11/22/2010 08:46 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Parricide (Part 2): Is Our Detached Society to Blame?

Surrounded by a culture of violence, Jo Eekhoff, a licensed clinical social worker in Belen, N.M., where the most recent patricide took place, found herself deeply saddened by the situation. She works with the public school system and has a great many ties to the children in the community.

"I found myself thinking about the little boy and all the kids I see being raised by only one parent or grandma or auntie," she told me. "They desperately want the love of that missing parent, and the attachment issues lead to anger and fantasies and false personas and personality problems. Then there is the violence all around these kids, the fear in the news."

Then she asked me, "Have you ever played 'Grand Theft Auto'?"

I hadn't.

"The killing," she explained, "is so real they are completely desensitized to killing. Then there are the overloaded school systems where kids used to find some solace in a loving teacher or coach or counselor. But everyone is too overwhelmed these days, and the kids are passing unrecognized. Then I read something online about all those CYFD [Child, Youth and Family Services] referrals to the house, and I wondered what was wrong there. I don't know. It's a scary world for a 10-year-old these days."

This news was no news for Police Chief Roy Melnick of Los Lunas P.D., who worked the same type of case with an eight-year-old defendant in Arizona. And, for a seasoned cop, he offered some compelling and compassionate advice to the people who will have to work with this ten year-old:

Never forget his age, because he's a child. It's very traumatic to him as well. He's not only the perpetrator, if in fact he committed the crime; he's a victim, too. Its hard to say that with someone that kills somebody, but when you're dealing with a child, there's facts and circumstances that led up to this, just like in our eight-year-old.

There are so many unanswered questions about these children who kill:

  • What are the facts and circumstances that lead up to something like this? Is there some way to prevent it from happening? Or is that just another way of throwing blame around? Another Ouroboros to add to our casebooks?
  • Is the behavior or pathology intrinsic to the child or a product of the environment, or both? Is there any answer at all?
  • Is it happening more often? If so, why?

To answer some of these questions when I posed them, Dr. Rexroad recalled his own unhappy early life in coal mining country:

My home life was an experience of parents battling depression and emotional disconnectedness. In my teen years in the early '80s, as a heavy metal rock 'n roller, I felt the power of belonging to something that represented strength, unity, and acceptance ... I now feel saddened by the tremendous amount of violence that our children are exposed to in these entertainment venues. However, the real battle for our youth is at home, within the psychic dyads and triads of the parental unit. ... If this is so, then whom do we blame for the horrendous acts of violence executed by these undeveloped and fragile minds? Maybe we should start by noting how horribly fearful we are of such violent acts and realize that we are all possibly susceptible to such experiences. Once the realization that we are all connected via our humanity, then perhaps we can more easily notice when others are in need and help them, to see that they may be the canaries in the coal mines, rather than trample them in our legal system, identifying them as oddities and freaks of our existences.

From his perspective, the violence in these children is not an entirely unnatural result of the preponderance of broken families and an epidemic of narcissistic preoccupation in the adults who are supposed to care for them. But he does not believe the phenomenon itself is anything particularly new. Clearly, it has its precedents or we wouldn't have myths like the Oedipus story etched into our cultural consciousness.

Yet, to me there is a lurking danger more insidious than the acts themselves. What concerned me as I watched the case in Belen unfold is that it seemed more commonplace to many, and, worse, it had become less shocking to us as a nation. As I recall, these events used to make our heads reel and fix our attention on the television for months. It's barely a five-minute spot on the news now. And unless it involves a celebrity, most of these murders wouldn't even rate a documentary.

So, something is happening, and maybe it's not just to the children. If they are, as Dr. Rexroad believes, the "canaries in the coal mines," maybe it's happening to us.

America Detached, Children Unhinged

It's no secret to anyone who's been watching that we have become a pathologically disconnected and discontented culture. We are transient in ways not only physical but emotional and spiritual. We dart like hummingbirds from one source of nectar to the next. Living across the country from my family and so many old friends, I have not been an exception to the restlessness that spins the American spirit. It has a grip on all of us in one way or another.

Some of us are aware of it. Many are not. They spin and can't understand why they feel dizzy. They super-size their meals and don't understand why they get sick. They bounce from one relationship to the next and don't understand why they feel so alone.

Getting married is now a higher-stakes affair than many poker games. Divorce court is the destination of nearly 50 percent of the people who walk down the aisle. We've become detached from each other, our commitments, our children, our own bodies, and our emotions. With our eyes and our expectations always on the horizon, we are very rarely fully present in the moment. As we are sitting with the person we've spent weeks planning to meet, our minds are already into our next date, our next event.

We have higher expectations than any other culture in Earth's history but far less patience or persistence. We are simultaneously slothful and entitled. Our values have been skewed, as evidenced by the massive debts people have amassed because they couldn't wait to buy HDTVs. Even our television shows and videos are cut into segments so small and so visually disjointed that it's impossible to see a story from beginning through the middle all the way to the end. Consider the impact all this has on a psyche (and a brain) as impressionable, as receptive, and as malleable as an infant's.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by children who kill. If we are all connected, as Dr. Rexroad believes, then we are all responding to one another all the time, engaged and fluttering in an emotional or psychical butterfly effect in which nothing happens in a vacuum or by accident.

