Seeing crime in a new light
Being robbed at gunpoint opened my eyes to one of the most critical needs in our response to crime: healing the lasting emotional wounds experienced by victims
By Arthur J. Lurigio (PhD ’84), Professor of Criminal Justice and Psychology
On a sultry evening in the summer after I completed my freshman year of college, I was the victim of an aggravated robbery. It was a Tuesday night—July 17, 1973, to be exact—and the day’s temperature remained oppressive long after the sun had set. I was on the walkway on the south side of my parents’ home, where I had played blissfully as a child, tossing a baseball and riding my bike back and forth. Until that day I’d had wonderful memories of that place and felt utterly safe there. Then a five-minute episode permanently changed my perception.
My perpetrators ran up to me in the dark gangway. By the time I heard the footsteps, the guns were already pointed at me. One of the gunmen pressed the barrel of his gun flush against my temple, and the weapon felt hard and cold on my sweaty forehead. Early studies of eyewitness memory have found that robbery victims concentrate more on the guns than the faces of the robbers, and that was true for me; I have a clear memory of the .38-caliber revolvers but only a vague memory of the perpetrators.
Robberies develop instantaneously, and the victim has no time to prepare for the shocking violation of their person. In my case, it all felt surreal. My sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body for a fight or flight or freeze response to perceived threats to safety, went into high gear. Though I felt a sense of unreality about what was transpiring outside of me, I had a keen sense of awareness of what was transpiring inside—rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, shallow breathing.
My options were limited. I was wedged into a corner with a gate against my side and a building at my back: no flight. My attackers were tall, muscular men with guns pointed at my head: no fight. With only one option left, I froze. The assailants screamed repeatedly at me in rapid succession: “Get your hands up!” One of them snatched my watch off my wrist. The other took my ring—a keepsake that was worth little, but had been my father’s as a young man. I wore it every day to feel close to him. They emptied my pockets of two dollars and took my wallet, which had nothing of value (no credit cards) but contained my driver’s license and school ID card, which later cost hours of effort to replace.
Robbery is the quintessential urban crime, involving an unprovoked surprise attack on an innocent victim by strangers. In 9 out of 10 cases, men are the perpetrators. They generally are young, with histories of violent crime and addiction. Unlike the perpetrators of theft and burglary, who take property by stealth and have no contact with victims, robbery offenders insert themselves immediately into their victims’ personal space. They stalk and pounce in a lightning-quick attack, which renders most victims shocked and disorientated.
The prospect of a robbery is fear-inducing, and keeps many people, especially older residents, indoors at night. In many cases, like that of my own victimization, the features of a robbery constitute a serious and potentially physically or psychologically harmful experience. And the presence of guns during the commission of a crime, as well as the victim’s belief that his or her life is in peril, both strongly increase the likelihood that the victim will suffer psychological symptoms in the aftermath of a crime.
My risk as a potential robbery victim was moderate. I was a college student with a 4.0 GPA whose friends were all either in college or the workforce. I had never been in trouble at school or with the police, and my parents’ home was in a low-crime neighborhood. Even so, I was a young man (a high-risk group for violent crime) and I was out after midnight (a high-risk time). Moreover, Chicago was at the surging front edge of a 25-year crime wave. In the year I was robbed, 6,500 suspects were arrested for robbery, and more than 23,000 robberies were reported in Chicago. The following year, Chicago recorded the highest number of homicides in the city’s history: 970.
For me, the most stressful aspect of the incident came when the assailants insisted on me letting them into my parents’ home. Presumably, and expectedly, they were frustrated with their meager take: two dollars, an empty wallet, and an inexpensive watch and ring. I surmised that the robbers were calculating actors, and I remained outwardly composed but inwardly roiled as I informed them of the costs and benefits of home invasion. In so many words, my story was that the residents of the home—my mom, dad, aunt, and uncle—owned nothing of value (only partly true, as I grew up wanting nothing). I impressed on them that the benefits of a break-in would be low. I also told the robbers my father had a loaded gun at his bedside (partially true, as my father had my great-grandfather’s pistol somewhere in the house, probably unloaded) and was a decorated marksman in the army and willing to shoot to protect his family (completely true). So the risks of a break-in would be high. I was relieved when they told me to walk to the alley and wait a few minutes before entering the house. I was left physically—but not emotionally—unharmed.
