Book 'Em: The Anatomy of Evil

The crimes of Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Dennis Rader, and other high-profile killers are so breathtakingly awful that most people would not hesitate to label them "evil." In The Anatomy of Evil, psychiatrist Michael H. Stone, MD, uses this common emotional reaction to horrifying acts as his starting point to explore the concept and reality of evil from a new perspective.

In a discussion of the personality traits and behavior that constitute evil, Dr. Stone takes a scientific approach to a topic that he says has for centuries been inadequately explained by religious doctrines.

Basing his analysis on the detailed biographies of more than 600 violent criminals, Stone has created a 22-level hierarchy of evil behavior, which loosely reflects the structure of Dante's Inferno. He traces two salient personality traits in those who commit crimes of passion, to perpetrators of the worst crimes—sadistic torture and murder. One trait is narcissism; the other is aggression.

Stone examines the various factors that contribute to pushing certain people over the edge to commit heinous crimes. They include heredity, adverse environments, violence-prone cultures, mental illness or brain injury, and abuse of mind-altering drugs.

What do psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience tell us about the minds of those whose actions could be described as evil? And what will that mean for the rest of us? Stone discusses how an increased understanding of the causes of evil will affect the justice system. He predicts a day when certain persons can safely be declared salvageable and restored to society, and when early signs of violence in children may be corrected before potentially dangerous patterns become entrenched.

Interview By Barry Leibowitz, Senior Writer at 48 Hours | Mystery

People often label the most heinous crimes "pure evil." Is there such a thing?

Stone: There is no such "thing" as pure evil, viewed in the abstract, like some theological or philosophical concept. But there are innumerable acts of violence both in peacetime (the focus of this book) and in wartime (my next book) to which 99% of the public react – upon seeing or hearing of these acts – with the expression: My God, that's evil!! And sometimes they say "that was pure evil," by which they mean – they can scarcely think of anything more depraved and repugnant. "Pure evil" is an emotional expression, in other words, and not some abstract, scientifically recognized entity.

Example: John Ray Weber in Wisconsin kidnapped his 15-year old sister-in-law to a remote wooded area, subjected her to unspeakable sexual torture, and then, viciously strangled her to death (editor's note: What happened was, in fact, far more graphic). I imagine this story will suffice to demonstrate what elicits from ordinary people the response: "pure evil."

Is a person born evil, or are there always other factors behind evil acts?

Stone: People are not born "evil." Certain people are born with a strong genetic predisposition to psychopathy. They cannot be identified in the obstetrics ward. Then, because of a confluence of events and interactions with parents and others, plus such factors as brain disease or serious head injury, mental illness, drug abuse, etc – they may end up committing violent and atrocious acts of the sort that inspire the response: Evil!!

Is a psychopath or a sadist "the personification of evil?"

Stone: By no means are all psychopaths or sadists the "personifications of evil." There are plenty of con-artists/psychopaths who'll sell you fake Rolex watches on the street-corner, but never lay a hand on anyone – who are therefore psychopathic but not evil.

There are plenty of husbands and wives who are constantly busy humiliating their spouses or saying mean things to their kids – but who never abuse them physically or sexually; these folks are sadistic (in that they enjoy making others suffer) but their acts fall far short of what it takes to call someone "evil" or to call certain actions "evil." But most persons whom society does label as the personification of evil – turn out to be sadistic psychopaths, like the serial killer John Ray Weber (mentioned above), or like Mike DeBardeleben, Leonard Lake, David Parker Ray, and other serial killers who subjected their victims to prolonged torture.

Men seem to have a monopoly on evil. Do they, and if so, why?

Stone: Men do not have a monopoly on evil, but are 5 to 10 times more likely to commit the kinds of heinous aggressive acts we label "evil." Men have been shaped by nature and evolutionary forces to be more aggressive than women (same as for male lions compared with lionesses); men guard the perimeter of the tribe or group; women feed the babies and cook for their hunter-mates. This is how we started 50,000 years ago in the African savannah from which we all descended; nothing much has changed except the size of the tribes and we now have a lot of fancy tools, like the computer I'm writing on. Still, there are a few ladies who are right up there with the worst of the men – like Theresa Knorr in California or Gertrude Baniszewski in Indiana (whom I mention in my book).

Who is at the top – if you can call it that – on your "evil scale?"

Stone: I used Level #22 on my Gradations of Evil Scale to situate the worst of the worst (still confining myself to persons operating in peacetime). David Parker Ray, with his torture chamber he built in New Mexico for torturing women over weeks or even months in all sorts of sickening and diabolical ways – is at the top, though John Ray Weber did things just as horrible, but to fewer victims (maybe only three, as opposed to dozens killed by David Parker Ray).

Does your study of this subject ever give you nightmares?

Stone: I had several nightmares after interviewing some of the serial killers for the Discovery Channel show called "Most Evil." I mention one such dream in my book; it occurred after I interviewed Tommy Lynn Sells on death row in Texas.

What question should CRIMESIDER have asked you that we didn't... and what's the answer?

Stone: Question: As a psychiatrist and especially as a psychoanalyst, aren't you supposed to refrain from making judgments about people, let alone dubbing certain ones "evil" – which after all is hardly a diagnostic term accepted in your profession?

Answer: No one in our profession uses "evil" as a label for certain patients or as a diagnostic phrase. Rather, my research has focused on how the public (including journalists, judges, prosecutors, and people in ordinary life) uses the word, and which kinds of violent crimes elicit the word from the public. As I began to accumulate large numbers of cases where "evil" was applied to a crime (and sometimes even to an offender who committed such crimes repeatedly), I could see certain patterns. For instance, most of the perpetrators could be diagnosed as "psychopathic" by standard criteria.

Many also met diagnostic criteria for sadism. Almost all were "narcissistic" (since most criminals are intensely egocentric). "Evil" was more likely to be applied to persons (usually men) who schemed and plotted to dispose of their wives in such a way as to make it appear that the death was an accident or the result of some other person (who would turn out to be a hired "hit-man"). Such persons operated with what in law is called malice aforethought. Evil is usually reserved for violent acts done with malice aforethought and with extreme degrees of cruelty. Psychiatrists, including myself, are also "ordinary folk" living in the community, who react to the news of the day, the reports of heinous crimes in the media, etc. – with the reaction "Wow, that was evil!"– the same as everybody else.

Michael H. Stone, MD, is professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is the author of ten books, most recently Personality Disorders: Treatable and Untreatable, and over two hundred professional articles and book chapters. He is also the host of Discovery Channel's former series Most Evil, and has been featured by many media outlets including the New York Times, Psychology Today, the Christian Science Monitor, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, and CNN.

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