little criminals

Readings
  • EXCERPT From
    All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence
    Published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright (c)1995. All rights reserved.

    [WARNING Federal law provides severe civil and criminal penalties for the unauthorized reproduction, distribution, or exhibition of copyrighted materials.]


    J A M E S  H A D  R E N T E D an apartment in a run-down tenement on Davidson Avenue in the Bronx and worked, when he could find a job, as a laborer. He enrolled Butch in eighth grade in the local junior high school.

    At first, Butch looked up to his father, admiring him for his criminal exploits and his time in prison. But James got drunk much of the time, and when he did, he often broke down and cried, revealing a weak, timid side to his nature that disgusted Butch. His father, he concluded, was nothing more than "a no good bum." Life now degenerated into a "nightmare" and "a series of tragedies," Butch recalled years later.

    His father often beat him viciously. One morning when Butch sassed his teacher, the principal called James, who came to school and hit Butch in front of the class. Another day, James informed him that his mother was a prostitute. Butch argued with his father about this, saying he did not believe him. But that night, he went to Marie's apartment without her realizing it. "I saw with my own eyes that my father had been speaking the truth," he later told a psychologist. After this experience, Butch began to wonder whether he was an illegitimate child or not. "My mother," he said to the therapist, "changes men like you do hats."

    With these troubles at home, Butch reverted to his old habit of playing hooky. He also had some bigger ideas. A few weeks after leaving Wiltwyck, Butch climbed into a taxi in Queens, took out a knife, and put his arm around the neck of the driver, Joseph Sprotser.

    "Give me all your money," he demanded. He got away with twenty-five dollars.

    Two days later, Butch turned himself in to the police. He said his name was William Alonzo. He also insisted he was seventeen years old, making him an adult under New York state law and liable to go to prison with a permanent criminal record, rather than merely a juvenile delinquent who would be sent to a reformatory. The robbery was part of his dream to become a real criminal. It was as if going to prison was the only future he could envision.

    By coincidence, however, a former staff member from Wiltwyck was serving as a court probation officer the morning Butch was arraigned and recognized him. "His name is not William Alonzo," the man said, "and he's only fourteen." A check of Butch's records confirmed this, so the criminal court sent Butch to the Children's Court, which committed him to Youth House, a grimy old building on the Lower East Side with locked iron gates over the windows. The city used it as a detention center for neglected or delinquent youths awaiting court hearings.

    Here all the terrible forces in Butch, his shattered home life, the terror of living by the code of the street, seemed to come together in a tremendous rush, imploding like a thermonuclear explosion. He became violently angry without provocation. The intelligence Kramer had found in him also disappeared. The staff thought he was mentally retarded.

    He claimed he was crazy, that he heard voices and that people were pursuing him. He said he felt like killing someone. Finally, he tried to choke another boy, putting a pillow over his head until the other youth broke away.

    After this, Butch was transferred on an emergency basis to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. The psychiatrist assigned to Butch found him "seething with anger, sullen and hostile-ready to fight or explode at any moment. But one also sensed an overwhelming loneliness and a great need to be loved and have someone to love." The doctor warned that Butch "was capable of explosive, possibly homicidal behavior."

    After Butch's two-week stay, the psychiatrists at Bellevue gave him the most serious diagnosis possible-they concluded he had childhood schizophrenia. At the time, American psychiatrists tended to overuse the diagnosis of schizophrenia, assigning it to almost anyone who was hallucinating or hearing voices, as Butch said he was. It was not yet recognized that young people with Butch's symptoms might be suffering from some other disorder, such as manic depression.

    But the Bellevue doctors had also taken a bold stand, considering the way Butch and other members of his family would be treated in the following years. Psychiatrists are often reluctant to deal with violent children. They are dangerous, not very likable, and they are considered hard, if not impossible, to treat. It is easier to find that they have no emotional disorder and send them into the juvenile justice system, to a reformatory instead of a mental hospital. Now, because Bellevue diagnosed Butch as schizophrenic, he was transferred to Rockland State Hospital, ninety-five miles northwest of Manhattan. He arrived there on Christmas Eve.

