By Chris Hedges / The Real News Network
American society is the most violent of any nation in the industrialized world. Nothing we do, from administrating the world’s largest prison system to militarizing our police, seems to help. Dr. James Gilligan argues that childhood abuse, and the shame it engenders, is the engine that fuels America’s deadliest epidemic. This abuse and shame, he argues, fosters a dangerous numbness that breeds a deep self-loathing and inchoate rage. It is only by understanding the causes of our national epidemic, and addressing those causes, that we will have any hope of stemming the nihilistic violence that grips American society. Dr. Gilligan grounds his writing not only in case studies of the violent patients he works with, but Greek myths and Shakespeare.
Dr. James Gilligan is a professor of Clinical Psychiatry at New York University. Formerly, he served as the director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Massachusetts. He is the author of Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, and Holding a Mirror up to Nature: Shame, Guilt, and Violence in Shakespeare, which he co-authored with David A.J. Richards.
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Chris Hedges: American society is the most violent of any nation in the industrialized world. Nothing we do, from administering the world’s largest prison system to militarizing our police, seems to help.
Dr. James Gilligan, the former director of the Study of Violence at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, argues that childhood abuse and the shame it engenders is the engine that fuels America’s deadliest epidemic.This abuse and shame, he argues, fosters a dangerous numbness that breeds a deep self-loathing and inchoate rage.
It is only by understanding the causes of our national epidemic and addressing those causes, that we will have any hope of stemming the nihilistic violence that grips American society.
Dr. Gilligan grounds his writing not only in case studies of the violent patients he has worked with, but Greek myth and Shakespeare. Joining me to discuss his book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, as well as his book Holding a Mirror up to Nature: Shame, Guilt, and Violence in Shakespeare, which he co-authored with David Richards, is Dr. James Gilligan, professor of clinical psychiatry at New York University.
You argue that the usual dichotomies between life and death, this world and the other world, rationality and irrationality, pleasure and pain, reward and punishment, the body and the soul, self-preservation and self-destruction, have broken down for those who commit violence. Can you explain this dichotomy?
James Gilligan: One of the first things I started hearing from, really, the most violent of the prison inmates I was working with was that they would tell me that they had died, even before they started killing other people. What they meant by that was they felt dead inside. They felt empty. They felt numb. They lacked the capacity for emotions or even physical sensations.
They would refer to themselves with terms that refer to the living dead, like zombie or vampire or robot. They would mutilate themselves to see if they could have feelings. They weren’t doing this as an act of penance. They didn’t feel guilty about their crimes. What they found was that their feeling of numbness and deadness inside was more tormenting than even physical pain would be. So, they were trying to see, could they feel alive? Could they see blood flow? They cut themselves to prove that they had blood, rather than being filled with straw or other lifeless matter.
Now, what struck me was these people were willing to go to their physical death in order to try to resurrect their soul death, their psychological death. There’s a very good book that a psychoanalyst at Yale wrote called Soul Murder. The most violent people I saw in the prisons were victims of soul murder.
Now, what I discovered with them was, when most of us talk about self-preservation, we take it for granted that we mean both the body and the soul. You don’t survive if your body dies. I mean, your soul goes with it. In the prisons, the most violent inmates had disassociated the body from the soul. They were willing to sacrifice their bodies in order to try to save their souls or to resurrect their dead souls.
I heard from the most violent ones that their goal in life is to go to their own death, physical death, but in a blaze of glory. A hail of gunfire in which they would kill as many other people as possible before they themselves got killed by the police. In many actual cases in the community, you see mass murderers who kill themselves after they have killed as many people as they could.
The Columbine High School boys, the mass shooting there. The guy in the hotel room in Las Vegas, I mean, you can’t read the newspapers without seeing it.
Of course, we see this with the suicide bombers in the Middle East. When people feel so desperately, overwhelmingly humiliated, it causes the death of the self. And they’re willing to sacrifice their bodies in order to try to reclaim some sense of agency, of power, of revenge, these things that they feel will undo the shame and humiliation that they have suffered all their lives.
Chris Hedges: This is the point Emile Durkheim makes, that people who seek the annihilation of others are driven by a desire for self-annihilation.
