Using attachment theory to make sense of the offence

This guide clearly emphasises the importance of understanding personality disorder when working with offenders: in terms of understanding the offending, risk assessment and subsequent management approaches. This section focuses on the relevance of attachment theory in developing an understanding of the offending behaviour of personality disordered individuals. Why, you may ask, have we therefore placed the image of an onion in this section? The onion – comprised as it is of numerous layers each separated by a semi-permeable membrane – represents the ‘layers’ of explanation for offending. The outer layer, readily observable to the external world, can be peeled away to reveal another layer, and so on, until the hidden centre of the vegetable can ultimately be exposed. In this way, understanding the development of personality disorder, its link to relationship problems and, ultimately, to offending behaviour, can represent a way of seeing and explaining which probes beyond the surface explanation.

Consider, for example, Tony. He is currently serving a custodial sentence for armed robbery, and has previous convictions for robberies and for street violence. His explanation for the index offence had considerable validity: he was using class A drugs regularly, had no steady employment, and required money – quite a lot of money – to fund his lifestyle. Superficially, this was a reasonable explanation. However, peel away a layer, and one might point to particularly problematic (inherent) personality traits – impulsivity and a propensity for reckless, sensation seeking behaviour – which are associated with a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder. Such traits were likely to have played a part in his offending; for example, his attraction to the ‘high’ of cocaine and amphetamines, as well as his enjoyment of the intense buzz associated with planning an armed robbery. Impulsivity may have contributed to his lack of success as a career criminal, but is likely to have introduced an element of unpredictability to his behaviour, which could lead to unanticipated problems and perhaps more violence than he had originally envisaged. Peel away yet another layer, and we might speculate that an absent father in childhood, and inconsistent but harsh disciplining from his mother, led to a rejection of conformity with social norms, and an over-identification with a delinquent peer group. His offending therefore enabled him to maintain a strong self image in relation to his peers which necessitated him being dependent on no-one and maintaining respect by means of controlling others.

Personality disorder is very relevant to some sexual and violent offending and you should give this extra attention in your assessment. This is because such offending is always an interpersonal crime in which there is a perpetrator and a victim, and as such, is highly likely to reflect some aspect of the individual’s personality difficulties. The perpetrator-victim relationship may be:

  1. Symbolic

That is, held in the perpetrator’s mind outside of conscious awareness

Peter (who is discussed further in chapter four), was a high risk paedophile with a number of pubescent male victims. He was thought to have a number of narcissistic and antisocial personality characteristics. In interview he would assert that he was ‘in love’ with his young male victims, and that there was no question of abusing them. Yet it was clear from the assessment that Peter had no understanding of the victims as individuals with their own separate identity, and no real affection for them. He viewed them as rather idealised objects of innocence and purity, and assaulting them, felt he was recapturing something of his idealised youth.

  1. Objective and real

That is, with a clear and conscious targeting of the victim based on his or her characteristics.

For example, consider a domestic violence offender who himself witnessed chronic violence between his own parents, and grew up unable to cope with the feelings of fear and vulnerability which these experiences had provoked in him. He was repeatedly drawn to needy women with whom he forged intense dependent relationships; such attachments provoked feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. He would control and abuse his partners in an attempt to avoid abandonment.

  1. A displacement of painful emotional states

That is, have their origin in actual experiences originating in early life or in failed adult romantic relationships.

If we return again to Billy, he was recently convicted of indecent assault on a woman unknown to him. The offence took place after he had been chatting to the victim in a night club; he was drunk, and after she left, he followed her, hoping that she was interested in him and would respond to his advances. After following her for 50 metres, he came up beside her and commented on her “nice tits”. Frightened, she told him to “f*** off”, whereupon he became enraged and grabbed her breast, knocking her over. Billy’s account, was that he was feeling lonely, wanted to find a relationship, and was attracted to the woman who he believed was attracted to him. He admitted being drunk and misjudging the situation, but was annoyed by her response to his advances. However, an understanding of his developmental history which can be viewed here would suggest that the offence revealed something of the complexity of his relationship with his mother – the longing for closeness coupled with a rage at her abandonment of him – which went far beyond his conscious understanding of what had occurred.

Linking an understanding of the attachment issues to the offending behaviour enables the assessor to develop a better understanding of the individual which risk assessment instruments alone – based as they are on group statistics – are unable to achieve. Identifying the particular characteristics of an offender, and the subtle as well as the obvious triggers to offending, assists in the development of a well targeted risk management plan.