Because 18-year-old Payton Gendron provided in his 180-page diatribe a motive for shooting 10 people in Buffalo, NY, on Saturday night, police didn’t need to search for one, as they often have other in mass shootings. But using motive to prevent mass shootings will just get you a useless answer to the wrong question.
The right question is: What happened to this person? What happened to a beautiful baby boy to turn him into an 18-year-old killer spouting racist screed?
In those questions—and looking at the answers through the lens of positive and adverse childhood experiences—lie our solutions.
The ACE Study showed a remarkable link between 10 types of childhood trauma and being violent or a victim of violence, as well as experiencing the adult onset of chronic disease and mental illness. The ten types of childhood trauma include experiencing physical and emotional abuse, neglect, living with a family member who is addicted to alcohol or who is mentally ill, and witnessing domestic violence. (For more information, see PACEs Science 101 and What ACEs/PCEs Do You Have?) Subsequent ACE surveys include experiencing bullying, racism, the foster care system, living in a dangerous community, losing a family member to deportation and being a war refugee, among other traumatic experiences.
The point is — and the science is irrefutable now — just as a bullet rips through flesh and bone, a child experiencing ongoing encounters that cause toxic stress, without positive intervention to help the child, will suffer damage to the structure and function of their brain.
[Ed. note: This is a continuing series of articles about people who are involved and contributing in the movement to implement practices and policies based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences.]
Growing up as the eldest daughter in a family of three girls and three boys in Nairobi, Kenya, Becky Ndung’u and all her siblings attended school, which is mandatory for children ages six through 14. Her parents—both farmers and her father also a lifelong government accountant—were committed to providing all their children a good education.
Her education began in a public school, followed by a private high school. Our conversation was conducted in English, but Ndung’u is also fluent in her native languages, Kikuyu and Kiswahili.
After graduating from high school, the young scientist earned a “higher diploma”—equivalent to a bachelor’s degree—in analytical chemistry in 2000 at what is now the Technical University of Kenya and then went on to earn a higher diploma in soil science in 2003 at what is now the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
Not able to find a job in her field, she opted to work in schools as a science lab assistant, organizing and teaching lessons in biology, chemistry, and physics. She also prepared students for the exams they needed to matriculate from secondary schools.
She recounted that during this time, she was often asked to teach biology and chemistry when the teacher was absent. As a result, she says, “I learned a lot about how school systems work, their challenges in terms of teachers being overworked, discipline in learners, poor academic performances, and the struggles of parents to pay school fees.”
From Science Assistant to Educational Psychologist
But she had no desire to become a teacher herself. “I wanted to help the schools but not as a teacher,” she explains. “My focus was helping learners improve their academic performance and acquiring the discipline to avoid dropping out of the school. But in Kenya, there is no provision for educational psychologists in the education system.”
After earning a diploma online in educational psychology and emotional intelligence at the University of Ireland in 2020, she started working on her own as an educational psychologist. She acquired students by word of mouth from parents. “Amazingly,” she said, “I was able to help kids with behavior problems, learning difficulties, poor academic performances, and learners with special needs.”
Before learning about the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), Ndung’u’s knowledge about emotional intelligence (EQ) opened her eyes as to why children acted out and misbehaved in the classroom.
She recalls having to remove two sisters, ages six and eight, with severe dyslexia from the classroom because they couldn’t read at their grade levels. She used her EQ skills to get the sisters to open up and talk about their issues. She also involved their parents so that they could understand what their children were experiencing and to explain what needed to be done. She secured the students a special needs teacher, who home-schooled them for eight months. Later, they were both successfully integrated back into the schoolroom.
Learning About ACEs
While working with children, the trauma educator heard a talk by Dr. Angie Yonda-Maina, director of Green String Network, a nonprofit dedicated to peacebuilding through practices related to trauma, justice, spirituality, and security. Ndung’u was struck by a poster presented in the doctor’s talk that included a reference to ACEs.
As a survivor of interpersonal trauma, commitment and intimacy have never been easy, which is why I never did remarry after my first marriage fell apart. That is until last October, when my boyfriend who had been living at a comfortable distance (measured in thousands of miles) suggested I pack up my apartment and ride out the pandemic with him in Hawaii. Thus began an adventure that had me breathing into paper bags and him warranting a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
I get bent out of shape easily. On days when I haven’t had enough sleep, I’m particularly vulnerable to being disgruntled and snappy, finding everything about my partner annoying, right down to his very existence. I usually seek refuge in elaborate plans of escape. (No doubt on those days my husband is similarly engaged.) I dream of a light-bathed studio giving onto a beach or a small cabin perched by a lake and surrounded by pines. The scene changes, the head count doesn’t. I am on my own.
