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Garbarino book goes inside the minds of murderers

In two decades as a psychological expert witness for 75 murder cases, James Garbarino, MAT ’70, Ph.D. ’73, never had encountered a scarier defendant. The heavily shackled convict with bulging, tattooed arms was in prison for killing a store clerk in a robbery – and had snapped and slain another man while incarcerated.

In interviews with Garbarino, the inmate recounted his traumatic upbringing, a history of extreme abuse and neglect. Garbarino closed with his standard question: “What can you tell me about yourself that others would be surprised to hear?”

“I cry myself to sleep every night,” the killer replied.

Garbarino recounted this story at a Feb. 19 Talks at 12, hosted by the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research about his book, “Listening to Killers: Lessons Learned From My 20 Years as a Psychological Expert Witness in Murder Cases” (University of California Press, 2015). The surprise-worthy tale, he said, illustrates the common humanity we share with men who are viewed by the world as remorseless, cold-blooded murderers with no hope for rehabilitation.

“Most killers should be understood as traumatized children who inhabit and control the minds, hearts and bodies of adult men,” said Garbarino, Cornell professor emeritus of human development and the Maude C. Clarke Chair in Humanistic Psychology at Loyola University in Chicago.

As a psychological expert, Garbarino said his job is “to bring the ecological perspective into the courtroom,” where jurors and judges can understand the social and cultural factors and stunted development that guide killers – the vast majority of them men – from boyhood innocence to lethal violence as adults.

He described the 10-point Adverse Childhood Experiences scale used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to assess exposure to such trauma as physical, mental and sexual abuse, domestic violence between parents, and poverty and deprivation. One-third of Americans score zero – no long-term harmful experiences – and only about 3 percent exceed four. One in 1,000 Americans score nine or higher.

“This past summer, I had three interviews in a row where the client scored 10,” Garbarino said. He said society and prosecutors try to discredit the “bad childhood” defense in homicides, but “we’re talking about guys whose childhoods are worse than 999 out of 1,000 people.”

In nearly every case, Garbarino finds repeated childhood trauma at the root of killers becoming maladjusted adults. Through aggression in their families and neighborhoods, they develop a “war zone mentality,” lashing out at any perceived threat, and most disassociate as way to survive trauma, appearing later as emotionless sociopaths. Early-life rejection by parents and family members trigger profound attachment issues and severe shame. Furthermore, Garbarino attributes American’s “social toxicity” – cultural contaminants such as racism, easy access to guns and rampant materialism – as contributing factors.

Yet there is hope, Garbarino said. By understanding what drives men to kill, they can be rehabilitated with empathy and therapy. Better yet, young men on a path to violence can be steered toward healthier trajectories. He cited a youth intervention in Chicago that lowered crime rates by providing troubled teens with jobs, mentoring and anger management therapy.

“At its core, this is a basic human issue, not an individual deficit,” Garbarino said. “[The experiences] have overwhelmed their capacity to manage.”

Ted Boscia is director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

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Melissa Osgood