(I promise I will eventually write about Love after all of this: bear with me if it is hard to tolerate. It’s important.)

My grandmother-in-law lived in her own apartment until she passed at 102 years old. My husband and I assumed responsibility for her home-care and were her primary logistical support beginning shortly after her 80th birthday, when she fell down a flight of stairs on the way to synagogue to say kaddish for her dead daughter.

More than 40 years earlier, Grandma and her then 13-year-old daughter had survived Auschwitz, Unterluess (the site of a munitions factory/satellite forced work camp), the long march and many weeks at Bergen-Belsen – staying together by saying they were sisters instead of mother and daughter. Grandma’s husband, brother, two sisters, and all of their children, friends, and neighbors were murdered or lost. A lifetime after the war, her daughter who had excelled at her profession, married, given her grandchildren, had succumbed to a cancer that the family suspected could be traced back to her forced exposure to toxic chemicals at Unterluess.

One regular Saturday afternoon visit, I told her about an article I’d seen in the Times about Eli Wiesel organizing an international conference to explore Love.

“He is a fool,” she said.
I held my breath.
She went on:
“What they should have is an international conference to study Hate, to study Evil. But no one likes to think about that. They all like to think about love and fairy tales.”

Love is a lovely and powerful thing, but it’s easy, pleasant for most of us to think about. Evil we push from our minds, ignore, repress, avoid, minimize, deny and rationalize. We see it as unfathomable, inhuman, repugnant. We don’t want to understand it at all. We don’t even want to be able to understand it.

I felt very grown up at 8 or 9, making an appointment on my own with the Reverend at our Episcopal church: His heavy-set, freckled secretary/wife, scheduled me for a time just after Sunday school. He offered me a seat, chewy taffy from his candy bowl. The Exorcist was in the movie theaters and dog-eared paperback copies were circulating around the elementary school playground. I had important questions: God loves everyone, so does God love the Devil? If so, are we supposed to love the Devil too? Will the Devil ever be forgiven for whatever made him bad? Should I pray for the Devil to become good again?”

His answers were appropriate and unburdening for an 8 year old’s first existential crisis: It wasn’t a little girl’s job to make that happen. It’s God’s job to worry about that, I didn’t have to.

I toddled off, relieved, with another chewy candy in my pocket for the road, leaving these questions to reemerge for some older, more mature incarnation of myself.

My current working definition of psychological evil has been drawn from a soup of theorists such as Jung, Meloy, Guggenbuhl-Craig , and Lobaczewski’s studies of personal, organizational and political psychopathy. Maybe some Winnicott on delinquency and privation has worked its way in there, some Fairbairn, maybe other ingredients leftover from my undergrad philosophy major that I can no longer discern.

Sociopathic evil manifests most often with no crime committed at all. It emerges when the capacity for Love or as Guggenbuhl-Craig would say, Eros, the capacity for empathic imagination, the ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes and compassionately inhabit how they might be feeling, has failed temporarily, failed to develop sufficiently, or failed to develop at all.

Yet, all-essential Love is a still a feeling state, and it is therefore fickle and inconsistent. It is a cat that may or may not come when it is called.

The vast majority of us have a back-up system in place for the frequent, even daily moments when our tenuously-wired capacity for love and empathy has been shorted out by a power surge of our most primal instincts: fatigue, lust, hunger, rage, fear. That back-up system is our moral sense, our conscience. It reminds us of how we should act when we cannot summon Eros. It instructs us in how to behave – love as a verb when we cannot feel it as a noun – and it holds and preserves our connections to other humans until the surge of animal instinct subsides, and we feel what it is to be human again.

In this we are not all the same and it can be dangerous to assume that we are: Some people don’t have the capacity to love at all for probably neurological reasons yet to be pinpointed. Others have never developed a moral back-up system to compensate for the failure of Love. Some cling to a moral code, or a religion, rigidly, radically, fundamentally, to compensate for their awareness that something is missing, and to fill in great Swiss cheese holes in their empathic capacity.

All of us are capable of multiple systems failure – of succumbing to a raw, survivalist power-principle, the wish to dominate, to win at any cost, to force, coerce and manipulate others to behave as we would wish.

We all fall into sociopathic states when we choose to blindly follow an internal mandate to fill our own hunger, to vent our rage, to have our way, to protect our territory or our young, to assert our power without negotiating with those around us. When we reduce those around us to mere tools or obstacles to our instinctual fulfillment, when others are a means to an end rather than ends in themselves – the sociopathic archetype, the seed of Evil, lives in us.

In the darkening winter months of my first year of social work school I was assigned a new client. I took the chart from the intake worker, which looked like an easy case for a 3-month-old social work intern: a man in mid-life, with private insurance a business owner of some sort. Some ‘moderate family conflict’ as the presenting problem, no severe symptoms (no evidence of hallucinations, delusions, no severe mood or anxiety disorder or apparent personality disorder) mental status all “W.N.L” – within normal limits. He was described as “well-groomed, likable, pleasant, and polite.” There was some concern that the case would be better served by a family services clinic for family systems work rather than a mental health clinic, but as he preferred individual therapy he was accepted to our services and assigned to me for regular weekly appointments.