For many trauma survivors, “avoidance”—a symptom of post-traumatic stress and driver of my escape fantasies—is the only way to make our lives feel manageable.
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes avoidance as “efforts to avoid distressing memories, thoughts, or feelings” and “external reminders (people, places, conversations, activities, objects, situations)” associated with traumatic events. But what if the source and reminder of the trauma is other people? And what does that mean for our relationships?
The essential dilemma for survivors of interpersonal trauma is that, as Judith Herman has written, “recovery can take place only within the context of relationships; it cannot occur in isolation.” It makes sense that for those of us who have suffered abusive relationships, safe, stable relationships would be the cure, in the same way someone who has been poisoned might flush out toxins with pure water. However, as survivors of interpersonal trauma, getting close to people also feels inherently unsafe. In many cases, our trauma stems from the fact that the people who were supposed to love and protect us instead hurt us. We learned—sometimes at a young age—to distrust and fear the very thing we need as humans to survive. In The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, Bruce Perry writes:
“Being harmed by the people who are supposed to love you, being abandoned by them, being robbed of the one-on-one relationships that allow you to feel safe and valued and to become humane—these are profoundly destructive experiences. Because humans are inescapably social beings, the worst catastrophes that can befall us inevitably involve relational loss.”
Even more worrying, the inability to tolerate close relationships not only impedes trauma recovery but may even shorten our lifespan. A 2015 Brigham Young study reported that isolation is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day in terms of the impact on our mental and physical health—and ultimately our longevity. The daily pain of social isolation is very real; it actually registers in the same region of the brain as physical pain. For some trauma survivors, isolation can be “iatrogenic”—meaning, the remedy is worse than the disease.
Some people get around the need for emotional connection with other humans by befriending other large mammals: dogs or horses are regularly used in trauma therapy. For those of us who dare to dip a toe into the potentially tumultuous waters of relationships with other humans, the experience is probably best approached as a kind of exposure therapy, where you face the thing you most dread in small increments until your brain is rewired and you no longer sense a threat. The problem is that marriage—to go back to my own situation—does not work like that. You can’t be married for say, one day a week, until you build up a tolerance. And, quite apart from your own ability to tolerate this unaccustomed state of being close to another person, unless your partner understands trauma well—and, like my husband (thus far), has enduring patience—there is a serious risk that the relationship will end up imploding.
Three relatively recent studies from different parts of the U.S. show that only a tiny percentage of physicians, medical school faculty and other healthcare providers are integrating practices and policies based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs).
Why it matters: For people in the PACEs community, the following is news that’s 20 years old: Adverse childhood experiences are common, preventable and linked to six out of the top ten leading causes of death in the United States.
As one of the studies noted: “Positive and negative experiences in childhood shape our trajectory of health or illness for our entire lives, and this impact can be attributed to the brain-body physiology that results from our experiences during childhood.”
The science is well established. Thousands of research papers have been published about the long- and short-term health effects. Every U.S. state has done an ACE survey, many more than one. Legislation addressing childhood trauma and PACEs science has been passed in 39 states. Dozens of books have been written about the topic, including two bestsellers; one of those—Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score—has been on the New York Times paperback bestseller list for 178 weeks. Physicians who have been early adopters for more than a decade say they would never go back to not integrating it into their practices.
Who did the studies and why? In Muskegon County, MI, Resilience Muskegon, a community organization created by mental health agency HealthWest, did a survey of county residents that showed a huge disconnect between the healthcare system, which is highly rated, and the health of people in the county. A local ACE survey showed that 31.4 percent of adults have experienced 4 or more ACEs, nearly three times the number in the original CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which showed 12.5 percent had an ACE score of 4 or higher. This prompted researchers to recruit 226 physicians from Mercy Health, a hospital and healthcare system that serves 85% of the county, to participate. They asked if they knew about ACEs science, if they used it in their practice, and if they had a personal history of ACEs.
In Texas, researchers from the University of Texas and the University at Albany, NY, recruited 85 healthcare providers from Central Texas that included physicians, nurses, social workers and other staff who were at least 18 years old and providing care in a medical setting to women or children in Central Texas. Going into the study they thought that most healthcare workers would know about ACEs. They thought that most screened for traditional ACEs such as substance use or mental health issues, more often than ACEs such as bullying or community violence, and they thought that most patients would self-disclose common ACEs. They also thought that healthcare providers familiar with ACEs would implement ACE-informed strategies for patients, such as providing resources for patients or creating an ACE-informed culture in their practice. They were remarkably off target.
