Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist

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9780375402494: Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist

Why do some men, women and even children assault, batter, rape, mutilate and murder? In his stunning new book, the Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes provides a startling and persuasive answer.

Why They Killexplores the discoveries of a maverick American criminologist, Dr. Lonnie Athens -- himself the child of a violent family -- which challenge conventional theories about violent behavior. By interviewing violent criminals in prison, Dr. Athens has identified a pattern of social development common to all seriously violent people -- a four-stage process he calls "violentization":
-- First, brutalization: A young person is forced by violence or the threat of violence to submit to an aggressive authority figure; he witnesses the violent subjugation of intimates, and the authority figure coaches him to use violence to settle disputes.
-- Second, belligerency: The dispirited subject, determined to prevent his further violent subjugation, heeds his coach and resolves to resort to violence.
-- Third, violent performances: His violent response to provocation succeeds, and he reads respect and fear in the eyes of others.
-- Fourth, virulency: Exultant, he determines from now on to utilize serious violence as a means of dealing with people -- and he bonds with others who believe as he does.

Since all four stages must be fully experienced in sequence and completed to produce a violent individual, we see how intervening to interrupt the process can prevent a tragic outcome.

Rhodes supports Athens's theory with historical evidence and shows how it explains such violent careers as those of Perry Smith (the killer central to Truman Capote's narrative In Cold Blood), Mike Tyson, "preppy rapist" Alex Kelly, and Lee Harvey Oswald.

Why They Kill challenges with devastating evidence the theory that violent behavior is impulsive, unconsciously motivated and predetermined. It offers compelling insights into the terrible, ongoing dilemma of criminal violence that plagues families, neighborhoods, cities and schools.

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Review:

In Why They Kill, Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes traces the life and career of criminologist Lonnie Athens, a man who took his own sad and squalid life and turned it on its head to make a groundbreaking career as a criminologist. Athens grew up in a violent, angry world. Rather than absorbing the sickness and violence around him, though, he studied it, and eventually developed a theory about how violent criminals are created. Rhodes's critical examination of Athens's work forces readers to consider how violent our society really is, how it became that way, and what might be done to change it. When applied to well-known criminals such as Michael Tyson and Lee Harvey Oswald, Athens's ideas become concrete and take on an urgent tone: it's easy to discuss theories and predictors in the abstract, but these stories are real, and they repeat themselves in our society at an alarming rate. Rhodes's approach to this disturbing subject stands apart from many other crime books in its intelligence, humanity, and empathy. These are not just descriptions of "scumbags" and their brutal crimes, but intensely personal stories that reveal how a culture of violence propagates itself. --Lisa Higgins

From the Publisher:


A conversation with Richard Rhodes, author of Why They Kill

Q: What is Why They Kill about?
A: Why They Kill reports and extends the breakthrough work of the American criminologist Dr. Lonnie Athens, who has discovered through in-depth interviews with several hundred violent criminals what causes people to become seriously violent -- to commit murder, rape and violent assault.

Q: Are violent people crazy?
A: No. Most of the violent criminals Dr. Athens studied were not mentally ill. Most people who are mentally ill are not violent, and if they are, it isn't because they're mentally ill. People confuse violence with mental illness because violence is unusual in a civil society and seems self-defeating and "out of control." The violent don't see it that way.
People also confuse violence with mental illness because some mental health professionals believe violent behavior by itself, without other indications of pathology, is a sign of mental illness. It's an old belief, going back to 19th-century medicine. There has never been good evidence to support it.

Q: Then what makes people violent?
A: Dr. Athens found that people become violent by undergoing a series of intense, noxious social experiences (usually during childhood and early adolescence, but sometimes after they become adults) that lead them to believe that serious violence is the best way to protect themselves, to punish people they perceive to be evil, and to get what they want.

Q: What are these noxious social experiences?
A: Every dangerous violent criminal Dr. Athens studied -- but not battered women and not ordinary criminals -- had fully experienced and completed a four-stage process of social development that he calls "violentization" ("violent socialization"):
First, brutalization: using physical and/or psychological violence, a violent authority figure forces the novice to submit to his authority ("violent subjugation"); the novice witnesses the violent subjugation of people close to him ("personal horrification"); and one or more authority figures coach him in his personal responsibility to use violence to settle disputes ("violent coaching").
Second, belligerency: After fully experiencing brutalization, the dispirited novice, determined to avoid a lifetime of violent subjugation, heeds his violent coaching and undergoes a conversion-like experience, resolving to resort to all necessary violence the next time someone seriously provokes him.
Third, violent performances: The converted novice emerges victorious from a violent encounter and discovers that as a consequence, others now respect and fear him. In further violent performances he widens the range of situations where he's willing to use violence.
Fourth, virulency: Exultant, the violent actor now commits himself to a deeper and more permanent resolution to use serious violence with little or no provocation as a means of dealing with people -- and bonds with others who believe as he does.

Q: People don't really decide to use violence, do they? Don't they just snap?
A: One of Dr. Athens's most important findings is that violence is a decision, not an explosion. People who have been exposed to violence usually understand that violent people choose to use violence (and are therefore responsible for their acts), but psychiatry and criminology have long argued otherwise. The violent men and women Dr. Athens interviewed consistently described an assessment process that led them to decide to use violence. Even extremely violent people only use violence when they feel it's appropriate. They may exclude family members, for example. They consider the risk to themselves of being seriously injured or killed and the risk of being caught. With experience, they learn to make such decisions quickly, which may be why mental-health professionals with little personal experience of violence call such decisions "impulsive." Dr. Athens found that violent people often change their minds about initiating a violent attack, usually when the risk factors change. That's incontrovertible evidence
that they are making decisions and not merely acting on impulse.
People who have not experienced serious violence may not realize that the violent perpetrator puts himself at risk when he attacks someone. A violent perpetrator who decides to kill someone knows very well that his intended victim is likely to put up a defense. That can be dangerous. Putting your life at risk isn't something anyone does on impulse.

