When I think of people who morph from evil to good, my first fuzzy, ill-informed association: General Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. As you may recall, he was the fearsome dictator turned chipper sycophant who tried to lure Americans to Libya’s shores for beach vacations. A subsequent Google search for evil to good, drew up a list of former KKK members who disavowed the Klan later in life, e.g. U.S. senator Robert Byrd and Nathan Bedford (founder of the KKK), Nazi sympathizer/war profiteer-turned-ally/savior to the Jewish people Oskar Schindler, and then fictional characters like the Scrooge. (Notably, the major financial villains, e.g. Michael Milken and Bernard Madoff get off scott-free from these lists).
During this time of Putin’s war, the emergence of a nutty, far-right Italian prime minister, alarming right-wing violence in this country and journalists’ frequent description of public figures as “evil,” it’s no wonder I’m left pondering some well-trod questions–what evil is, the origins of evil, and whether someone evil can become good. I recently looked to a few tv shows for answers: Ken Burns’ documentary series the U.S. and The Holocaust, Netflix’s Dahmer-Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, Netflix’s Inside the Criminal Mind, and more tangentially, HBO’s Industry (a show which begs the question whether a figurative stabbing of your colleagues qualifies as evil).
I do flock to TV shows about evil folk, which my friend says makes sense for someone with ADHD; it’s well known that my brethren seeks newness, conflict and adrenaline rushes. I’d like to think my fascination with evil is distinct from that of the peculiar woman at my law school I once met who showed me her romantic snail mail correspondence with one of the Menendez Brothers (forgot which one) and proudly handed me a photo of her roughly painted triptych of herself flanked by the two murderous brothers. Certainly, I have no interest in intimately mingling with evil people like the brave neighbor in Dahmer: The Monster was forced to; for more than a year, this poor lady endured the odor of decomposing human flesh that wafted into her apartment, listened to the victims’ screams of pain and fielded a horrific “gift,” a mystery meat sandwich with content that bore a striking resemblance to a human hand. (Side note: this show gave me a new appreciation for the worst neighbors I ever had whose main offense was complaining of my son’s short-lived routine of doing ten minutes of jumping jacks in our apartment. Bless their souls!)
As I learned, defining an “evil” person is not a simple task. A bevy of philosophers and psychologists have debated evil at length but I simplified (and no doubt botched their research) to create the following definition:
An Evil person:
1)Commits wrongdoings (violation of moral, ethical code or law) PLUS the following:
2) Gets pleasure from the wrongdoing and/or performs the wrongdoing out of self-interest;
3) Harms or at least intends to “intolerably harm” at least one person. Examples of intolerable harms include severe physical or mental suffering as well as the deprivation of basics such as food, clean drinking water, and social contact;
4) Acts voluntarily, intends or foresees their victim’s suffering, and lacks moral justification for their actions; (So under this definition, the criminally insane aren’t evil);
5) Has some set of character traits to an extreme degree, e.g. extreme callousness or extreme maliciousness;
One oddball on the internet suggested Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge as a good example of someone who made the transition from evil to good. But he’s just a curmudgeon -ungenerous and mean–like me on a rainy, pre-menstrual day when I’m prone to bitching, mimicking people I find ridiculous or vastly superior to me, boycotting the kitchen, ordering the family consecutive pizza meals, shirking social obligation and instead, reclining on a divan and popping mochis.
If you are like me, you may be tempted to apply this evil analysis to every politician, celebrity and person in your life because hell, it’s fun. (This reminds me of the Intro to Psychology class I took at Carleton College with my friend. We studied something called “matching theory”, how couples tend to be similarly attractive (with some outliers of course). This admittedly caused my friend and I to, quite amused, evaluate every couple we know, which lead to my friend’s boyfriend to dismiss us as “sorority girls.” He was wrong. We were social scientists at work!)
Of course no analysis is required for Hitler; we know he epitomizes evil. But watching Ken Burns’ documentary series, The U.S. and the Holocaust was eye-opening for me as it reminded me that Hitler and his virulent hate didn’t exist in a vacuum–contrary to what my teachers taught me. I hadn’t realized that while pacing his prison cell after his failed coup of the German government, Hitler looked admiringly at the U.S.’s xenophobic immigration policies, segregation and racial prejudice. When we Americans belatedly opened one crusty eye to wag a finger at the Germans, they had a fairly solid basis to smirk and retort “I know you are, but what am I?”