In Illinois, a team comprising three medical students and four medical school faculty noticed that “very, very few of our colleagues knew anything about childhood trauma,” says Dr. Audrey Stillerman, one of the authors who is clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They were also interested in why this science that has existed for decades hasn’t been integrated into medical education so that it could become a part of clinical practice. What’s the rub? they wondered. Why isn’t medical education just different now? The team developed a survey to explore these questions; 81 faculty members from the University of Illinois College of Medicine and Rush Medical College in Illinois responded.
Examine Vladimir Putin’s childhood and you will see an eerie parallel to the atrocities playing out in Ukraine today. His life is a stark example of how childhood adversity is the root cause of most social, economic and mental health issues, as well as violence and chronic disease, as the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences demonstrates.
And while we can’t change the Russian president, we can encourage and educate people not to create more Putins by recognizing how childhood adversity impacts us throughout our lives and by integrating solutions into our healthcare, education, justice and economic systems.
Born in 1952 Leningrad, Putin was a street kid in a city devastated by a horrific, three-year siege by the Nazis during WWII, a genocide described as the world’s most destructive siege of a city. Most of the population of three million people died, one million starving to death. Putin’s father was badly injured in the war, his mother nearly died of starvation. Living in a rat-infested apartment with two other families, the family had no hot water, no bathtub, a broken-down toilet, little or no heat. His father worked in a factory; his mother did odd jobs she could find. A small child, whose two older siblings are believed to have been lost to war and disease, Putin was left to fend for himself, severely bullied by other children.
From his parents he inherited their wartime trauma personified by Nazi forces threatening their existence, ravaging their city and killing their friends and family. With his parents struggling to survive, they were absent or too traumatized to be attentive to their son. There’s no mention of other family members: no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. Kindness and affection didn’t seem to have been part of the child Putin’s world.
While the experiences of childhood adversity piled up, two positive experiences changed his trajectory: After years of being labeled a troublemaker in school, a sixth-grade teacher helped him realize his potential. He excelled in high school, learned judo to defend himself, got a law degree and was selected to join the KGB. But the damage that led to his current behavior was done. It produced a machismo man, distrustful and unpredictable, and who cultivates disinformation to advance his own agenda at any cost.
In her essay,“The Ignorance or How We Produce the Evil,” psychologist Alice Miller wrote: “Children who are given love, respect, understanding, kindness and warmth will naturally develop different characteristics from those who experience neglect, contempt, violence or abuse and never have anyone they can turn to for kindness and affection. Such absence of trust and love is a common denominator….All the childhood histories of serial killers and dictators I have examined showed them without exception to have been the victims of extreme cruelty, although they themselves steadfastly denied this.”
Research shows that early abuse and neglect damages an infant’s developing brain. If a child suffers abuse and neglect for years without intervention, the consequences can be dire. As Dr. Bruce Perry, co-author with Oprah Winfrey of What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, says, the more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
But without that love in their childhoods, abused people in power can do serious damage. Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedung all suffered years of merciless beatings and other unconscionable abuse in childhood and went on to be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. In Mao’s case, 35 million people. Of course, dictators can’t become dictators absent an environment that supports their ability to accumulate power. In The Real War, Richard Nixon pointed out that the “Darwinian forces of the Soviet system produce not only ruthless leaders, but clever ones.” Stalin killed nearly a million people each year he was in power; in 1938 he sent Khrushchev to Ukraine where he proved his ruthless ways by eliminating 163 out of 166 members of that country’s Central Committee. Of course, not everyone who has an abusive childhood grows up to abuse others; but it’s safe to say that all abusive dictators and autocrats had a childhood filled with abuse and/or neglect, and not enough love.
So, Putin’s statements on and after Feb. 23, are chilling and revealing: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by
The immediate response was great—we did workshops in all the major newsrooms in California. But things didn’t change the way I’d hoped. A few news organizations included a few contextual questions in their reporting from time to time, but none changed their crime reporting. The data we gathered inspired the San Jose Mercury News (more info below) to do a series on domestic violence, but despite reporters asking to develop a domestic violence beat, the editors said no.
Remarkably, the basics of crime reporting haven’t changed much since the late 1890s (essentially, the man-bites-dog approach). Why is it taking so long for this change to happen? The irony is that although change is journalism’s bread and butter, getting the journalism community to modernize is like moving a mountain with a spoon and a bucket.
I am a longtime health, science and technology journalist. When I wrote the Reporting on Violence handbook, I’d been covering the epidemiology of violence off and on for several years, after the CDC began taking the same approach to violence and violence prevention as they had with smoking and smoking prevention, and motor vehicle accidents and their prevention. I realized that my profession was part of the problem in how the general public understood violence, and I wanted to do something about it.