    "On admission this was a 14-year-old colored boy, fairly well developed for his age," said Dr. Simon L. Victor, assistant director of Rockland, in his initial examination. "He was in good contact, cooperative, however, he was rather hostile and on his defensive. He stated that after he was discharged from Wiltwyck he had a great many difficulties at home and that neither his father or mother wanted to have anything to do with him. He continually stated in a defiant manner that he didn't care what happened to him. No definite hallucinations expressed. But the patient appears to have a mild persecutory trend."

    Because of his "aggressive tendencies," the doctors initially put Butch in a ward for psychotic patients, and he was injured several times when some of them attacked him. But he was suddenly calmer and showed a remarkable understanding of the situation." In fact, under the sympathetic care of the hospital's therapists, he became helpful in working on the ward and "did a great deal of good." He even "displayed an intellectual grasp and judgment far beyond that of his stated age," Dr. Victor reported. Butch came to recognize that his father beat him because of his own unhappiness. By March 1955, only three months later, the hospital said Butch's progress "has been very excellent and most gratifying."

    The key to Butch's abrupt turnabout was that he had been removed from the maelstrom of his parents' troubles, and for the first time, someone made the effort to investigate his plight. A social worker Rockland sent to check on his parents could not find Marie. But Marie's mother, Cora Mae Jones, told her that Marie "was no angel." The social worker did locate James, who reeked of alcohol. He struck Rockland's emissary as "an overtly hostile and belligerent man who shows clear evidence of a present acute mental disturbance of his own."

    There was also evidence that James was in the advanced stages of syphilis. Whether this was syphilis James had contracted himself or was congenital syphilis he had inherited from his mother, Frances, is unclear. One of James's older brothers had died shortly after birth from hereditary syphilis in Saluda, and another of his older brothers, Fred, went blind in his thirties, a common symptom in someone born with congenital syphilis. Not all children born to mothers with syphilis will have it. But in a family in which an older sibling has died of congenital syphilis, the younger siblings may well be at risk, as in James's case.

    Many children born with congenital syphilis have only a mild form of the disease and live for decades. Some of these offspring eventually develop what is known as neurosyphilis, in which the disease attacks the brain, causing problems such as seizures. James began in his twenties to suffer from seizures that grew progressively worse, leading him to collapse on the floor for periods of time. His personality also changed in these years, transforming him from an energetic, exuberant, and outgoing young man into a moody, ill-tempered person in middle age. Personality changes are another symptom of neurosyphilis. Without blood tests, it is impossible to determine whether syphilis lay behind James's condition. But the disease may have contributed to the family's troubles.

    Examining Butch's background, the doctors at Rockland found a terrible plenitude of reasons for his behavior. Under the heading "Developmental Factors," Dr. S. Vaisberg wrote:

    The parents were separated when the child was three months of age. There is evidence that the father beat him unmercifully on many occasions. It is very evident that the father represents to this patient a tremendous fear problem.... This boy was practically devoid of any affection from either his mother or from his father. He was traumatized by their quarreling and separation. The boy is of a highly intelligent status and it is indeed remarkable that he did not crack under the traumatizing influence of his father long before he did.

    Under "Precipitating Factors," Dr. Vaisberg added: "It was his last residence with his overwhelmingly punitive father that apparently caused his condition to be precipitated."

    The diagnosis was "Primary behavior disorder in children, conduct disturbance. "

    Butch was not schizophrenic, after all, the Rockland staff concluded. Instead, he was suffering from what is today called "conduct disorder," or childhood antisocial behavior. Modem research shows that the condition appears as early as age two or three, and certainly by six or seven, the time when a child enters first or second grade. Irritability, inattentiveness, and impulsivity are early warning signs. Many adolescents outgrow it, but researchers now believe that virtually all young people who become violent juvenile delinquents and adult criminals have started off with symptoms of antisocial behavior at an early age. It is a strong predictor of later violence. In adults, the syndrome is termed psychopathy, or antisocial personality disorder.

