui, and Osama Bin Laden), (violent) criminals, dictators (e.g., Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Slobodan Milosevic, Josip Broz Tito, Mao Zedong, Augusto Pinochet, Manuel Noriega, and Fidel Castro), belligerent politicians (e.g., Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Vladimir Putin), and Nazi-perpetrators (e.g. Rudolf Hess, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hans Frank, Rudolf Höß, and Adolf Eichmann). The conclusions from my research are reflected in the title of the book. All of these men have in common that their childhoods were not loving and happy and often anything but free of violence. In the overall picture, it becomes clear that the above-mentioned case studies are not isolated or outliers.

After the book was published, I compiled all the studies/individual papers I could find in which Right-wing perpetrators of violence/Right-wing extremists had been interviewed about their childhoods. To date, I have found a total of 34 papers for which a minimum of one and a maximum of 115 Right-wing personalities were interviewed. It turns out that Right-wing perpetrators of violence or Right-wing extremists usually had a very destructive childhood. I refer here to my abstract, which can be viewed online (https://kriegsursachen.blogspot.com/2020/09/kindheitsursprunge-von.html; on the right side of the blog it can be translated into English). The empirical data is overwhelming and it is surprising that child protection as an essential branch of prevention of extremism has not been/is not widely discussed.

I present one of these works here as a prime example: In it, 91 (70 male, 21 female) former U.S. extremists/racists (from Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity, neo-Nazi, and racist skinheads groups) were interviewed. The results regarding ACE values (experiences before the age of 18) range as follows: 48% experienced physical abuse at home, 46% experienced emotional neglect

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at home, 46% experienced emotional abuse at home, 23% experienced sexual abuse, 15% experienced physical neglect at home; 68% experienced parent abandonment, 66% reported parental substance abuse, 47% witnessed domestic violence, 47% reported parent/caregiver mental illness, and 32% reported parent incarceration (Windisch et al., 2020).

Similar results can be found among Islamists. A cross-sectional study is based on the first large prospective sample of young French individuals (N = 150) who aimed to join the Islamic State (IS). There were 26.7% who had suffered physical or sexual abuse; 85.3% had experienced neglect or emotional abuse. A total of 32% had witnessed addiction and substance abuse by a family member; 16% saw the rape or abuse of a family member, while 32% witnessed the physical abuse of a family member. Depression of a family member witnessed was 40.7% (Oppetit et al., 2019).

Other studies point in the same direction. For example, the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer (2015) used a student survey from Germany to examine the attitudes toward extreme Right-wing positions. He compared two extreme groups (A = no physical violence during childhood and adolescence, high level of care during childhood; B = severe violence during childhood and adolescence, low level of care during childhood) regarding the connection between experienced different parenting behavior and attitudes of the students. One percent of group A and 7% of group B showed extreme Right-wing positions.

The former director of the Clinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and expert in psychotraumatology, Prof. Peter Riedesser, expressed my feelings about this issue very well:

The more children here and around the world are neglected, beaten, humiliated and slide into hopelessness and hatred, the higher the destructive potential in our own country and worldwide. Against this background, child protection has become a question of survival. Worldwide child protection is the ideal way to prevent not only mental suffering, but also crime, militarism and terrorism. It ensures democracy and peaceful cultural and economic exchange. It takes all of our creativity and determination to make this happen. If we all wanted this in a unique act of solidarity, we would also have the knowledge and the means.

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(Riedesser, 2002, p. 32; translation by Sven Fuchs)

I advocate that we look at the possible political consequences of childhood without blinkers and that prevention of ACEs/child abuse is also communicated as the prevention of violence, terrorism, and extremism. If this view were to succeed across societies as a whole, then this would subsequently necessitate one thing above all: more worldwide child protection.

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References:

  • Baglivio, Michael T; Epps, Nathan; Swartz, Kimberly; Huq, Mona Sayedul; Sheer, Amy; & Hardt, N. S. (2013). The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in the lives of juvenile offenders. Journal of Juvenile Justice, 3(2), 1-23.
  • Bellis, Mark A; Hughes, Karen; Ford, Kat; Rodriguez, Gabriela Ramos; Sethi, Dinesh; & Passmore, Jonathon (2019). Life course health consequences and associated annual costs of adverse childhood experiences across Europe and North America: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Public Health, 4(10), e517–e528.
  • Berger, Rachel, et al., (2021). How much more data do we need? Making the case for investing in our children. Pediatrics, 147(1).
  • Fuchs, Sven (2019). Die Kindheit ist politisch! (Childhood is Political). Mattes Verlag.
  • Hughes, Karen; Bellis, Mark A; Hardcastle, Katherine A; Sethi, Dinesh; Butchart, Alexander; Mikton, Christopher; Jones, Lisa; & Dunne, Michael P. (2017). The effect of multiple adverse childhood experiences on health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Public Health, 2(8).
  • Lisak, David, & Beszterczey, Sara (2007). The cycle of violence: The life histories of 43 death row inmates. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 8(2).
  • Oppetit, Alice; Campelo, Nicholas; Bouzar, Laura; Pellerin, Hughes; Hefez, Serge; Bronsard, Guillaume; Bouzar, Dounia; & Cohen, David (2019). Do radicalized minors have different social and psychological profiles from radicalized adults? Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 644.
  • Riedesser, Peter (2002). Trauma – terror – kinderschutz: Prävention seelischer störungen und destruktiven verhaltens. Vortrag bei der verleihung des kinderschutzpreises am 29.10.2001. Psychotraumatologie, 3(2).
  • Windisch, Steven; Simi, Peter; Blee, Kathleen; & Demichele, Matthew (2020). Measuring the extent and nature of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) among former white supremacists. Terrorism and Political Violence, 34(6).

Authors:

Sven Fuchs

Sven Fuchs is the author of Childhood is Political: War, Terror, Extremism, Dictatorships and Violence as a Consequence of Destructive Childhood Experiences (Die Kindheit ist politisch!, 2019, only in German). He is a member of the German Psychohistorical Society (GPPP). Since 2008, he has run the only psychohistorical blog in German-speaking countries, www.kriegsursachen.blogspot.de. He may be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Fuchs, S. (2023). Illustrating how abusive childhood endangers our world. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 226-234.

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