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March 19, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

What Makes a Criminal

We need to talk about nature vs. nurture


Are monsters born or made? Salient Chief Feature Writer Elle Hunt investigates to what extent parental failure can be used to excuse or explain the crimes of a minor.

Told from the perspective of a woman struggling to move on from her teenage son’s horrific crime, the release of the film adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s award- winning novel We Need To Talk About Kevin has reignited debate over an age-old question: nature versus nurture. Can Eva Katchadourian—successful entrepreneur, reluctant mother, who tried to warm to her first-born but couldn’t help hissing at him through gritted teeth that “Mummy was happy before little Kevin came along”—be held to blame for his subsequent massacre of his schoolmates? Or was the callous, calculating Kevin, as Eva implies, born evil?

“Whether Kevin was innately twisted or was mangled by his mother’s coldness is a question with which the novel struggles, but which it ultimately fails to answer,” wrote Shriver in The Guardian. “That verdict is the reader’s job.”

But it is also the law’s job. We Need To Talk About Kevinasks whether parents can be held responsible for their children’s actions; it does not explore to  what extent their failure should be taken into account in the sentencing for their crimes. This question is a thorn in the side of the law, which cannot consider an offender’s being ‘born evil’, just as it cannot ignore mitigating factors that contributed to their offending.

Cruel, cold and contemptuous, Shriver’s Kevin is a character constructed to epitomise evil. But use of the term in a legal context, being subject as it is to historical, cultural and religious pressures, is unhelpful. Professor Simon Baron- Cohen of Cambridge University has instead suggested that evil be interpreted as the “erosion of empathy”, which is “scientifically tractable”: “Psychopaths such as Kevin has zero degrees of

affective empathy (they don’t care about someone else’s feelings) but have excellent cognitive empathy (… able to manipulate others through deception).” Therefore, Baron-Cohen concludes, it would be “uncaring” for civilised society to not “show compassion for the killer, because his actions are the result of his neurology”.

Attributing offending to biological make-up is a controversial opinion that nonetheless has basis in scientific fact. The work of German-British psychologist Hans Eysenck is taken as evidence that most personality traits are caused by properties of the brain, while closer to home, a longitudinal study of 1,037 children born in Dunedin in 1972 and 1973 revealed a protein that, when combined with maltreatment in childhood, is associated with convictions for violence in adulthood. Given these findings, Kevin’s behaviour could be explained by a genetic predisposition towards a lack of empathy, control or moral sense, which seems to largely absolve Eva of responsibility for her son’s crimes.

Such an argument does little to diminish the cries of parental failure from the public and media. “Modern-day mothers get stuck with virtually blanket responsibility for how their kids turn out,” wrote Shriver, an advocate of ‘childless by choice’, in The Guardian. “How we came to conceive of children as passive objects upon which adults act is beyond me.”

In researching Kevin, Shriver came across studies and editorials that placed the blame for school shootings squarely on the parents, several of whom had been sued for negligence by the families of murdered children. “My own reading failed to substantiate that most shooters suffered in any exceptional sense… Nevertheless, countless sociologists have strained to explain the phenomenon in a way that turns the culprits into victims.”

“I’m willing to grant a gradated diminishment of responsibility in relation to an offender’s youth,” Shriver conceded in an online Q&A session with Good Morning America. “But don’t tell me that a 15-year-old who shoots his teacher hasn’t a clue he’s doing something wrong.”

Although there is no explicit reference made to parental failure, abuse or neglect under New Zealand sentencing legislation, the age of the offender is taken into account, as is “any other… mitigating factor” that the court sees fit. “Some of the issues that might reduce the sentence are not really mitigating of culpability, but are really about the personal circumstances of the offender, justifying a more lenient sentence,” says Dr Yvette Tinsley of Victoria’s Faculty of Law. “One of the factors that courts have taken into account is sexual or physical abuse suffered by the offender where there is evidence that the abuse contributed to the offending—though this may not have a big effect on the eventual sentence.”

In the sentencing of 16-year-old Raurangi Marino for the rape of a five-year-old girl—a crime that captured the collective outrage of New Zealand’s people and media—Judge Phillip Cooper took into account Marino’s dysfunctional family background, which involved drugs, alcohol, gang connections, and physical and sexual abuse. Marino’s youth, upbringing, remorse and early guilty plea reduced a starting point of 18 years imprisonment by four-and-a-half years; as his three sentences for rape, grievous bodily harm and burglary can be served concurrently, he will likely be eligible for parole after serving a third of his ten-year sentence. (Marino himself has said that he does not intend to apply for parole until he has served five years.)

Sensible Sentencing Trust director Garth McVicar sees this as putting Marino’s rights ahead of those of his victim. He, like Shriver, believes that offenders’ troubled youth should not be used to explain their wrongdoing. “We don’t believe we can make excuses,” he says, noting that Marino’s consumption of alcohol and marijuana in the hours prior to the rape was frequently referred to in media reports of the case. “Once you move down that line of thought, where do you stop? We’re not supportive of someone’s upbringing [being considered a mitigating factor in sentencing] because, basically, we’d be creating a rod for our own backs.”

That said, McVicar believes parents need to be held accountable for their children’s crimes, noting that “in some European countries, parents are sitting in the cells with their children”. He argues that introducing similar measures in New Zealand could “spark a debate that this country needs to have.” “Ultimately, as the child walks that fine line from being a child to being an adult, parents need to be responsible up to that point.”

Though minors, under New Zealand law, are not considered blameless for their crimes, the parents of underage criminals are rightly or wrongly held up to scrutiny by society and the media. Marino’s mother Lavinia Wall has told journalists that she failed “a good boy, a little naughty”: “I didn’t safeguard my children, and I didn’t apply myself to looking after them”. But other comments she made in the same interview—“They call me a bad mother and [say] I have brought up horrible children”—suggest she felt forced to respond to immense public pressure to take responsibility for her son’s crime.

The law’s complicated and contentious interpretation of nature versus nurture warrants further clarification. If we are are to believe that ‘monsters’ such as Kevin are a product of their upbringing, tackling child poverty (where substance, physical, sexual and emotionally abuse is statistically more likely) should be of utmost priority for the Government. But accounting for scientific findings that an inclination towards crime is a matter of genetics suggests that changes need to be made to New Zealand’s criminal justice system.

The ongoing results of Growing Up In New Zealand, a new longitudinal study of almost 7,000 babies born in the upper North Island between February 2009 and June 2010, are expected to be relevant to this end. In the meantime, Shriver raises a pertinent point—that biology and upbringing combine to create that most unpredictable of motivations, human nature: “Parents are people too, and their emotions are sometimes going to depart from script. Moreover, children are people too, which means that to give them at least partial responsibility for how they turn out, and for whether they murder their classmates, is to take them seriously as fully human.”


About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

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  1. Nicola says:

    I recall someone who worked in early childhood education saying they reckoned they thought they could see who was going to get a Phd, and who was going to go to prison, in their classroom. :(.

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