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Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic

4.25  ·  Rating details ·  424 ratings  ·  58 reviews
Drawing on firsthand experience as a prison psychiatrist, his own family history, and literature, Gilligan unveils the motives of men who commit horrifying crimes, men who will not only kill others but destroy themselves rather than suffer a loss of self-respect. With devastating clarity, Gilligan traces the role that shame plays in the etiology of murder and explains why ...more
Paperback, 320 pages
Published April 29th 1997 by Vintage (first published 1996)
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Paul Bryant
Dec 10, 2007 rated it really liked it
Shelves: modern-life
This is a very bracing and challenging book. For example:

All violence is an attempt to achieve justice

Say what?? Our author explains... justice here means what the violent person perceives to be justice, for himself or on behalf of others, to get what’s “due” or “owed” to him. The purpose of violence is to maintain “manhood”… which is to say that the perpetrator wishes to replace feelings of shame and inadequacy with feelings of pride and self-worth. It is quite clear that we can prevent violenc
Oct 09, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: every single goddam person on the planet
This is probably the best, and certainly the most important, book I have ever read.

This book explains why violence exists. it does so with heart and with facts, with narrative and data. James Gillgan (husband of Carol Gillligan, which speaks to him, I think) was head of mental health for the state prison system in Massachussetts. He knows what he's talking about. Never has a book impacted the way I think and the way I live more than this one.

Please read it.
Oct 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
One of the astonishing things that we take for granted about American society is the epidemic-level amount of baseline violence that exists here. This book suggests an interesting cause for this phenomenon: shame. As Gilligan argues, all violence is at its core an effort to deal with the experience of shame. To a person who commits even the most twisted act of violence, that act is also, at least in their own eyes, an attempt to defend themselves from shame and create what they perceive in the m ...more
Mar 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
First and foremost: astonishing book. The theory is radical. The voice in which he delivers it is comes from the heart and from 25 years of experience as a psychoanalytic therapist in maximum security prisons. It messes with most everything we are trained to think.

The theory: violence is a the result of shame and shame about being ashamed -- meta-shame. It is a bit more nuanced than this but this is the jist of it. It reverses thereby the usual analysis that we get, for example, from those who
Kalem Wright
Dec 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Setting aside the fact I was literally looking forward to reading this for years after reading the chapter on the book’s central argument, there’s a lot of excellent things to be said about Gilligan’s work. His argument is elegant and fascinating: that violence can be understood as a disease with the infectious agent of shame acting as a necessary but not sufficient condition to encourage violence. His argument centers around the concept that culturally-transmitted ideas (economics, morality, ge ...more
Gilligan freely admits that this is not intended to be the last word on violence, but hopefully the first word on a new way of thinking about it. But on reading this book, it's hard not to hope that if this was more widely read, we might move towards an understanding of violence like that which Gilligan gained after working with violent criminals in the Massachusetts prison system. Gilligan's ideas are best grasped through reading his case studies and reflections on his patients, but briefly he ...more
Sep 15, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone
This book was tremdously illuminating. It helped me to see my own violent tendancies. I read this while doing the research from a paper on why patriarchy leads to violence, little did I know that Gilligan had already written the book. Strong themes, beautifuly written. This is the 'Guns, Germs, and Steal' of why violence isn't an effective tool of the state. Bravo! ...more
Erica Freeman
Oct 08, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Everyone, everywhere
Shelves: favorites
Probably one of the most important books I've ever read...taught (and horrified) me a great deal; confirmed beliefs and validated emotions I'd already had.

Prompted me to become active in restorative justice activism, and work in support of inmates' rights and care.

Neelesh Marik
Aug 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book is a profound act of social service. Its contents should find their way into the educational system of the world, in some shape or form. The arguments and real life stories present a depth of understanding that is truly missing in our world, and a level of cogency on how to address the most dangerous threat to human civilization today. I quote from the book below key sections that help summarize the case, and the suggested approach.

….After spending much of my professional career worki
David Rush
Jan 27, 2016 rated it really liked it
If you are going to read and talk about Violence, THROW AWAY your copy of Violence by Slavoj Zižek. THIS ONE by James Gilligan goes in deep to the heart of darkness where violence thrives. He starts in prisons, with the most violent people you could find. It is a hell of a starting point.

While Zižek throws around Heidegger and Lacan and Nip-Tuck TV, Gilligan steps in close and examines violence in its pain, and cause and consequence.

My short summary: Violence springs from Loss of face, whi
Feb 28, 2007 rated it it was amazing
i finally finished this gem at bucks county in philly. by far one of the best case studies of human nature, the nature of crime and punishment, the rationale of our penal system, and the economic and social reform necessary to overcome this epidemic. gilligan makes his case with a finality that pleads us to hear its seriousness - and the remedies that actually work. the book reads like a conversation, rather than a text - sometimes, i found myself arguing with gilligan, and almost always, arrivi ...more
Ariel (ariel_reads)
I didn't think I would appreciate this book as much as I did. I chose this book from a list for an analysis assignment, and I am so glad I did. Written by a prison psychiatrist, this book provides an easily-read but thorough analysis of the psychology of violence. Much perspective is gained by seeing a greater context of the American prison system, social factors such a classism, racism, and sexism, and historical factors that allow us as Americans to view our history (and humanity's history) wi ...more
Elizabeth Jennings
Nov 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a rigorous, compassionate book by a man who worked for decades as a psychiatrist in maximum security prisons and mental hospitals, with the criminality violent. He knows what he's talking about. It includes harrowing stories, but Gilligan is focused on retaining the humanity of his patients, indeed, in showing that the very reason they became violent is that they already felt their human dignity had been stolen from them. An eye-opening book for anyone who believes the death penalty "det ...more
May 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
Gilligan is in search of a theory that might account for human violence and he settles on a Freudian psycho-analytic one emphasizing the effects that social factors (poverty, abuse, etc) have on individuals that lead to violence. His goal is a noble one - if we can come up with a theory explaingin violence we might be able to propose ideas to combat it. His would require major social re-engineering of America. He does not assume that because we are human we will be violent, but on the other hand ...more
Louisa A.
Oct 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A powerful exposition on the nature and consequences of 'shame.'
While some of the referenced research may now be outdated, Gilligan's thesis is not. A compelling argument for a paradign shift in how we conceptualize and manage violent crime and how we treat violent offenders.
20 years after it's publication, this book is more relevant than ever. It's disheartening that Gilligan's theory has not had more of an impact over time...hardly surprising though if we consider that it would require a comp
Toby Mustill
Jun 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
I learned 3 things from this book: 1. That there is always a reason behind a violent act, even if it appears random or drug induced etc. 2. Shame in it’s various forms underlies all violent acts (I had to expand and explore my definition of shame to understand this point. 3. Once a violent act has occurred, it’s already too late: there are many precursors to violence and to recognize and respond to the precursors means a great reduction in violence.

