‘Littleton Didn’t Just ‘Happen Overnight’

In the wake of the Littleton shooting tragedy, a nation of finger-pointers has rounded up the usual suspects: media violence, guns, video games, the Internet. But for Jonathan Kellerman, this laundry list — inevitably brought out in the wake of such violence — omits one major source of responsibility: the perpetrators. “We’ll blame society,” says an unsurprised Kellerman. “And we’ll forget about it until the next tragedy.”

Kellerman is not being cynical or prophetic, just reflective.

He is a child clinical psychologist who, several years ago, embarked on a highly successful career as a mystery novelist. He has written 14 novels and four nonfiction books. He was working on another novel in March 1998 when Mitchell Johnson and another student at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school murdered four classmates and a teacher. He began researching child violence for an Op-Ed piece in USA Today, and continued to study it when Ballantine approached him to write a book on the subject. Last week, in the wake of the Columbine High shootings, Ballantine announced that it will release Kellerman’s “Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children” in early May.

For Kellerman, the answers to why kids kill lay not in politically juicy fixes such as media violence, but in the murkier and more complex realm where psychology, biology and society collide and, in a few particular cases, explode. Kellerman, who is a clinical professor of pediatrics and psychology at the USC School of Medicine, spoke with Jewish Journal Managing Editor Rob Eshman by phone from his home in Beverly Hills. His comments are excerpted below:

Jewish Journal:

Why Littleton?

Jonathan Kellerman:

Everybody’s talking about the same things: media violence, guns — the latter of which is probably important; the former of which isn’t. But nobody is talking about psychopathology. And the truth of the matter is that these acts are carried out by disturbed people. They’re not carried out by the 99.9 percent of us who are essentially psychologically normal. This does not happen to normal kids. There are no surprises here. These children do not go from perfect angels to homicidal maniacs in one fell swoop. These seeds are planted extremely early, and they manifest themselves as early as age 3, 4. The warning signs are there for years and years.


What about the influence of violent media?


We’re confusing correlation with causation. Just because something is associated with something else doesn’t mean it causes it. There are about a thousand correlative studies of media violence and various forms of aggression, and not a single causal link. Virtually every teen-ager and every child in America is exposed to violent imagery. Very few of them engage in this kind of behavior. A normal child is not going to be turned bad by media violence. A rotten kid is more likely to be influenced by it, but there are much stronger influences in that rotten kid’s life than media violence.

The problem with dealing with media violence and pouring millions of dollars into it is: Where does it lead? We’re not going to censor people. So we’re wasting our time. And the crime is that all the money and time we spend talking about this, leads us away from what we really need to focus on, which is to identify high-risk youngsters and to deal with them. And they’re a very, very small percentage.

An anti-hate curriculum in the schools is good for most of us, but the people who need it the most are probably not going to be affected by it. The problem isn’t political hatred. The political hatred is a symptom of extreme psychopathology.


How do we identify young psychopaths?


This type of behavior often manifests itself extremely young. You see people engaging in vicious and cruel acts at 3, 4 years old. It’s a combination of bad biology and bad environment. There are some children with a biological tendency to psychopathy, as frightening as that thought is. That doesn’t mean they will become psychopaths. But someone with those proclivities who is then exposed to a very chaotic family life is much more likely to engage in this behavior. You then add in access to weapons, and you’ve got problems.

We need to look at high-risk kids, and do what we need to do with them. The indications are that if you don’t change a seriously violent, disturbed kid by age 12, you’re probably not going to change him. There’s neuropsychological evidence. Experience with the police at age 11 or 12 is a good predictor of a lifetime of criminality. I would never say never, but you want to get them as young as possible.

This is not anything new. Jesse James was 21, and he murdered 21 people. Clyde Barrow began his career at 9. That we’ve created folk heroes out of these violent, vicious, psychopathic killers at a very young age tells us something about our own true feelings, that we have an attraction and admiration for it, as well as a repulsion.


But the press reports are that the two Columbine killers were good kids. One of them is reported to have a religious background as a Jew and a Lutheran.


I do not believe for a minute these were good kids. A year ago, they were arrested. If a guy’s arrested for a crime, chances are he’s done 10 he didn’t get caught for. In Arkansas, they were saying the same thing about Mitchell Johnson, but as I went into the history, I found he was anything but. Religious observance and moral behavior are correlated but not 100 percent. There are a few bad people out there, and the few bad people do a tremendous amount of bad deeds.


If there are biological factors to child violence, can there be a medical fix?


There are some indicators that are really kind of scary. There’s a weight of evidence suggesting that low-resting heart rate at age 3 is somewhat of a good predictor of violence later on. Just because you have this, doesn’t mean you’re going to be bad, but we ought to be looking at kids who are high-risk biologically…. This might occur because of psychological reasons, such as withdrawal of love at an early age or some kinds of abuse, causing the autonomic system to shut down and lower the heart rate as a protective mechanism.


What about parental responsibility?


: I have four kids and a big house, but I think I would know if my kids were building bombs in the garage. If my kid was arrested for breaking in, don’t you think I’d want to pay closer attention to what he’s doing? I do blame parents, and I have no problems doing it.

If you take an in-depth look at these kids, there won’t be many surprises. [Their peers] are in no position to be psychologists. Most psychopaths are extremely charming and personable. People don’t understand the difference between psychopaths and psychotics. These people aren’t crazy; they’re bad. These kids made a video about killing people. They talked about it openly. The warning signs are always there, but people don’t pay attention to them. We can’t understand psychopaths. Empathy is a big problem. We project our normalcy onto abnormal people. They’re nothing like us.


Then what can we do about them?


If a kid were engaging in this kind of threatening behavior, I would like to see him arrested and taken into custody and treated in the criminal-justice system. Then we can take a look at how we want to deal with it — to use therapy, use jail, engage the parent….

These dangerous kids are not a big surprise. There are very few big surprises out there. Clinton will form a commission, and we’re going to spend gazillions of dollars on media violence, but no one is talking about psychopathology. It’s just more comforting not to deal with the notion of evil or bad people. These were bad kids, they did bad things, their parents screwed up, and the school officials and the cops ignored the warnings.