“You can’t know what you don’t know.” That’s what my therapist said as she sat in her chair, waiting for my response. I scanned my mind looking for clues to explain my past behavior. When I was a boy growing up in the baptist church I was taught that we have free will — we know the difference between right and wrong, and it is up to us to make the right decision. It sounded so simple. Now I have a different view. Our behavior is based on a combination of our biological makeup and life’s experiences — nature and nuture.
Nature tattoos us with a genetic makeup, DNA, that determines who we are in many fundamental ways. Nuture is a product of what we see, hear, smell, and touch, and the countless life experiences that mold our core. Developmental biology tells us that we are a combination of the two. From the beginning, we are organisms with a genetic blueprint that continually interacts with our environment, causing change to occur as we move from conception, to childhood, to adulthood, and finally to death. In her book, “The Biology of Violence,” Debra Niehoff says, “Even the most unrepentant assailants, the most cold-blooded murderers, the most sadistic of serial killers, were once infants. There was a time when they could barely hold a rattle, much less a gun; when they smiled for Christmas portraits and giggled at peek-a-boo; when they were afraid of fireworks, needed help to feed themselves, and wore shoes no bigger than ring boxes. What happened? What inner or outer factor — parents, schools, genes, morals, abuse, television, neglect, stress, attention deficits, self-esteem, temperament — has the power to transform innocence into violence? The answer provided by modern neuroscience is ‘all of the above'”
“It was the childhood abuse that caused me to act in a certain way. I’m certain that I knew the difference between right and wrong. All of the abuse programmed me to think and act in negative ways. It’s my DNA.” That’s what I told my therapist. We agreed that it explains my past behavior.
I think about this therapy session when I examine my life, and when I wrote my two books about two female prison inmates. Both inmates participated in violent acts. And in each case, each person has a history of physical and sexual abuse. There are so many inmates who committed acts of violence that were “programmed” to behave in a certain way. I’m certain that a lot of them knew the difference between right and wrong, but their “programmed” ways overpowered and concept of “right and wrong.” It doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it certainly explains it. You can’t know what you don’t know.”