When I was in my early teens, there were girls in the public housing project near my home who were as well known to the police as the boys who committed crimes with me. Just like us delinquent boys, these young ladies were quick to “get down” or, rather, to lash out violently.
The difference was that their target was typically a girl who was dissing them or a woman who unwittingly provoked them while they were out roaming the city.
During my frequent stays in the local juvenile detention center, I saw similar girls cycle through who were adjudicated for crimes that were just as serious as those committed by the boys who were confined.
In hindsight, I can see that social workers saw me as an at-risk youth in need of intervention; juvenile justice personnel viewed me as an offender in need of confinement; and prosecutors influenced by the Super Predator theory perceived me as a budding sociopath destined for the penitentiary.
But personally, I often wonder what lay behind the offending of the girls who—like me—were perpetually truant, ran away frequently, stole cars and used drugs, and at their worst, committed assaults and batteries.
Judith A. Ryder gives insight into such girls’ deviance in Girls & Violence: Tracing the Roots of Criminal Behavior.
Before delving into Ryder’s thesis, it is worth taking the time to highlight some vignettes from the structured interviews that she conducted with dozens of girls who were confined in a long‑term juvenile detention center. These girls were primarily black and Hispanic, their ages ranged from 14 to 16; they were raised in broken homes and foster care; and had committed assaults and robberies.
Here is Elena, age 14, sharing her theory on the pragmatic use of a knife during a fistfight:
If I’m 5’4”, if a girl was like 6’2” and I can’t really reach her face to fight her, and she just constantly punching me in my face and I’m hitting her but it’s not working, I would just pull out a blade and just stab her in her side or something like that so she’ll come down (Ryder: 136).
And here, also, is 14-year-old Adele, manifesting her need for respect when explaining why she attacked a woman on the street:
We was walking on some block…going to the train station. This lady, she was walking by, so we was like, spread out, she got to say “excuse me” to get by…. So we spreaded out and the lady had bumped me. I turned and was like, “what you doing.” She was drunk and come out of her face and was like “you black bitch.” So, I looked at her and I just swung on her (139).
Then there is vengeful 15-year-old Lisa, describing why she and her sister assaulted two small children whom they were babysitting after becoming angry at being misled by the children’s mother that she would return later that evening:
[These kids’ momma] didn’t come back for a whole weekend, so, me and my sister got mad. So we got ‘um…turned on the hot water…. We had burnt their hands…. Cause I was mad that she didn’t, she didn’t even, she didn’t even come in, she didn’t even call (144).
Undoubtedly, reading such accounts is enough to make most people queasy. Yet Ryder does not share them for shock value. These girls’ narratives are important to criminology because neither official data nor media accounts illuminate what drives such behavior.
“Calculating the number of offenses or sensationalizing individual acts fails to appreciate the context in which violence occurs or the underlying mechanisms that help propel it,” Ryder explains (4). Therefore, in order to better understand such girls’ violent behavior, one must “investigate the social and psychological contexts of the girls’ lives before they became violent criminals” and take into account “the role of families, communities, and social institutions in the production of violence” (5).
The Ingredients for Deviance
Ryder identifies four primary motivations for these girls’ violent acts: the need for respect, the desire for vengeance, self-defense or the defense of others and, to a lesser extent, financial gain.
However, the underlying factors that help propel these girls’ violent behavior is connected to their disrupted attachments and traumatic histories. In Ryder’s view, the “substantial and cumulative losses and victimizations that such girls experience…interfere with the formation of attachment relationships and diminish the capacity to think about and empathize with the mental state of others” (147-48).
This “attachment based model of female-adolescent violence” (16) is central to Ryder’s findings.
When it comes to attachment, she explains:
Children with sensitive, responsive caregivers develop secure attachment and a positive working model of themselves and others…. The early and ongoing experience of having been understood in the context of a secure attachment relationship develops within children a capacity to understand and interpret the behaviors of others in terms of the underlying intentional mental states […] If attachment is insecure, healthy behaviors…are impaired. Children whose caregivers are unable to provide a sense of security tend to view themselves and others negatively, and their ability to accurately perceive the mental states of others may be diminished […] When a caregiver’s insensitivity is pervasive, the child’s normal anger response may turn to aggression…. (27).