I’m just going to stop and ask you about the word soul. That’s a religious term. You’re a medical doctor. I went to Harvard Divinity School. I’m curious how you define a soul.
James Gilligan: Well to me, I mean, it’s the English translation for the Greek word psyche, which really is the root of the words psychology and psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
But I think it makes sense to use the word soul. The human person has something I think you can only describe as a soul. It’s more than just a mind. It’s what it means to be human. I mean, other animals have minds, to one degree or another, but only humans have a soul. To me, but I would actually go further. I would say this. To me, I was approaching trying to understand the causes and prevention of violence as a psychiatrist. But actually, for me, this was really a religious vocation.
I’ve felt every major world religion has put the problem of violence very much at the center. I’m thinking in the Old Testament, one of the first of the Ten Commandments is thou shalt not kill. And then you think that the iconic symbol of Christianity is the most cruel form of murder ever invented, the cross, the crucifix. I mean, the problem of violence is absolutely central to religion itself.
My approach to the prisons was to… I quote something I used as an epigraph in my first book on violence, a statement that from a religious point of view, none of us humans are good, but all are sacred. When I say none are good, I mean that we have all committed harm to people we love and who loved us. There are none of us who do not stand in need of forgiveness. But on the other hand, every human being, even the worst, has what I would say is a soul that is sacred.
I took that attitude with the worst murderers that our society produces. They were still human beings. They had a soul. It was our obligation, my obligation and that of my colleagues, to reach that soul, to try to bring it to life after it had died on them. We were trying to resurrect their dead souls, or help them to resurrect them.
So to me, the word soul is the only word that has a large enough meaning, a large enough capacity to describe what I thought we were really working with when we worked with the most violent people that our society produces.
Chris Hedges: One of the consequences of PTSD is numbness. Is that the numbness that these people endure, or is it different from the numbness one gets from PTSD?
James Gilligan: Well I mean, I’d say both. When I would ask people about their feeling of being dead, they could often tell me what had happened. They could describe an event in their lives in which they felt totally unloved, treated like dirt. Our word humiliation comes from the Latin word humus, which means earth. To be humiliated is to feel like you’re treated like dirt, that you can just be stepped on. That is how the men that I saw in the prisons felt. I’d say this feeling of deadness had been caused by experiences of total rejection and humiliation and having it made clear to them how unloved they were, beginning at home, beginning in the family.
Chris Hedges: You talk about murder as an attempt by these people to bring back one’s dead self, bring it back to life. You say, of course, that fails, but can you speak about that process?
James Gilligan: Well, actually, their method of trying to resurrect their dead soul does fail. I compare it to, it’s like they’re drinking salt water to try to quench their thirst. It’s really counterproductive. They only provoke more loss of love. They provoke hatred from other people.
But I’ll tell you what would happen when I would work with these guys in the prison. When they first came into the prison, after some of them having committed terrible crimes, murders and rapes and so on, they would feel absolutely innocent. They would feel they were the victims. When I would ask them why they had assaulted somebody in this way, they’d say because the person had disrespected them. So, they were trying to gain respect by being violent. But it was, as I said, like drinking salt water.
When they’d been in the prison for a couple of years, working with the prison mental health service that my colleagues and I ran, where we treated them with respect. We didn’t put them down. We showed an interest in them and in their life history, their life story. We engaged them in psychotherapy. We offered them opportunities for education. After a couple of years or so, these impossible people often became capable of empathy toward other people. They began to realize how much pain and suffering they had caused others. And they developed the capacity to feel guilty about that. Up to that point, they were noticeably incapable of feelings of guilt.
For example, Freud said once that nobody feels guiltier than the saints. I mean, guilt feelings inhibit people from hurting other people. I mean, saints feel too guilty to hurt a butterfly. But I would add something that Freud did not know because he never worked with violent people, and that is that no one feels more innocent than the criminals. That’s why they’re capable of committing crimes, because they lack the capacity to feel guilt or remorse about hurting other people.
But after they’d had an experience of being treated like a human being and responded to as a human being with dignity, they developed the capacity to empathize with other people and realized that they actually were guilty of having committed horrible pain and suffering on other people. Then they would feel so guilty they would become suicidal. They would make serious suicide attempts. Our struggle then would be not so much to prevent them from committing homicides, but to prevent their suicides. That might take another couple of years.
