Violence Center: Psychotechnology for Repression

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Violence Center: Psychotechnology for Repression

by Al Huebner & Terry Kupers

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 6, No. 3, May 1974, p. 17 – 21

A multi-million dollar proposal for a “Center for the Study and Reduction of Violence” (CSRV) at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI) has been designed to focus on the “pathologically violent individual” and, in the words of its main proponent, is aimed at “altering undesirable behavior.” In this time of psychosurgery, (remote controlled) electrical stimulation of the brain, chemotherapies and prison “behavior modification” programs, there is real danger that mind-control practices are replacing less sophisticated physical approaches to enforced conformity or repression. In this context, violence centers like the one at UCLA serve to give scientific legitimacy to such forms of repression.  

The history and background of CSRV provide a framework in which to analyse the use of psychotechnology as an instrument of repression. However good the intentions of some staff members at NPI, the Center represents another attempt to implement the Law and Order philosophy, in a subtle, but nevertheless dangerous, form. The research proposed would justify replacing the publicly-visible brutality used at places like Attica with highly sophisticated mind control techniques, blunting the thrust of dissidence by labeling it mental illness. Not only would this research lead to a medical model of violence which ignores the social context, it would use the most glaring elements of repression in this society—racism, sexism, exploitation of the poor—to accomplish this goal. 

The history of the Center can logically be traced back to 1967. Following the Detroit ghetto rebellion of that year, Drs. Mark, Sweet and Ervin, two neurosurgeons and a psychiatrist, wrote a letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association1… It read, in part:

…if slum conditions alone determined and initiated riots. why are the vast majority of slum dwellers able to resist the temptations of unrestrained violence? Is there something peculiar about the violent slum dweller that differentiates him from his peaceful neighbor? …It would be of more than passing interest to find what percentage of the attempted and completed murders committed during the recent wave of riots were done without a motive… We need intensive research and clinical studies of the individuals committing the violence. The goal of such studies would be to pinpoint, diagnose and treat these people with low violence thresholds before they contribute to further tragedies.

These remarks exhibit a tortured logic. In speaking of “attempted and completed murders committed during the recent wave of riots,” Mark, Sweet and Ervin ignore the fact that virtually all of the killings were of ghetto residents by policemen. In Detroit, the notable murders were the unprovoked shootings of unarmed and, in some cases, bound black men 2. In the Watts rebellion, 29 blacks were killed by policemen, but no policemen were killed by black men and women. None of these killings were “without a motive” in the sense that Mark, Sweet and Ervin use the term.

However twisted its logic, the letter helped develop a new dimension to the Law and Order concept. As a result of its publication, Drs. Ervin and Mark received a grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) of the Justice Department. The proposal for the grant included screening population groups in prisons and on the streets in a search for “brain damaged” potential rioters, and developing surgical and electrical methods of treatment that might be used on these people3. Dr. Sweet, chief neurosurgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, received half a million dollars from the National Institute of Mental Health to research the same topic. That grant has since been discontinued in the midst of controversy and irregularities in the practices of Dr. Ervin’s group.

Dr. Frank Ervin became a faculty member at NPI at about the time that its Director was first suggesting establishment of the Violence Center. The proposal to establish CSRV focused on the “pathologically violent individual,” looking mainly to biological aspects of violent behavior and including prospects for surgical “treatment.” Two of the proposed projects were to be directed by Ervin. Most of the projects reflect an attitude which tends to play down all social causes for crime, violence, and rebellion and imply by its one-sided emphasis on the individual and biology that the only way to prevent violence is to get at the malfunctioning brain that causes it.

As a result of public protest against the Center by staff members at NPI, other professionals, and student and concerned groups (e.g. NAACP, ACLU, Prisoners’ Unions, MCHR and many others),* funding of the Center was repeatedly delayed and the proposal had to be revised. Later drafts which were made public included a categorical denial that any surgery would be done in relation to the Center’s functioning. Ervin’s name had been removed from the proposal, but the projects that bore his name and ideas remained, with others named as investigators. According to one critic of the Center, UCLA faculty member and psychoanalyst Isidore Ziferstein, the successive drafts were merely “launderings” to make a dangerous proposal more palatable to the public. He cited the lip service given to social factors in the introduction to later drafts while the projects themselves remained unchanged in substance. 