Though they never entered the house, the robbers’ violation of my home—a space where fewer than 20 percent of all robberies take place—transformed a safe and familiar haven to a place corrupted by a sense of loss and violation. Those same physiological responses triggered by the nervous system to transform us into fiercer combatants or faster runners in the face of danger can also help to sear traumatic memories into our brains, forcing us to remember horrible events so we can avoid them in the future. For me, the crime was something that haunted me. But also served as an inspiration for my life’s work.
Despite the serious nature of robberies, only 60 percent are reported to the police nationwide. Even fewer are reported in the most violent communities, where most robberies are committed. Fear of offender retaliation and the belief that the police will do nothing to solve the crimes are two of the many reasons these crimes are often unreported.
When I entered my house after the robbery, I recounted the incident to my family. My mother and aunt were quite shaken but supportive, my uncle was quiet, and my dad was seething. He did have my great-grandfather’s gun, and he took it out into the street. But the offenders were long gone. My dad quickly realized the futility of his manhunt and returned home, still seething. We called the police, and after a long wait they came. I was struck by the officers’ nonchalance, failing to comprehend that I was not a special case—merely one of 23,000 robbery victims that year. I wanted the officers to be outraged; instead, they were businesslike. They told us that the young men had been seen in the neighborhood attempting to break into garages and cars. I described what ensued, and they left with no promises.
I had trouble sleeping that night, and for several nights thereafter. For weeks—long into the fall, when I started school again—I had reoccurring and intrusive thoughts about the experience. I was anxious in the walkway and avoided the spot where the crime transpired, especially at night. Simply put, I experienced the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980 but had long been referenced in the clinical case histories of returning war veterans and was later used to explicate the emotional turmoil suffered by victims of rape, natural disasters, and severe accidents. My symptoms gradually remitted, but the trauma sparked an abiding curiosity that defined some of my earliest intellectual pursuits.
As the attitude of the police officers who visited my house showed, criminal victimization is common in the United States. Each year, tens of millions of Americans become victims of violent, property, and other types of crime. Nonetheless, relatively little is known about the fluctuating nature of criminal victimization, which has waxed and waned since the first systematic collection of crime data. Knowledge about crime types and trends can support the development of solutions and the evaluation of their effectiveness, but aggregate crime data reflect nothing about the considerable and lifelong pain and suffering of crime victims and their loved ones.
Most people ignore crime-related statistics; still, they pay close attention to vividly portrayed incidents of crimes on the local news. What these stories typically fail to communicate is that the end of a crime incident is usually only the beginning of victim suffering.
Dealing with trauma
The trauma of violent victimization changes people’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions, behaviors, and self-images. Victims of serious crime view the chronology of their lives as falling into two periods: “before the crime” and “after the crime.”
I learned a lot from my robbery. In retrospect, I believe the awful encounter implicitly influenced the course of my research. Ten years after the incident, I was a junior faculty member at Northwestern University, where I became interested in studying criminal victimization. I applied my training as a psychologist to help implement and evaluate crime victim service programs and to train police officers to be more sensitive and responsive to crime victims. I studied victims of robbery, burglary, and battery to identify the predictors of symptoms in the aftermath of victimization, yet until I wrote this article, I never made a direct connection between my own victimization and my intellectual pursuits, which of course were also a function of many other factors.
Unexpectedly, my post-victimization experiences aligned with the results of my studies involving hundreds of crime victims. For example, nobody blamed me for my victimization. Thus, I found it easier to refrain from blaming myself.
Self-blame is a highly significant predictor of symptoms in the aftermath of crime. Victims who think they were attacked due to flaws in their judgment or character have a difficult time coping with their trauma. They struggle with feelings of guilt and low self-esteem, which exacerbate their depression and anxiety. In my counseling of crime victims and developing programs to address their emotional needs, I underscored the importance of reducing self-blame. I shifted thoughts of self-blame and eventually redirected my cognitions to the real onus of the crime: the offenders.
At first, I was enraged at them. I later became inquisitive: Who are they? Where did they grow up? What drove them to violence? Did they feel any empathy toward their victims? I ask these same questions today in my research with young men living in Chicago’s most violent communities.
In the days and weeks after the crime, I distracted myself by thinking about how the robbery could have been much worse. As my research later showed, I was engaging in a therapeutic exercise known as cognitive reframing or downward comparisons. The incident was quite stressful and disruptive. Notwithstanding, I was alive and uninjured. I had lost little. My cheap watch was replaceable, and my dad gave me a new ring that I treasure. Most important, my family was safe.
