Ghislaine Maxwell and the complex family roots of cruelty and abuse

Jonathan Freedland is right to say we fight shy of the “why” question when faced with extreme acts of cruelty or abuse (The Ghislaine Maxwell case raises a question some may think naive: why? 31 December). But he pulls up short. We do know a lot about the explanations. There is a small group of clinicians who work with such people in prisons and special hospitals, and their findings can be simply summarised. Every one of them has their own history of childhood emotional brutality at the hands of parents or carers. What they take into themselves is this relationship. Some re-enact this in later life, expelling their experiences on to others. Others keep it internalised, then inflict injury and cruelty on themselves. Fortunately, many will have ameliorative experiences that protect others and themselves from the worst consequences.

True, not everyone has a “Maxwell-style father”, but delve into the backstory of any cruelly troubled individual and you discover an intergenerational history. No one is born inherently evil, or good. It’s about innate dispositions and their nurturing over time. Between the initial conditions and the later destructive behaviours there will be twists and turns of complex causality. It’s these we need to understand better to avoid resort to theology or just throwing up our hands in despair.
Prof Andrew Cooper
Tavistock Centre, London

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