11/15/2010 08:49 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Parricide (Part 1): A Tragic Failure of Attachment?

This is the first part in a two-part series on children and attachment.

As a result of our brief dialogue on narcissism, many of you have expressed interest in the cause of narcissistic character pathology or its extreme extension, the sociopathic personality, and whether its origins can be seen in childhood. So far, no one can point to either nature or nurture with utter certainty; most agree that there is some combination at work in the creation of people who are pathologically self-centered.

This is a two-part analysis of a true story. For me, many of your questions only led to more questions, often leaving me feel as if I'd entered into a world of fractal-psychology, in which every piece was just a smaller version of the whole no matter how I broke it down. When it was done, I came out of the rabbit hole with a renewed sense of the critical importance of relationship and loving availability, for which no clinical technique or social technology can ever substitute. As Gary Sibcy, an expert on attachment disorders, has said, there is only one question on a child's mind: "Am I safe?" The answer to that may determine not only the child's perception of his environment in the present moment but also his ability to function in the future and the fate of those around him.

I'll leave it to you to ask your next series of questions and draw your own conclusions.

What Happened

I live in a quiet desert town. My family lives in a big city back east. We speak regularly. They always ask, "So, what's new?" And I always answer, "Not much down here."

Most of them have not been out to the Southwest, and when we speak on the phone they often reveal their ideas about where I am by the questions they ask.

When I mentioned that I went shopping at a large department store: "Oh, you have malls there?"

When I broke my wrist: "Do you have hospitals there or do you have to go to Denver?"

Or the most recent one: "What happens if there's a fire?"

"I call 911."

"Oh, you have 911 there?"

I understand their confusion. I live in a small town, and to them I really am in the middle of the desert. In their minds, small towns mean no services. In my mind, it means having just the necessary services, a quiet community, and safety.

All this until a year ago, when that quiet and sense of safety was shattered in a way that is becoming all too common on the American landscape -- so common, in fact, that within a few days it had all but disappeared from the news media. Just another kid losing it with a gun.

On Aug. 28, 2009, a 10-year-old boy shot his 42-year-old father in Belen, another small, quiet town that lies just to the south of Albuquerque, N.M. The man took one bullet to the head from a rifle around dinner time.

Initially the speculation was that the young boy had been playing with the rifle and it went off accidentally.

By Aug. 29, however, the police announced that it was a premeditated murder and that they were charging the boy. What they were going to do with him was another matter. As one cop said, "Where do we put him, with the teenagers in juvenile detention?"

Just a Little Boy in Belen

Within minutes of the announcement, the media on all three local stations had begun their usual interviewing, and they got all the usual responses:

"What I saw... he was a wonderful dad, and those kids were really respectful with their dad," one neighbor, who lived across the street from the victim, stated. "I mean, come on, for a man to raise three kids on his own, you know, it says it all right there."

"He seemed like such a nice little boy."

"He seemed like such a good father."

"I never heard nothing from them bad before."

Finally, it was revealed that child protection agencies in the area had been called to investigate the family at least four times over the last few years. The parents were divorced, and the mother was living on her own about 45 minutes north of the children. No one was saying anything further, but the confusion and the questions kept flying. What would make a 10-year-old boy pick up a rifle and shoot his own father in the head in front of his two younger siblings?

In a street sweep of interviews by giddy reporters, one boy who piped up before they could turn their microphones away explained it this way:

"He had no friends... Maybe that's why."

I guess it takes a 10-year-old to even begin to understand.

The Undiagnosed Dangers of Divorce

This is not the first time a child has killed a parent or the first time lawyers, guns and money made it impossible to really understand what destroyed a young life.

It happened in Houston almost exactly six years ago. According to a Houston Chronicle article, "sexual abuse by his father and an increased dosage of Prozac may have helped drive a 10-year-old boy to shoot and kill his father last week, the boy's mother and attorney contend."