People who suffer from a variety of tragedies cope more effectively if they think about what did not happen but could have. For example, tornado victims who express relief because no one was injured even though their homes were leveled are engaging in a downward comparison. Victims of violent crime should be encouraged to think about worst-case scenarios, which can help them gain a healthier perspective. A serious caveat: spending too much time vividly imaging more horrific consequences can backfire, worsening anxiety and sleep problems. The trick is to consider what actually happened as an event with ultimately good outcomes, all things considered. Occasional fantasies of my assailants pulling the trigger made me panicky; intrusive thoughts were painful and unavoidable in the days after.
To lessen the occurrence of these visualizations, I used thought stoppage and replacement. I turned to meditation, which I practiced between classes. I focused on what I could learn from the event. Likewise, victims often glean inspiration and meaning from their losses and injuries. Veterans who lose a leg in battle run marathons with a prosthesis and relish a great sense of accomplishment and a reconstituted self-image.
Despite my initial belief that I had little control over my fate, I began to view the world and myself in more positive ways. I realized that my negotiating calmly with the robbers indicated that I indeed had control in the situation. They did not harm me or force their way into my house. Maybe my talking with them had little influence over their behavior. It did not matter, though, because I believed it did, and that belief empowered me. I gained confidence in my capacity to change people, which is a good foundation for a budding psychologist.
The best victim service programs are targeted to the specific needs of crime victims, which can vary greatly depending on the nature and seriousness of their victimization and the extent of their physical injuries, medical costs, psychological harm, and property loss. Some victims need their locks replaced or their windows boarded up after a burglary. Others need help paying the bills for medical and rehabilitative procedures following severe injuries. Still others, like me, can benefit from short-term therapy, or crisis management, which would have probably helped me cope more effectively after the crime.
Immediate treatment in the aftermath of violent crime can forestall the eruption of full-blown symptoms of PTSD largely through the techniques described above, which fall under the rubric of cognitive behavioral therapy. However, shooting and sexual violence victims require longer-term services, and might not ever fully recover from their physical and emotional injuries.
Crime and communities
A critical mass of victimizations in a neighborhood alters the character of the community itself. Law-abiding residents with middle-class financial resources and sensibilities are the first to move out. Those who remain stop socializing in public places. Less sidewalk traffic results in fewer opportunities to communicate with neighbors, and fewer people on the street makes the streets more dangerous, since there is no one to report illegal or disorderly activities. The social fabric of the neighborhood—its solidarity, community identity, and collective efficacy—begins to erode and finally tears altogether, fostering more decay, decline, and neglect. People stop shopping at local stores, declining numbers of customers cause business closures. As the social structure begins to crumble, so, too, does the economic structure.
For decades, and particularly since the 1960s, sections of Chicago’s West and South Sides have been stuck in a crime-fueled cycle of decay. But while current statistics seem alarming, they are much lower than they were in decades past. As I approach the 44th anniversary of my own victimization, violent crime in the United States as a whole is relatively low compared with the unprecedented levels seen in the 1970s through the mid-1990s. But Chicago is still grappling with shootings and murders every day.
The effects of a single serious crime often spread from victims to their partners, family members, neighbors, friends, fellow students, and co-workers. Through this process, known as vicarious victimization, simply hearing about the victimization of others can make people feel more vulnerable. The closer direct or indirect witnesses are to victims, the more the witnesses begin to fear crime, and the more their fear spreads to others. Thus, although violent crime has been decreasing steadily for the past 25 years, fear of crime has not declined at the same rate. This is largely due to the media’s unrelenting coverage of crime, especially the most violent, unexpected, and horrific episodes.
The solutions to violence are complicated, and require fundamental changes in the socioeconomic status and belief systems of young men living in the city’s poorest communities. My own robbery experience enhanced my compassion for the suffering of crime victims. But the needs of those victims are too often overlooked in the sensational crime stories that make the news. A better understanding of how to help victims in the months and years after a crime can go a long way in helping them heal—and in strengthening our communities.
Psychologist, professor, and senior associate dean for faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences Arthur J. Lurigio (PhD '84) is a leading criminal justice expert who has been quoted in numerous local, national, and international news outlets. He has served as Faculty Scholar and Master Researcher of the College of Arts and Sciences, received the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Career Award, and served as president of the Illinois Academy of Criminology for three years, where he remains a vital contributor.