Read an Excerpt
A Hole in the Psyche
“The hardest thing to hide is something that is not there.”—Eric Hoffer
In order to explain why the strategies I offer will succeed, I must first pose a seemingly paradoxical challenge to one of your most basic beliefs about how the world works. Imagine there is no such thing as evil. If you are a religious person, imagine there is no Satan, no Prince of Darkness, no deuce, no demon—no devil by any name. If you are not religious, ponder how you would feel, and how many of your ideas about life would change, after discovering that evil simply does not exist as an entity in our world. Yet more startling, suppose you were to learn that evil has never existed, not as a thing or as a wily supernatural being, not as a mysterious force or an unseen spirit, not even as some especially shameful part of ordinary human nature. I ask you to take this idea to the limit, to imagine that evil is no more than an ancient myth, like Norse trolls, or Sasquatch, or volcano gods who require the sacrifice of village maidens.
“What would be the point?” you might respond. “To think this way, we’d have to ignore too much about life as it is.” Our world is full of evildoing and people who seem terrifyingly good at it. Maybe evil is not a force, or a thing, or a being with horns—maybe evil does not exist as a noun, so to speak—but the word evil certainly works well as a universally understood adjective: there are “evil” events, “evil” schemes, “evil” behaviors. And human beings seem to have a shared understanding of what kinds of events, schemes, and behaviors these are. So, if evil does not exist, what on earth are we talking about when we use the word?
I ask you to understand that there is no such thing as evil because, psychologically speaking, there is not. Wickedness is not an invasive spirit or thing, nor is it some shadowy part of the primal human brain. It is the opposite: rather than an entity that we could observe or at least feel, evil is an absence. Instead of something, it is a hollowness where something should have been.
True evil is an empty hole, nothing more—and nothing less. The neurology behind this “hole” will be described in the next chapter. For now, let’s continue our discussion of how it reveals itself.
We consider some “evil” acts to be worse than others: serial murder and ethnic genocide are considered more heinous than, say, stealing an employee’s pension. Understandably, we make these judgments based on the magnitude of the effects—on how lethal an act was—and how many people were affected. Invading someone’s home and torturing a family for sport is seen as evil; murdering millions of innocent people is regarded as profoundly so. But all genuinely evil behaviors, from vast and unspeakable crimes against humanity to tormenting one’s spouse or embezzling someone’s savings, are enabled by the same hole in the psyche.
We can begin to understand the nature of this hole—this unfathomed empty space that begins in neurological underdevelopment—by considering the following two versions of a story about a simple car accident. In the first telling of the tale, both people involved have ordinary brains and are psychologically whole. In the second version, one of the two individuals has something missing from his brain, literally, though most of his friends and family members would be shocked to learn this.
In the first account of this fictitious car accident, Tom and Jack (both with normal brains) are driving down a nearly empty road on a rainy night, going in opposite directions. Forgetting for a few moments that there could be oncoming traffic, Tom has drifted to the middle of the road and is driving on the yellow line. When Jack comes along, traveling the other way, the two cars come within a hair’s breadth of a high-speed collision, and, to avoid the absentminded Tom, Jack is forced to drive his car off the road into a rain-flooded ditch.
Miraculously, neither of them is seriously hurt. They get out of their cars and approach each other on the dark, empty road. Tom is shaken and embarrassed. Jack is shaken, too, and enraged; his expensive car is brand-new, and he has painstakingly polished it for a rendezvous with an attractive woman he had wanted very much to impress tonight.
He yells at Tom, “What the holy hell were you doing, you idiot?”
Tom is a family man, just trying to get home. Recognizing a rhetorical question when he hears one, he apologizes diplomatically, several times, and then suggests that, if they work together, maybe they could get Jack’s car out of the ditch. With some difficulty, they manage to do so, but in the process both men ruin their clothing with mud and wet grass.
Now Jack is far beyond enraged. Observing the condition of his clothes and the brown-green muck dripping from his formerly pristine car, he would like nothing better than to take some revenge. His thoughts flash on the dark humor of the .22 Beretta in his car. He had recently purchased it for protection, after hearing about some carjackings near this very road. Right now, the road is empty and dark. All he would have to do is open his car door, grab the pistol out of the gun safe, and bang!—no more idiot.
But, as you may have guessed, Jack does not shoot Tom. He is so infuriated that he might like to kill him, but he does not. More important, he cannot, because to shoot a stranger point-blank, to murder someone who has never so much as threatened him, is not a psychological option for him. Jack’s brain, being normal, contains sensitive neurological structures that allow him to feel linked with his fellow human beings. Because of this strong inborn sense of connection—an attribute that includes an ability to love his family and friends, and to feel empathy for people in general—Jack’s psyche contains the forceful intervening emotion we refer to as conscience. And right now, his conscience is fairly screaming at him, Thou shalt not kill. Taking someone’s life is evil.
He begins to feel queasy, disturbed that he even thought about the gun, so he swallows his rage, writes down Tom’s phone number, and gets back into his car. Scowling and muttering epithets, he drives away, covered with mud and terribly angry—but not a murderer.
Now we turn to the second version of the story. Tom #2, like Tom #1, is an everyday sort of fellow with a typically constructed brain that permits him to be psychologically normal. But Jack #2 is different from Jack #1. The second Jack’s brain, being absent of any emotional connection to his fellow humans, has left him with a seriously abnormal psyche. Still, his aberrations usually go unidentified and even unnoticed by other people, except when circumstances—such as our fictitious car accident—cause them to loom especially large.
Jack #2 and Tom #2 are once again driving in opposite directions on a dark, empty road. As before, Tom has absentmindedly drifted to the center line. When Jack comes along, he and Tom avoid a head-on collision by the skin of their teeth, and Jack is forced to drive his expensive new car completely off the road and into a muddy ditch. Both men escape serious injury, but Jack is enraged.
Believing that Tom nearly got him killed, and remembering the good-looking woman he is supposed to be meeting later, Jack #2 screams the same thing the first Jack did: “What the holy hell were you doing, you idiot?”
Tom apologizes deferentially, just as before, and suggests they try to get Jack’s car out of the ditch. They work together and get the car back up to the road, but in so doing, saturate their clothing with gunk.
Jack’s rage is now over the top. He wants to kill Tom; he imagines how gratifying it would be to grab his unmarked .22 from the car and shoot the guy in the head. Checking out the road in both directions, he sees no other vehicles. Visibility has been bad all evening, and now a heavy fog is coming in. He could kill this guy, get back in his car, and simply keep driving. Odds are he would get away with it. When the body was finally discovered, people would think the murder involved a lovers’ fight, or maybe a carjacking gone wrong.
He reaches through the car window, opens the glove box, and fingers the grip of the pistol lying inside. It feels good. His conscience does not speak to him because, unlike Jack #1, Jack #2 has only an empty space in his mind where human connection and conscience would normally be. Since he can experience none of the standard emotions of connection, this Jack feels nothing except 1) his wrath over the botched evening, and 2) his urge to kill Tom.
He takes the gun out of the car and aims it at a spot between Tom’s eyebrows. In astonishment and terror, Tom lifts his arms as if to protect himself and starts to say, “Wait!” But before he can finish the word, Jack fires.
His face frozen in wide-eyed disbelief, Tom falls to the pavement, and his life’s blood begins to form a dark, rain-splattered pool on the asphalt. Now Jack feels a rush. He gets into his fine new car and drives away, leaving the stranger for dead. Ten miles down the road, he is still smiling.