Concept: Abuse.

Researcher Spotlight: Jane F. Gilgun

September 25, 2015

Jane F. Gilgun is a professor in the School of Social Work within the College of Education + Human Development. For the past 30 years, her research has focused on studying the meanings of violence to perpetrators as well as working with at risk youth.

Jane Gilgun.When did you know you were interested in your field of study?

I became interested in my field of study when I was a social worker at Rhode Island Child Welfare Services decades ago. I saw how little we knew about children and families who had experienced severe, multiple adversities. I wanted a PhD in order to do research on these adversities and on what makes a difference. I hoped to contribute to improved policies and practices in child welfare and for children and families in general. After I had a few years of experience as a researcher, I also wanted to contribute to researchers’ understandings of violence, its development, and prevention.

In my dissertation research more than 30 years ago, I interviewed girls between the ages of 10 and 15 who had been sexually abused. I expected them to be angry at the perpetrators and not want anything to do with them. Instead, while they all expressed hurt and betrayal and hate for the abuse, most expressed some love for the perpetrators. They told stories of good times, like going fishing, family celebrations, and travel. They expressed desires for the perpetrators to get help so that wouldn’t hurt other children and could return to their families and not hurt them anymore. All but one child out of the 20 I interviewed knew perpetrators well. Almost all of the were family members such as fathers, stepfathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers.

I respected the girls and their experiences and realized there could be more to perpetrators than I had thought. I became curious about them. I sought an opportunity to do  research in Minnesota prisons soon after I became at assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University. I had done research on perpetrators ever since. The girls’ perspectives shaped my career.

 What drew you to your field of study/what problem were you hoping to solve?

I am interested in the uses and abuses of power. I became interested in personal perspectives on power and their relationship to cultural themes and practices while a PhD student at Syracuse University. There, I studied life course theory and social stratification theory and was introduced to phenomenological research in the tradition of the Chicago School of Sociology. I also studied child development with a special emphasis in early adolescent girls and family violence with an emphasis on gender socialization.

These interests came together in my dissertation research on girls’ perspectives on being sexually abused. My conceptual framework was life course theory and my methods and methodologies were  based on Chicago School life histories. I learned from interviewing the girls and their parents what child sexual abuse meant to them. In my subsequent research, I have continued these interests and have also focused on what violence means to perpetrators, the development of violent behaviors, how persons overcome adversities, and principles and strategies for effective treatment, policy, education, and prevention of violence.

My most influential professor at Syracuse was Donald T. Campbell who modeled perspectives that have guided my work. One is open-mindedness to new and unanticipated evidence and ideas. Another is theorizing from concrete instances of phenomena, from research and theory, and from philosophies of science. The third is attention to detail, including looking for evidence that challenges and even contradicts what I think I know and being flexible enough to change my mind when evidence suggests I do so. Campbell encouraged me to do case study, life history research in the Chicago tradition and to continually challenge what I think I know and to search for alternative explanations. He also showed me that we will never know much or anything for sure. Knowledge is provisional. This is consistent with Chicago School of Sociology perspectives.

What made you choose the University of Minnesota?

Minnesota is a university that lives its principles. When President Kaler states that the University of Minnesota stands for academic freedom, he is addressing something that I have lived for 31 years. I have had nothing but support and encouragement for my work. No one ever said why are you doing this work?  No one told me what research I had to do. I remember thinking on and off for years what a gift it is to be at the University where I can pursue my own interests in my own way in my own time.

From these opportunities, I have produced a lot of research and scholarship. Much of what I have done is available to social work practitioners, parents, professionals, the general public, and persons whose lives have been affected by violence and other adversities. These are articles about research methods that I have used in the violence research as well as articles about the meanings of violence, the development of violent behaviors, how persons overcome adversities, and child development. 

I could not have learned what I have without sustained, long-term immersion in this topic. I am hoping that I will finish this research in the next three years or so. I have at least two books I want to write based on this research and many more journal articles, blogs, and videos.

When I arrived at the University as an assistant professor, I had planned on staying at the University for a few years and then return to the east coast where my family lives. I stayed because I never found another job that compared with my job here.

What is your most notable accomplishment at the University so far?

