Prologue to Violence: Child Abuse, Dissociation, and Crime, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Prologue to Violence

Child Abuse, Dissociation, and Crime, 1st Edition

By Abby Stein


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Despite mounting references to the "transgenerational transmission of violence," we still lack a compelling understanding of the linkage between the interpersonal violence of early life and the criminal violence of adulthood. In Prologue to Violence, Abby Stein draws on the gripping narratives of 65 incarcerated subjects and extensive material from law enforcement files to remedy this lacuna in both the forensic and psychodynamic literature. In the process, she calls into question prevailing beliefs about criminal character and motivation. For Stein the early trauma to which adult criminals are subjected remains unformulated and, as such, unavailable for reflection. Contrary to common belief, these criminals, especially sex murderers, do not commit their crimes in a rational or fully conscious way. They are not driven by deviant fantasy, their psychopathy is not inborn, and they rarely commit acts of violence "without conscience."

Stein’s interdisciplinary analysis of her data infuses contemporary relational psychoanalysis with the insights of neuroscience, traumatology, criminology, and cognitive and narrative psychology. A powerful challenge to offender treatment programs to address the shaping impact of childhood trauma rather than merely to "correct" the cognitions of violent offenders, Prologue to Violence will be equally compelling to researchers and academics investigating child abuse and adult violence. Its mental health readership will be broad and deep, ranging beyond clinicians who work with offender populations to all therapists who wrestle with experiences of dissociation and aggressive enactment in everyday life.


"In writing a book linking crime and dissociation, Stein has give us a work that is at once poetic and integrative, rich in its psychodynamic grasp of violent criminals' disturbing interior. At the same time, her work provides an exhaustive and critical review of existent literature in forensics, social psychology, and other related fields. Stein's approach to this knotty problem is broad, complex, and deep. In a time of global violence, it is an important study."

- Sue Grand, Ph.D., Faculty and Supervisor, NYU Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis

"Prologue to Violence is unique in what it tells us about the phenomenon of dissociation. Abby Stein combines close clinical study with sensitive and thorough exploration of psychoanalytic and psychiatric literature. Her observations on the dissociation of the criminal perpetrator are, I believe, consistent with what occurs in those engaged in mass killing. This is a book that offers much illumination for our continuous societal struggles with the forces of violence and destruction."

- Robert Jay Lifton, M.D., Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Harvard Medical School

"Offering a contemporary relational psychoanalytic perspective, [Stein] examines her interviews with 65 incarcerated adults to seek out the characteristics of early trauma (e.g., dissociation, distorted self, and defective logic, language, and symbolization) and its impact on adult violence. Dissociation is like a prolonged state of dreaming while awake, and the potent narratives Stein provides illustrate amnesia that leads to sparse description and some confabulation. The author explores anger, aggression, and interventions with these violent individuals and questions the prevailing view that guilt, fantasy life, and defense mechanisms motivate violence….These case studies illustrate that these criminals do not commit crimes in a rational and fully conscious way."

- CHOICE, May 2007

"[Stein] seamlessly integrates psychoanalytic theory and her clinical work into a unique understanding of violent offenders. However, by according dissociation a central etiological role, Stein also makes a significant contribution to the current debate about this mechanism within contemporary psychoanalysis. Her sensitivity to the indicants of dissociated moral feeling in individuals widely regarded as conscienceless has important clinical and philosophical applications….Stein gives us a highly intelligent, depth psychological perspective of the frighteningly opaque inner worlds of violent offenders. Part of the pleasure in reading her work is the window it provides into their experiences, helping us make sense of what lurks beneath their acts of cruelty and seeming inhumanity. That Stein also engages important issues debated within contemporary psychoanalysis only adds to its appeal. Needless to say, this book is strongly recommended for psychoanalysts and mental health practitioners as well as those who have a more specific interest in the dynamics of violence."

- Ronald C. Naso, Ph.D., Psychologist-Psychoanalyst, 27(2), 2007

"In Prologue to Violence: Child Abuse, Dissociation, and Crime, Abby Stein proposes a thought-provoking thesis that has the potential to radically alter our understanding of the nature of the most extreme and perplexing instances of violent crime. In doing so, Stein presents a detailed and particularly compelling argument, and her conceptual formulation is a complex and sophisticated one; it is an intricate argument that is intellectually challenging and consequently requires dedication and sustained concentration to follow. However, Stein's argument is securely grounded in established research findings and solid clinical observations, and her understanding of dissociative processes is exceptionally refined and clinically useful. Those with the motivation and patience to give her treatise the careful reading it deserves are likely to come away with a greatly enriched understanding of dissociation not only as it manifests in violent criminals but in people in general."

- Steven N. Gold, PsycCRITIQUES, 53, 2008

"In her ground-breaking book, Abby Stein contributes, in my opinion, one of the best discussions of the importance of shaping the impact that childhood trauma has on violent offenders. Through her thorough analysis of cases of incarcerated individuals, Stein is able to convince us that cessation of an offender's aggressive behavior with aid the client and society. Stein remains true to her effort to provide a thorough explanation of the role dissociation plays in child abuse and crime, including the reason why violent offenders dissociate. This book is ideal for both the criminal justice practitioner and the researcher. Stein provides an insighful case for the integration of dissociated memories and affects as a primary goal of therapy so that the offender's anxiety can be diminished to the point that he or she is ready to learn the benefits of cognitive-behavior retraining in the prison setting."