Other “laundering” attempts have been made by proponents of the Center in an effort to appear to be, if not in fact to be, responsive to public criticism. Thus a Section on Law and Ethics was appointed, to be headed by a 30-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department. When critics questioned his appropriateness, he was dropped in favor of Richard Wasserstrom, Professor of Law and Philosophy at UCLA. Wasserstrom soon quit, however, stating in a letter to State Senator Beilenson (Aug. 8, 1973): 

…it is now my personal belief that it would be undesirable for the Center to be funded. In part this view is based upon the difficulty that the Center personnel have had in formulating and presenting a consistent. coherent and defensible conception of the Center. In part this view is based upon doubts I have about the adequacy of the proposed safeguards against certain kinds of improper experimentation; and in part this view is based upon my belief that the creation of the Center may very well be misused by those outside the University as confirmation of their view of what is the answer to the problem of violence in our culture. 

The question of controls and safeguards raised by Wasserstrom remains unanswered. Peer review has still not been established and effective community involvement and accountability have been ruled out. The proposal suggests that a community advisory committee with no real power be appointed by the Center. When a proposal put forward by the staff of the Center itself that the community select its own committee and that this committee be given significant say as to what is done at the Center, UCLA chancellor Charles Young vetoed the plan, claiming such responsiveness to the community would violate “academic freedom.”

Wasserstrom’s statement expressed fear of misuse of the Center “by those outside the University as confirmation of their view of what is the answer to the problem of violence in our culture.” An identification of the Center’s chief proponents outside the University illustrates the firm ground on which his fears rest.

The first public mention of the Center was made by Governor Ronald Reagan of California in his “State of the State” message in January 1973. Reagan, whose advocacy of a “law and order” approach to social issues is well known, announced the need for such a Center to deal with the increasing incidence of violence. At a time when Reagan in California, and Nixon nationally, were cutting back funds for medical research and treatment, the proposed Center was to receive 1.5 million dollars for the first year, one-half to come from State Health and Welfare funds and one-half to come from LEAA. Concurrently, a “get tough” policy was announced by the California State Department of Corrections stressing punishment of prisoners and protection of society, which rehabilitation assuming lowest priority, and then only for those “amenable to and capable of it”4

This base of political and financial support illustrates the intimate relationship between CSRV and the California law enforcement network. That this did not greatly disturb the upper-level health professionals involved is revealed by a remarkable confidential letter written in January 1973 by Dr. L.J. West. Director of NPI, to Dr. J.M. Stubblebine, Director of the Department of Health. West wrote, concerning a base that the Army might turn over to state or local agencies: 

Such a Nike missile base is located in the Santa Monica Mountains. within a half-hour’s drive of the Neuropsychiatric Institute. It is accessible but relatively remote. The site is securely fenced… If this site were made available to the Neuropsychiatric Institute as a research facility, perhaps initially as an adjunct to the new Center for Prevention of Violence, we could put it to very good use. Comparative studies could be carried out there, in an isolated but convenient location, of experimental or model programs for the alteration of undesirable behavior. Such programs might include control of drug or alcohol abuse, modification of chronic antisocial or impulsive aggressiveness, etc. The site could also accommodate conferences or retreats for instruction of selected groups of mental health related professionals and of others (e.g. law enforcement personnel, parole officers, special educators) for whom both demonstration and participation would be effective modes of instruction.

In the months following the writing of this letter the Center drew increasing criticism. Plans of the Center’s proponents to get their work well started prior to any public notice were dampened by public outcry. In addition to laundering these proposals, they labored at minimizing the appearance of association between the Center and the state law enforcement network. That there has in fact been no change of approach is illustrated by a press release issued in November 1973, by Earl Brian, Secretary of the State Health and Welfare Agency: 

…the “barbaric” slaying of nine people in Victor. California last Wednesday again underscores the need to protect our citizens from violent crimes… Some of these killers have previous records of confinement in our state prisons, or treatment in our community facilities and state mental hospitals. This only re-affirms what we have been saying again and again: currently we do not have the knowledge or expertise to be able to predict violent behavior in individuals. nor do we have a system in law to properly protect the public from potentially violent persons. (The Center, if it is to be worthy of support, must) …furnish law enforcement officials, mental health officials and corrections personnel with realistic methods of detecting and preventing bizarre violent acts… 

The message is clear: to be funded, the Center must provide the state with psychotechnological assistance in creating what one critic has called “a therapeutic police state in which preventive detention will be justified as therapy”5

Of course this study of violence would be selective. The violent acts of some would receive attention while those of others would be ignored. For instance, one stated purpose of the Center would be to become involved in the work and judgements of the courts, where institutional racism is reflected by the presence of a relatively greater number of minority members. Hence the Center would be continuing racist biases in effect, whatever its subjective intent. Prison populations are similarly skewed. Studies of prisoners and inmates of other institutions involve another difficulty—the current impossibility of attaining truly “informed consent” when a person’s options are controlled by the institution itself. Again, in setting up studies of violence in the schools. the Center selects schools in predominantly Black and Chicano neighborhoods. Thus, poor and minority populations are continually subjected to the research. 