    In its earliest formulation, in the nineteenth century, psychopathy was thought of as moral insanity. That was a pretty good description: a malfunction in one's moral machinery. Psychopaths tend to be deceitful, impulsive, enormously self-centered, superficially charming, highly manipulative, thrillseeking, and utterly lacking in conscience. Antisocial personality disorder is the most common mental diagnosis given inmates in prison. The more violent a criminal is, the more likely he is to display the most serious psychopathic traits, like callousness.

    But there are drawbacks to the diagnosis. One is that many people who tell lies and are egotistical don't break the law. And saying a person is a criminal because he is a psychopath is a little like saying fat people tend to overeat, or alcoholics have a problem with drinking. It begs the question why. Is psychopathy an actual mental disorder, or just the product of a troubled childhood?

    In young people, the diagnosis of childhood antisocial behavior is often a catchall. To receive it, a child or adolescent need exhibit only three problem behaviors from a list of fifteen, including telling lies, bullying, running away from home, setting fires, showing cruelty to animals, stealing, and fighting with a weapon. A finding of childhood antisocial behavior therefore reads more like a juvenile court docket than a psychiatric analysis. It is easy to make and hard to avoid. Such a broad definition also makes it difficult to distinguish between boys who are merely truants and those who are likely to commit-violence in the future. Most other childhood psychiatric conditions, from mental retardation to schizophrenia, may evince the same symptoms as antisocial behavior and are therefore overlooked.

    But the more the doctors at Rockland examined Butch, the more they came to believe he was a textbook model of what made children into little psychopaths. To begin with, there was his social and economic background. He had grown up poor, in a high-crime neighborhood, with little opportunity for education or employment. There was also his life on the street, where he had absorbed fully the code of honor and violence. Many minority youngsters raised in the inner city are labeled antisocial simply because that is the way they have learned to act, though they are not psychopaths. Then there was the abuse and neglect he had suffered as a child. Butch's parents had physically fought in his presence; both his father and his mother had abandoned him as an infant; and his father as well as his grandmother had savagely beaten him. Psychiatrists were just beginning to understand that this kind of abuse has lasting effects on its victims, filling them with rage and giving them a model for their own later behavior, thus creating a cycle of violence.

    Equally important, the doctors thought, was the fact that Butch's father had a criminal record. Children of criminal parents turn out to be juvenile delinquents in disproportionate numbers, regardless of race. One of the most comprehensive studies ever conducted about delinquent boys in reformatories found that two-thirds had a father with a criminal record. Of these, 40 percent had a grandfather with a criminal record. The subjects of this study, done in Massachusetts in the 1930s and 1940s, were all white boys.

    One reason for this striking continuity might be that the boys, like Butch, dreamed of copying their fathers. Or perhaps the fathers and children in these criminal families shared an underlying vulnerability, like impulsiveness, that predisposed them to antisocial lives if they grew up in a certain environment. Impulsiveness is a trait of temperament, and such traits are to some degree inheritable. Pud, James, and Butch were all impulsive.

    The doctors were not suggesting genetic determinism; far from it. Even if Butch's impulsiveness had been passed on by his family, it was still only one of the many causes that put him in jeopardy. And there is no crime gene. Crime-everything from forgery and income tax evasion to armed robbery and murder-is too complex a behavior to be the product of a single gene.

    So what the doctors saw in Butch was not one simple explanation for his violent behavior. Instead, it was the sum of all the troubles in his childhood that made him delinquent. Anything that impaired his thinking, subverted his capacity for empathy, made him overly suspicious, or diminished his control over his impulses played a role. Criminologists like to talk about "risk factors" as predictors of violence. The more risk factors you have, the greater the likelihood of a bad outcome. Unhappily, Butch seemed to have almost all of them.

    Still, after Butch had been at Rockland for two and a half years, the doctors were convinced that he had made an "excellent recovery" and that his "prognosis for future normal conduct is excellent." So, in September 1956, they decided to release him. Despite everything they had learned about the relationship between him and his family, they sent him back to live with James. Rockland had no choice. James was his father.



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