Q. Does violence in the media cause violent behavior?
A: Despite all the millions of dollars spent looking for a connection between media violence and violent behavior, no causal connection has ever been shown. The studies that supposedly show a connection between media violence and violent behavior have been statistical studies. They identify correlations -- risk factors -- not causes. Media violence studies have found only slight correlations. There have not been correlations between media violence and criminally violent behavior but only between exposure to media violence and, for example, reported increased feelings of anger after such exposure, or playing a game more aggressively, or increased willingness to inflate a blood-pressure cuff to the point of causing someone pain. These correlations supposedly measure what the researchers call "aggression"; they do not measure serious violence. Longer-term studies discover differences such as playground behavior changes over a period of months, but they have no way of sorting out violent media exposure from other influences that might cause such changes.
Media violence may well make some people feel more aggressive, but there's no evidence whatsoever that such feelings cause violent behavior. Surveys of juvenile offenders, including violent offenders, find no difference in their television and movie viewing habits compared to juvenile non-offenders.

Q. What about genetic factors as a cause of violent behavior? Are people born violent?
A. There are only very minor differences genetically among all the different racial and ethnic groups that make up the human race. So if there were a gene for violence you would expect all human groups to show similar levels of violent behavior. In fact homicide rates have differed greatly at different times and places, in different cultures, within and between different ethnic groups and in different centuries. Homicide rates in preliterate indigenous societies (such as the Yanamomo of Brazil or the Highland societies of Papua New Guinea) were and are consistently ten to a hundred times higher than in modern civil societies. Homicide rates in Europe and Japan are much lower than in the United States. Obviously people aren't born violent. They learn to be violent through social experiences.

Q. Can violent people be cured?
A. Once people have completed violentization -- once they have begun to use serious violence against other people with little or no provocation -- no one, including Dr. Athens, has found a way to de-escalate their violent behavior. That's not surprising, since violence pays powerful dividends from the violent person's point of view: it reduces his risk of being violently dominated, rewards him with violent notoriety and enables him to dominate others. Since most acts of criminal violence are committed by young people between the ages of fifteen and thirty, it does appear that violent people decide to use violence less frequently as they get older. Since there is no known cure for violent criminality, Why They Kill endorses a public policy of selective incarceration: focusing scarce public resources on identifying the most seriously violent offenders, prosecuting them and incarcerating them under long prison sentences without parole.
But the most important consequence of Dr. Athens's work is that it offers solid scientific evidence to support programs of violence prevention. If a violent novice must fully experience and complete all four stages of violentization to become a dangerous violent criminal, then intervening at any point along the way should prevent that destructive outcome. Preventing child abuse and violent domination, sheltering and protecting battered spouses, teaching negotiation skills to counter violent coaching, giving belligerent children counseling and better alternatives rather than simply expelling them from school, punishing initial violent performances to make sure their perpetrators consider them defeats rather than victories -- these and other interventions can prevent violent novices from becoming full-blown violent criminals.

Q. What can parents do?
A. First, stop worrying about media violence making their children violent. It doesn't. Second, make sure that their children are not being brutalized by family members, at school, in gangs or on the streets. If they are, they're likely to show traumatic stress disturbances -- anxiety, avoidance, disturbed sleep, depression, inappropriate anger -- if not actual physical injury. Third, recognize that violence is a community problem for which community members bear personal responsibility. Bystanders encourage violent behavior, because violent people take indifference or neutrality for endorsement. Violentization can be prevented or interrupted. Many people believe they have a right to attack people physically who unduly provoke them, especially their spouses and children. Parents and other citizens need to identify and support school and community programs -- there are many -- designed to exemplify and teach nonviolent alternatives to bullying and violent disputes, violentization. Such experience calls for
immediate intervention, which will be more effective if the violent young person has suffered a defeat. At this point, he needs resocialization into a nonviolent primary group. Wildcat High School in the Bronx attempts to do that with violent and potentially violent students. The Menninger Peaceful Schools Project uses defensive martial arts training, which incorporates an ethical code of gentleness and compassion, to teach young people nonviolent values.
Unfortunately, once someone has committed a serious act of violence, signalling virulency, official intervention may add to his violent notoriety and increase his commitment to violence. No one has discovered how to reverse virulency in a dangerous violent criminal. Until such understanding is available, society has little choice but to segregate violent criminals from other people.
The best way to prevent the development of dangerous violent criminals is to prevent the brutalization of children. The United States is losing that battle. The number of children killed by abuse has increased by fifty percent in the past decade. A 1998 Gallup poll found that almost five percent of U.S. parents report punishing their children by punching, kicking, throwing them down or hitting them with a belt, hairbrush, stick or some other hard object elsewhere than on the bottom -- a percentage that corresponds to some three million children. Parents also reported that 1.3 million of their children had been sexually abused within the past twelve months. In another study of teenage boys and girls commissioned by Children Now, a child advocacy group, and Kaiser Permanente, a health-care company, forty percent of teenage girls reported having a friend their own age who had been hit or beaten by a boyfriend. More than twenty-five percent of teenage boys reported having a friend who had been a victim of gang violence; almost half had a friend who had been threatened with a weapon.

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