About evil

So I’ve been pondering about evil for a while.

Physical aspects of evil

So let’s start with one aspect in particular: the organic, physiological grounds of “evil” (or at least of “wrong”). To keep it to a light definition of what I mean, let’s say: “Considered morally reprehensible by local cultural standards“.

Let’s start small, with a small anecdote on the physiology of lying. The other day, I bumped into a great publicity stunt (for a TV show): you could take a polygraph test. Geek that I am, I HAD to try it out.

So, whilst queueing, I tried to find a way to beat it. You have to know this though: I am an appallingly bad liar. I am the person who blushes even when she tells the truth, on the mere presence of a possible suspicion that I might be lying (because there would be an incentive for me to do so).

So anyway, I took a guess: could the reason we get caught (i.e. the lie detector spikes when we tell a lie), be that we “know we’re doing wrong” and this evokes a sympathetic nervous system response? When I was little, I remember clearly the day I was pondering about good and bad, and trying to find a signal that I might be doing something wrong, and the only thing I could come up with was this physical feeling (my heart beating a little faster, and anxious concentration – presumably scheming not to get caught, or some guilt feeling at the thought of the consequences). That’s when I knew for sure I was being bad.

So I figured: let’s try to apply this to my lie experiment. The hypothesis is this: if you manage to convince yourself that your lie is for the greater good (e.g. if you lie, the entire human race will be saved), then you’re not doing ‘wrong’ by lying, then you will not feel the physiological response to ‘wrongness’, then the polygraph won’t detect it.

So the technician asks me some baseline questions (as in you’re supposed to tell the truth), during which I lied, and the whole machine spiked to high heavens (and the technician was a little annoyed at my not playing fair). So much for my theory. Maybe more practice?    ;  P

It was a pretty awesome experience, though, and it falls bang in the middle of one of my favourite topics: the physicality of conscience, its physiological ’causes’ and expressions.

Psychological pathology: where do you draw the line?  

I of all people have perhaps been affected the most by this question.

Here’s the horrendous story. My older sister (8 years old) had always worried us. She often seemed to ‘make the wrong decisions’. She also had peculiar ethical views at times. She worshipped Geishas, for example. She consciously aspired to make an art of exchanging sex for financial security and adulation. To a certain extent, that’s pretty much how society used to be structured until recently (man goes and earn, woman builds the home), but her view was coldly exploitative. Falling in love with the right ‘provider’ didn’t come into it. She saw her ambition at becoming a rich wife as a career.

So she invested, from a very early age, disproportionate amounts of energy in her looks, style and ‘classiness’, and scarily little in what I would consider more substantial matters, like professional skills, education or virtue.

In her very early 20’s, she married the first guy she could (a secondary school physics teacher), and left the country. A few months later, she’d left him, looking for a bigger fish. Over the years, she had slept her way up the social ladder and was living with a plastic surgeon. Then she struck gold (or so she thought). She cheated on the surgeon with a flamboyant semi-retired lawyer cum “movie” producer (never quite got to the bottom of that one). He was fourteen years her senior, and short and fat. I was a little irate by the lack consistency (am big on consistency, like really big): what with her obsession with physical imperfections (in hers and our own, making us feel fat, hairy and dirty whenever she could), he seemed to fit the bill. Ah well. Anyway, a fourteen year age gap was not the most age-inappropriateness relationship she’d had, so we nearly counted our blessings with this one).

He was quite passionate, intelligent, and extremely charismatic. A very interesting person, but obsessed with impressing people with his wealth and influence (both of which eventually dwindled to nothing). When she met him, he was at the beginning of the controversial financial affair that would eventually ruin him. He was accused of some financial fraud or another, which ultimately resulted in him losing everything over the next 10 years.

She spent her entire life with him as a kind of jet-setting debt fugitive, failing to pay the rent in their swanky London and Monaco pads, losing the villa in Cannes (in which she had moved my Grandmother, incidentally). All the while, both of them looking down their noses at the rest of us for our lack of class, and still driving in Bentleys and Jags and God knows what, and treating their ‘friends’ to the world’s most expensive restaurants (literally).

She really thought of herself as royalty, or somehow endowed with high class and entitled to the treatment that went with that. She was  obsessed with designer gear and beauty treatments. These were a necessity, not a luxury. She nearly cried when I dug out an old 80’s picture of her with a terrible haircut. Her life depended on her appearing unrealistically rich and beautiful.


