When the notorious Calabrian criminal Giuseppe Villella died, Cesare Lombroso, Italian criminologist and physician, performed a post mortem on him. Lombroso discovered that Villella had an indentation at the back of his skull similar to those found in apes. Like an epiphany that takes your life in a new direction, Lombroso wrote: “At the sight of that skull, I seemed to see all of a sudden, lighted up as a vast plain under a flaming sky, the problem of the nature of the criminal – an atavistic being who reproduces in his person the ferocious instincts of primitive humanity and the inferior animals.” And with one skull, Lombroso concluded that some people were born with an inclination towards crime as they were savage throwbacks to early man.
Lombroso, today known as the father of modern criminology, began making a list of those characteristics he felt were typical of born criminals such as an asymmetrical face, drooping eyes, excessively long arms, big ears, large jaws, and protruding chins. The painter Edgar Degas was fascinated by Lombroso’s theories and found them a stimulus for his artwork.
Degas was fixated with young ballerinas. And looking at the paintings he made of them, one initially gets the impression that their lives were full of grace and glamour. On stage they were magnifique but once the curtain came down, these young girls returned to their life of poverty, exploitation, and hazardous working conditions.
The younger dancers were often known as “petits rats” and often expected to offer themselves sexually to the wealthy male subscribers of the Paris Opera. One of these dancers was Marie van Goethem. History might have totally forgotten her had it not been for Degas. Degas often used her as a model but it is the sculpture he made of her that’s most remembered.
The title of the sculpture is La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans (Little Dancer of Fourteen Years). Time has mellowed out its impact but when it was first exhibited, it shocked the public. Her protruding chin was, according to Lombrosian Theory, a clear indication of depravity. Furthermore, the statue had been placed under glass as if a medical specimen.
Poor little Marie, once she lost her little girl look, patrons of the Paris Opera were no longer interested in her and, more than likely, she finished her life as a prostitute.
In the late 1970s, about a hundred years later after Lombroso’s “epiphany”, the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit began studying psychopaths and serial killers. John Edward Douglas, Robert K. Ressler, and Ann W. Burgess were part of the original team. The intent was to find out what common characteristics criminals had in order to predict their next move. And to do so, they interviewed criminals and invented a method of documenting those personal characteristics that probably led them towards crime. The childhood of these criminals shared many common denominators: trauma, abuse, dysfunctional families, poverty and the humiliation it produced. In other words, emotional malnourishment seemed to be the leading factor in creating a criminal.
Whereas Degas was painting young girls with creepy undertones, his friend and fellow painter, Mary Cassatt, was celebrating mothers and children. Cassatt’s paintings are about capturing everyday moments full of tenderness and love. In the painting above, a mother lovingly bathes her child permitting them to share an intimate moment of mutual nourishment. Isn’t this what childhood should be about?
Instead of fixating on predicting criminal behaviour, wouldn’t it be better to focus on preventing it? If we know that a dysfunctional childhood can provoke criminal behaviour, shouldn’t we as a society try to ensure that all our children have the same condition of possibility to lead a healthy life both physically and psychologically? Instead of investing in prisons, shouldn’t we be investing in our schools where qualified professionals are present to be on the lookout for children at risk? And knowing that a child’s home life plays a major role in his psychological development, shouldn’t we try to help those parents drowning in their own psychological despair and inadequacy that they are unable to help their own children because they can’t even help themselves?
We should be less concerned with punishment and more with prevention. And the best way to do this is by providing care for a wounded psyche before a scar is formed.
An adult can never escape his childhood because your childhood follows you wherever you go.
Related: The Story Behind Degas’ ‘Little Dancer’ Is Disturbing, But Not In the Way You Expect + A short history of the modern western jaw: from Aristotle’s physiognomy to facial biometrics + The ‘born criminal’? Lombroso and the origins of modern criminology + CESARE LOMBROSO: THEORY OF CRIME, CRIMINAL MAN, AND ATAVISM + The Impact of Criminal Anthropology in Britain (1880-1918) + What Type of Criminal Are You? 19th-Century Doctors Claimed to Know by Your Face + Criminal Physiognomies by Edward Degas reproduction found HERE + Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection book review + Degas’s dancers are studies in cruel reality. But don’t go thinking he felt compassion for them + Iconographic Interpretations +
Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit + Crazy, Not Insane, movie book, Dorothy Otnow Lewis + ‘They were not born evil’: inside a troubling film on why people kill + criminologist Dr Adrian Raine, From Abused Child to Serial Killer + Jim Fallon, Life as a Nonviolent Psychopath + The criminal gene: the link between MAOA and aggression
Almost Three Quarters of US States Have More Prisons and Jails than Degree-Granting Colleges + The US has more jails than colleges (WAPO) + incarceration is not proving to be the solution, Arrests for Low-Level Crimes Climb Under NYC Mayor Eric Adams