While this book had a great many points (>90%)
Ellen Marcoux
May 10, 2017 rated it really liked it
This guy really paints with a big brush, and don't worry if you skimmed a line or two, he'll be sure to tell you again . . . and again. He has a lot to say about how the structure of American civilization encourages violence, and how the judicial system functions to reinforce and reassure the powerful at the expense of the weak. Interesting! Since this book was written in 1996, I look forward to reading more about Dr. Gilligan's theory of violence and how it has evolved over the past couple deca ...more
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Dec 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Phenomenal book from the 1990s. It's message on the root causes of violence need to be spread far and wide.
The root of violence is not evil but a society which values toxic masculinity and over policing/punishing poor men. Violence like obesity and smoking is a public health epidemic which is in some ways manufactured by a "moral" society. Gender roles and "being a man" where poor men are shamed repeatedly with bad education and inadequate wages is a causal factor in crime.

Overall, an easy read
Ashby Manson
Nov 18, 2015 rated it liked it
A five star and a two star book, alternately brilliant and full of passionate question begging.

The author is a prison psychologist. The first third of "Violence" hews closely to his area of expertise and is thought provoking and profound. His analysis of the broken inner workings of murderers, attempting to translate the unspoken or unspeakable physical language of violence, making sense of the senseless, is fascinating and strikes me as being full of useful insight.

His basic argument is that
Patrick  O'Rourke
Dec 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ebay, non-fiction
A very interesting if depressing book. Not particularly well structured. It should really have been called Shame, as this is the central theme and the thesis of the book. Much of what he says makes sense but it may be simplistic to put down all violence to shame, it provides an interesting angle to the discussion. I would like to have read a chapter on the media/Hollywood role in creating and re-enforcing a culture of violent reaction to shame.
Nathan Douthit
Sep 04, 2018 rated it liked it
Really interesting read, especially compared to the Skarbek book I read about the rationality and order of violent prison gangs. I think the commentary on our society as opposed to other western societies is a helpful framework, although the book is really difficult to follow with its stream of consciousness organization. Recommended for those interested in topic.
Jul 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is something that our leaders, our people, and our active workers in the field of working with people and society must read. Though written in the late 1990s, this book is highly relevant to today and our struggle with violence from citizens and the law enforcement as well as our class and caste structure of economics and racism, sexism, and homophobic patterns. Must. Read.
Jun 19, 2021 rated it it was amazing
An amazing insight into violence in our culture by someone who has seen and spoken to the worst of the worst. Gets to the heart of why ppl are violent, rather than just dealing with the aftermath and labelling them "evil". Love anything that gets to the root cause rather than trying to solve the symptoms. ...more
Dorothy Nesbit
Feb 14, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A considered and well-written reflection on the reasons for violence in society, based on Gilligan's professional experience of working in America's jails. Gilligan is willing to examine issues that are largely written out of the narrative. Well worth the read. ...more
Dec 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I don't necessarily agree with all of his proposed solutions, but Gilligan's experience and insight to the root causes of violence makes this a five-star read. ...more
Thomas Pluck
Apr 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
somewhat dated but still a very strong argument that shame is the source of all violence
Aug 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the most powerful books I've read in recent memory. ...more
This is one of the most insightful books I've ever read. I first read it for my college English class, but bought it again later in life (late 30s) because I remember being so intrigued and agreeing with most of its premeses.

The book not only discusses violence, but also gender, socioeconomics, race, and interpersonal/psychosocial psychology. The scope of the work has far-reaching implications, if taken seriously, including that a socialist government (like Sweden) may be the healthiest type fo
Sep 26, 2008 rated it liked it
James Gilligan's experience as a psychiatrist in Massachusetts state prisons taught him that the root of all violence is shame. His book gives insight into the public policies needed not only to reform the prison system but also what he describes as the fundamental sources of shame in our society, including childhood abuse and poverty.

I'd give this book 4 stars but for the fact that Dr. Gilligan's analysis excludes violence against nonhuman animals. Several studies have linked animal abuse and d
Aug 22, 2010 rated it did not like it
This book was ridiculous. It was written by a Massachusetts state prison psychologist and helps illustrate what is wrong with Massachusetts as a whole. He advocates coddling criminals and refuses to accept that some people are just bad.…that there is nothing you can do to change them or make them behave in a socially acceptable way. The author advocates what so many other Massachusetts residents advocate instead, more social entitlement programs, more money thrown at undeserving people and more ...more
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“The first lesson that tragedy teaches (and that morality plays miss) is that all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, for himself or for whomever it is on whose behalf he is being violent [...] Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence.” 1 likes
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