Given their financial troubles, and her spending problem, she soon got herself into so much (financial) trouble that she ended up stealing from friends and “borrowing” money from her cleaning lady, my grandmother, my parents, myself, taking ‘advances on the rent money, shoplifting, faking burglaries (to get my parents to cough up), etc., etc., etc.

Perhaps the worst thing she did, was to tell us, her family, FOR FIVE YEARS, that she had some kind of leukemia to pump money out of my parents on the grounds that her husband had not been keeping up with the health insurance fees. She even concocted a bone marrow transplant, letting us send flowers to her ‘donor’. All the while, her doctors were strangely elusive, and she wasn’t on any patient register. She also refused to let us visit after the operation.

We still haven’t established to what extent her husband was complicit to this. In a sense, it doesn’t matter.

So, at the time, sick with worry, I started a campaign to find a donor around that time. Predictably enough, I received hate mail saying I should be ashamed of myself for my prank (obviously, lots of the details that my sister had given me didn’t hold water). So, around that time, she would call me and pretend that she was feeling really weak from the medication, or feigning various side effects whenever she was back for a visit, or saying she had to quickly hang up as “You’re not allowed to use phones in the hospital”.

The fall

In the last couple of years, she was desperately trying to find a replacement piggie bank, as her 10-year marriage to her  financially ruined husband was holding on in name only. She gradually realised that she’d lost the power she had on men (she was going to turn 40). She gradually became nothing  more than a temporary escort in the eyes of her “suitors”.

At that stage, she totally panicked. Her whole self-image crumbled, and her personality, well, collapsed. She saw herself as a semi-perfect temptress  queen with eternal beauty, and reality was catching up with her. She had a complete breakdown and was so exhausted with her constant scheming and anxiety that she could barely think straight. At times, she barely made sense. She was confused, and, at times, in a deep stage of dissassociation (there was no life in her eyes anymore). She started more and more senseless decisions. One of them was this: she asked me if it was a good idea to resume contact with a really intense guy she’d met at the station. She felt they were kindred spirits as he was a “mysterious Persian man with kohl-clad eyes”. She was convinced he was a gigolo but, as far as I know, had no intention of pursuing a sexual relationship with him.

During her last trip back home, she told us of some of the frauds she’d committed (including pretending she’d been broken into in her twenties, so that my parents would help her out; another time pretending burglars had gassed her in her bedroom and a friend from the CIA then gave her highly trained guard dogs; stealing family souvenirs from her best friend’s house, etc.). My mom was flabbergasted, most of all because that list included, yes, lying about the leukaemia.

A couple of days later, she had committed suicide. The paramedics reanimated her despite the fact that she was brain-dead,  leading to the worst 2 weeks of our lives, living in limbo at her bedside. But more on that later if I have the energy/inclination.

Personality disorder: a veil lifted

The shrinks in charge of our case (you can imagine the state we were in) suggested she’d had a personality disorder and then it was like the veil had lifted. It all started to make sense. They suggested Borderline.

Now picture the grief choices I had:

A/ “Poor sick sister who couldn’t do anything about it”, or

B/ “You evil person am so pissed with you for the stuff I’ve found out that you did”?

Remember, there were some really horrendous revelations, plus lots of other things we found out later. My approach was: “Ah, what the hell, let’s have PTSD and worry about that grief crap later”. So I was scared out of my wits half the time, at the sheer creepiness of her death (bloated by the respirator, cold to the touch, hair made up by nurses, evil revelations, lying in bed braindead for 2 weeks = pretty creepy).

Six year later, am over the PTSD (couldn’t stay in a room alone in the dark, couldn’t even drive my car at night, thinking she’d creep up on me), but there’s still no sign of the forgiveness am supposed to feel (except for VERY fleeting occasions). Or some kind of grandiose closure. Unhealthy? Don’t know. Seems like it could be. Unprocessed grief? Definitely. Affecting me? Not really sure. Am kind of accepting of it, nearly indifferent. Thinking yep, that’s a shame, and am not coming near it with a ten-foot-bargepole thank you very much.

If there is one thing my family taught me (by counter-example), it’s how to navigate the middle course: stay sane, moderate, balanced, and rational. If the going gets rough, compartmentalise.

ADHD, is it all bullshit?

So anyway, I got to reading about the ten personality disorders in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, Fourth Edition) around the time that she was dying (in these two weeks), and dug a little more after that.

The DSM is not 100% uncontroversial. The validity of some of the disorders is not 100% accepted by all physicians, but when it comes to a psychiatry reference, the DSM is as good as it gets.