- Prof. Kimora, Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 54(1/2), 2007

"Abby Stein's important book sings in many keys at the same time. Her insights are crucial in an America that imagines that the family is 'good' and criminals are 'bad,' and exemplify the complex web of pain that family, considered an absolute 'good,' inflicts to pervert children who become 'bad.' It is a harrowing and compassionate testimony to the personal and social costs of first abandoning children to unqualified, sadistic parents, and then consigning prisoners to a pathologically punitive penal system….Prologue to Violence is a powerful symphony. Abby Stein richly illustrates the power of psychohistorical analysis and the weak inefficiency of branding people as good or evil and condemning or exonerating them without further examination. She supersedes the kind of simplistic blaming that leaves conditions in the U.S. family unmitigated and abandons children to the violence that leads to dissociated, criminal behavior. Prologue to Violence is a sterling and unforgettable contribution to psychohistory and all of knowledge. I cannot recommend it highly enough."

- Harriet Fraad, The Journal of Psychohistory, 35(4), 2008

"Awareness of these links [between child abuse and violent offenders] is not new, as Stein points out in overviewing relevant research. What is new, and hence the importance of her book, are the theoretical connections Stein skillfully forges. [Her] core thesis is explicated, amplified, nuanced, and, most importantly, constantly reinforced through the use of some extraordinarily gruesome examples of human nastiness. But, thankfully, the writing skillfully manages to rise above its subject matter. I take it to be the role of good books to make us think more about a topic and Stein's book certainly accomplished that. Although she is not a criminologist, Stein has written an important text about a topic - extreme violence - which criminologists have for too long left for mainstream psychologists and journalists to deal with."

- Tony Jefferson, Ph.D., Theoretical Criminology, 12(2), 2008

"Incisive and insightful, Abby Stein's Prologue to Violence is a timely and important contribution to the growing literature highlighting dissociation as a major factor in violent crime. It calls into question much that is considered sacrosanct in the field of criminology and may herald a new, more open investigation into the forces that drive violent behavior in the world today."

- Andrew Moskowitz, Ph.D., Journal of Trauma and Dissociation, 9(3), 2008

"Prologue to Violence is replete with case files to illustrate Abby Stein's major thesis, an attempt to relate Sullivanian theories of dissociation to the understanding of violent behavior. Applying a psychoanalytic sensibility to the underlying dynamics in criminal behavior gives a refreshing new context within which to look at a population that is historically devalued and disavowed."

- Alan Sirote, LCSW, Psychoanalytic Perspectives, 6(1), 2009

Table of Contents

Stern, Foreword. Preface. Who Me? Locating Agency in Violent Narratives. Slippery Characters: Methods and Sources. Conversing With Mutes. Criminals' Bad Luck. Maximum Perversion. Dreaming While Awake. Conclusion: Consciousness, Culpability, and Control. References. Acknowledgements.

About the Author

The author of numerous articles on criminal psychopathology, child abuse and neglect, and states of consciousness during acts of violence, Abby Stein, Ph.D., is Adjunct Associate Professor in the Inter-disciplinary Studies Program of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City of New York. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology.

About the Series

Psychoanalysis in a New Key Book Series

When music is played in a new key, the melody does not change, but the notes that make up the composition do: change in the context of continuity, continuity that perseveres through change. Psychoanalysis in a New Key publishes books that share the aims psychoanalysts have always had, but that approach them differently. The books in the series are not expected to advance any particular theoretical agenda, although to this date most have been written by analysts from the Interpersonal and Relational orientations.

The most important contribution of a psychoanalytic book is the communication of something that nudges the reader’s grasp of clinical theory and practice in an unexpected direction. Psychoanalysis in a New Key creates a deliberate focus on innovative and unsettling clinical thinking. Because that kind of thinking is encouraged by exploration of the sometimes surprising contributions to psychoanalysis of ideas and findings from other fields, Psychoanalysis in a New Key particularly encourages interdisciplinary studies. Books in the series have married psychoanalysis with dissociation, trauma theory, sociology, and criminology. The series is open to the consideration of studies examining the relationship between psychoanalysis and any other field – for instance, biology, literary and art criticism, philosophy, systems theory, anthropology, and political theory.

But innovation also takes place within the boundaries of psychoanalysis, and Psychoanalysis in a New Key therefore also presents work that reformulates thought and practice without leaving the precincts of the field. Books in the series focus, for example, on the significance of personal values in psychoanalytic practice, on the complex interrelationship between the analyst’s clinical work and personal life, on the consequences for the clinical situation when patient and analyst are from different cultures, and on the need for psychoanalysts to accept the degree to which they knowingly satisfy their own wishes during treatment hours, often to the patient’s detriment.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
PSYCHOLOGY / Applied Psychology
PSYCHOLOGY / Forensic Psychology
PSYCHOLOGY / Psychopathology / General
PSYCHOLOGY / Mental Health