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The Gadfly

BY CAROL TAVRIS

MANY YEARS AGO, AS I WAS SITTING IN A courtroom waiting to testify as an expert witness in a case involving junk psychology, I observed a child custody case ahead of ours. A social worker was arguing that the mother in question should not be granted custody of her children, full or even shared. True, the mother had never hit or otherwise physically abused them; but, said the social worker with certainty, the mother had herself been abused as a child and it was virtually certain that she would in the future repeat the crimes of her parents. Psychologists have called this common idea the “cycle of abuse.” It seems to affirm our intuitions that abused children would grow up to become abusive parents themselves, given that all children imitate so much of what they observe at home. But new evidence shows that once again our intuitions have led us astray.

Most people take it for granted that the path from childhood to adulthood is a fairly straight one. We think of the embedded attitudes, habits, and values our parents taught us—some of which we are still trying to eradicate. Many people, as legions of memoirists remind us, carry with them the psychological scars of wounds they suffered at the hands of cruel, violent, alcoholic, unloving or neglectful parents. Longitudinal studies repeatedly find that children abused in these ways are more likely than other children to develop emotional problems, become violent or depressed, attempt suicide, commit crimes, drop out of school, and develop chronic stress-related illnesses. Adults imprisoned for violent acts and child abuse report high rates of their own victimization as children.

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