Thus, for quite some time, with the media titillating itself over a new sex scandal, the mood of public opinion swung swiftly against the dead father. But things are not always what they seem.

According to a November 2004 attorney report, the boy's behavior was caused by "Parental Alienation Syndrome," which, the attorney explains, occurs in the context of divorce when one parent turns the children against the other parent, filling them with as much of his or her own rage and hatred as possible. If successful, the alienation puts the children in the position where they must choose. In order to get and maintain the love and support of one parent, they must act out against the other parent.

The case was not about sexual abuse, but about a very contentious divorce. According to that same report, the allegations of abuse (which had been made by the mother against the father) were proved false by two different police investigations and two lie detector tests. As a result of the false allegations, the mother was forced to settle the case out of court. The father was awarded the home and 50/50 custodial rights.

Right before the shooting, the mother independently decided to have the 10-year-old put on Prozac without notifying the father. When the father came to pick up the children to take them home, the boy slid into the back seat, took out his mother's .40 caliber pistol, and fired three rounds through the seat, wounding his father. He went back into the house, but his mother sent him back to his father's car. He unloaded the rest of the cartridge, mortally wounding his father, and returned to his mother, who, even though a registered nurse, never went to the aid of her ex-husband.

Things can be very complicated.

Kevin Rexroad, M.D., a psychiatrist in New Mexico, stressed that the pain of divorce should not be underestimated when considering its impact on children or whether it can be factored in as a precipitant to violence:

When under stress, especially of a prolonged nature, the child's fragile psyche will split into two parts: a part that feels helpless (hoping and longing to have a positive parent-child relationship) and a part that identifies with the aggressor (essentially Stockholm Syndrome; accepting a negative parent-child relationship). What the child is attempting to avoid at all costs is having a nebulous/neutral parent-child relationship. The undeveloped psyche has no resources or experiences to tolerate nothingness. [Emphasis mine.]

Then the child reacts to the stress in order to maintain a sense of self that exists, and unspeakable acts may thus occur. The child desires wholeness, the healthy triangulation of father/mother/child. The child may very well act in response to a conscious request or an unconscious wish on the behalf of an individual parent. Or the child may simply act to prevent feeling unattached and nebulous.

As Dr. Rexroad explains it, the exploding rage is partially the result of a terror so deep that it is inarticulate. And it is the terror that is at the source of their behavior, the sense of being utterly alone, toes dangling over the edge of the abyss with a wind at their backs. Nothingness. As an adult coming from a secure family, I find it not only terribly sad but also frightening, because that sort of isolation is nearly impossible for me to imagine. The closest I can come is my own fear of death. Is that what it was like for the little boy in Belen?

With insights as poignant and compelling as that, it is easy to stop right there and say, "Well, that's it. That's the answer." But is it? Clearly not every divorce ends like that. Many are amicable. Many, even though they are difficult, wind up better for the children in the long run. Many are necessary for one or the other parent's safety. So, what does explain it for kids who kill? For the kids who fail to internalize social norms? For the kids who grow into narcissists or psychopaths? Are they just born defective through some blameless anomaly?

People assume that behavioral motivations are linear and singular, that one thing (or issue or need) literally drags a person from one place to another, like a leash leads a dog across the street. Academics create whole schools of thought and therapy around single ideas, which, like the Ouroboros, take us right back to where we started. It seems that people need the reassurance of simple answers, but the truth is almost never like that.

Because in 2001, right after Thanksgiving, the motives of two young Florida brothers were quite different when they bludgeoned their father to death with a baseball bat while he was sleeping. They then set the house on fire to cover the crime.

Within a short time, the boys confessed to the murder but implicated 41-year-old convicted child molester Ricky Chavis, who was involved in a sexual relationship with the youngest brother and who had, they claimed, persuaded them to do it. The courts and attorneys apparently believed them because they were allowed to plead guilty to arson and third-degree murder (carrying only eight years in prison) while Ricky Chavis was sentenced to 35 years after being found guilty, after the fact, of accessory to first-degree murder and evidence tampering.