One question that emerges in all this heady “research”: how often does one have to do something evil to be an evil person? If your murder stats fall very short of Hitler’s millions and Jeffrey Dahmer’s seventeen, are you evil? For those who have watched the documentary series and/or the dramatized version of The Staircase, does pushing two wives down a staircase to their deaths (decades between incidents) reveal evil tendencies? What if you do everything else by the book/are an otherwise upstanding citizen? Philosophers known as “consistency” theorists (not in vogue for some time) say evil people almost always make evil decisions so that according to them, the husband in the Staircase who wasn’t always evil, would probably not be marked evil. He also wouldn’t be considered a serial killer with only two murders done decades apart.
The line between wrongdoing and evil intrigues me. When I was in the throes of dating my husband, decades ago, I asked him what hypothetical wrongdoing in my past would cause him to fly the coop. (Poor guy just wanted to pass time with a cute young thing (as I humbly refer to my 20-something self) but I had to harangue him with odd banter!). I warmed up with shoplifting, escalated to stealing money from an imagined childrens’ nonprofit and concluded with torturing a cute animal or committing a jealous rage-crime of passion. Turns out, my guy was pretty non judgmental about my imagined crimes. (P.S. to those who are single, I don’t suggest you try this exercise in the dating circuit. It could make you look unhinged.)
Though perhaps you might make your potential mate take the Dark Factor test that I just discovered, which supposedly measures your propensity for evil by asking up to 70 questions about your values, self-image and ways of relating to others. (The questions range from subtle to ones that made me chortle such as: “How much do you agree with these statements from very much to not at all (and degrees between): When I get annoyed, tormenting people makes me feel good” or “Most people are somehow losers.” High scorers on this test will ruthlessly pursue their own interests, even when it negatively affects others (or even for the sake of it), while having beliefs that justify these behaviors. Go ahead, take this test if you dare! (My therapist, I should warn you had not heard of this, which makes me question it’s accuracy/validity because she’s a demi-God). Seems like a good score would belong on a dating profile alongside other measurements!
As a lover of all personality tests, I dove into the quiz with gusto. After answering 70 questions, I scored a 2.07 (“very low”) on a 1-5 scale for Dark Factors, which sounds right. Years ago, I recall watching a harrowing scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan, in which a young American soldier in a shelled out building tries to drag his body up some steps with a rifle on his shoulder as he awaits the Nazis, but he can’t do anything but shiver and quake on the stairwell. I remember thinking “that would be me.” Not to say I’m an angel. I just probably lack killer instincts, unlike the young female financial analyst Harper and her Machiavellian boss Eric in the addictive HBO show Industry whose “primal hunt for dopamine” and tendency to put their own needs first in lieu of the feelings or careers of their colleagues, make it likely they would score high on the D factor test.
Can I take a moment and gloat about my low D factor score? After all, who cares about IQ., GPA or credit scores? My score is germane, baby! So don’t be surprised if you see the following on my resume: D factor score: 2.07. For it could signal that if the USA becomes a totalitarian dictatorship one day, I may be less likely to turn all Himmler/Goering than others. If that’s not a marketable, prized quality what is?
Of course, this score in reality tells me little about what my behavior would have been in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. We all know about the Milgram shock experiment in which most participants who were not particularly evil approved the full dosage of electric shocks to their victims, despite the victims’ (I believe, feigned) yelps of pain. Given this experiment’s findings, I’d assumed that soldiers in combat who are coerced to kill probably shoot to kill or at least make an earnest attempt; however, I recently read that this is not true–most soldiers shoot at the air, unwilling to kill. Ah humanity, my faith is restored!