Violence is very real. Its impact on our lives is great and should not be played down. We can agree fully with those who say that mental health workers and others ought to involve themselves with the problem of violence. But is the one-sided approach represented by the Center valid? Or does it merely further repressive, racist and otherwise destructive ends?

Dr. West requested endorsement of the Center by the Southern California Psychiatric Society (SCPS), a branch of the American Psychiatric Association. Rather than endorsing the Center, the SCPS set up a Task Force on Alternatives to Violence. It examined the proposals carefully and interviewed many “experts” involved. The task force report stated that while not opposed to psychiatric involvement in the study of violence in general, certain safeguards are required in advance against one-sided focus on individuals, possible repressive and racist impact, poor scientific method, lack of meaningful community involvement, denial of rights and unethical practices. On all of these counts, the task force found the UCLA Center lacking and therefore unsupportable. 

The Center would legitimize and give credence to a very specific, though implicit, social philosophy. It would do this in the name of science while denying that any such social impact or its danger exists. The theory of this social philosophy is very familiar: there is nothing basically wrong with society. Violence is caused in the main by certain individuals. All that is necessary is to crack down on them with more police, stricter courts, harsher prisons. Tagging these deviant individuals with clinical labels and then instituting “treatment” rather than punishment makes the approach more palatable, but no less off the mark. 

All of the projects considered in the proposal for creation of the Center place this emphasis on diagnosis and treatment of individuals, profoundly de-emphasizing the social context of violence. In selecting subjects for study, those who have proposed projects have mentioned murder, assasination, sex offenses and skyjacking, all of which are certainly important. But the social roots of violence, such as poverty, poor education, bad housing and unemployment are largely ignored, not to mention the violence of police brutality in the ghetto or of the soldiers who carried rut the My Lai and other massacres. 

The result of this limited perspective is the development of a medical model for violence. Following this model, “sick” individuals are quarantined for treatment by doctors or psychiatrists, while the social, economic and political causes of crime and violence continue to be ignored. 

One very disturbing project in the Center is titled “Estimation of Probability of Repetition or Continuation of Violence.” The presumption of such research is to predict which individuals will be involved in violent acts in the future. Of course there is no scientific way to make such predictions. The danger of such an approach is that errors would be undetectable due to a self-fulfilling prophecy built into the research design. Anyone identified and labeled as “violence prone” would be treated in a special manner, very likely to result implicitly in his or her acting out the prediction. This is a more subtle version of the scenario where courts decide which teenagers are “incorrigible” and then handle them in such a way (e.g. imprisonment) as to insure their incorrigibility. The added dimension to the Violence Center approach would be that it hides such labeling and self-fulfilling prophecies behind the mask of “science.”

Even the less controversial projects must be closely examined. One of these is an investigation of child abuse by adults, e.g. the battered child syndrome. Like the others, it suffers from a narrowness of perspective. Focusing on factors which may cause a parent to beat or maim a child, it ignores widespread institutionalized violence against children, e.g.: 

(1) The damage done by poverty itself to the children of the poor, who have not only to sustain this damage, but also to be labeled mentally inferior6

(2) The violence committed against the large number of children who labor on farms, stripped of most of the legal protections afforded other children, and frequently denied enforcement of what little protection they are left. 

One must also question the merit of funding a project like this when it is weighed against the desperate need for additional child care facilities. Interestingly, review of the actual proposal for this particular project will show it to have little potential for adding to our scientific knowledge. 

What constitutes “aimless” violence’? Historian Jesse Lemisch follows a “rioter” through a rebellion: 

He throws a rock, mutters, runs three blocks, stares, tries to burn a building, moves down the block, looks around, loots. 

How aimless is his violence if we find that he threw a rock at the welfare office, ran harmlessly past three blocks of Negro businesses, burned a chain drug store, and looted a chain supermarket’? 

For many of the reasons outlined here and in response to massive public pressure, the State Legislature in California and the Federal Law Enforcement Assistance Agency have had to pull back immediate funding. The State Legislature had tied up the funds pending future debate. On February 15, 1974, the LEAA announced they would no longer fund medical experimentation, behavior modification, aversive therapies and psychosurgery projects. This is a great setback for the UCLA Center but other funds can be sought. Such events do not represent an end of plans at high levels to utilize psychotechnology in the service of repression. They are merely a retreat in the face of public outrage so that in the future, less crude and objectionable forms of the same strategy can be put forward with less difficulty. 

