Recently, I was on a house call that was far from routine from the moment I arrived. I was sent to the home of a 6-year old boy whose parents were very worried for him.* His tantrums were uncontrollable, his behavior extremely defiant. After the evaluation, his mother pulled me aside.
“Is it normal for kids to hurt things?”
“Sometimes. During this age their curiosity may override their sense of right or wrong.” I assured her.
“My son …he seems to like hurting things.”
She described to me a recent incident when her son was playing with his pet bunny. From an adjacent room, she watched him wrap his hands around its tiny head and squeeze. The animal struggled, but the child tightened his grip. Within moments his pet was limp.
Her concern was understandable. For decades, psychologists have known that some of the strongest predictors of mental illness in adulthood include early of acts of violence during childhood, such as starting fires, harming animals, and bullying peers. It’s not so much the act of violence that grabs our attention, but the lack of remorse after the incident.
Maybe it’s because I’m a psychologist–or maybe I just like a great back-story– but one of the reasons I’m drawn toward Penguin comics is that they often take a developmental approach with the character Oswald Cobblepot. Many of his stories include scenarios of his younger years, during which he’s often depicted as an awkward, strange, deformed kid who can’t seem to find his place in the world. He is rejected by his peers. He is abused by his step-father. Derided and bullied by nearly everyone in his life, he soon learns to protect himself by becoming isolative and oppositional. In order for him to survive, he creates his own rule: Hurt others before they can hurt me. This is one villain I feel like I understand.
Among all the baddies in Gotham City’s Rogues Gallery, Penguin seems to be the one we may be able to understand from a developmental psychopathology perspective. Writers who story-tell The Penguin insightfully explore his childhood neglect, abuse, and trauma in order to help us understand the root of his psychopathy.
We get a crude but concrete glimpse of developmental psychology in perhaps Penguin’s most popular depiction: Batman Returns (1992). In the film, we see Lil’ Baby Ozzie abandoned by his parents via the Gotham City Sewer System.
Joker’s Asylum: Penguin #1 (2008) shows readers how Penguin’s horrific behavior unfolds by highlighting a specific event in his young life. In this dark one-shot issue, Jason Aaron depicts Oswald’s painful adolescent years to help us understand why he is unable to trust others. Used to being bullied for looking freakish, he’s manipulated into thinking he’s accepted by a group of girls at a dance. Of course, the outcome is nothing but disappointment, shame, and embarrassment.
There’s a heartwrenching scene at the end of this issue that depicts young, vulnerable Ozzie reaching out to find solace in his pet bird. With a protective reflex, the bird strikes at him. Reactive and emotional, Ozzie beats him to death with a bat. The last panel shows him crouching over his limp friend, repeatedly whispering, “I’m sorry.”
Currently on the shelves is Gregg Hurwitz and Szymon Kudranski’s page-gripping comic Penguin: Pain and Prejudice (2011-2012). The 5-issue mini-series takes us through one of his most malicious, remorseless periods as a mobster boss interspersed with sepia-colored flashbacks of his horrifically defined childhood– neglected by his father, beaten by his brothers, verbally abused.
Studies show that, although rare, severe neglect during childhood can lead to long-lasting, detrimental outcomes such as developing antisocial disorders including psychopathy. Little Penguin learns very early on that the world is punishing, cold, and violent.
People will hurt you. They are not to be trusted. You can only depend on yourself.
Does he have any evidence that this isn’t true?
“Penguins can’t fly. They are awkward on land. Slow moving. Uncoordinated. …So they adapt.”
Using Penguin’s self-reflective thoughts, Hurwitz explains how it is nearly impossible to recover from severe childhood trauma:
“They say some memories don’t live in our minds. They live in our bones. In our cells. Always there.
Defining us. Altering us. Shaping us.”
As an adult, Mr. Cobblepot takes on a criminal lifestyle where he can operate through money, power, and fear. While we can never accept his violence and murder, we somehow learn to understand it. Even though Batman is creeping around throughout this entire story, we almost lose interest in him as we become connected to Penguin–the core of the story is Penguin’s attempt to connect with a female companion who happens to be blind. We follow, almost with an inexplicable sense of hope, as he struggles with the conflicting feeling he hasn’t felt since his mother was alive: Loving someone who can love someone he hates–himself.
The remorseless torture and killing of animals is actually a rare occurrence during childhood. Soon after my evaluation, I phoned our Head Investigator. We decided the child needed a higher level of care than the services we typically provide. Luckily, unlike the fictional character I’ve been describing, the child was equipped with several protective factors: a loving family, a nurturing home, and viable treatment options to get him the proper help.
*For the protection and privacy of clients, information about them is always changed and dialogue is paraphrased.