Trauma, dissociative disorders, and PTSD

John S. Callender

in Free will and responsibility

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print April 2010 | ISBN: 9780199545551
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754616 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Trauma, dissociative disorders, and PTSD

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In this chapter, I will begin by describing the clinical features of the dissociative disorders and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I will go on to discuss the ways in which these conditions are related to violence and other criminal behavior. I will conclude with discussion of the issue of legal responsibility in offenders who suffer from these conditions.

One of the defining characteristics of PTSD is that it is precipitated by the experience of psychological trauma. The other dissociative disorders usually also have their origins in traumatic experiences.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that aggression is one of the sequelae of trauma and that people who have been traumatized are likely to turn this aggression against other people or themselves. According to one authority, trauma followed by the victimization of other people is ‘a major cause of violence in society’ (van der Kolk & McFarlane, 1996, 11). When one considers the biographies of those who have been responsible for murder and mayhem on the grand scale, it is striking how often one finds a history of early traumatization and abuse. Adolf Hitler's father was an authoritarian, overbearing, irritable drunkard. He was repeatedly violent to his wife and children. According to his sister, the young Adolf ‘got his sound thrashing every day’ (Kershaw, 1998). On one occasion, he was beaten so badly that his father left him for dead. In adult life, he was observed to have violent swings of mood and flew into rages at the slightest hint of disagreement or opposition. He would bang his fists on tables and walls. He shouted and stammered and would literally foam at the mouth. At worst, he is described as falling to the floor and chewing the carpet. This happened so often that some of his associates referred to him as teppischfresser (carpet eater) (Pincus, 2001). Josef Stalin's father was a violent, drunken cobbler, who ‘savagely beat’ his son and wife. Stalin's mother in turn, as the child later recalled, ‘thrashed him mercilessly’ (Sebag Montefiore, 2003). Saddam Hussein was raised by a brutal and abusive stepfather until he was 10 years old and went to live with an uncle.

Despite these observations, the role of trauma-related disorders in the genesis of criminality has received less attention than other conditions such as psychopathic personality and the psychoses. Violent and criminal behaviors are complex phenomena and are the end result of a range of causal influences. How can the experience of trauma lead to later violence on the part of the victim? Is a history of traumatic victimization a necessary element of the set of causes that lead to some types of crime? We know that most people who are traumatized do not commit crimes or cause harm to others. What other causal factors have to come into play to bring about violence and criminality? A final question is whether traumatic experience can affect a person in such a way as to override his or her capacity for self-control and hence give grounds for legal mitigation or excuse.

Chapter.  15166 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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