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Book Review

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: March 27, 2000
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Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence

by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley (1997, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press)
Book review from Peace and Education Committee Listserv by Joanie Connors

I would like to recommend a book I just found out about although it is three years old.  I probably missed it because it is written by family therapists (I take no journals in family therapy), but I think this is a landmark book about the origins of human violence.

The book is "Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence" by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley (1997, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press).  The book appears to be heavily rooted in the scientific literature about violence, and it combines research from numerous disciplines in a way that brings us forward a notch in the understanding of violence.

In "Ghosts from the Nursery" the authors assert that the root of violent behavior is in the first 33 months of life.  She presents evidence that early chemical and physical insults to the fetus' (prenatal exposure to alcohol and drugs), infant's and toddler's minds alter their cognitive processes enough (high prevalence of ADHD & ADD) that they are later unable to learn about, understand and cope with life's difficulties, whether those difficulties be the loss of social face or a habitually violent home life. They then resort to the black and white logic of violent tactics they've seen modeled either in their home or in the society at large.

The authors make a plea for us to become a more compassionate society that values our babies and young children enough to promote policies focusing on improving their welfare.

Appendix A includes a list of "Factors associated with Violent Behavior that can be Modifies or Prevented by Early Intervention" (pp. 299-300).  These include:

Biological Factors
  Prenatal (0-7 months gestation)
  -Teratogens (drugs, alcohol, nicotine)
  -Malnutrition
  -Genetic factors
  -Chronic maternal stress
  -Minor physical anomalies
 Perinatal (-2 months to +1 month)
  -Delivery complications, birth trauma, head injury
  -Prematurity
  -Low birth weight
 Postnatal (1-24 months)
  -Accidents, head injuries
  -Nutritional factors

General Factors
  -Low verbal IQ
  -Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  -Post-traumatic stress
  -Exposure to toxins

Familial Factors
  -Parental mental illness
  -Criminal father
  -Low maternal IQ
  -Multiple breaks in caregivers; lack of consistent caregiver in early life
  -Maternal rejection
  -Maternal depression
  -Parental substance abuse
  -Child abuse
  -Child neglect
  -Parental discord
  -Ineffective discipline

Larger Environmental Factors
  -Living below community economic norm
  -Modeling of violent solutions to problems by key models
  -Modeling of weapon use in community; access to weapons
  -Unavailability of involved adult who teaches values, and values child
  -Modeling of alcohol and drug use to deal with problems
  -Violence in entertainment; television, video games, movies, music and toys

This is the most comprehensive list of factors associated with violence that I have seen.  Another appendix lists educational approaches at numerous levels to address these factors.

Joanie Connors



Comments and Cautions

Comments and Cautions from Peace and Education Committee Listserv by Linda M. Woolf

Hi Folks,

I want to thank Joanie for the review of this book.  However, I would like to raise some concerns about the book both scientifically and theoretically.

From: Joanie Connors The book is "Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence" by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith Wiley (1997, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press).  The book appears to be heavily rooted in the scientific literature about violence, and it combines research from numerous disciplines in a way that brings us forward a notch in the understanding of violence.

While it is rooted in the scientific literature, it is important to note that the research in this area is correlational or quasi-experiemental.  As such, the studies lack internal validity and one can not make any sort of cause and effect conclusions from the research. One can NOT assert that the roots of violence are grounded in the first 33 months on the basis of such research. I'll provide an example below.

