Beth Thomas was just six years old when she reportedly began acting out her psychopathic fantasies. First, she has said, she abused her pet dog. Then she allegedly murdered some young birds. After that, her mother caught her smashing the head of her younger brother John on the floor in the basement – and Beth injured John so badly that he needed stitches on his chin. But things became even more disturbing when Beth supposedly stole some knives from the family kitchen…
And when therapist Ken Magid interviewed Beth about her behavior for the making of the 1990-released HBO documentary Child of Rage: A Story of Abuse, it seemed that the child did indeed have murderous intentions. Naturally, then, some of the scenes in the film may have left viewers shocked.
Apparently, at the time, Beth was suffering from a rare psychological condition called “reactive attachment disorder” (RAD). As a result, she was seemingly incapable of giving or receiving love and did not have a conscience – thus leaving her free to act out her most violent impulses. Indeed, according to this diagnosis, Beth could, if she wished, kill her brother or her parents without a shred of guilt or shame.
Lack of empathy and remorselessness are in fact classic symptoms of psychopathy. Others include boldness – that is, an above-normal ability to tolerate stress and fear – and disinhibition, including weak impulse control. Technically, however, although psychopathy is a personality disorder, children are typically excluded from being labeled as psychopaths. Instead, those under 18 exhibiting disturbing behaviors are often deemed to be diagnosed with “conduct disorder.” And, in turn, this may develop into full-blown “anti-social personality disorder” – closely linked to what has been termed psychopathy – in adulthood.
Meanwhile, in RAD, anti-social behaviors can include hurting people, animals or oneself. Other symptoms include an aversion to comfort and affection, apathy and social awkwardness. Above all, the condition reflects problematic relationships with parents or caregivers, as its name suggests.
And RAD itself appears to be caused by early childhood experiences of abuse or neglect – although it only seems to occur in a minority of such cases. It appears that abusive, disrupted or unresponsive caregiving can sometimes interfere with a child’s ability to form healthy attachments, and this can result in abnormal interpersonal behavior. However, relatively little is known about adult sufferers of the disorder.
Screened as part of HBO’s “America Undercover” series, Child of Rage examined RAD through a series of interviews with Beth. In particular, the documentary gave viewers a glimpse into the apparently disturbed inner workings of the youngster’s mind. And in one notably difficult-to-watch segment, the film seemingly gave an explanation for why she had developed the disorder.
Beth had been 19 months old when she was adopted by Tim and Julie Thomas through the Department of Social Services. Meanwhile, Jonathan, who had been adopted with her, was aged seven months. But even though authorities had reportedly informed the couple that the children were healthy, this wasn’t entirely true. Jonathan’s skull was misshapen from him having been left face-up for long periods of time, for example, while Beth appeared to show indications that she had been sexually abused.
Allegedly, Beth’s biological dad had molested her up to the point in which she was taken into care. Her biological mother had also died when the little girl was just one. And while Beth’s trauma had manifested as nightmares initially, later she reportedly started to sexually abuse her own brother. Her behavior is said to have subsequently become even more violent and inappropriate. And eventually, for Jonathan’s safety, Tim and Julie had to lock their daughter in her room at night.
“This kind of aggression on our animals and even on her brother, Jonathan, was beginning to grow to such an excess that our life was miserable at home,” Tim explains in Child of Rage. And as neither he nor Julie appeared to be able to control Beth – let alone heal her – they decided to seek the help of Connell Watkins, a therapist who specialized in problems with proper attachment.
Subsequently, Watkins put Beth through a much-criticized type of treatment called attachment therapy. Also known as “compression therapy” and “the Evergreen model,” the discipline was developed in the 1970s by child psychiatrist Foster Cline and his colleagues. Attachment therapy is practiced primarily by a handful of establishments in Colorado.
Practitioners of attachment therapy claim that inhibited feelings of anger prevent a child from forming healthy parental attachments, and so the program attempts to release this rage in a controlled setting. This catharsis then supposedly reduces the child to a state of infantile submission in which they can be “re-parented.” And “holding therapy,” during which the subject is physically restrained, accosted and urged to act out, can be one of the techniques used to achieve this goal.
Furthermore, attachment therapy takes inspiration from psychoanalytic ideas regarding suppressed anger, regression and ways of dealing with distressing situations or feelings. In practice, it resembles the “rage-reduction” treatment invented by Robert Zaslow in the 1960s to help deal with autism. At that time, there was an unproven theory that autism was caused by maternal attachment issues – although that particular hypothesis has since fallen out of favor.
Likewise, attachment therapy has been criticized as pseudoscience, and some of its techniques are considered coercive and potentially dangerous. In fact, attachment therapy has reportedly been implicated in at least six deaths. And in 2006 the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children issued a Task Force Report that took a dim view of the practice.
As for Beth’s treatment in a residential facility? Well, it apparently involved substantial amounts of discipline. “We’re very strict,” Watkins says in Child of Rage. “Everything is completely monitored. We take complete control. Because a child who is unattached does not trust. And because they don’t trust, they don’t allow anybody to be the boss of them. So we take complete control. They are not the boss of anything.”
And Beth appeared to have benefited from the therapy; after a year, she had seemingly been transformed. She now had a conscience, understood right from wrong and even sang in a church choir. She also expressed regret for how she had hurt her brother.
“She has a heart, and she has a love inside, and she feels bad when she does something now,” Watkins claims in Child of Rage. “I believe that Beth can make it. She’s got a bright mind… [She’s] done a lot of healing. She’s got a really super set of parents – they’re powerful, they’re knowledgeable, they’re motivated… [and] she wants to heal.”
Indeed, nearly 30 years since the airing of Child of Rage, Beth appears to have matured into a normal, healthy adult. In fact, she is now employed as a nurse. She has also co-written a book called More Than a Thread of Hope and treats children with RAD via her firm Families by Design.
Watkins, however, has not fared so well, having been sentenced to spend seven years in prison for killing a child in 2000. During a “rebirthing” session that was observed by the girl’s adoptive mother, ten-year-old Candace Newmaker was accidentally suffocated to death. Before losing her life, Newmaker had reportedly screamed numerous times during the rebirthing that she was “going to die.”
And while Beth may have appeared cruel and callous in Child of Rage, today it appears that the documentary’s subject has made a success of her life. This seemingly goes to show, then, that while children robbed of their innocence can degenerate into anger and violence, they can also heal and move on.