Belfast Telegraph

Childhood explains the crimes of adults, says Belfast criminologist

Insight: Shadd Maruna
Insight: Shadd Maruna
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

A Belfast-Based criminologist has said that to understand the violent actions of adults in society, we must always look to their childhood.

Shadd Maruna, Professor of Criminology at Queen's University, Belfast was speaking after the sentencing of Declan O'Neill for the murder of his 51-year-old mother Anne.

Last month a court heard that the 29-year-old doctor "couldn't take it any more" after years of being controlled by his mother in an atmosphere of "intimidation and bullying" while living in "almost third-world conditions".

Dr Maruna said the last 10 years had seen "a revolution in the social sciences around the ideas of Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma-informed practice".

"Essentially, we have rediscovered something everybody knew up until a few generations ago: that children who experience terrible things - like abuse, neglect, family tragedies, head injuries - are at elevated risk of any number of tragic life outcomes, from suicide to addiction all the way to serious violence," he said.

"Of course, one's past is not one's destiny. Human beings have the ability to change their futures, but this requires considerable effort, support from others in society, and simple good fortune.

"The point is that there is a direct link between childhood experiences and motivation in adulthood. When we try to understand why adults do strange things, one should always look to childhood."

He added: "It is not just a matter of being socialised into this or that pattern of behaviour, although that is real too. Our childhood hurts, humiliations, and traumas have long term impacts on our motivation, our agency, the 'free' choices we make in how we shape our lives."

Dr Muruna said that those who have committed murder, rather than be totally unremorseful, suffer tremendously with shame and guilt throughout life.

"Most say they think of their victim and the victim's family members every single day," he said.

"At the same point, none of us can function with that much shame, we cannot spend every waking moment punishing ourselves for the worst things we have ever done. So, human beings use a variety of predictable social and cognitive techniques to convince themselves and others around them that they are more than just the worst thing they have done.

"Some of these can be dysfunctional - denying the crime, for instance - but others can be very positive."

Dr Maruna said while individuals who have harmed others often accept what they have done and try to make amends, criminals often try to justify their actions.

"As humans, we have a remarkable ability to rationalise almost any act in order to neutralise the guilt we inevitably feel on harming others," he said.

"With a colleague I recently reviewed 50 years of this research involving individuals who broke an endless variety of laws and social norms. There is remarkable consistency in these neutralisation techniques for everything from tax evasion to youth delinquency, suggesting a culturally specific set of excuses and justifications that "work" in our society.

"What we do not yet know from our research is whether these neutralisations precede crime and make it possible or if they are only after the fact rationalisations. I have argued that in some cases rationalising one's past criminal acts can actually help to facilitate rehabilitation."

Belfast Telegraph


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