Stop Thief! But What Has Been Stolen and By Whom?

It is often overlooked that the genesis of attachment theory is rooted in Bowlby’s interest in understanding the origins of delinquent behaviour in young children. This paper revisits his early work in this field, as set out in his study Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home-Life (Bowlby, 1944). The research for this study was carried out in the late 1930s at a London Child Guidance Clinic where Bowlby worked as a psychiatrist. During this time he was training as a child psychoanalyst and his supervisor was Melanie Klein.

Although the forty-four thieves’ paper predates the launch of attachment theory by a good number of years, many of the themes that were to become central to Bowlby’s life’s work are already present. In particular, Bowlby drew attention to the “emotional traumas” that had occurred during the first decade of the child’s life, seeing his or her emotional disturbance and delinquent behaviour as reactive to an adverse home environment and the disruption in family relationships. In exploring the child’s phenomenological experience, Bowlby took a full and detailed history, paying especial attention to the emotional atmosphere in the home. Instead of privileging unconscious phantasy, he stressed the significance of the child’s real-life experiences and emotional relationships, arguing that these factors vitally influence the development of the child’s character, internal object relations and capacity for object-love. In this context, Bowlby implicated the parents’ conscious and unconscious attitude towards their child, noting that this was often marked by ambivalence, rejection and unacknowledged hatred and hostility. But the factor to which he gave most weight was the young child’s prolonged separation from the mother or foster-mother, viewing this as the cause of “appalling damage” because it shattered the “emotional bonds which usually unite mother and child” (p 112). As Bowlby noted, when eventually reunited, the child felt like a “lost soul” and the mother as though she had “lost her child” (p 112).

Bowlby points out how lightly early separations are treated by most workers in the field of juvenile delinquency. He advocates adopting a position of active inquiry into emotional traumas, stating “My experience has shown me again and again that if these factors are not looked for they are not found . . .” (p 20). Commenting in passing on adult offenders, he criticises the prevailing attitude among lawyers, judges, the press and psychiatrists for failing to take into account the early environment and current circumstances of the person in understanding his or her criminal behaviour.

Of the forty four children interviewed by Bowlby, fourteen were diagnosed as “Affectionless Characters”. To my mind, the section detailing the experiences of affectionless children constitutes the heart of the paper. In addition to stealing and truanting, many of these children were aggressive and bullying. In respect of some, such as Kenneth G. (Case No. 37), Bowlby formed the impression that “. . . they might easily develop into desperate and dangerous criminals” (p 38). While Bowlby considers that mothers have greater influence than fathers in their children’s early years, in some of the cases studied he concluded that the father’s malign influence was of outstanding importance in contributing to the child’s unfavourable character development.
In the majority of cases, however, he found a high degree of association between the affectionless children and prolonged mother-child separation. In consequence of lacking affectionate relationships with loved objects in early life, the children were distinguished from their peers by being isolated and emotionally indifferent and unresponsive in their personal relationships. Regardless of the real qualities of the mother, the child who has experienced a prolonged separation tends to distort his perceptions, seeing her as a faithless, malicious and hateful person and himself as a bad, unlovable object.

As Bowlby discovered, the characteristic avoidance and indifference of affectionless children was a form of self-protection against the risk of their ever again experiencing feelings of disappointment, rage and longings for the lost or unavailable person. However, he noted that “. . . behind the mask of indifference is bottomless misery and behind the apparent callousness despair” (p 39). Stealing, however unconsciously motivated, was a way of fulfilling hopes for “libidinal satisfaction”, in that the objects stolen were felt to be the symbolic equivalent of the mother’s love. But, as Bowlby notes, the act of stealing was also aggressive, being motivated by the deprived child’s intention to inflict suffering on the other in equal measure to the suffering that had been inflicted on him.

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Bowlby’s contribution to the field of juvenile delinquency gradually waned in the years following the World War 11, but his interest in the effects on children of real-life events continued apace with a research focus on separation and loss. This culminated in the launch of attachment theory in the late 1950s. Since that time, attachment theory has been in a continuous process of development and refinement, a process informed by a wealth of empirical studies.