Worse yet, the girls in this study not only suffered from insecure attachments, they were also plagued by “a litany of victimizations and losses to which they were exposed in their neighborhoods and homes” (65).
Violence in the girls’ neighborhoods “was widespread and touched all residents” (65). It could erupt in a manner that was “public and random” (69). But even in times of calm, there was no sense of security because violence was “just beneath the surface or around the corner” (67).
The girls’ homes were also “a significant site of danger” (73). They recount “witnessing physical violence against siblings” (75), and recall parents and other adults “hitting them with fists, shoes, and baseball bats, and cutting them with razor blades, knives, and bottles” (75-76).
They spoke of “sexual abuse, and of witnessing the sexual abuse of siblings and others by fathers, stepfathers, and other male relatives” (79).
This poly-victimization—in their homes and communities—made these girls “hyper-aroused at the slightest provocation” (141).
The fact that their violent acts manifest “the need for action over reflection” (143) is evidenced by 14-year-old Adele’s decision to swing on a woman for simply bumping into her on the street.
These girls have learned that they “must be in a constant state of readiness, prepared to act quickly to any perceived hostility” (30).
With respect to the losses the girls experienced, again, they too produce traumagenic effects.
All of the girls in the study suffered loss at an early age. Namely, the physical absence of a loved one, often due to incarceration or abandonment.
The lack of the emotional support necessary to ensure their psychological wellbeing.
The loss of their homes, typically due to eviction or a change in foster care placement.
And the death of a loved one.
While it is not uncommon for youth to experience a loved one’s death due to injury or illness, Ryder emphasizes that these girls’ loved ones often died under socially stigmatized contexts (e.g., AIDS, drug overdose, homicide). Furthermore, their losses were compounded by the lack of “any adult assistance or support in comprehending the death” (90).
Ryder highlights that these traumas resulted in the girls’ employment of “a variety of maladaptive behavioral strategies” (109) to defend against physical and emotional distress because, unfortunately, they never developed the coping strategies they would have had if they had received the “support and guidance of adults to assist in the bereavement and adjustment processes” (109).
Not having a shoulder to cry on has consequences for a child, it seems.
And for society.
Ryder notes, “The accumulation of such losses can reinforce beliefs that life is short and violence inevitable; defensive responses may include antisocial behavior and, for some, fatalistic violence” (96). Through this lens, one can see why 14-year-old Elena would find it expedient to stab a taller girl in the side to bring her down to size.
They’re Not Monsters
Returning to 15-year-old Lisa and her sister, who saw fit to scald the hands of two small children, in hindsight one can see that the perpetrators were victims, too. They “were victims of neglect and violence in their homes, on the streets of their neighborhoods, and in the care of social institutions created to address their needs” (148).
This is not an excuse. It is just the reality.
As with other girls in the study, Lisa and her sister “had been beaten and abused, sexually violated, and then ignored, stigmatized, and penalized” (148). They require “supervision and control but, as human beings, they primarily need consistent, psychologically attuned, and loving relationships,” according to Ryder (168).
In the end, Ryder makes a plea for there to be less “social control in the form of monitoring and punishment” and more social support in the form of “adult acceptance, affection, and guidance” (168).
I wish the same for girls such as this.
Still, reflecting on the ones who used to roam the public housing project that was our former territory, I cannot imagine where any of us could have found acceptance, affection, and guidance. It was nowhere to be seen.
It is not surprising, then, that 25 years later there is a new generation of girls in that community who are perpetually truant, who run away frequently, steal cars, use drugs, and at their worst, commit assaults and batteries.
Jeremiah Bourgeois is a regular contributor to TCR, and an inmate in Washington State, where he has been serving a life sentence since the age of 14. He welcomes comments from readers.