Finding the courage to listen to monsters

Jane F. Gilgun. 2013. The Logic of Murderous Rampages and Other Essays on Violence and its Prevention.

(Kindle Edition, 342 pp, $6.43)

By Peter Hulm

Holding more than 150 interviews with abusers of all kinds — from serial killers to child rapists — requires a rare kind of courage. Jane F. Gilgun has it in spades.

But her conclusions in this collection of over a dozen essays offers little comfort to no-taxers. She wants us to spend more time listening both to abusers and to their victims, and that means spending more government money. She wants us to double the number of child care officers, for example.

The results could be a society that tries to understand what its monsters and their victims need, recognizing that "violence [...] may be senseless to outsiders but to perpetrators themselves violence has a logic and inevitability."

This is no dry theoretical work. She makes her persuasive arguments through case studies, many of them horrifying, but with a sure feeling for what anyone who is not prurient can stand to read. Has anyone else listened to our killers and rapists so carefully? How often do police and case workers treat victims with anything like this empathy for their feelings of helplessness?

The truth is sometimes simpler

It's a commonplace to say that the reality is much more complex than the media treat it, but sometimes it is even simpler. The violent "enjoy thinking about violence and committing it, sometimes to the point of bliss and ecstasy,” she notes.

Anyone capable of reading the signs in the young Sandy Hook killer could have recognized what was coming, including his self-harm by burning himself with a cigarette lighter. She adds: “"He may even have enjoyed pulling the trigger while pointing the gun at himself because he knew in doing so he would escape the shame of punishment and public exposure."

His brother, by contrast, found pro-social rather than anti-social ways of dealing with similar experiences, and works to help others.

No excuser

Gilgun is no rape excuser (who is?). She knows listening to what the killers really say is the only hope for getting them to accept responsibility for their acts rather than offer the self-justifications they think society wants to hear.

One of the most moving tales is of an African-American girl whose normal but dysfunctional behaviour was treated with confrontation and punishment at school rather than understanding. She is both a lifelong victim and potential abuser. If you want to understand how a person can be both, I can't think of any story that brings it more forcefully home.

But helping the girl to survive safely would have required more training for case workers and more time to listen to Janice and the rest of her 'problem' family.

Not just for policymakers

To take over the clichė, this is a book that should be in the hands of every policymaker. But the truth us that most voters could learn something important from it, without having to put up with the jargon of an official report.

Since it is a collection of previously published articles, there is some repetition, but not so much it will bother the average reader.

But there's no avoiding her conclusion: “Public policy in the United States not only is inhuman and short-sighted but it is also inhumane. [...] Present policies are fiscally irresponsible [...] fewer services today and much higher expenses for services and prisons into the future."

Graduate of a Roman Catholic University, Prof. Gilgun, a University of Minnesota teacher, says exactly how she thinks the Pope should apologize for abuses within the Church, and how woefully inadequate the response has been until now.

Rules for non-violence

She also sets out some rules for parents and children, teachers and others:

Family Etiquette

Classroom Etiquette