My interest in evil goes back to when I was a small child and wanted to understand why people did horrible things to each other. Growing up in the 1960s in the heart of New York City, where I attended a girls’ school with a predominantly Jewish student body, I was aware of the Holocaust and the devastation it had caused amongst my friends’ families. Because of my southern background, I heard stories from my parents about the extreme cruelty towards American blacks and the importance of civil liberties.
I also remember the paranoid vestiges of the Cold War, scurrying under our desks at school as the air raid sirens blared during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and most vividly the moment when I heard about President Kennedy’s assassination. Although the 1960s gave birth in the US to the peace movement and protests against the Vietnam War, it was against a backdrop of violence and fear.
The 1960s was also a time in the US when views about mental illness were changing radically. The anti-psychiatry movement led by R.D. Laing and David Cooper in the UK, and Thomas Szasz and Harold Searles in the US, along with the work of the sociologist Irving Goffman, for the first time highlighted the importance of environmental factors on behaviour and states of mind. Within this perspective, much of mental illness - and to some extent criminal behaviour - was attributed to psycho-social dynamics. Madness and badness could be understood as responses to dysfunctional social systems, whether in the family or the community.
As a teenager, I was inspired by these thinkers. At the same time I discovered Freud. This was a profound experience, like discovering outer space, but it was inner space instead, just as mysterious and rich in its offerings. I knew at this point that I wanted to become a psychoanalyst, but I also needed some life experience and time to grow up. My passion for justice and interest in madness and criminality led me to get a Masters in criminology after I graduated from university and then to work for the next ten years designing and implementing systems for local authorities across England and Wales to keep kids out of prison and out of the courts.
During this time I also worked in a delinquency project in Hammersmith that led me some years later to set up the first victim-offender mediation scheme in the UK with the Metropolitan Police Juvenile Bureau. I witnessed a great deal of delinquent behaviour, of madness and occasionally violence. I was also aware of some criminal behaviour that was neither bad nor mad, but was calculatingly sadistic – what might be called psychopathic or evil. The prison system is familiar with such people; these people rarely show up in the consulting room but their victims do.
While individual psychopathy can be terrifying, what is even more frightening is when groups of ordinary people commit atrocities or witness them without intervening. This is hardest to imagine because it could be you or me – and this is what is so frightening for us. Working with patients, many of whom have been touched by evil in different ways, has also inevitably confronted me with the need to understand evil – not only in others but in myself - and the questions that it raises: ‘what do we mean by evil?’ ‘How is it different from destructiveness?’ ‘Why does it happen?’ ‘Under what circumstances does it happen?’ and “Is it possible to recover from or to forgive?’
I would therefore counter the question, ‘Are we ready to move past the ideas of good and evil?’, with the question, ‘Are we ready to accept that just as we all have the capacity to commit good, we all have the capacity to commit evil?’
Dr. Coline Covington is a psychoanalyst and author of Everyday Evils: A Psychoanalytic View of Evil and Morality. 2017. London: Routledge.
Beyond Good and Evil is debated as part of our Belief & Beyond Belief festival on Saturday 23 September.