A new book by Otterbein University Professor Robert N. Kraft presents a compelling study of how ordinary people commit extraordinary acts of violence and how perpetrators and victims manage in the aftermath. Violent Accounts: Understanding the Psychology of Perpetrators through South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
was released by New York University Press on March 21.
“Instances of widespread cruelty and violence occur in the world on a regular basis, and each time we hear about them, they seem shocking and inexplicable,” said Kraft, a professor of cognitive psychology at Otterbein. “To me, one of the great problems for psychology is to understand how people can commit such destructive acts of violence. This book reveals what actually went through the minds of violent perpetrators – in their own words – as they tell about their destructive actions of the past. It also tells how victims and perpetrators try to reconcile in the aftermath of such violence.”
Drawing on public testimony from the amnesty hearings of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the book interweaves testimony from 74 violent perpetrators in apartheid South Africa, including direct interactions between victims and perpetrators.
Perpetrators include cabinet ministers and generals to field commanders and cell leaders to the foot soldiers who followed orders and carried out the destructive actions. Their testimony reveals the individual experiences of perpetrators as well as general patterns of influence that lead to collective violence.
“One surprise for me was how quickly people can be shaped to commit violence for a cause – to kill and torture other human beings without regard for their suffering,” said Kraft. “The book also shows how it is possible to reshape violent offenders and to encourage understanding between former enemies.”
Vivid and accessible, Violent Accounts is a work of innovative scholarship that transcends particulars to reveal broader themes and unexpected insights about perpetrators of collective violence, the confrontations between victims and perpetrators in the aftermath of this violence, the reality of multiple truths, the complexities of reconciliation, and lessons of restorative justice.
After receiving his doctorate at the University of Minnesota, Kraft worked as a decision analyst in Washington, D.C., and then taught at Grinnell College and Otterbein, conducting research on film, perception, autobiographical memory, emotion, and oral testimony. His 2002 book, Memory Perceived, documents patterns of deeply traumatic memory in Holocaust survivors. He teaches courses on memory, personality, cognition, violence, research methods, and the self.
Donald Foster of the University of Cape Town called Violent Accounts, “A sophisticated and impressive study…. It adds considerably to our knowledge of perpetrators of violence as well as the process of restorative justice.”
Roy F. Baumeister, author of Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, said the book, “Provides a compelling and fascinating glimpse into the mental states of people who commit heinous, morally shocking crimes…. Promotes a profound understanding of what human beings are capable of doing – and of how they do things that in retrospect are indefensible. This book is a great contribution to the psychology of what drives typical, well-meaning individual human beings to perpetrate evil.”
Mary Brydon-Miller of the University of Cincinnati called the book, “A signature contribution to the literature on the phenomenology of memory and on the psychology of violence…. a must-read for policy makers….”
Violent Accounts can be purchased at amazon.com and nyupress.org.