Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Evil: Does It Truly Exist in Humans?

Recently a television news story stirred in me a very fundamental question: Does evil truly exist in human beings? The specific story to which I’m referring was entitled “Katie’s Story,” a story on ABC News’ 20/20. The program highlighted the heinous crime London model Katie Piper suffered in March of 2008, and documented her subsequent recovery process. Simply put, Katie met and briefly dated the wrong man, and he ultimately sought revenge when she rejected him. The nature of the revenge was truly out of this world: he paid someone to throw sulfuric acid into her face – the very face, of course, that was her moneymaker as a model.

In discussing the news story with a friend, my friend was quick to diagnose the man’s problem: pure evil. Yet attributing such a sensationalistic trait to this behavior – evil – seemed insufficient and almost untrue. Of course, it goes without saying that paying a hit man to destroy another person’s face is horrendous. Think, for a moment, about the repercussions: months and even years of corrective surgeries only to look like a perfect cross between somewhat disfigured and somewhat normal. Moreover, just imagine what this kind of trauma does to the psyche. I’m not sure if years of therapy can ever undo that kind of trauma.

Switching focus back to the perpetrator, what truly motivates such asinine behavior? As a clinical psychologist, I’m guessing that I would lose my license as a practicing shrink if I ever labeled someone evil or wrote that description on a clinical form describing a patient’s psychological makeup. Yet the clinically equivalent label – Antisocial Personality Disorder – exists and fairly describes a minuscule portion of the population. Does this term fit with Katie Piper’s perpetrator?

The reality of this complex issue is that diagnosing him would require a trained clinician to assess him over a period of time, taking into account his history and his current perceptions and state of mind. In terms of what motivated Katie Piper’s perpetrator, I would not ascribe the root of the problem to evil. However, I would – without the need for further assessment or investigation – deem the root to be mental illness, and further assessment would need to clarify the diagnostic specifics.

The distinction between attributing horrific human behavior to evil or attributing it to mental illness is important. If we label the motivation ‘evil,’ we label it with no true understanding of what goes on inside the mind of the perpetrator and we (perhaps callously?) move on. Such labels are seductive because they provide us with a quick, easy explanation, rendering it unnecessary to get weighed down by the complexities. If we label the motivation ‘mental illness,’ we leave some room to try to understand the perpetrator. While such an understanding does not issue a pass or an excuse, it acknowledges the complexity that underlies human behavior. In particular, viewing this man’s hateful behavior through the lens of mental illness causes us to dig more deeply to consider just how powerfully a person can experience rejection – so powerfully, in fact, that it can cause one to induce disfiguring bodily harm to a former lover.

Picture this man as a young boy: Do you believe three-year-old boys, for example, can be evil? The sad truth is that children are often kind and innocent until something terrible happens to them, and they later develop defense mechanisms to protect their own fragile egos. Ultimately, understanding the psychological roots of heinous crimes is not about Katie Piper’s perpetrator, but about how much we as a society are willing to acknowledge just how wounded we can be and the lengths to which a lover scorned will sometimes go to redeem himself and to undo the injury his own ego suffered. The next time that you hear about a horrific crime, I offer this note: think twice before calling the criminal evil. After all, I know that my friend is not entirely unique in the primal, gut reaction he had to a truly horrific crime.

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