Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany


The title of this book suggests a narrow study, likely of interest largely to professionals working in this field. But arguably the major contribution of Borneman’s study of the rehabilitation of child sex offenders in Berlin is its enormous breadth, its situation of this process within larger discussions around a wide range of topics of interest today. This ethnography of a small institution raises questions central to: psychiatric and psychoanalytic theory, the nature of ethnography, the role of ritual, recent changes in the composition of families in the West, as well as in the symbolic family order, the changing status of children and changing perceptions of children and their needs, along with a shift in the incest taboo, from regulating marriage practices to regulating relations between adults and children. Borneman’s research yields new points of view and new insights on all these issues.

Cruel Attachments is based primarily on Borneman’s fieldwork at a clinic in downtown Berlin which provides therapy for victims and perpetrators of child sexual abuse, and at a minimum security prison where low-risk convicted child sexual abusers serve their sentences. Anthropology, criminology, psychoanalysis and sociology, which inform Borneman’s analysis of the rehabilitation of abusers and are also questioned by it, are addressed through seven detailed case studies of male abusers and their rehabilitation. The case which introduces the questions and complexities of rehabilitation, is the career of Andreas Marquardt, a combat sports professional and formerly one of Berlin’s most successful and brutal pimps. His childhood abuse by his mother, his subsequent notoriety, and his unique forms of rehabilitation, which include – besides imprisonment and therapy – writing an autobiography together with his therapist, touring Germany with the book and co-author, and fundraising for charities which support victims of child sexual abuse, point to extreme experiences, to results that can be achieved with a strong will, to public discomfort and also media-fed fascination with this crime, and particularly to the role of empathic listening which is a major focus of the book.

The importance of empathy and empathic listening ties together Borneman’s many approaches to rehabilitation. Borneman sees empathy and mutual empathic listening as the bond between the offender and the therapist which can enable the offender to progress from a state of denial of his delict and inability to situate what he did within a coherent biographical and symbolic context, to empathy for the victim, which, in turn, can facilitate the offender’s understanding of where he went wrong and the ability to control his affect. And Borneman argues that, beyond the therapeutic situation, empathic listening, between the researcher and her/his interlocutors in the field, is the central relationship in ethnography.

Six additional case studies are based largely on observation of therapy groups, but also on interviews, therapists’ reports and other documents.  These accounts explore less extreme rehabilitation trajectories, and each questions at least one widely-accepted theory. The case of Uwe challenges Foucault’s understanding of sexuality as regulated by knowledge and power. Borneman concludes that Uwe’s inappropriate touching of his daughter resulted rather from unconscious, intersubjective communication between the two. Suleyman’s story refutes Lacan’s relation of the father to language. And Borneman argues that Levi-Strauss’ alliance theory of the incest taboo and kinship fails to address vertical kin relations and the role of desire. Several of the cases illustrate how transference, once seen as an obstacle to psychoanalytic therapy, is today valued by many practitioners for its role in enhancing empathy.

Borneman’s cases also offer thick description of the work of rehabilitation of child molesters, family dynamics which produce child sex abusers, and changes in family structure after the revelation of child sexual abuse. Additionally, these cases reflect and refract broader changes in Western countries over the last four decades which, Borneman argues, inform current concerns for the sexual integrity of children. These include: increased taboos on touching, the elimination of coming-of-age ceremonies for boys, the blurring of distinctions between children and youth, the sexualization of young girls and children, the criminalization of some forms of male sexuality, a decrease in fertility and household size, large aging populations and the frequent withdrawal of men from responsibility for children. On the basis of his ethnographic work, legal documents, press reports and statistics, Borneman elaborates on how this tectonic shift in household and sexual practices has shaped current understandings and agendas around child sexual abuse and rehabilitation and has reopened questions around the concept of childhood in the West, and about the kind of love that children do and don’t need from adults.

Cumulatively, the case studies critique Germany’s laws and practices around child abuse; especially the involvement of children in court, the slow bureaucracy and the limited therapeutic resources available to convicted abusers. Borneman argues that, since the 1970s, what he sees as an overconcern for protecting children has resulted in legislation that often further psychological damage to the children involved and distances children from men, thus depriving them of a source of care and attachment that all people need.

These changes and uncertainties around basic social relationships are also linked to the widespread discomfort with the topic of child sexual abuse and the rehabilitation of abusers, which is also addressed in the study. Borneman describes how this discomfort compromises the complete reintegration of rehabilitated child molesters. And he sensed it in the responses of fellow academics to his presentations of his work. Some therapists at the clinic told him how hard it was to develop empathy for child molester clients, and at least one therapist suggested that Borneman had too much empathy for them. Discomfort was also part of my experience reading and reviewing this book. As a North American sociologist, I began working with this discomfort by locating Borneman’s cases within Berlin’s population. The seven men presented all came from modest backgrounds, and, except for Marquardt, they worked at modest jobs. Two of the seven were passive individuals. And Borneman’s emphasis on the abusive backgrounds they came from made several of the molesters also victims. This study of the punishment and rehabilitation of seven lower-class men from dysfunctional families who got socially and morally lost in Berlin, calls for follow-up projects to address the kinds of punishment and rehab – if any – to which well-healed and powerful abusers are subjected.

Finally, the book was first published in English, in North America where, for the non-tabloid reading public, sexual abuse of children is most widely discussed in relation to the sexual abuse of boys by Catholic priests in the US, and the abuse of First Nations boys and girls in residential schools in Canada. These North American scandals raise questions about institutional structure, and cultures of child abuse which might also be the focus of future ethnographies on this topic. Cruel Attachments combines a broad approach to child sexual abuse and the rehabilitation of abusers, new theoretical insights and sensitive ethnographic description. It should be a key reading for courses on criminology, the family, and sexuality, among other topics. It has been very important in my own research, and I hope that Borneman’s wide-ranging and provocative observations from a small milieu in Berlin will spark further studies on child molestation and rehab in other social settings.

Robin Ostow,  Wilfrid Laurier University

Borneman, John. Cruel Attachments: The Ritual Rehab of Child Molesters in Germany. University of Chicago Press. 2015. Read more at University of Chicago Press.

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