As am nuts about knowledge, and it’s how I make sense of the world, I kinda killed two birds in one stone and sorta brushed up on the basic concepts to see if it would help at all.

So, this is what I found out: a personality disorder is defined as an “enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that differs markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment“.

There are ten of them, grouped into 3 clusters:

Cluster A = odd or eccentric behaviour. Schizoid, paranoid, and/or schizotypal. As tempted as I am to delve deep and define them all, I’d be breaking my self-imposed rule to keep this blog low-maintenance.

Cluster B = dramatic, emotional or erratic behaviour. Narcissistic, borderline, histrionic, antisocial personality disorders. This was her cluster.

Cluster C = anxious, fearful behaviour. This one has avoident, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders.

I found this classifications helpful and very interesting (I looooove definitions, systems, structure), but I was a little bothered by the fact tat they describe personality traits which can be pretty mundane. Sure it’s a dead cert if someone scores quite high on most of the criteria (which she did), but it’s inevitably not a very precise diagnostic tool.

The diagnosis

Of course a postmortem diagnosis remained less than a certain method (of an already less than certain tool), but I did it out of curiosity, and the results were quite clear-cut.

Here are the borderline criteria from the DSM-IV:

 1. frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment. 

  2. a pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation. 

  3. identity disturbance: markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self. 

  4. impulsivity in at least two areas that are potentially self-damaging (e.g., spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, binge eating). 

  5. recurrent suicidal behavior, gestures, or threats, or self-mutilating behavior 

  6. affective instability due to a marked reactivity of mood (e.g., intense episodic dysphoria, irritability, or anxiety usually lasting a few hours and only rarely more than a few days). 

  7. chronic feelings of emptiness 

  8. inappropriate, intense anger or difficulty controlling anger (e.g., frequent displays of temper, constant anger, recurrent physical fights) 

  9. transient, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms

And these are the ones for narcissistic personality disorder:

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1)  has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2)  is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3)  believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

(4)  requires excessive admiration

(5)  has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6)  is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7)  lacks empathy:  is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8)  is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9)  shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Which was pretty much her to a T (the narcissistic one).

The awkward questions

As appeasing as it was, the medical explanation carried with it a whole set of awkward questions:

1. What is the unique nature of a specific disorder? What was its discrete, core, entity? What was its Kantian “Ding an sich‘ (sorry, but I can’t think of a less snubby way of putting it)?

  • You could conceivably have several of these disorders at the same time
  • It’s not the whole set of criteria/symptoms (you can have just a few and still ‘qualify’).
  • It doesn’t respond to one discrete type of biochemical/psychotherapy treatment (at least last I checked, about 6 years ago).

2. What was the cause?

  • Was it something outside of her control?
  • Was it something outside of my mother’s control? My mother’s education methods were a little, well, peculiar. I can see how they could damage a fragile mind.
  • Was it partly genetic, only needing a small environmental trigger to develop (my sister’s father was some criminal conman)

2. And then, the biggie: was it her fault?

The whole ‘I had a crap childhood argument’ she kept using to justify her unconscionable acts (particularly against my mother, with whom she could be sophisticatedly vicious) as just and fair retribution, well, that was getting old.

So after the idea of a disorder was put on the table, I had to ask yourself this: What actions and decisions were controlled (“compulsed”) by the disorder, and to what extent? And then:

3. If she was still alive, how could I handle it if I’d known it was a “medical issue”? Letting her destroy us? Punishing her with an eye for an eye? Institutionalising her?

Last I looked (about 6 years ago), treatment outcomes for narcissistic/borderline personality disorders were pretty bleak, and the one piece of advice professionals give to friends/relations is to get the hell out.

So I am at peace with the way things are. I think she now can rest and stop being torn by the constant mismatch of her fantasies to reality.

4. Here’s another biggie: accountability. Perhaps the biggest of them all.

As I clawed my way out of an arguably unsound childhood, she just dug deeper in self-destruction. Of course I did my fair share of stupid things, but I put it down to teenage rebellion. After that, I started thinking about her: “Dude, rise above it, make something of yourself, the whole childhood shit is getting old. What good is dwelling on this stuff?”.

Shortly after she died, I was talking to a shrink (to sort out the PTSD), and they put this one on the table: “What if she didn’t have the resources to be wiser? To take constructive decisions? To build herself a sustainable life?“. As in she didn’t have a chance in hell of the Aristotelian ‘good life’, even if she’d known to want it. Interesting thought, but I couldn’t really compute it. Didn’t really ring a bell. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had to haul myself up from a pretty shitty place with iron willpower, and that came with pretty strong intolerance for people who “haven’t bothered” (sorry, Dr lady, “haven’t managed”).