I hesitate to delve into the Origins of Evil here as it sounds like this remains inconclusive — a mysterious swirl of genes and environment. But I can’t help discuss the list of commonalities that many serial killers supposedly have, according to an FBI profiler on Inside the Criminal Mind; for dubious entertainment value, I’ll evaluate how many factors I share in common with these killers such as:
1. A dominant mother, often single. This made me chuckle. Single mothers are so maligned! Raised by a single mom (who is certainly “dominant”) I used to feel an undercurrent of annoyance as I sat through college classes ranging from English Lit and various Political Science classes in which our readings revealed one salient point: most of society’s ills can be blamed on single mothers. Unfortunately, this sentiment is not fading. In fact, Americans are more likely than they were three years ago to say single women raising children on their own and couples living together without being married are bad for society, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in October 2021. Though after watching Dahmer: The Monster, it seems Dahmer’s father who was mostly around to raise him is more to blame than the momma. For it was he who taught Dahmer (with seeming relish) to find roadkill and dissect it, who observed troubling behavior and never sought treatment for his son and who later admits that he nursed his own fantasies about killing people that he never acted upon. Ah, those cursed genes!
2. Some revulsion at the maternal figure. For me, I only possess a base-line, par-for-the-course level of revulsion for my mother. For she adopted me on her own in the 1970s from Korea when this was truly novel, she outfitted my childhood bedroom with whimsical touches like hand-painted rabbits on my walls, a real wooden swing that hung from my ceiling and a swinging ladder in my closet that surely sealed the deal for more than one friendship. (But I feel a tinge of revulsion when she deluges me with emails written in ALL CAPS!)
3 Alcoholism in the home. Nope. My mom who adopted me is a light-weight who has little interest in this form of entertainment. I’ve seen her tipsy maybe three times on a Jewish holiday. A full glass of Manischewitz would likely reduce her to Santa-Con drunk. The only alcohol I ever saw her relish was my grandparents’ homemade Wisniak (a Polish Cherry Cordial Liqueur), which consists of sour cherries left to fester for years in a glass jug filled with vodka and sugar); once a year, mom would break out the comically large jug that my grandparents kept in a dining room cabinet, pluck out one very doused cherry and pop it in her mouth with childish delight.
4.Being male. (Nope.)
5. MacDonald Triangle for homicidal personality(now seemingly discredited), states that there are three red flags for such deviant behavior: bed wetting, fire setting and animal killing. Supposedly Ted Bundy had all three indicators. (I am thankfully a stranger to these things. My kids can attest that watching me tear through two match books this summer to try to kindle a pre-fab fire pit so that we could roast marsh mellows and make s’mores, severely tested their patience. Pyromania is not in my cards. As for bed wetting, I never knew it was such a sign of psychosis and I’m relieved that I found this out now, not during my kids’ accident prone toddler years. If bedwetting is such a harbinger, ought we look sideways at comedian Sarah Silverman who stars now in her autobiographical play The Bedwetter?)
6. Lack of empathy. Yoo-hoo Greg Abbott and Ron DeSantis for sending buses of actual humans across state lines for political points and yoo-hoo the U.S. during and after World War II turning boats of Jewish people and other refugees away.
7. Identity confusion: Ted Bundy was told his mother was his sister and believed this for much of his life, which is a scenario that is hard to imagine and pretty twisted. Though, anecdotally, I know people who don’t tell their children they are adopted out of shame but yet the kids avoid a life of infamy. After all, whom among us aren’t a little confused about some aspect of our identity?
8. Ted Bundy said that serial killing was like stamp collecting. (Lesson to extract from this: parents, don’t let your kids collect stamps! There are surely a host of less sinister hobbies to enjoy!)
9. Abnormal sexual fantasies. (I recall hearing a silly rumor of an odd, hirsute guy at college who supposedly loved shoving Haribo gummy bears up his girlfriend-as foreplay –which eventually trickled down her legs–a sticky, rainbow wash. Think he was a serial killer?)
10.Serial killers are usually middle class, not poor or rich. Hah, finally the middle class are under fire! Notably, it’s usually the poor and the rich that get the blame for everything!) Serial killer John Wayne Gacy-a born salesman- managed a family restaurant and was a respected member of his community. The Netflix show Inside the Criminal Mind goes onto say “he even performed as a clown at kids parties” as if that fits in with their high-functioning theory instead of being the damning fact it is! We learn that Ted Bundy held part time jobs as a student and that he worked at the suicide hotline center and managed the Republican party’s Seattle campaign office. (There are easy jokes re Republicans that I will avoid here).
