Mitch Hall

The American forensic psychiatrist James Gilligan has made major contributions to understanding the behavior and mentality of the most violent people in our society.  After 25 years of working in the prison system of Massachusetts where he conducted in-depth interviews and made therapeutic interventions with serial killers, other murderers, and rapists, he wrote Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).  He followed this book with Preventing Violence (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2001).  Gilligan did not content himself with the comforts of his prestigious position on the faculty of the Harvard University Medical School and a lucrative private practice because he wanted to unearth the roots of violence in the belief that this could contribute toward its prevention.  He reasoned that he could gain the knowledge he sought only by working with and studying violent offenders.  These two books describe his discoveries and correlate them with the findings of other researchers. 

Both books are lucid, engaging, powerful, and passionate.  Despite the troubling subject matter, they are good reading.  Gilligan is a role model of courage in facing horrific realities and of compassionate, humane insights.  He is also a masterful storyteller who weaves together social scientific analyses and data with moving, heartbreaking narratives that reveal the severely damaged hearts and minds of those who kill.

In the first book, he explains the necessity for a tragic perspective on violence.  We learn about the extremes of child abuse suffered by virtually all those who later become murderers.  We learn how shame is at the psychological core of all who kill, and we see the devastating effects of “structural violence,” which refers to harmful inequalities of wealth and power due to class and caste stratification.  We also learn why males commit 90% of the violent acts, including the sex crimes and domestic violence against women.  Gilligan reminds readers that understanding does not imply excusing or exonerating.  Rather he hopes to inspire appropriate social interventions and invites us to view violence as a paramount public health issue.  In the second book, he discusses three levels of violence prevention: primary prevention involving education and social policies for the entire population, secondary prevention with those most at risk for violence, and tertiary prevention with those already violent to reduce the likelihood they will continue to act out violently.  In both books, Gilligan provides persuasive evidence that the criminal justice system we currently have, including but not limited to the death penalty, is severely dysfunctional and actually increases levels of social violence.  He shows disturbing parallels in how both murderers and their prosecuters see themselves as agents of justice. He also shows how the richest and most powerful segments of the population benefit from the violence of the poorest and most disenfranchised.  These are not easy subjects to consider, but they are essential subjects if we are to have any hope for a safer,  more just and peaceful society.