Chapter 3: “The Academy of Prediction”
Gavin de Becker had a horrible childhood. This he makes clear in the first paragraph of this chapter.
“Before I was thirteen, I saw a man shot, I saw another beaten and kicked to unconsciousness, I saw a friend struck near lethally in the face and head with a steal rod, I saw my mother become a heroin addict, I saw my sister beaten, and I was myself a veteran of beatings that had been going on for more than half of my life.”
De Becker states that back then his ability to predict the behavior of others was as tantamount to his survival then as it is now. He says that people believe that they cannot possibly imagine what any given human experience might be, however, you can imagine different human experiences, which therefore gives you the same ability to predict human behavior as if you have lived those experiences.
De Becker calls this chapter, “The Academy of Prediction” because he believes that we have been educated our entire lives about human behavior just by living. He says that we already know how to spot violently inclined people and the presence of danger because we already know all about human beings. People often have an US vs. THEM mentality, meaning criminals versus normal people, but that is not true. Every human being is capable of what every other human being is capable of. I remember thinking at one time I could never kill someone or be violent against someone. Then I had children and I absolutely knew that if someone harmed them I had the capacity to harm that person or take their lives. The notable psychiatrist, Karl Menninger, once said, “I don’t believe in such things as the criminal mind. Everyone’s mind is criminal; we’re all capable of criminal fantasies and thoughts.” Einstein and Freud believed that “man has in him the need to hate and destroy.” I think a million years of human history and wars proves this true. One of the powerful things de Becker states in this chapter is that violence and homicide occurs in all cultures.
What de Becker is really stating in this chapter is we humans are more alike than we are unalike. It is this “sameness” that allows us to accurately predict human behavior. However, accepting someone’s “humaness” doesn’t mean we accept their “behavior.” Basically what he is saying is there are no monsters. Criminals aren’t always going to be the creepy guy down the street. Ted Bundy was extremely good looking and charming. Charles Manson had the intelligence and charisma to get many people to follow him. And do we need to even talk about Hitler?
Learning to follow our instincts and being able to predict the actions of others is our human way of protecting ourselves from harm. This is not always possible, but it does help to know that we have within us what we need to survive. One of the best quotes from his chapters is, “our judgement may classify a person as either harmless or sinister, but survival is better served by our perception.” We are judging people constantly, and sometimes those judgments are good. You know the creepy uncle who constantly gives you back rubs at family parties? Probably shouldn’t leave your kids alone with him. Or that weird lady at church who offers every day to give your child a bath? Probably shouldn’t let her babysit either. Or the man who is constantly asking you on dates even though you’ve turned him down in the past, yet he persists? Probably shouldn’t relent and go on a date with him.
De Becker states that, “people who commit terrible violences choose their acts from among many options.” He then asks his readers to think of the most horrible, disgusting thing that they can do to another human being. He says that be virtue of the fact that we can come up with something like that, it probably has been done to other human beings. In essence we must not think of the acts criminals do as “inhumane” and something “outside of ourselves.” Criminal acts are in their very essence human acts. Once we understand this we can understand, predict, and prevent such things happening to us.
De Becker goes onto describe how a person’s childhood was can predict how their behavior will be in the future. De Becker’s own childhood led him down the road of predicting criminal behavior. The most startling statistic de Becker points out is that 100 percent of serial killers have been abused as children, either with violence, neglect, or humiliation. He points to the example of the Kaczynski brothers. Ted is the Unibomber and David (who is the “sane” one) lived for a time in a ditch he dug in the ground (if you’ve ever seen him on “Bowling for Columbine,” you know how crazy he is). They were neglected by their parents and often left to their own devices. He also talks about Robert Bardo who is famous for killing the actress, Rebecca Schaeffer, who starred on, “My sister Sam.” Bardo describes himself as being treated like the family cat growing up, fed and left alone in his room. De Becker wants to make sure he’s not demonizing all parents of violent children, but he says, “as long as there are parents preparing children for little more than incarceration, we’ll have no trouble keeping the prisons full.”
I can’t help but think about the two boys that committed the mass murder at Columbine High School, Eric Harris and Darren Klebold. This book was written before that horrific tragedy. Their parents have often made statements that they didn’t know what their boys were planning or how emotionally disturbed they were. Klebold’s mother has just recently started talking to the media about this incident, a decade later. I’m sorry, but when you’re child starts isolating himself and wearing black, you notice. When you’re child is mercilessly teased as school, you notice. I can’t help but think how deeply dysfunctional Harris and Klebold’s families must have been. Does this excuse their behavior? No. Does it explain it? Yes.
De Becker talks about how his childhood could have made him into a violent man. Instead he describes himself as an ambassador between the two worlds. He can tell us how criminals think because it’s similar to how he thought throughout much of his life. Because his childhood became all about predicting the next violence experience, he began to live in the future. He did this so he could become a moving target: gone before the next attack occurred. He says living in the future gave him the ability to numb the pain of his worst moments. But it also make him reckless, and recklessness is a feature of many violent people. He said that he got so familiar to danger that it not longer became shocking to him. Just like a surgeon acclimates to the gore, so does a violent criminal. This is how you can spot people who do not react to shocking things. Like witnessing a violent altercation and there is the one person who isn’t phased by it. This is a person you should steer clear of.
Another characteristic of a predatory criminal that de Becker describes is a person who needs to control. How many times do we women learn that a controlling man is not someone we should be involved with? People are often controlling because they grew up in a chaotic, violent, or addictive home. He says that, “at minimum it was a home where parents did not act consistently and reliably, a place where was uncertain or conditional.” Therefore, people who grow up in homes like this become controlling because it’s the only way to predict others’ behavior.
De Becker is quick to point out that our experiences in childhood will effect what we do, they may not, however, always guarantee that a person will become violent. He says, “it is not an original revelation that some who have weathered great challenges when they were young created great things as adults.” I think of my brother-in-law who weathered a rather chaotic childhood and who has grown into a wonderful man who uses his life to help and protect people (whether they appreciate it or not). More often than not, however, many children of violence will contribute more violence in the future. De Becker warns that he has met “too many people who were brutalized as children and gave it back to society tenfold.”
This was a very powerful chapter to think about and ponder. It made me realize how important it is to provide stability and consistency for my own children.