The Criminal Mind

It is not really fair for our Editor, in a casual and (I am sure) space filling column, to ask a battery of questions about the Criminal Mind that even a qualified Mensan would find it hard to answer. Namely

  1. What is the criminal mind?
  2. What is a crime?
  3. Who are criminals?
  4. How should Society behave towards criminals?

All of us, of course, start our lives with a criminal mind. The essence of such a mind is two things. First, an entire devotion to the satisfaction of our own wants, without regard to the convenience of others, and Second, (sometimes very attractive and personable) closeness to other people, for the attainment of objective number one.

Watch babies at work. Watch them when they want something from their parents—every tool in the manipulative book is at work to break down the resistance of the unsuspecting parent. What confident trickster could do more? Or watch a baby mad—and tremble. Few grown-ups can equal the entire, overpowering, outpouring of a baby’s temper tantrum. Only the fact that they are so small—and so endearing—makes us ignore the sheer blatant criminality of a baby’s behaviour. If that baby weighed two hundred pounds instead of twenty, what murders would it commit! Theologians, of course, describe the characteristic as Original Sin. Parents endure it as a phase that (hopefully) passes.

As a child grows up, parents begin to ‘lay down the law’. Children have to learn that others have rights and feelings. The child may be as selfish as ever inside, but has to say ‘no’ to selfish or hurtful acts to others. Otherwise, by some form of external compulsion, the child will either be made to suffer pain, or else put in a position of inability to do harm. Young children are spanked or put in a corner or sent to their rooms. Those who do not learn from their parents may well go to Juvenile Detention Centres, and later on, to adult prisons.

Hopefully, by adolescence, the child is ready to take a further step—the internalization of the external law. Obeying the law has positive rewards. By behaving ourselves, it is possible to have friends, and belong in a group—a gang or a society. Distance remains—the loyalty to the group is matched by a suspicion or hostility to outsiders. It is the age of the ‘gang’, which may be of positive or negative social value, of patriotism—‘my country, right or wrong’—of xenophobia—‘the Russians (or Jews, or Capitalists, or Socialists, or the criminal classes) are out to get you!’ The appeal, and also the emotional age, of Ollie North. Selfishness has been replaced by a limited kind of unselfishness, but distance, and hostility, except to the immediate group, remains.

By maturity, we have travelled almost full circle. We see the world as a whole. We are supportive of others rather than selfish. We establish close relationships even with those who are different from ourselves—as your editor does, when she refuses to accept criminals and society as THEM and US. “Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.” We are, hopefully, people who are livable with, and contributors to, rather than abstractors from, the good of society.

Unfortunately, not all have travelled the whole road, though the age distribution of those in trouble with the law—mostly 15 to 30—would indicate that much criminality is a phase of growing up. There is more to it, however, than that. The phases of our character that develop over time do not disappear as we grow older. The same person is capable of reacting to a situation as a baby, as a child, as an adolescent, or as an adult, and will act differently according to the ‘mood’ he or she is in. That angry baby is never entirely eliminated! Claude Steiner, in Scripts People Live divides even a simple character into ten different parts—the Child (divided into positive and negative, and internal and external). The Parent, divided in the same manner, and the Adult, divided into positive and negative only.

The ‘positive Adult’ is the frame of mind that solves problems rationally, and works out rational answers to them. Negatively, the Adult uses thinking in an inappropriate way, to go on ‘mind trips’ rather than reach conclusions—the frame of mind of the ‘pettifogging attorney’. The positive Parent (external) is the force that takes charge in an emergency, gives orders, organizes, and gets people to get things done. Internally, it is the force that gives discipline to one’s own life, commands the doing of unpleasant tasks, and gives one what is recognized from the outside as conscience, or ‘a backbone’. Negatively, the external Parent is a petty tyrant, a nagger, a slave driver and a nuisance. Internally, it is the force that leads to neurotic compulsions, and an internal form of slavery that can be very dangerous, because it encourages other elements of the character from time to time to break out in rebellion.

The ‘positive child’ is the most delightful part of a person’s character. Externally, it loves games and play, exploration and novelty, loves and trusts the outside world. Internally, it provides a positive, trusting, optimistic emotional base for the whole character. The negative child is another matter. Towards the outside world, it may exhibit mischief, destructiveness, hatred, aggression and a ‘chip on the shoulder’. Internally, it may show up in inferiority feelings, addiction, depression, acts of self-punishment. Abuse or neglect in infancy, of course, will develop such an attitude, from the very earliest age.

Over it all, some writers also perceive ‘the Watcher’—an aspect of character that has awareness of the state of mind being pursued and an ability to select what suits the occasion: the part of the ‘lucid dreamer’, who can interact with the characters in his dreaming and draw the event to a profitable and illuminating conclusion.

Every part of a character is needed for the functioning of the whole person. The positive is the engine—the negative is the brakes. We need the one to get us going, and the other to stop us going too far too fast. Equally, we need the different attitudes of mind—child, parent and adult—to cover life’s responsibilities in appropriate ways. It is like a ten speed bicycle—with the right gear for the right conditions, the world slips by with the maximum result for the least effort. Without the right gearing, we stall or wear ourselves out. The more primitive reactions are appropriate for matters requiring a quick response: the more sophisticated, for matters requiring thought and planning. Intelligence, after all, is essentially the progressively greater inhibition of what would otherwise be a more automatic, knee-jerk response.

In the Gospel story, we hear of a man who was obviously a local menace, living in the cemetery, noisy and unclothed, too strong to be locked up—a man who terrorized the neighbourhood. When asked his name, he said “my name is Legion, for we are many.” A psychologist today would call him, I suppose, a ‘fragmented personality’. Bits of his character were pulling every which way. This happens. In fact, it is the ‘putting it all together’ that is really the miracle. Childhood abuse, spoiling, misinformation, neglect—all can lead to a character prone to destructive behaviour. Anne Landers published a letter a while back from an admitted rapist, a college student who presumably kept his identity secret from the world. He blamed his outbreaks against the female sex on one word—“M-O-T-H-E-R”. His hatred of his mother, who had presumably abused him in some way in infancy, led to wild outbreaks of anti-social behaviour from a person who had learned to preserve a perfect ‘front’. One thinks of the Yorkshire Ripper, of a client who murdered his wife in a fit of drunken fury, of a judge who a while back quietly disappeared from his job after being caught shoplifting, of priests, Sunday School teachers and Scoutmasters who have sexual adventures with the children under their care. The inhibitions are too ineffective, and out comes the crime. One part of the personality gets the person in trouble—and the whole person is condemned to undergo punishment. It really is a cruel world, for the criminal quite as much as for the victim!

That’s the human framework within which we work. But we have yet to define what are crimes, and why we are guilty of them. Are all crimes bad? All criminals evil? That will have to await another occasion. My diskette’s getting full.

– Gemini, October 1987