VIOLENCE by James Gilligan


Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Cause
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 Gilligan (Center for the Study of Violence/Harvard Medical School) zeroes in on the pitch-black emptiness within America's murderers before inexplicably letting his target move out of focus. To stem the contagion of violence, Gilligan believes, America needs to understand both its root causes and the social pathogens that spread it. He points to civilization's patriarchal structure, which entails a code of honor that imposes a crippling burden of shame. When the author confines himself to the murderers he met in the ``underworld,'' or maximum-security prisons (he served as head of mental-health services for the Massachusetts prison system), Gilligan's theories gain strength. For instance, he notes that, despite more shelters for battered women, the proportion of domestic-violence deaths has doubled, because their murderers ``are precisely the men who experience a life-death dependency on their wives and an overwhelming shame because of it.'' He castigates the death penalty not just as cruel but as ineffective, since it feeds a killer's desire for punishment. Moreover, one of his prescriptions--eliminating the illiteracy that fosters many criminals' sense of shame--is practical. However, the effects of Gilligan's subtle studies of killers are lost when he applies his lessons on a broader scale to an America that he says imposes ``structural violence'' on the disadvantaged. Gilligan's call to reform America's socioeconomic structure is less a prescription than a fantasy, and he downplays the fact that most of the lower class never becomes part of the criminal class. This critique has more than a share of the politically correct, as when the author notes that no other nation or culture ``has inflicted more collective violence on its victims than white (or European) Americans have inflicted on both native Americans and African- Americans over the past five centuries.'' A deeply compassionate survey of America's contemporary Desolation Row--but more than one reader will be wishing for a little more tough love. (First serial to Atlantic Monthly)

Pub Date: April 2nd, 1996
ISBN: 0-399-13979-6
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1996