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Understanding violence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2018

D. Beales*
Mersey Care NHS Trust, Ashworth Hospital, Parkbourn, Maghull, Merseyside L31 1BD, and Bolton, Salford and Trafford Mental Health NHS Trust, UK
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Copyright © Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2004 

There are potentially significant absences in Professor Fonagy's otherwise illuminating editorial on the developmental aspects of violence, and he neglects to consider other related theories (Reference FonagyFonagy, 2003).

The word ‘father’ does not appear in his review and this would seem a major absence in the context of research showing consistent absences of stable paternal figures in those exhibiting antisocial behaviour, which is itself associated with violence (Reference Pfiffner, McBurnett and RathouzPfiffner et al, 2001). It is particularly puzzling, as Professor Fonagy has himself explored the possible role of the absent father in the development of violent propensities (Reference Fonagy and TargetFonagy & Target, 1995).

It is also perhaps premature to dismiss (or pathologise) the use of the term ‘psychopathy’. The literature, which includes distinguished psychoanalytic contributions (Reference Reid MeloyReid Meloy, 2001), as well as explorations of possible biological factors (Reference DolanDolan, 1994), suggests that the term has considerable utility in research, treatment and risk management, as well as potential dangers (Reference EdensEdens, 2001).

Other social aspects of violence are also not explored, including group dynamic aspects, which are possibly best illustrated by the breakdown of normal social mores in conflict and war. A relatively recent example is the Rwandan genocide, where individuals capable of perpetrating atrocities were then able to return to everyday existences.

Fonagy's review was also clearly concerned with violence at a population level and in relation to normal development. He does not consider, however, the important question of how violence in people with mental disorders might potentially differ from that in the general population, and how this issue needs continuing exploration by mental health professionals.




Dolan, M. (1994) Psychopathy – a neurobiological perspective. British Journal of Psychiatry, 165, 151159.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Edens, J. (2001) Misuses of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist – Revised in court. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 16, 10821093.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fonagy, P. (2003) Towards a developmental understanding of violence. British Journal of Psychiatry 183, 190192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fonagy, P. & Target, M. (1995) Understanding the violent patient: the use of the body and the role of the father. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 76, 487501.Google ScholarPubMed
Pfiffner, L. J., McBurnett, K. & Rathouz, P. J. (2001) Father absence and familial antisocial characteristics. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 29, 357367.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Reid Meloy, J. (ed.) (2001) The Mark of Cain: Psychoanalytic Insight and the Psychopath. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.Google Scholar
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