Some forty years after the publication of the forty-four thieves study, Bowlby wrote a paper entitled ‘Violence in the family as a disorder of the attachment and caregiving systems’ (Bowlby, 1984). In the introduction to the paper, he notes how “appallingly slow” psychoanalysts and psychotherapists have been in appreciating the prevalence and far-reaching consequences of violent behaviour between family members. In reflecting on this, and on his decision at the start of his professional working life to study separation and loss, rather than violence and abuse, he points to the fact that it had been unfashionable in psychoanalytic circles to attribute psychopathology to real-life experiences ever since Freud’s partial repudiation of his seduction theory in 1897. Consequently, the adverse behaviour of parents towards their children had become a “taboo subject”.

This explanation may account for the under-emphasis in the forty-four thieves’ study of childhood physical abuse and the curious absence of any mention of sexual abuse and concomitant states of dissociation, despite there being clear indications that such abuse had occurred in some cases. This factor may be seen in Case No. 27, Betty I., who was referred to the clinic when aged 5 years and 7 months. Betty had had a series of foster-homes since the age of seven months and had then spent a year at a convent school before being reunited with her mother and stepfather when five years old. Bowlby comments that Betty often “. . . appeared to be walking along in a dream”, adding that “Her tendency to be dreamy, to mix with undesirables and to have over-developed sexual interests were also striking” (p 40). The stepfather was said to be “. . . particularly worried by her sexual interests, which seemed to be very active even for this age” (p 40).

From the vantage point of our knowledge today, Betty’s precocious sexual behaviour and dissociated state would suggest the distinct possibility that she had been sexually abused. Thus, although Bowlby advocated inquiring into the child’s emotional traumas, his inquiries would seem to have been circumscribed in some degree by the taboos operating in the 1930s. That said, his emphasis on the child’s environment and real-life experiences was, in many respects, ground-breaking. He was particularly sensitive to the plight of the young child. The poignant stories he tells of these children suggest that they, themselves, had been the victims of a theft, and that what had been stolen from them was their very childhood. We have John Bowlby to thank for helping us recognise the severe damage done to children by a cavalier disregard of their urgent need to feel safely and securely attached to a primary caregiver.

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But what, we may ask, has attachment theory and research contributed to a contemporary understanding of criminal behaviour? Bowlby’s original focus on separation, loss and trauma has been refined and elaborated in the light of findings relating to disorganised attachment, the intergenerational transmission of trauma, affect regulation and reflective functioning. Despite the shift away from forensic issues, I found the ongoing work of Bowlby and his collaborators of particular help in understanding the clinical issues that underlie stalking and violent behaviour, in assessing the risk of dangerousness and in working therapeutically with offenders who had committed serious crimes (Renn, 2004, 2006). The following case assessment of two brothers, Andrew and Peter, undertaken when I worked as a probation officer illustrates salient theoretical points and the way in which loss, abuse and trauma in early life are implicated in setting the child on a developmental pathway that may culminate in violent behaviour in later life. The exploration of the brothers’ phenomenological experience remains true to Bowlby’s exhortation in his forty-four thieves’ paper, namely that the person’s early formative experiences and current circumstances should be taken into account in understanding his offending behaviour.

Case Assessment - Andrew and Peter

Andrew had been living at the home of two drug-using friends, Colin and Mary, for about a year. His relationships with them deteriorated because of his feeling excluded and rejected. He and Mary occasionally had sex, but she decided to stay in the relationship with Colin. When Colin discovered what had been going on, he told Andrew to leave their home. Andrew responded in a rage, attacking Colin with his bare fists and beating him so seriously about the head that he died of his injuries some weeks later. Andrew, who was 31 at that point and also misusing drugs, was arrested and charged with murder.

Andrew is the second of four children, having a brother, Peter, who is two years older, and two younger half siblings. His mother had immigrated to Britain from the West Indies when she was 17. Andrew has no memory of his biological father, who deserted the family when he was just 18 months old, leaving the mother to cope as best she could with little social or emotional support in a new country. Shortly after this, she sent the two brothers to Barbados to be raised by her parents. Some five years later, when she had established herself in a career and a new relationship, she arranged for the children to be returned to her. Andrew was then aged 7 and Peter was 9.