However, then something happened that I had not anticipated. I hadn’t read about it anywhere. It took me by surprise. They discovered something that enabled them to transcend both the shame and guilt. That is, they discovered that they could be useful and helpful to other people. They could teach the illiterate prisoners – And many prisoners are illiterate – They could teach them to read and write. They could help them to write letters home. They could help them navigate the law library in the prisons, and so on.
Once they had discovered that, they had something that enhanced their own self-esteem, but also enabled them, actually, to care about other people and to care for them. To me, that was the resurrection of… Maybe resurrection’s the wrong word. Maybe it was the coming to life for the first time of a soul. People who had really just been treated in a way that was inhuman and had become what we use the word inhuman to describe, they became human.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. I think that point is correct and matches my own experience teaching in the prison.
You write about capital punishment. You say, correctly, that more prisoners are killed by other prisoners than are killed by the state. You even say that for this reason, perhaps no group is more strongly and widely in favor of capital punishment. And then you say, you just find it risible, these people who argue that capital punishment deters murder and other violent crimes. Can you explain that?
James Gilligan: Well, one thing I’d mention is that more murderers killed themselves than were ever killed by the state, even when capital punishment was the default punishment for murder. I think the biggest mistake that our criminal justice system makes is to make the assumption that punishment will deter violence or crime. On the contrary, punishment is the most powerful stimulant of violence that we have yet discovered.
If you’ll remember what I just said about the childhood history of the violent criminals I worked with, they had been punished by their parents, as severely as it is possible to punish somebody without actually killing them. As I said, they were often the victims of attempted murder. I saw one multiple murderer whose mother had thrown him out the window, on another occasion set him on fire, on another occasion attacked him with an ax. He said to me, more in a state of confusion than bitterness, I guess she wanted to kill me, but I just didn’t die.
Then the thing is that so many of them do kill themselves after they have killed other people. Or, as I mentioned earlier, many of them want to kill as many as they can even though that will mean going to their own death. So the notion that the death penalty will deter them is just based on total ignorance of the psychology of people who commit serious violence, and precisely the people that we need to be most concerned about. I mean, the most violent.
We know this from developmental psychology. Psychologists who study child development have found that the more severely children are punished, the more violent they become, both as children and as adults. As I said, if punishment would prevent violence, then the people I saw in the prisons would never have become violent in the first place, because they had already been punished so severely.
I would see this also on a day-to-day basis in the prisons. The more a prisoner was punished by prison guards, the more violent they’d become until there would be an endless vicious cycle between the prisoners and the guards. They would punish, the prisoner would become more violent. They’d punish more, the prisoner would become more violent, and on and on. Until finally the officers would ask me to see people like this, just to help them figure out how to get out of this vicious cycle of punishment stimulating violence.
I remember talking to one man who finally wound up in solitary confinement with the door closed. He was in darkness. The light was turned off. He was deprived of a mattress. The toilet was a hole on the floor, and so on. I asked him, what is it you want so badly that you’re willing to give up everything in order to get it? Because that’s what he was doing. This guy, who was usually so inarticulate, he usually just talked to his fists, he stood up tall and looked at me and said, pride, dignity, self-esteem. And then he went on, more in his usual way, and said, I’ll kill everybody in this cell block if I have to in order to get it.
Again, my point is the idea that punishment deters violence is totally the opposite of the truth. I think it’s very important, particularly for Americans but really for all human beings, to know this, when America has the most punitive criminal justice system in the developed world. As you mentioned, we have the highest imprisonment rate in the world, even of the non-developed countries. We have more prisoners in our prisons on a per capita basis than the countries we call police states.
Yet, despite that, or I’d say because of it, in part, we have the highest murder rates in the developed world. Our murder rate is seven times as high as the murder rates in the political democracies and social democracies of Western Europe, and roughly five times higher than the other English-speaking democracies of Canada, Australia.
Our violent criminal justice system, including the death penalty, it only stimulates violence, to the extent it has any effect at all. There is no Western European country or English-speaking democracy that still has the death penalty. The US stands alone on that. And it’s not surprising, since punishment only stimulates violence, that there would be this correlation between our violence and the violence of those that we punish.
