Can Man Be Evil?
By Jane Dawson, Psychotherapist in London at the Angel Wellbeing Clinic
In June I was sad to hear of the death of Gitta Sereny. When I was training I wondered about the motivations of people who committed terrible crimes and she was an inspirational expert on the subject. Sereny spent much of her life researching the life stories of people who were drawn to acts of inhumanity.
After the 2nd world war she decided to attend the trials of Nazi concentration camp personnel and her fascination piqued, went on to interview and study notorious Nazis who had committed atrocities in the Holocaust, and Mary Bell, a child murderess. While she was repulsed by some of her subjects, she believed that not even the most heinous and unrepentant of perpetrators were actually 'evil'. In fact, she concluded that in a perverse way these people were often looking the love that was denied to them in childhood.
Certainly there is evidence to suggest that if an infant isn't shown love and nurturing, he may never learn how to empathise with other people's feelings or control his impulses, as certain neural pathways in his brain may be underdeveloped. Similarly, if a child grows up believing that he or she is bad, he or she is much more likely to behave accordingly. That's not to deny that some people deliberately choose to harm others in a rational manner, that their crimes are intentional - not committed due to insanity.
However, Sereny chose to highlight the fact that many such perpetrators are often warped by childhood trauma and therefore deserve some understanding if not compassion. Moreover, it is worth remembering that people are not fixed beings, they are able to change.
The psychiatrist Victor Frankl had experience of Nazi concentration camps first hand. As a survivor he had seen how easily cruelty became normalised so that perpetrators cease to see their victims as human beings, the worst offenders taking pleasure in sadistic torture for their amusement. And yet, even Frankl believed that such people could change and achieve redemption. He described Dr J. who had committed countless atrocities in Auschwitz, and yet when later imprisoned in Moscow seemed to transform becoming one of the kindest and moral prisoners who 'gave consolation to everybody'. Surely this propensity for change suggests that evil is unlikely to be inherent...even though it often tempting to think so.
This article was by jane Dawson the Psychotherapist in London at the Angel Wellbeing Clinic.
Psychotherapist and Counsellor