I had worked briefly with Peter some five years previous to meeting Andrew. Both he and Andrew told me that they had developed a close, loving relationship with their grandmother during their five year stay in Barbados and had felt intense distress at having to leave her to return to England. This transition was particularly fraught because of the mother’s routine emotional and physical abuse of her two young sons on their reunion.

Peter responded to this traumatic situation by manifesting emotional and behavioural problems at home and at his State school, where he was bullied and subjected to racist taunts, a situation not helped by his being separated from Andrew, who was educated at a different school. Peter became confused, withdrawn and socially isolated, and took to carrying a knife because he feared for his personal safety. At the age of 12 he began to refuse to attend school and was referred to a child psychologist. He refused to talk with her and so the therapy was discontinued. In his teens he developed a serious drink problem and was soon appearing before the courts. Peter’s relationships with women were short-lived and often violent. He has numerous criminal convictions for assaulting his female partners, which have resulted in his being imprisoned on several occasions.

Andrew’s distress was less evident than Peter’s at the early stage of his development. He attended a private day school and was socially outgoing and popular with his peers. He applied himself to his scholastic studies and later attained a vocational qualification which helped him to remain in full time employment in the building industry. He turned to religion for solace in his teenage years and developed a good relationship with his stepfather, who he saw as protecting him from the worst excesses of his mother’s violence and emotional abuse.

When Andrew was 19 he entered into his first serious intimate relationship with a woman. Some six years later, when he was 25, she ended the relationship. Although on the surface Andrew seemed unaffected by the loss, it soon became apparent that he was not coping with this stressful situation and that his life was, quite literally, falling apart. He resorted to alcohol and crack cocaine, heavily misusing both substances, and he emulated Peter by acting out in a sexually promiscuous way, fathering several children. Andrew also felt the loss of his biological father keenly at that time and made strenuous efforts to trace him but without success. He became increasingly depressed and twice attempted suicide - by overdosing on paracetamol and by hanging himself, which led to brief admissions onto a psychiatric ward. However, the psychiatric assessments concluded that he was not suffering from a mental illness at that time, nor, indeed, five years later when he was again psychiatrically assessed prior to being sentenced for killing Colin.

From an attachment theory perspective, I see the roots of Andrew’s and Peter’s violence as residing in their unresolved traumatic experience of separation, loss and abuse within a disorganized caregiving-attachment system. Despite the early loss of the father and separation from the mother, had the boys received appropriate help to securely re-attach to their mother, and thus to use her as a secure base to mourn the separation from the grandmother, their development may well have taken a different pathway. As it was, their sadness, fear and distress were cruelly dealt with and they were forced to adapt to a harsh reality and alien culture as best they could. This fraught situation was further complicated by their experience of the mother as being not only powerful, dominant and abusive, but also loving, caring and concerned that they should make a success of their lives. Thus, Andrew and Peter both loved her and feared and hated her. These ambivalent, conflicting feelings led to the development of a multiple, incompatible internal working model and to a concomitant disorganized pattern of attachment. As a consequence, their capacity to regulate negative feeling states and reflect on and organize traumatic experiences was seriously compromised. Peter, in particular, displayed a pronounced tendency to react violently to even relatively insignificant personal slights, losses and rejections. Such minor injuries to the sense of self seemed to activate the original separation trauma, together with unintegrated affective states of shame and rage associated with racism and physical and emotional abuse, and thus to elicit a response that was disproportionate to the current mortification.

Moreover, because of persisting states of insecurity and lack of trust neither Andrew nor Peter was able to enter into a committed, emotionally mature relationship. It would seem that the prospect of becoming attached to another person elicited expectations that oscillated between fear of engulfment and fear of abandonment, as expressed in their respective catastrophic narratives. As a result, emotionally meaningful relationships were generally avoided and intimacy was defended against. Andrew’s affective reaction to rejection and abandonment by Colin and Mary could not be contained and processed, but was, instead, acted out in a most violent fashion. In attachment terms, this situation re-traumatized Andrew, activating an archaic disorganized internal working model full of rage, shame and hate. To what extent the legacy of slavery was also implicated, in terms of the intergenerational transmission of trauma and the impact this had on the parenting practices to which Andrew and Peter were subjected, are, I think, pertinent questions.