In "Ghosts from the Nursery" the authors assert that the root of violent behavior is in the first 33 months of life.  She presents evidence that early chemical and physical insults to the fetus' (prenatal exposure to alcohol and drugs), infant's and toddler's minds alter their cognitive processes enough (high prevalence of ADHD & ADD) that they are later unable to learn about, understand and cope with life's difficulties, whether those difficulties be the loss of social face or a habitually violent home life. They then resort to the black and white logic of violent tactics they've seen modeled either in their home or in the society at large.
Example - it may indeed be true that children raised in poverty or exposed to violence and drugs are more likely to be diagnosed as ADD or ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).  However, that does not mean that poverty or exposure to violence/drugs causes these disorders.  There is a multitude of factors which correlate with poverty or violence/drug exposure including overcrowded classrooms and poor family situations.  Students living in conditions of poverty are more likely to attend poor quality, overcrowded classrooms.  Students who are bored in class or not receiving the necessary attention will act out in the classroom.  These children are more likely to be diagnosed as ADD or ADHD.  Children who are in crisis because of current conflict at home (which may have existed since birth) and which may be the result of drugs/alcohol abuse are more likely to act out in school and to be diagnosed as ADD or ADHD.  It is easier to diagnose the child than address the underlying institutional/familial problems. Additionally, there certainly is a literature which questions the overuse of these diagnostic categories.  Of course, I could hypothesize till the cows come home about any number of alternate explanations for the authors findings.  The point is that the type of studies cited exclude any sort of definitive conclusions.  They are descriptive results only - much like the body of "evidence" regarding race and IQ.

That is not to say that poverty or exposure to intra and extra familial violence or drugs or poor nutrition, etc. do not have an impact on the developing child.  They do and the impact is highly variable.  However, we also know that humans are remarkably resilient beings and survivors of and refugees from all sorts of conflicts, tragedies, extreme poverty, etc. are not doomed to poor quality lives evidenced by cognitive/psychological deficits/disorders. Nor is there evidence that they have any sort of inherent disposition towards violence as a result of their early experiences.

My concern about such texts is the political use of the text.  The intent of the authors:

The authors make a plea for us to become a more compassionate society that values our babies and young children enough to promote policies focusing on improving their welfare.

is admirable.  However, I have concern that the text will be used to argue for the lowering of age guidelines used for arrest and sentencing.  After all, if the proclivities towards violence are set in the first three years of life and are the result of physiological factors and changes resulting from experience in those early years, then what is to say that a four year old who commits an act of extreme violence should not be permanently incarcerated.  While this may sound like an alarmist and ludicrous statement to folks on this list, these sorts of sentiments are being expressed by some in the general public and picked up on by politicians taking the "hard line on crime".

Additionally, the argument regarding the roots of violence in the first three years are altogether too simplistic as they exclude a multitude of factors such as situational, historic, and cultural factors which are also involved in the complex pattern of violent behavior.  Certainly, it would make little sense to argue for example that genocide which is composed of acts of violent behavior by large numbers of individuals and those complicit in such acts as based on the first three years of life.

This is the most comprehensive list of factors associated with violence that I have seen.  Another appendix lists educational approaches at numerouslevels to address these factors.

The authors do provide a good list of factors associated with violence. And of course, this list of factors can impact individuals at any age across the life-span.

Linda M. Woolf, Ph.D.
Associate Professor - Psychology
Director - Gerontology
Coordinator - Holocaust & Genocide Studies,
Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights
Webster University
470 East Lockwood
St. Louis, MO  63119



jeanne's comments: Notice the Importance of Context

This exchange provides a good example of the problems in evaluating research as you decide whether to incorporate it into your policy and practice. Both of these pieces came over the Peace and Education Commission. That should allow us to presume that both authors are committed to teaching peace, and share similar values. Yet Linda Woolf sees the possibilities for misinterpretation.

Years ago, one of my most radically left students brought in some material from the radical right. We tried gently to persuade her that the materials on which she was depending were in fact reactionary. To this day she still thinks that material is radically left. She lands on her feet because her instincts are good, but she needs to connect with someone whom she trusts to share her values, and who can help her evaluate the causes she joins.

This book review exchange should be useful to you in seeing how such confusion should happen. In the days of soundbites, both sides, claim the same idealized results. But the means are very different, as are the underlying philosophies, which don't fit soundbite techniques. Read carefully, and find groups that are firmly committed to values you share, so that if there is a danger to misunderstanding, you will have trusted colleagues to bring that to your attention. One scholarly authority on that process is William A. Scott, Values and Organizations, published in the late 60s or early 70s.