My husband was a great influence on me on the tolerance front, and I can see it a little more now (that she did what she did because she was not able to do otherwise). But still, she did what she did. So now the biggest of all:

Was the disorder evil? Was the person evil? Can you truly differentiate? Especially when the chances of successful treatment are so weak? And even if the chances of a successful treatment were very successful, the person posing those acts when they are sick is still posing evil acts, even if the ‘cured’ person regrets them and feels remorse.


So I don’t know where I stand on the diagnosing of personality traits. I feel uncomfortable with the excessive use of some defence lawyers of the whole personality disorder line because it somehow implies a diminished responsibility to do the right thing, to live virtuously.

We were watching a Louis Theroux documentary the other day, about kids who get medicated for (in his words) being “unruly”. I thought it was a little one-sided (he clearly didn’t think much of the medicating system in general, whereas am a little moderate). But it did raise the right questions, essentially: when is a diagnosis just the easy way out? It is a very convenient way to relief the ‘patients’ and parents of a lot of responsibility.

Making a bit of a leap, I think Theresa Gowan‘s 3-way interpretation of the perceived causes of homelessness are really applicable here, actually:

  • system (i.e. environment: education, trauma, …), 
  • sin (who I am, my personality), 
  • sick (my disease, emphasis on genetic, physiological component).
I think we run the risk of missing the truth if we view the cause for some people ‘failed lives’ from one of these causes alone.

Death penalty

So, where do you draw the line on accountability? Imagine there was a genetic propensity for becoming a paedophile that got triggered by the wrong kind of education. So this guy has this crappy childhood, and has a genetic tendency for finding children sexually attractive, and finds his urges very hard to resist. Does he ‘deserve’ the same freedom and chances as I do? Or do we let go of the notion of rights and morality altogether, and just look pragmatically at the potential effect of his freedom on society (which is more my line of thinking on this one). I think: if he is a convicted paedophile and has served his sentence, we can’t just release him unsupervised. He is a danger to society unless we find a sure-fire treatment which, to my knowledge, we haven’t (chemical castration?).

And then, to continue on that thought experiment, imagine there is a way of detecting without error the ‘genetic paedophiles’. They have the ability to act upon their urges, but haven’t yet. They haven’t been ‘switched on’ but their ‘disease’ lay dormant. Would you incarcerate them in a mental institution ‘just in case’, before they did anything?

All really difficult questions.

All I know is that nothing deserves the death penalty. I see its only function as purely retribution, revenge, and I think we’re crossing a dangerous line when we use the justice system to act on emotions.

But I do think that this guy (and perhaps my sister?) should be locked up with the criminally insane if their (unresolved) psychological issues made them pose criminal acts, and will continue to do so. Particularly if it brings other members of society in physical danger.

Of course, it’s all up in the air and empty talk without taking economics into account. But I won’t even go there…

About depression and endocrinology

Am also quite interested in endocrinology and character, the influence on hormones. I actually wrote my undergrad thesis on neuroendocrinology (and had a real blast with the electron microscope, but that’s another story).

So I’ve suffered bouts of depressions throughout my life (first starting around four, believe it or not). I was always quite precocious, which might follow the old cliche (too clever to be happy), although I’ve stopped glamorising intelligence after my whole Arthur Rimbaud teenage thing.

Anyways, the consequences of my ‘burn-outs’/depressions are that I get irritable (effect on environmetn: ratty/bitchy/vicious/demanding/controlling), anxious (effect on environment: needy),  and tired (effect on environment: lazy). This means that it’s a royal pain for my family, that I can’t pull my weight, that my husband must, once again, carry the whole family through for the next few months. That my boss must, once again, pay for my sick leave although “It’s not like I have a broken arm or anything”.

So I could ask the same questions again, those I asked about my sister’s personality disorder, and ask them about depression:

  • To what extent are the actions and limitations and attitudes I have during a depressive period fault?
  • To what extent can I do something about it (am already doing the nutrition, cognitive beh. therapy, socialising, sleeping, talking and sports thing)
  • To what extent does it matter whether I can do something about it or not? Doesn’t it just boil down to: I am simply not as productive a member of society as my peers, and we should protect society from people like me (by making it impossible for me to get a regular job, and ‘forcing me to do volunteer work’)?

On that note, breaking my promise not to spend too long on this blog… About 3 hours and counting writing this one. Bad girl.

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