According to the Evergreen Psychotherapy Center, which specializes in the treatment of attachment-disordered children, research has shown that up to 80 percent of high-risk families create severe attachment disorders in their children. High-risk families include those with histories of abuse and neglect, severe poverty, substance abuse, divorce, parental violence, history of maltreatment in the parents' childhood, depression and other psychological disorders in parents.

They warn us: Since there are one million substantiated cases of serious abuse and neglect in the U.S. each year, the statistics indicate that there are 800,000 children with severe attachment disorders coming to the attention of the child welfare system each year. This does not include thousands of children with attachment disorder adopted from other countries.

What does an attachment disorder predispose one to do or become?

According to many experts, a failure to attach leads not only to emotional and social problems but has serious developmental and biochemical consequences. As far back as 1951, when John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who coined the term "maternal deprivation," published "Maternal Care and Mental Health," we have been warned of the dangers of detachment and alerted to a child's true vulnerability.

Infants raised without loving touch (which we see a great deal in children who languish in orphanages throughout Eastern Europe and Russia) have abnormally high levels of stress hormones. They learn more slowly, are behaviorally disordered, frequently fall ill, and are far more violent than their emotionally secure counterparts. If attachment is disrupted during the first three years of life, children can suffer what is now being called "Affectionless Psychopathy." They are unable to form meaningful relationships. They have poor impulse control. They are angry. And they don't care anymore. They have no remorse, no empathy. And they can get guns.

Why are children shooting their parents? According to the reports, it would seem almost inevitable. According to one study by Quartz and Seinowski (2002), 15 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds are "disconnected," with almost 4 million young adults neither attending school nor working. Since the 1980s, despite all the Prozac and Ritalin, the number of homicides committed by juveniles has risen 168 percent, and suicides have increased by 140 percent. It is in fact the third leading cause of death among young people. If they're not killing someone else, they're killing themselves.

Somehow, we have managed to create a sub-population of children with no center and nothing and no one to give them one. Abandoned, alienated, and angry, without hope or conscience, why wouldn't they shoot?

The evidence for that is in the subtle way in which we have moved right past cases like the little boy in Belen, the way in which we have become inured to horror, the way in which we process pain as if we had drive-through psyches. Perhaps it is both cause and effect and we are stuck in a feedback loop that perpetuates alienation and rage, letting the pressure build until the dam bursts and the swell is once again (but not for long) contained. We are simultaneously engaged by horror and disengaged emotionally. We rubber-neck on the highway but we keep on driving.

Yet, I am surprised. I have worked with the traumatized and tormented for more than 20 years. I have been witness and sanctuary to hundreds of men, women and children who have seen and experienced war, brutality, sexual abuse, prostitution, and, worst of all, unrelenting hatred from the people they had counted on to love them. Their stories never cease to grieve or shock me. I am not inured. Each case makes my heart break anew. Each story brings forth more empathy. As far as I am concerned, this is good and proper. We should be grieved. We should be pained. Each time. Every time.

As I watched the last newscast about this child -- this little boy who looked at a fairly large weapon, took it up in his hands, pointed it at his father, and pulled the trigger -- I struggled not to understand but to imagine.

What was in his mind, his heart right before he decided to aim that rifle? Then, as he wrapped his small finger around the trigger, did he feel his own heart beating or hear the blood rush through his ears and head? Did he feel any urgency to go to the bathroom? Did he think of his siblings? Did he miss his mommy? Did he hear anything, some small voice, some remnant of reason and love and longing asking him to wait? Or was there a dead silence?

I do not have all the facts on the case. I do not know the family members, their circumstances, or their history in the system. I don't know what made the parents divorce or what their early lives were like. I am also neither looking to blame nor excuse. I seek some enlightenment, perhaps to ease my own angst, perhaps to shed enough light on the matter that we can begin to see what needs healing.

I admit that even after all these years of work in the field of trauma, there are more things I don't know than things of which I am absolutely sure. Theories are the pale shadows of piercing experience. And when it comes to understanding our lives here, there are more unanswered questions than answered ones. My work sinks me deep in the mysteries. And I am reminded of it every time a patient looks at me after an upheaval of memories enough to fill a Stephen King novel and asks, "Why?"

What I do know without equivocation is that nearly every child born comes into existence with an instinctive dependence on his parents. From the very start their needs are undeniable and palpable. They cry when we leave the room and cling to us when we return. They smile when we smile. They pout when we pout. It is innate. It may not be love as adults come to know it, but it is emotional Gorilla Glue. I see it as the most unconditional and purest of loves. Even when we neglect, hurt, or ridicule them, they still want to give us love. Yet, even if you look at it without any poetic mists, it is empirically and biologically reasonable. We are their survival. They need us. What on earth could destroy that most natural of bonds?

The only answer I can offer is that something -- on earth -- did.