Three Words That Triggered a Final Spree of Violence: “You Little Punk”

Brent Brents often told me his greatest fear was not of being killed, or tortured, or injured in any way–but of being shamed.

“Please don’t make me look stupid,” he would repeatedly say to me regarding publishing his writings, and when I asked him why the fear of humiliation held so much power over him, he didn’t have an answer.

The very first time I interviewed him, Brents told me his final crime spree-where he raped three women and two children over the course of a weekend–was triggered by a police detective talking smack to him on the phone in an effort to get Brents, who had a warrant out for his arrest, to turn himself in. I write about it in Diary of a Predator: A Memoir.

“He called me a little punk. ‘Tell me where you’re at. I’ll come get you, you little punk,’” Brents told me. “I said, ‘Fuck you. Come get me.’”

Then, he said, “I worked myself into this rage, walked out of the coffee shop . . . [thinking] ‘You wanna play games? I can play games, too.’”

At the time, I thought it was a ridiculous excuse, and merely a way for Brents to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. And while he is indeed responsible for his actions, today I now understand the deep motivation that shame and humiliation play in inciting violence.

“I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this ‘loss of face’–no matter how severe the punishment, even if it includes death,” writes James Gilligan in his excellent book, Violence: Reflections On a National Epidemic.

“The purpose of violence is to diminish the intensity of shame and replace it as far as possible with its opposite, pride…”

The more trivial the matter, Gilligan says, the deeper the humiliation: “…their very  triviality makes it even more shameful to feel ashamed about them.”

Men who feel this way and act on it become violent because they feel they have no nonviolent alternative to boost their self esteem, Gilligan says. Also, with their sense of self threatened to be overwhelmed by shame, they lack the emotions of love and guilt that would normally prevent someone from becoming violent.

Again, it doesn’t excuse Brent Brent’s behavior–but it does help explain it.

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