In the first session, more data emerged around his presenting problem. His adult daughter had recently left home and wasn’t speaking to him. It pained him terribly. It, in fact, enraged him. She had manipulated a judge to take out a restraining order on him for some nonsensical reason. He suspected that she was seeing some therapist who put her up to it. He wanted me to write a letter to his daughter to persuade her and/or her therapist that she belonged back at home. He needed to “get to her” and couldn’t without a therapist’s help. He needed me to find out where she was living, to confer with her therapist, to get him in contact with her without directly violating the restraining order.

When I pressed for more details about the restraining order he stated with no guilt, no shame whatsoever that it said he had been having sex with her – and that the ruling was ridiculous because it was his natural right, she belonged to him. He wasn’t here to discuss this, he said, insisting that he just needed a letter from a therapist.

I ended the session as soon as I could, and told my internship supervisor – an MSW just two years in the field after her degree – that I would not see this case.

She replied that in order to pass my internship, I had to continue with the case. That none of the therapists in the clinic could choose their cases based on their “likability.” It seemed clear to me that she had been trapped in a similar position many times, and felt this case assignment was necessary preparation for the “real world” of social work. There was no attempt to asses my history of exposure to sociopathic trauma or if this could be re-injuring for me, as I am sure there had not been for her either. She stated that it was part of our mandate to see any client that was deemed appropriate for our clinic (and whose insurance was active – clients disappeared quickly when their authorization was declined) and that I would need to find a way work with him.

I sat in an office with him, week after week. Once he arrived drunk and I was able to send him home. I listened to his rage, I watch him shed copious, self-referential tears. I refused, week after week, to make any attempt to contact his daughter, her clinic, her therapist, or to intercede with him and the court. He banged the table. He grieved and keened over his losses. He suffered openly, like a child. He began to write a letter himself and read it to me, hoping for me to sign off on it. No empathy, no concern for her, no appreciation for the utter annihilation he had visited upon her. The letter spoke only of his own pain, loss, frustration, heartbreak, his rights denied, the wrongs visited upon him. I said as little as possible. Any morally tolerable treatment goal I suggested, he rejected. He expressed disgust with me for being useless. After 8 or 9 sessions, he no-showed. I made two cursory, neutral-voiced, follow-up phone calls, as required by my supervisor. And thankfully closed the case.

Do we have to love the Devil? Pray for him to get better?

Did I do any good? Unlikely. I felt my only choices were to refuse to do any wrong.

And to try to restrain myself from revealing in any way how much I wished him dead, gone, hit by a truck, struck down by lightening or the hand of God.

Hey, wasn’t this supposed to be God’s job anyway?

Therapists commit civilized mind-murders on clients who activate our primal instincts in ways that we find threatening to our status or identities or who activate our own traumas. At some point, under psychologically threatening circumstances, we inevitably behave in unconsciously manipulative ways to get clients to behave as we wish, to live up to our own values.

We can unknowingly be conscripted by an institution which has lost its own Eros and moral compass, focusing on its billing hours, and rigid adherence to its “mission” having lost all empathy for its clinicians. We become well-intended conveyors of this lack of empathy – passing on our own powerlessness and paralysis.

On the other hand, we can also rush in where angels fear to tread – supporting clients too quickly when they are in the throes of rationalizing, justifying, minimizing their own destructive impulses. We can easily be lured into applauding someone for “asserting themselves” or “claiming their power” when, in reality, their capacity for human relatedness and empathic negotiation has – hopefully, only temporarily – collapsed.

Perhaps its is a safer choice to simply comment on the the loss of moral functioning itself:
“We often have destructive fantasies when we feel this angry and ill-used.”

Sometimes it’s better to sit as still as possible, in a state of active waiting, than endorse, encourage or stimulate a state marked with objectifying distortions and empathic collapse – and wait for the Devil to give up on his own.

This is not a call to moralistic judgment. This is a call to develop on-going discernment of the source, quality, consistency, and capacity for empathy and moral judgment in ourselves and others. We need to recognize when we ourselves, or those we love – or those we fear – have lost that capacity, never developed it, or it is temporarily disrupted.

We need to at least attempt to assess the differences and variations in failures of moral reasoning. When we cannot make those distinctions we will, unwittingly, aid and abet destructive forces.

If you are a clinician: survey your caseload, you may be surprised to realize how many people have arrived at your office to process the existential horror (as well as the post-traumatic response) that follows an encounter with either transitory or characterological sociopathy, victimized by a large or small volitional act of evil that has called their very understanding of humanity into question. They are often confused, in a state of horrified paralysis, mystified, enraged, numb, bewildered. For some it generates a special spiritual crisis, an existential shock. We can help them to assess the intentions behind the injury, and whether the perpetrator is someone who stumbled understandably – if reparation is possible – or to support the client as they come to terms with the shocking reality of evil in the world.

We don’t need to help the Devil when we encounter it. In fact, it’s essential that we don’t.

We may need to withhold indiscriminate support from anyone in the active pursuit of goals destructive to themselves or others, although we need not necessarily always withdraw or retreat. We must recognize the amoral archetype when it emerges – believe in its existence so that we can distinguish it from illness, accident, error, or a gesture borne of temporary collapse, lashing out in panic or in pain.

We need to be able to look squarely at it in ourselves, in our clients, in our community and our institutions. To identify it and address it, not excuse it.

Rather than wish it away for a world full of lovely fairy tales.

copyright © 2012
All rights reserved Martha Crawford