Andrew pleaded not guilty to murder but guilty to manslaughter. His plea was accepted by the prosecution and he was sentenced to six years imprisonment. Following his release from prison on parole licence we worked on the clinical issues outlined above, as well as on intense feelings of guilt and shame, symptoms of post-traumatic stress deriving from having killed his friend, heroin addiction and relationship difficulties with his current romantic partner.

We also explored why Andrew’s mother had parented him as she had, setting this in the context of what we knew about her own early attachment history, her experiences of separation and loss from home and loved ones in adolescence and of abandonment by Andrew’s father shortly after he was born. By means of this process, Andrew came to recognize and reflect on his mother’s formative experiences and subjectivity, thereby organizing and integrating the traumatizing aspects of his relationship with her. This, in turn, helped us to understand the ways in which the internalized relational patterns with his mother were being externalized and destructively repeated in the relationship with his current partner.

Although Peter had not re-offended since my brief intervention with him five years ago, he remained a deeply unhappy and depressed man who was dependent on alcohol and whose relationships were in a perpetual state of conflict. He had not felt ready to fully engage in working with me on his difficulties in living when we had first met. This may partly have been because of my position as an authority figure and representative of the dominant white culture. However, he attended a session unannounced with his brother to ask if I could arrange for him to receive help with his problems. Both he and Andrew spoke of their intention to make a renewed effort to find their father and maintain contact with their own children.

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I left the National Probation Service several years ago to work in private practice. Despite this change, and following Bowlby, I would say that if violence is looked for it may certainly be found in the everyday lives of non forensic clients. I first became acquainted with attachment theory during my social work training in 1988. Trainee probation officers continue to be introduced to attachment theory during their training, and an attachment theory component, together with social learning theory and cognitive behavioural therapy, is included in a manualised programme delivered to sex offenders (Sex Offenders’ Treatment Programme). However, the value of attachment theory and research in assessing the risk of harm that violent and sexual offenders present to the public, and in working therapeutically with such people, has yet to be realised in any coherent and systematic way.

Home Office research has shown that the majority of “serious incidents” committed by offenders under probation supervision are committed by those who have been assessed as low or medium risk of harm, as opposed to high or very high. Though the assessment of risk is an ongoing dynamic process, it seems to me that there is a somewhat complacent over-reliance on actuarial assessment tools at the expense of clinical, qualitative factors. In my experience, most serious incidents occur in a context of relationship problems in the offender’s life involving loss, rejection and abandonment. Under such circumstances, the attachment and fear behavioural systems are massively activated, together with a dissociated internal working model of disorganized attachment, often with catastrophic consequences. Possessing a working knowledge of attachment theory was of enormous help to me in monitoring the risk, seeing the warning signs and intervening therapeutically with the offender to preclude a violent incident. The failure to apply this eloquent and empirically validated body of knowledge more widely in the forensic field reflects Bowlby’s general disappointment of the failure of practitioners in a variety of settings to apply attachment theory in their clinical work.

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Bowlby, J. (1944). Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home-Life. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 25: 1-57 and 207-228.
________ (1984). Violence in the family as a disorder of the attachment and caregiving systems. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44: 9-27.
Renn, P. (2004). The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Later Violent Offending: The Application of Attachment Theory in a Probation Setting. In F. Pfäfflin & G. Adshead (eds.), A Matter of Security: The Application of Attachment Theory to Forensic Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
________ (2006). Attachment, trauma and violence: understanding destructiveness from an attachment theory perspective. In C. Harding (ed.), Aggression and Destructiveness: Psychoanalytic Perspectives. London: Routledge.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X
Written by Paul Renn
Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and southwest London (see below in 'Extra Information' for details of my practice addresses). I am accredited by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). I work with individuals, offer couples coun...


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