From cases like this one, we understand that children can be easily confused and manipulated. Lost souls are particularly easy to corrupt. We know that they may also not even be truly aware of what murder means, either spiritually or practically, that their concept of death as final is not fully formed and, as such, can be easily convinced to commit themselves to a course they can't possibly comprehend. Predators are very aware of this, that children are easy to use as well as hurt, and take full advantage of it.

Sociopathic Children

While children can explode in rage out of pain, confusion, or the terror of nothingness, is it possible that they can also be self-interested sociopaths? Will they shoot just because they want to or out of cruelty? Or because of some perceived gain?

The courts thought they'd seen a true psychopath when they found Jasmine Richardson, a 12-year-old girl, guilty of brutally murdering her parents and younger brother in Alberta. She had run off with her 23-year-old boyfriend Jeremy, whom her parents disliked. She was given the maximum penalty for a child under the age of 14: ten years.

And then there was 14-year-old Michael Hernandez, who was convicted of the premeditated murder of a classmate. He'd lured him into a bathroom then stabbed him and slit his throat. While he had appeared "so normal" to his friends and "so polite" to his teachers, his journals revealed a youngster fixated on violence and committed to plans of mass murder.

And there's the Bulger Boy Murder in Northern England in 1993, which I personally remember quite well. I still feel a physical revulsion writing about it. Two otherwise ordinary 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, abducted two-year-old James Bulger from a local shopping area, wandered with him for hours before they beat him to death and left him on railroad tracks. They covered his head with rocks. No explanation was offered. None was ever found.

The "why" of anything can be elusive. But when it comes to children like these, it can be almost impossible. Yet, we are compelled to ask. Children are supposed to be innocent, are they not? When adults do things like that, it seems easier to casually dismiss them as evil. But with children, it is much harder. The act of a child doing something so heinous forces us to look for some answers.

Normal vs. Pathological Narcissism

Most of us have been taught that every child goes through a narcissistic phase in normal development, during which we build a sense of ourselves as worthy and beloved through our interactions with our caretakers. When it's done right, we develop a proper self-interest that is moderated by moral limits, frustration tolerance, and empathy.

When it goes terribly wrong, children can grow to become individuals with distorted perceptions of themselves, delusional fears of abandonment or neglect, and deeply embedded disconnectedness.

According to some of the newest research in the dynamics of childhood attachment, we are all born with predispositions and instincts, but not with the more sophisticated devices we need to function socially. We all need to learn how to regulate emotional arousal. Oddly enough, while it is absolutely essential for normal interaction, it is not an inherent faculty. As a result, it is up to the adults in a child's life to show him how to respond to an insult, a broken heart or a bruised knee. By both our presence and our words, we show them how to think, feel and process each experience as it comes so that they are hard-wired for safety, self-reliance, and resilience.

When we help our children to feel safe, secure, capable and calm, they learn an exceptionally crucial skill: to think and feel simultaneously. But this must happen very early. Some say it has to happen while the child is in the womb. (See "Verbal First Aid" pp. 41-43). Experts believe that explosions of rage are mostly due to a deficiency in that area.

When parents are unavailable, brutal, preoccupied with themselves or other things (for good or bad reasons), children are left to their own devices and do not develop normally.

In the article "Toward an Interpersonal Neurobiology of the Development: Attachment Relationships, 'Mindsight,' and Neural Integration," the UCLA School of Medicine's Daniel J. Siegel writes, "Because experiences with others early in life are so important for human development, I have earlier stated that 'Human connections create the neural connections from which the mind emerges.'"

Human connections.

In a world that is moving faster and faster, that is consumed with consuming, that worships celebrity and style, how available are we to form these connections in ways that foster empathy, compassion and competence?

Stay tuned for Part II. I look forward to your thoughts.