A Tale of Two Criminals: The Primal Roots of Violence

David Edwin Mason and Robert Alton Harris spent their final years on Death Row before they were gassed by the state of California in 1991 and 1993 for heinous crimes of violcnce. Their brographies expose the primal roots of violence.

The dossier on Mason reveals him to have been a sad and lonely child whose mother tried to induce a miscarriage to avoid having him in the first place - and who never was allowed to forget that he was unwanted. Older sisters describe a household where hugging or laughter were prohibited, and in which young David was beaten almost daily with his father's belt or, in the hands of his mother, "a switch or pancake turner."

When only five, the child attempted suicide by swallowing a bottle of pills and set his clothing on fire. At eight he was taking out his hostility by setting fires at church or at school. The parents took to locking him away in a room they called "the dungeon" - a bedroom with the windows nailed shut. Persistent bedwetting, and worse, were countered by parading David with the soiled clothes wrapped around his head.

At age 23, Mason went on a nine-month killing spree in the neighborhood where he had grown up, strangling four elderly men and women. He later confessed that it was "something I have always wanted to do."

Robert's beginnings were striklngly similar. He was born three months premature after his mother was kicked so brutally in the abdomen by an angry husband, that she began hemorrhaging. As in the Mason family, both parents inflicted frequent beatings - the father with his fists, causing a broken jaw when Robert was not yet two. Sitting at the table, if Robert reached out for something without his father's permission, he would end up with a fork in the back of his hand. For sport, father would load his gun and tell the children they had 30 minutes to hide outside the house, after which he would hunt them like animals. threatening to shoot anyone he found. Like Mason, young Harris soon began showing anger toward animals and people. The senior Harris was jailed for sexually molesting his daughters, while the mother smoked and drank herself to death. Harris was twenty five years old when he shot two San Diego teenagers to death. Prosecutors told the jury that Harris taunted the victims before they died, laughed at them after he pulled the trigger, then calmly ate the hamburgers they had bought for lunch. Pain and rejection were the foundation stones on which these angry young men tried to build their lives. Violence was a legacy from their parents. In an editorial on the occasion of Mason's execution, former U.S. Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin of San Diego concluded: "Such persons must be put away, of course. But can society feel comfortable when providing the final touch to a pattern of violence which may literally have begun in the mother's womb?" Congressman Van Deerlin shows rare nsight in connecting events widely separated in time: womb violence and criminal violence. As a society we have naively viewed the earliest period of human development as a "free period" when rules are suspended and there are no consequences for torturous mental and emotional events. This is wishful thinking. The latest research on fetal and neonatal behavior indicates that all babies are keenly aware of their environment, are fully able to feel pain, and are constantly learning from their experiences. These scientific findings support what the biographies of Mason and Harris reveal so well: violence during pregnancy and birth is the seedbed of a violent society. Vulnerability to hostility during the primal period continues through a range of flashpoints including discovery of pregnancy, chronic warfare between parents, physical and psychic attacks on the fetus, the multiple traumas ot premature birth, the routine traumas of medical birth including heel lancing for blood samples, needle injections of vitamin K, rough handling in a too cold, too bright environment, and finally, more often than not, exile and isolation from mother and father. Crown these insults and injuries with rejection after birth and you have the formula for personal misery, smoldering resentments, and social explosions. What can parents do about violence in society? Briefly, they can turn things in a different direction at all the chronological flashpoints: Start with a planned conception, get help to resolve interpersonal problems at the earliest possible time, send lots of loving messages to the baby in the womb, organize for health and fitness to support full-term gestation in utero, and arrange for a non-vioient, natural birth in a context of reassuring touch, where mother's milk is always available and family solidarity is unbroken.

"Victims of a devastating trauma may never be the same (again) biologically. It does not matter if it was the incessant terror of combat, torture, repeated abuse in childhood, or a one-time experience."

Psychiatrist Dennis Charney, National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Yale University