Ghosts from the Nursery

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The Book of the Week is “Ghosts from the Nursery, Tracing the Roots of Violence” by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley, published in 1997. The authors cited scientific studies to support their assertions about the links between the increasingly younger ages at which Americans are committing increasingly more frequent horrific crimes, and the social and cultural trends that are driving this alarming revelation.

At the book’s writing, in the United States, criminal justice system spending was three times (!) the entire healthcare budget. The authors argued that the seeds of criminality in humans are planted in the womb rather than in early childhood, as previously thought.

Environmental factors, such as a future mother’s or father’s consumption or inhalation of toxic substances, alters the reproductive mechanisms in a fetus’ brain cells. If the fetus’ environment is neglectful, chaotic or hostile– people are raucous, or physically abusing the mother-to-be– it stands to reason that the child might have behavioral problems later on. These problems could range from hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention deficits and learning disabilities to criminality.

The range and extent of damage done varies with the time frame in which the abuses occur. It has been found that any amount of alcohol drunk by a potential father or mother can adversely affect: spermatozoa and ova weeks before conception, the zygote, embryo, fetus and then the child’s health thereafter. Maximum visual damage is done to the brain of a fetus, when the abuses occur during the limited time, for instance, in which the neural connection from the retina to the visual cortex is made. Language skills develop or fail to develop, similarly.

The opposite is true, too: a nurturing environment will maximize benefits for the child (even in the womb!) when parents’ soothing or happy voices are heard by the fetus during his or her audiological development. After emergence from the womb, the baby can recognize his or her mother’s, father’s or others’ voices. Preverbal memory (an emotional vibe emitted by parents and others– a mood felt by the fetus and then infant and then child) stays with everyone through their entire lives. Parents have been shown to display the same behaviors their parents did with their own babies and children.

The authors mentioned several European studies that showed the incidences of juvenile criminality and suicide increased with an increase in unwanted pregnancies. That’s obviously a can of worms. But, since reams and reams of data have been collected from decades and decades of sociological, psychological, medical and legal studies worldwide, perhaps a multi-pronged approach applied locally would help– instead of commissioning more, additional expensive studies for the purposes of procrastination and patronage.

HOWEVER, one particularly rich vein of data on how to invite failure of the multi-pronged approach at the federal level of poverty-fighting (and on a related topic, crime-prevention), can be found in the administration archives of the late president Lyndon B. Johnson. A 20/20 hindsight look at the enduring actions he did take, are unfairly omitted from the history books that show an anti-liberal bias. His administration saw the start of Medicare and Medicaid and the passing of landmark civil rights legislation. BUT, these great accomplishments were overshadowed by conspiracy theories that he plotted the assassination of JFK and of course, his role in a needless war.

Johnson had grand plans to eliminate poverty at home, but shortly after he came to power, he decided to send Americans abroad to fight a war that led to countless deaths and ruined lives. And continued to rationalize why it needed to continue. Johnson’s anti-poverty programs weren’t given sufficient time to succeed because they became starved for funds.

That is why this country has regressed on the social-programs front: Every American president has sold his soul to the MILITARY [Currently, that military is fighting a war at the Mexican border instead of overseas; a future post of this blog will elaborate on this].

The only president fully justified in diverting significant taxpayer monies from improving conditions at home, toward fighting a war, was FDR. Since WWII, alpha males with hubris syndrome have been funding military actions whose long-term costs outweigh the benefits.

As a final insult that indicated that Johnson had major control issues, was the fact that he cruelly teased his own Democratic party by withdrawing from a 1968 reelection bid at the last minute, leaving the field to a few other candidates, and uncertainty in his wake. He also gave his political opponents a golden invitation to smear him in so many ways.

Granted, there are countless other vicissitudes of history that come into play with any president’s actions, but as is well known, campaign-finance regulation in America has become horribly eviscerated in recent decades, so the increase in financial influence of special-interest groups other than the military, has also played a role in this nation’s shifting priorities.

Be that as it may, the United States’ practices fly in the face of reason by bringing in a “pound of cure” (after the fact!) via a complicated, expensive bunch of bloated, bureaucratic government services (special-education, welfare, foster care, criminal justice, etc.). Instead of an “ounce of prevention.” One specific program has been found to be the most effective solution thus far in preventing crime in the long run: infant home-visitation programs, because the problems are dealt with early! This was the conclusion of a criminology team who submitted a report to the U.S. Congress in April 1997.

Clearly, different levels of government can implement more of a combination of social programs and legislation in order of what works best pursuant to all those scientific studies (preferably longitudinal ones), regardless of costs, limited by whatever the budget will reasonably bear; instead of going the easy, greedy, or power-hungry, politically expedient (and fraught military) route.

A grass-roots movement would have to hold officials’ feet to the fire on that– perhaps appealing to their egos by giving them a legacy via a footnote in the history books crediting them for getting it done. This, while keeping political patronage to a minimum (It used to be called “honest graft” but has reached excessive levels in certain regions; time will tell whether upcoming elections oust the “Tammany Hall/Boss Tweed” contingents.).

So, for instance, a hypothetical mandate for a large, diversely-populated city might consist of:

First, an infant home-visitation program;

Second, no-charge universal pre-kindergarten program;

Third, stricter background checks and bans on specific firearms and loophole-closing;

Fourth, a community-policing program (that does not involve military hardware) like those mentioned in this blog’s posts, “L.A. Justice” and “Riverkeepers”; and

Fifth, imposing and enforcing a legal maximum to class sizes in early-childhood education.

If additional funding is found (for whatever reasons), there could be other kinds of education programs that deal with issues such as: teen pregnancy, sex education, contraception, substance abuse prevention (all possibly as a part of the high school health-class curriculum), parenting classes, family planning, welfare-to-work, at-risk youth centers, and job training– again, prioritized from the most to the least effective outcomes.

Anyway, read the book to learn much more about research results on this topic, and the authors’ suggestions on crime prevention via focusing on ways to improve outcomes in connection with pregnancy and child care.