That fact that I stuck to research on the meanings of violence to perpetrators for this long, which is about 30 years. This is very difficult research to do. This research involves in-depth interviews with people who commit acts of interpersonal violence. Some are now confined under mental health laws to Moose Lake treatment facility. That is how serious their violence is. Others committed acts that were less horrifying, but still callous and self-centered, and they are not at Moose Lake but in the community.

I often asked myself why I am putting myself through such horrible stuff. I remember thinking this when a man in prison told me the story about a 12 year-old girl who had been raped, murdered, and buried in a shallow grave in a Wisconsin cornfield.  I then thought about how much I want to understand what violence means to perpetrators and to understand how human beings get to the point where they do such terrible things. After all, they were children once. So, I stuck with the research with the hope that I could contribute to change. 

I now have a grip on the meanings of violence to perpetrators and how they became persons who do such things. For the next three years, I will be documenting what I have learned. 

What do you hope to accomplish next?

To develop a well-documented description of violence as good from the points of view of perpetrators. Violence as good is the core finding on my long term research on the meanings of violence to perpetrators. I will build an intervention based on this description. The intervention will be based on principles of mindfulness. If violence is good for perpetrators, they can be thought of as mindless in regards to meanings to others, especially those they harm.

How does your research potentially impact the state of Minnesota and beyond?

My overall project deepens understanding of violence. There is little research on what violence means to perpetrators and on life course events and meanings they attribute to the events that lead to the development of violence behaviors. My project has focused on these issues.

Introducing mindfulness practices into treatment and prevention programs has a common sense logic when a core issue is mindlessness. My research contributes to treatment programs that are based on what violence means to perpetrators. The principles of mindfulness can also can also contribute to prevention, education, and policy. Current work on executive function in child development is another approach to teaching mindfulness. I will draw on this research for my project. 

What is your favorite thing to do when you are not at work?

I have two horses, Ellie and Finn, who are mother and son. With friends, I ride in many of the parks in the Twin Cities metro region. I love being on the farm and working with horses. 

I spend a lot of time gardening. I consulted with various nurseries about design but the most delightful thing about gardening is letting the plants choose where they grow. When I find a volunteer in a place it chose, I usually leave it there. It fits in and contributes to a lovely tableau.

I spend several weeks each summer in the northwest part of Ireland, in Counties Leitrim, Sligo, Donegal, and Cavan. I rent a house on a mountain in Glenade, Leitrim, surrounded by sheep. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is listen for the sheep. I can tell what is happening to the various flocks by the sounds they make. I then look out the window across the valley to the mountain on the other side and notice whether the mist is rising or the sun is shining. I do a lot of writing and daydreaming in Ireland. I also have made many YouTube videos of that part of the world. I enter photo competitions at the agricultural shows in the area. I have been the official videographer for the Manorhamilton, Leitrim, Agricultural Show for about five years. I am also the judge for the best dressed woman, man, boy, and girl at the Show.

Where did you grow up and what was that place like?

I grew up in southern Rhode Island, not far from the Atlantic Ocean in a small town called Peace Dale. I felt as if everyone knew everyone else, and people liked each other. I am still in touch with friends from my childhood, many through a Facebook group. Over and over I hear these childhood friends talk about what a wonderful place Peace Dale and surrounding areas were for us as children growing up. It’s still a lovely place. 

We had outstanding schools, including the first kindergarten in the United States. Caroline Hazard who had been president of Wellesley College, founded and endowed Stepping Stones Kindergarten. The Hazard family had a huge influence on quality of life in the area. They built the library, the neighborhood green, the neighborhood Guild which provided an array of recreational activities for families and children, and Old Mountain field, which had a pond for swimming, two baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a playground, and open recreation areas. They also  created a large endowment for the town that to this day supports free recreation and other programs for kids and families. The town has many undeveloped areas and woods. The children then and now spend happy hours roaming the woods.

Starting at about age 11 and until I left for college, I rode horses all over the town, though the woods, and onto the bluffs overlooking Narrow River that empties into the sea. I galloped a race horse named Sadie Cummings on Narragansett Beach to prepare her for a career in racing. I have happy memories of my home town.