When Ten Year Olds Turn Killers – The Case of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson

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The case of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson is well known, so it is not necessary to go into details about it here. Suffice it to say, they were both, at the age of ten, found guilty of abducting and murdering the two year old James Bulger.

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Above: Artist’s impression of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in court with their legal representatives.

Surprisingly, there seems to have been little media interest in examining the early life experiences of either of the two boys who were prosecuted for the crime, so, in this article, I will look at the environments in which they grew up in order to establish if it is possible to find some clues as to what caused their deeply aberrant behaviour.

Clearly, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had profoundly intense pent-up anger which they displaced, in a most shocking way, onto the toddler, James Bulger, whom they abducted. But from where did this anger originate? In order to answer this question, it seems common sense to look at their respective home backgrounds.

Robert Thompson had six siblings and it has been written that both he and they were neglected. Furthermore, Robert’s father left the family home when the young boy was just five years old; and this, it seemed, exacerbated his mother’s drinking problem. At one point, too, she attempted to commit suicide.

On top of this, Robert’s father was violent, and, before he left his family, had frequently behaved in a threatening and intimidating way towards Robert, and had also physically punished him on regular occasions.

It appears that due to this extremely stressful environment, all the children in the family became disturbed, taking out their anguish on one another – they would, for example, threaten one another with knives.

Indeed, the family was so disrupted, chaotic and unhappy that one child asked to be taken into care. When he later had to come back to the family home, such was his distress that he attempted suicide.

One point, in particular, I think, goes to show  the extreme extent to which Robert’s mother neglected him : she was rarely with him to provide emotional support on the many days that it was necessary for him to attend court.

Jon Venable’s family, too, was deeply unhappy and unstable – indeed, this state of affairs had led his parents to divorce. His mother, it seems, was something of a narcissist (click here to read my article on narcissism) and was, apparently, far more concerned about her love-life (she had a constant stream of boyfriends) than she was with looking after Jon. She also suffered from mental health problems (predominantly depression) and, like the mother of Robert, had attempted to commit suicide.

Jon was frightened of his mother as she could behave menacingly towards him – he would, for example, take refuge by hiding underneath chairs. More worrying still, he would cut himself with knives (click here to read my article on the relationship between childhood trauma and self-harming).

Together, Jon and Robert would be absent from school without permission. They would shop-lift and become involved in violent incidents. They had also displayed cruelty towards animals – shooting pigeons with air rifles and tying rabits to railway lines so that they were run over by the trains. Such cruelty towards animals is known to be one of the risk factors which predict the development of anti-social personality disorder (sometimes referred to as psychopathy) in adult life (click here to read my article on the link between childhood trauma and the development of anti-social personality disorder).

POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF ENVIRONMENT ON THE BRAIN DEVELOPMENT OF ROBERT THOMPSON AND JON VENABLES :

The healthy development of a region of the brain called the PREFRONTAL CORTEX depends, to a large degree, upon the child experiencing warm, loving, affectionate relationships as he grows up. Jon and Robert were deprived of this which, in turn, is likely to have damaged the development of these brain regions (essentially, without these positive relationships, the brain does not produce enough OPIATES which are needed for the proper development of the particular brain area).

The Prefrontal Cortex :

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The above diagram shows the position in the brain of the prefrontal cortex – it is this area which was possibly damaged in both Robert Thompson and Jon Venables

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for self-control, empathy and the regulation of strong emotions such as anger. If, then, Jon’s and Robert’s prefrontal cortices were not properly developed, this would provide at least part of the explanation as to why they behaved as they did.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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