Books I’ve Known and Loved

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The Witching Hour, The Huntington Museum

EVIL: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by Roy F. Baumeister, Ph. D.

Do you want to get inside the mind of a serial killer or an executioner? You need go no further than your own mind. Well, you have to go a little further, but not much. Turns out people who do evil things are a lot like you and me.

Have you ever noticed when arguing with a spouse that you’re always right–until you’ve had a few quiet moments to think about the part you played in flooding the basement? Have you noticed too that when you drink the argument about how well the basement was cleaned after the flood gets more heated than it really needs to be ( you’ve been harboring the grudge about the ruined Christmas ornaments for a week now).

The first time we had to execute a rooster my husband sent me indoors because my crying was a distraction. The next time a rooster punctured my leg with his filthy spur when we had no health coverage I quite happily ordered him dead (and he was my favorite rooster).

Imagine a post-Civil War scene down south. A group of bored young veterans on the losing side of the war with no job prospects and stung egos get together for drinks. Someone comes up with the idea to dress up like ghosts to spook the newly freed and uneducated ex-slaves in their neighborhood. Just a boyhood prank, is all. They scare a black man the first time and off he runs, but the next time they do it the man is wise to their humor and waves them off with a laugh. The game is no longer fun. Putting a little fear into a man who used to be subordinate but now is equal was fun (and each young man is holding a grudge against the powers that be and the freed slaves). The mission becomes to scare the black man–a little more and a little more. Each time the black man sees through their pranks–they raise the stakes.

Are you that person in a group who stands up when everyone else is going down a bad path? Are you the person who jumps in the swollen spring river to save the young boy from drowning when everyone else waits to see who will get wet. Twice in my life I’ve witnessed someone drowning and both times I watched as if in a dream as someone else jumped in.

In Rwanda a mother of six participated in the clubbing to death of a group of neighborhood children because she thought it would put them out of their misery. A man responsible for killing Jewish children in WWII rationalized his job in the same way.

Why aren’t there more serial killers? The difference between “normal” people and evil doers comes down to a few key things: self-discipline, a sense of being responsible for one’s actions and feelings of guilt (which for normal people kick in often before they even contemplate doing something evil). People who tend to say, “I couldn’t help it” or “It’s because society made me do it” or:

“Guilt? It’s this mechanism we use to control people. It’s an illusion. It’s a kind of social control mechanism–and it’s very unhealthy. It does terrible things to our bodies. And there are much better ways to control our behavior than . . . guilt.”

we need to worry about. The last quote comes from Ted Bundy–the serial killer.

The drugs made me do it, my genes made me do it, this country made me do it . . . I couldn’t help eating all those cookies! But here’s the thing: in order to kill someone with a gun you must think about getting a gun. You must walk towards the gun using the legs you make move, and you must pull the trigger. The gun doesn’t magically cling to you, take over your fingers and shoot someone.

An early 20th century study showed that most soldiers shot above the heads of their enemies. This was a problem to be solved. Another interesting study showed that playing video games did make for more short-term aggression in players, but only people who were already tending toward evil actually used gaming as an excuse for bad actions. Most people play video games and DON’T kill their cats.

Remember when your mother warned you about the slippery slope toward evil? Remember Jesus saying something about cleaning out one demon but letting 7 more in? Evil seems to be like that.The first kill is the toughest–but then the sirens and hand cuffs don’t arrive. Life stays pretty much the same. So you kill again.

Don’t think this book is a thoroughly depressing read. On the contrary if you like gallows humor you’ll love this book. I did. But it is scary how close to evil I can become.

12 thoughts on “Books I’ve Known and Loved

  1. Thanks for understanding that the Civil War’s effect on Southerners. When rights were taken away and given to another–it tends to fuel animosity. My Pilgrim ancestors gave the right to vote to Northerners who took it away from my Confederate ancestors.

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    • At first I felt the same way, but there was something in it that compelled me to read on. When I imagined “evil people” with evil thoughts I thought it would be a weird world–but it was more a look at how far people will go in certain situations. It also reinforced the notion of how much control we do have over our evil impulses if we understand how easy it is to slip into evil.

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      • Two foods for that thought: 1) Hannah Arendt on the Banality of evil at Eichman’s trial in Jerusalem. 2) Stanley Milgram’s “Submission to authority”. Look both up if you’re not familiar with them. 🙂

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  2. I don’t want to put myself through this right now. But I will say I have a poem in my book where the persona is a serial killer. I had to go there to write it.

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  3. Oh I’ve actually read (and reviewed 😉 ) this! I think it’s the quintessential book on evil (that I think a lot of the people we probably mutually follow recommend 😉 ) I love the example you gave about that feeling when you think you’re right but then realise you weren’t- because it reminded me of the part at the beginning of the book where Baumeister talks about a woman who thought someone was stealing her crisps, but actually she was stealing his! This was a phenomenally powerful post!! Thank you for sharing!

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