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‘Why So Serious?’: Child Abuse in the Dark Knight

With a knife in hand, the purple-clad, face-painted Joker springs up from the pool table, retorting in his own self-indulgent way, “You wanna know how I got these scars?”

The Joker then details a narrative of a father who “was a drinker and a fiend.” One night his father goes “off crazier than usual” and his mother “gets the kitchen knife to defend herself.” He explains how his father disapproving of this “takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it.” As a matter of consequence, the young child witnesses this gruesome scene, and when the father notices the son, he asks jovially, “Why so serious?” The father then inserts the knife blade into the son’s mouth and blares, “Let’s put a smile on that face!”

Now, the Joker refocuses and nonchalantly echoes to his present victim, “Why so serious?”

Seldom does a father so intentionally, so literally, so physically scar his own child. The actions, nonetheless, of our parents and the mentors of our youth bear heavily on our psychological, social, and neurological development. We are the products of our upbringing, forged in the furnace of youth, notched in the wilderness of experience.

Violent trauma in childhood proves both especially enduring and complex. “The intersection of childhood and violence raises several problematic issues that demand a synthesis and reformulation,” explains Jill E. Korbin, a cultural and medical anthropologist at Case Western Reserve University. “Although it is perhaps simplistic to say that both childhood and violence are culturally constructed categories, it is nevertheless the case that violence is not a unitary phenomenon nor is childhood experienced similarly everywhere.”

For without these fundamental assumptions being explicitly stated, “it is impossible to understand the variability of experience involving children and violence.”

Martin H. Teicher, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, notes that “in the early 1990s mental health professionals believed that emotional and social difficulties occurred mainly through psychological means.” And interestingly, “[c]hildhood maltreatment was understood either to foster the development of intrapsychic defense mechanisms that proved to be self-defeating in adulthood or to arrest psychosocial development….”

Basically, researchers paralleled the mind to software, in which any problem could be amended, reprogrammed, or just altogether erased. Just rewrite the code.

The research of Teicher and his colleagues suggests alternatively that childhood maltreatment leads to a failure in the hardware of the mind, owing to biological and chemical alterations early in mental development. Significant brain-wave abnormalities were clinically found in 54 percent of patients with a history of early trauma, whereas in only 27 percent of non-abused patients. These electroencephalogram (EEG) anomalies reached 72 percent in those with “documented histories of serious physical and sexual abuse.” (Emphasis added.)

When abuse of children occurs, it happens during a critically formative time when experiences are physically sculpting the brain, the structural self. The severe stress of these experiences, as Teicher adds, “can leave an indelible imprint on [the brain’s] structure and function. Such abuse, it seems, induces a cascade of molecular and neurobiological effects” that are irreversible.

These accreted brain-wave abnormalities appear to manifest in criminal activity later in life. When controlling for earlier involvement in violent behavior and a vector of sociodemographic characteristics, Ross Macmillan, a sociology professor at University of Minnesota, shows that “adolescent victimization almost tripled the odds of both violent and property offending in adulthood, doubled the odds of domestic violence, and increased the odds of problem drug use by almost 90%.”

Thus, each generation lives out the violence, habits, and scars of the preceding generation. Even though teasing out the causation of childhood violence and later-life outcomes is a challenge, much can still be reasonably drawn.

For example, the “life trajectory,” which Macmillan discusses more in his research, can map even the Joker. In short, the Joker can be best described as a stray bullet or a dog chasing cars—without agency, without a plan. However, his origins root in parental abuse, and his chaotic, adult self-launches from this muzzle of victimized youth.

The Joker embodies the now embrowned sins of his father, as we embody those of our parents, and as our children will embody ours. If only the child’s mind lived in a vacuum, one would not be burdened by the scars of his or her elders. Yet, we live not as such, but as living sculptures chiseled by many.

Joshua R. H. Parsons

Joshua is a peregrine thinker. He has worked in technology and innovation policy at a D.C.-based think tank. Beyond studying economics, urban planning, and violence, he spends time exploring avant-garde and postmodern film and literature, as well as country, jazz, and funk guitar. Currently, he resides in West Virginia—with his fantastic pup, Wanda.

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