Chris Hedges: Before we get into Shakespeare in the last five minutes, you write, “Actions are symbolic representations of thought.” What do you mean by that?
James Gilligan: I mean that violence doesn’t occur at random. One reason I wrote about Shakespeare, and I refer to him often in describing the prisoners I see, is because he described what I saw in the prisons. In King Lear he describes how Edmond, the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, has his father’s eyes gouged out after having been humiliated repeatedly by his father. That helped me to understand a criminal that came into the prison who had killed and gouged out the eyes of his victim. He made it clear. He had the same motive that Shakespeare’s character did. He said, he didn’t like the way she was looking at [him].
He had felt he had also been bullied, been called humiliating words, a wimp, a punk, a pussy. He felt overwhelmingly humiliated. The way to undo his humiliation was to destroy the eyes of a person, because, as Aristotle put it, people experienced shame in the eyes of others. We experience shame as we’re being in front of an audience that is witnessing our shame and seeing how weak and shameful we are. So, attacking the eyes is not an accident.
I could give you many other examples of the part of the body that inmates attack, the violent criminals attack, it is not chosen at random. It has a real emotional meaning. I just saw this over and over.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask you about Antony and Cleopatra, where Antony says to the soothsayer, “Say to me, whose fortunes shall rise higher, Caesar’s or mine?” The soothsayer says, “Caesar’s. Therefore, Antony, stay not by his side: Thy demon, that’s thy spirit which keeps thee, is noble, courageous high, unmatchable. Where Caesar’s is not; But, near him, thy angel becomes a fear, as being overpowered: Therefore make space enough between you.” I’m asking whether love is a helpless force against those who have been rendered numb.
James Gilligan: You mean giving them love, is that helpful?
Chris Hedges: Well, that Antony, in a way, his strength and his weakness is that unlike Caesar, he can feel love.
James Gilligan: Yes.
Chris Hedges: He loves Cleopatra. That, of course, leads to his downfall, at least in the play. While Caesar, who feels nothing but a cold lust for power, rises. There’s that moment in the play that said, in a way, your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. Other students in the class, in the prison, would caution me about trying to care for people who couldn’t care for themselves.
James Gilligan: Well, when I think of Antony and Cleopatra, I think of Antony as having… His love for Cleopatra was so deep that it made what Caesar did to him relatively irrelevant. Remember when he said, “Let Rome in Tiber melt.” My world is here with Cleopatra. There’s a sense of, she didn’t even care what Caesar did. He had achieved, I think a sense of personal immortality in his love, his love for Cleopatra was so deep. I’d say he had transcended the difference between life and death, not dissociated himself from it.
I think that if people can develop the capacity for love… Well, first of all, as I mentioned earlier, when prisoners learned they could be helpful to other people, that was a form of loving other people. It was not personal intimacy, but it was transpersonal. It was just helping people because they needed help, responding to other people’s needs. I think that once people develop that capacity for love, that they lose the incentive for violence.
Now, what I do think Shakespeare showed in the play Antony and Cleopatra is that there was no room in that world of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire. That was a world based on violence and on the denial of love. So in that sense, I think Shakespeare correctly was showing that there was no room for love between people in that kind of world. I thought it was a powerful indictment of the world that he lived in, that Shakespeare lived in, and that Antony lived in.
Chris Hedges: Yes, I think that’s right. But it’s an understanding, I think, of the attributes that, in many ways, are required for power, certainly autocratic power. It’s really those who objectify and dehumanize others who have many of the characteristics, the numbness that you write about.
James Gilligan: Absolutely. I think that Octavian, who later became Emperor Augustus, exemplified the kind of person who does not have the capacity for love and whose life is really, frankly, dull and empty and not fully human compared to Antony’s. Yes, Antony becomes the victim who dies in the play. I mean, he kills himself, but in order to stay with Cleopatra and be loyal to her.
He’s much more human, and I think had a much fuller life,even though he died young, or relatively younger than necessary. He had a much fuller life than I think Augustus could ever even imagine or ever realize existed.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Dr. James Gilligan speaking about his book Violence. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, and Kayla Rivera. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.