11. Evil people can be charming actors/role-players. Apparently, Ted Bundy was a charmer and played the role of father, husband and employee in a convincing manner that probably explained his “success.” Hearing about the deceptive charm of serial killers,I thought of how Americans were somehow hood-winked by the propaganda and pageantry of the 1936 German Olympics. As I learned, Goebbels ordered the removal of prevalent antisemitic signage around town and told Germans to basically conceal their German-ness. He said “be more elegant like Parisianers, more easy-going like the Viennese, more cosmopolitan like Londoners and more practical like New Yorkers.” Americans’ blood-boiling acceptance of this idealized Germany, despite more and more evidence of violent racism, reminded me of Mr.Poe and Justice Strauss in Series of Unfortunate Events who may have meant well but by being so easily duped by Count Olaf’s ridiculous costumes and accents, were ultimately complicit in his evil schemes. (Okay, might I be pulling that metaphor too tautly?)
12.Motivations that drive serial killers: fear of rejection, sense of inferiority and the need for power. (I share two of these motivations; I abhor rejection as evidenced in fact I haven’t submitted my short stories to writing journals in more than a decade and I think i’m worse at most things than my peers; thankfully, I have little need for power, which might explain why when I volunteered to be a class parent of my daughter’s Kindergarten class, I abhorred any “managerial” tasks that required me to convey parent complaints to the Powers that Be.)
12. The mind of a “normal” person may be different than that of a serial killer. Neurocriminologists study whether some are prone to violent behaviors at birth. A University of Penn doctor looked at the brain imaging of murderers who killed in spontaneous rage and found diminished brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls self-awareness, sensitivity to violence and processing of emotions. On the other hand, the doctor found that serial killers who were long-time planners, had high functioning in their prefrontal cortex but a diminished capacity in the deeper part of the brain called the amygdala. Their amygdala, the brain’s seat of emotion and of conscience, was found to be 18 percent smaller than that of non-murderous folk. (If I had to predict what my brain looks like between these two extremes, I’d say I’m more likely to have a sleepy prefrontal cortex; if I had to kill, it’d be in a spontaneous rage not in a methodical pre-meditated manner. (I’m thinking the brain of most ADHD people looks similar). As a small circle of humans know, I can be a lightning bolt when I’m pissed/overwhelmed!) Between these two brain types, which one do you probably have?)
13. Scientists have also found those with a low resting heart rate don’t feel fear as strongly and may be more violent/ take more physical risks. Apparently, life may feel dull for these so they seek intense stimulation. (No one has ever told me I have a low resting heart rate but I doubt it as I shun physically risky activities. A small sample of activities I have not done and will never do: ice hiking, hiking without harness, bungee jumping, roof jumping, cocaine/heroin and botox. But Netflix, you really know how to unseat me, e.g., taking two formerly innocuous things like low resting heart rates and bed wetting and turning them into signs of villainy!
Circling back to the Korean expression, gae-gwa-chun-sun (shifting from evil to good), I ponder if the truly evil can change. An extensive 2008 study on serial murder for the F.B.I.’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime found that killers may quiet down when they find other outlets for their emotions. (This makes it sound so sweet like these guys take some yoga and discover aromatic oils and gems). But the study was in part talking about autoerotic activities, which I looked up for a proper explanation.
Dr. Michael H. Stone, a professor of forensic psychiatry at Columbia University who has extensively studied serial killers, noted that Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, murdered prostitutes during his first two difficult marriages. He married a third time, more happily, and the killings dwindled. “Some of these men have little oases of compassion, within the vast desert of their contempt and hatred of women,” Dr. Stone said.
Reading about the Green River Killer and his wives, lead me to this unoriginal conclusion: women are always to blame–from the single mothers who birth these killers to the wives who drive these men to psychosis. The lover of tangential minutiae that I am, wonders what in heavens the third wife did to create a”little oases of compassion.” It should be noted that I am married to a man who by all accounts has a continent of compassion for women (even ones like me who promise never to write about him on her blog but sometimes slips); however, it can’t hurt to take notes on how to keep a husband content in case I have grossly misjudged my law abiding, even-tempered partner for the past 19 years, and one day, my sometimes irritating wifely conduct provokes a killing spree. I imagine wife three made home-cooked tasty meals every night, gave fantastic, spontaneous head, wore no depressed-lady schmattas around the house and said “you don’t say!” to everything the GRK said. What do you think were her secrets?
Tell me your D-Factor score! xoxo