A clue to this possibility is the recent change of name of the UCLA Center itself. Fearing continued public outcry, proponents of the Center changed its name by incorporating it into the already established “Laboratory for the Study of Life-Threatening Behavior.” There was no real change in the research itself so the change of name can only be an attempt to alter appearance and sidestep public opposition. 


A struggle is presently being waged in court by the mother of a middle-aged engineer who is suing Drs. Vernon Mark and Frank Ervin, both outspoken proponents of the use of lobotomy and other psychosurgical techniques for controlling behavior. The mother of Thomas R. is suing these doctors for $2 million for performing brain surgery on her son, who has been used by them as an example of the success of their techniques for curbing violent behavior. What the case history of Thomas R. ‘s hospitalization shows, however, is that these doctors Mark and Ervin have categorically lied about the effects of their operation, and about the nature of Thomas R.’s “violent” behavior.

According to the doctors, Thomas R. was a “violent” man who committed “serious assaults” against his wife, children, co-workers and others prior to his brain surgery operations. They claim, in addition, that he was paranoid and psychotic. After surgery, however, they report that he suffered from not one single outburst of rage. Nor do these doctors make reference to any serious side-effects from the surgery such as psychosis, inability to work, chronic hospitalization, or terror of psychosurgery. In short, Thomas R. is portrayed as a perfect medical success story.

But Peter Breggin, an opponent of the use of psychosurgery techniques, has done a detailed study of the case of Thomas R. and has shown that Mark and Ervin’s reports bear little if any relationship to the actual situation. Thomas R. was a successful engineer and inventor, who at the age of 31 held various patents on the Land camera. He apparently developed psychomotor epilepsy, which was controlled through medication; and he was constantly employed through December, 1965 and continued to work intermittently up until his diagnostic hospitalization in March, 1966. This hospitalization, arising out of marital problems, was the result of a psychiatrist’s referring him to the care of doctors Mark and Ervin, who subsequently performed brain surgery on him.

The truth of what happened to Thomas R. is that he has only become seriously violent since his brain operations. Since his surgery he has been totally disabled, chronically hospitalized, and subject to nightmarish terrors that he will be caught and operated on again. He has, for all intents and purposes, been destroyed by these doctors, who are now using his case to argue for further government funding of their surgical work. Thomas R. is but one of many who have been victimized by doctors Mark and Ervin and others of their ilk, and this law-suit is an important first step in bringing such practice to a stop.

For more detailed information of the case of Thomas R. see Peter Breggin, “A Follow Up Study of Thomas R.” Rough Times.

Many of the dangers of psychotechnology are already with us. “Behavior modification” programs in prisons enforce conformity in the name of therapy. Psychotropic medications are widely abused in the control of “deviance.” Psychosurgery and electrical stimulation of the brain are already suggested as means of controlling the behavior of criminals so they can be released from prisons, though only to continue their imprisonment by psychotechnological controls. Mental health professionals are increasingly colluding in these practices. For instance, prison parole boards are sending inmates to medical facilities like the one at Vacaville, California for “evaluation” prior to parole decisions. Then, those deemed unfit (read: unbroken) to return to society are labeled mentally ill. Thus repressive parole decisions are masked by seeming scientific psychiatry. Just as at the UCLA Violence Center, participating mental health practitioners are often unaware of and unconcerned about the effects of their work. 

In the face of increasing violence in our society, the repressive use of psychotechnology is held up as an only alternative. It is our obligation to expose the false choice posed by “accept social control or invite increasing violence,” as it was our obligation to expose the choice posed by Watergate, “national security or civil liberties.” The concern with violence is valid only insofar as it leads to concern for changing the social conditions at fault.  


>> Back to Vol. 6, No. 3 <<



  1. V.H. Mark. W.H. Sweet. and F.R. Ervin. “Role of Brain Disease in Riots and Urban Violence.” Journal of the American Medical Association. Vol. 201. p. 895. 1967.
  2. John Hersey. The Algiers Motel Incident. Alfred A. Knopf. Inc., New York, 1973.
  3. B.J. Mason, “Brain Surgery to Control Behavior,” Ebony, February, 1973.
  4. Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1973.
  5. Lee Coleman, “Toward the Therapeutic State.” Freedom News, December, 1973.
  6. See for example R. Hurley. Poverty and Mental Retardation, Vintage Books, New York, 1969; H.G. Birch and J.D. Gussow, Disadvantaged Children: Health, Nutrition, and School Failure, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., New York, 1970.