Now Gannett is beginning to make some rudimentary changes. After two years of experimenting in its news organizations in Rochester, NY, and Phoenix, AZ, Gannett is rolling out these revisions across its 250 newsrooms.
The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 unleashed hundreds of articles, books, podcasts, film and online documentaries. It’s not that the roots of racism and inequity in historical trauma hadn’t been known about or written about previous to his death (Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, anyone?), but the pressures of hundreds of years of injustice began a near explosive untangling from the massive twisted and angry knot they’d formed over generations. It’s been like cutting through a gargantuan ball of rubber bands stretched to their limit: layers upon layers of hurt, unfairness, frustration, lives lost, lives constricted into rigid and narrow boundaries, all because of the human bent toward “othering”. (That’s something that PACEs science clearly demonstrates: There is no us and them. Just us.)
Despite all the stories that have been loosened from the grip of our remarkable ability to ignore what’s in front of us, White people are just beginning to learn—to our ongoing dismay, shame and horror—that racism and inequity are baked into everything we do, into all our systems, in every community in the U.S., even though most of us don’t know or want that. Fortunately, we are now in a time of reckoning, and have the potential to make real change. If you haven’t already put together your reading list to educate yourself, the 27 books here range from Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist”, to Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings”, to Toni Jensen’s “Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land.”
Despite our individual ACEs, the White people among us have been incredibly fortunate to be born into a power structure from which most of us didn’t even realize we benefited. We’ve been swimming in a sea that we didn’t even know was wet. Thus I think it’s our obligation, from the moment we grok the enormity of how our history granted us immeasurable advantages, to spend the rest of our lives educating ourselves and educating as many people as we can to change our systems. That’s a major goal of our work at PACEs Connection, the social network that accompanies ACEs Too High.
Over the last two years, PACEs Connection team members Ingrid Cockhren and Donielle Prince have been leading efforts to educate our organization about racism, inequity, White privilege, and how PACEs science figures into that. Ingrid’s been leading a series of in-depth webinars for our team that have truly challenged our understanding of where we are and how we got here. It’s been sobering, but one thing that being in this PACEs community offers is that we help each other face not only our individual truths, but our society’s truths, because that’s one of our values. (If you aren’t a member of PACEs Connection, please join by going to PACEsConnection.com.)
“I came up with the idea for the series in response to the controversy concerning Critical Race Theory in schools,” says Cockhren, who is PACEs Connection’s director of communities, “or basically the reluctance to discuss America’s true history.” When she suggested that we host a series of webinars on historical trauma in six different regions of the country, the team jumped into action.
It’s shocking: Preschoolers are three times more likely to be expelled than children in elementary, middle and high school, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Boys are four times more likely than girls to be kicked out, and African American children are twice as likely as Latinx and White children.
One organization with childcare centers and mental health providers in Kentucky and Ohio began a long journey 15 years ago, when they began hearing about young kids getting expelled. By integrating a whole family approach and the science of adverse childhood experiences, the Consortium for Resilient Young Children (CRYC) took a radically different approach to help little kids stay in school.
“We came together 15 years ago to start addressing the growing need for social emotional supports for young children,” says Carolyn Brinkmann. “Our organizations were getting phone calls from their own programs about younger children being expelled from preschool and childcare, and we tried to figure out how to start responding to that.”
Brinkmann is the director for the Resilient Children and Families Program (RCFP), a coaching and training arm of the CRYC. The CRYC comprises five childcare or educational agencies and three mental health provider agencies in southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky. The RCFP provides coaching and training to around 50 community-based programs that serve around 1,541 children.
Brinkmann and her colleagues began by looking for programs that address stressors and promote resilience in the whole family.
“We’re not working with little ones in a vacuum,” says Whitney Cundiff, the team leader of early childhood services for Northkey Community Care in Covington, Kentucky, part of the consortium. Along with Brinkmann, Cundiff led the research and training for the Consortium and they decided to use something commonly known as a two-generational approach—little kids and their parents or caregivers.
In 2008, Brinkmann trained childcare providers in the Strengthening Families Protective Factors approach, a framework developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy. It includes building resilience in parents, strengthening families’ social connections in their communities, educating parents about child development, and helping parents link up with organizations that can help them when they’re struggling to feed and house their families or provide other basic needs. It does not, however, train people in PACEs science.
Then, in 2016, the RCFP joined a Cincinnati-based collaborative called Joining Forces for Children, a cross-sector collaborative that focuses on building resilience and preventing adversity in children and families. Among its founding members was Cincinnati Children’s Hospital pediatrician, Dr. Robert Shapiro, who was interested in their two-generational focus.