Are we monsters or saints?
What makes us a loving husband and not a wife abuser, an honest counselor and not a lying priest, a faithful spouse and not a serial adulterer, a prayer warrior and not a warring general, a homemaker and not a home-wrecker, a faithful churchgoer and not a devout Satanist, a nation’s hero and not a country’s traitor, a law enforcer and not a petty thief, a self-sacrificial councilman and not a self-serving politician, a genius and not a dud, a life-saver and not a mass murderer, a feminist activist and not a rapist, a good man and not an evil one?
Are we the product of nature or nurture or both, working in varying degrees at different times of our life? I always wonder, why am I not a serial killer? And why am I who I am and not who I could/should become? And what if I was born in another time or place, would I be different? The trading guru Warren Buffet once said, “The odds for me to have been born in the US were 1 in 50. I won the ovarian lottery. If I had been born in Bangladesh, the chances are that I would not have had such great opportunity.”
Well, I could think of worse birthplace and even parentage. Take Henry Lee Lucas for example. Believe you me, you wouldn’t want his brand of childhood. He definitely got the short end of the ovarian stick. Very short end. His father lost both his legs when he fell off a freight train. He was drunk then. Henry senior sold pencils and illegal liquor for a living. Call it genes or whatever, but poor Henry became addicted to alcohol at the tender age of ten.
Then, comes Viola, Henry’s mother. Viola was a prostitute and, you guessed it, an alcoholic. If there was a mother from hell, Viola fits it to a pitchfork. She had already abandoned four children to a foster home before she gave birth to little Henry at forty. It was a very cramped family of four (Henry had an elder brother Andrew) and they all shared the same bedroom in a god-forsaken cabin in Virginia. There was no electricity or plumbing.
Henry learned of the birds and the bees early in life by watching his mother having sex with her clients in the same bedroom they shared. Now you can’t imagine a fate any worse than that right? Wrong. Little Henry was chronically starved and physically abused by his mother, repeatedly. At age seven, his mother whacked him so hard on the head with a wooden board that he fell into a semi-conscious state for three days, lying at the exact spot his mother had hit him.
No one cared for him until his mother’s pimp noticed that something was wrong and rushed him to the hospital. The hospital was told instead that Henry fell from a ladder. Now, compound this with psychological torture that Henry had to endure in the hands of his mother. At seven, he was told by her that his natural father was a stranger on the street. Viola actually pointed the man out to him. Henry was devastated by the cruel joke and cried for days. This was followed by another form of psychological torture.
One day, his mother approached him while he was playing with his pet mule. She asked him whether he liked his pet mule. He nodded. She then took out a shotgun and shot the mule before his eyes. As if that was not enough, Viola also whipped and beat the poor child for burdening her with the expenses for disposing the dead animal.
Alas, Henry was not spared any mercy in his youth. Not only was he abused by his mother, luck was also not on his side. His brother once accidentally stuck a knife in his face when he was making a swing at a maple tree. The accident punctured his left eye and impaired his vision.
Then, lightning struck twice when his teacher in school swung her hand to hit another child and missed and landed on Henry’s left eye. The impact reopened his wound and resulted in the loss of his eye. Now, how much can a child take right? I guess Warren Buffet might have turned out very differently if he had to endure what little Henry had to endure.
With a childhood like that, it is not surprising that Henry became one of the most prolific serial killers in history. He once confessed to killing about 3000 but he later recanted. It is believed that 350 was a more credible number. His death sentence was later commuted by President Bush Junior and he died in prison by natural causes. Although I would not say that Henry had a good excuse for his life of crime, I would not say that he was fully in control of his life either. His was quite an extreme case of how genetic and environmental factors had conspired to influence, even dictate, his life’s choices for the worst.
Here is another life that would turn the tables around on what tip the scale between the monster and saint in us. While Henry was raised in a horrendous home environment with an abusive mother and all, Randy Kraft was raised in a good one. He was a computer consultant with an IQ of 129. That’s quite high. He came from a middle-class family and enrolled in good schools. He was even placed in accelerated classes and secure a degree in economics. But Randy had a dark pedophilic secret. He was quite an accomplished serial killer with this nickname “the Freeway Killer”.
From the period between September 1971 and May 1983, Randy murdered an estimated sixty-four times, mostly teenage boys and adults. His modus operandi was typical. He would meet up with them for beers, take them cruising in his car and then drug them. After that, he would bring them to an isolated spot and playfully tortured them.
After the torture, he would rape them. To finish the job, he would strangle or shoot them. Being cool headed and careful, Randy got away with many of the rapes and murders. But one fateful day, he made a mistake. He was stopped by a California highway patrol for suspected drink driving. He failed the sobriety test and the patrol went over to his car to inspect it.
There and then, the patrol saw a backseat passenger, which appeared to be slouching. He then tried to wake him up but failed. So the patrol opened the door and shook the passenger. There was no response. The patrol then lifted up the jacket that was lying on the passenger’s lap. What he saw shocked him. The passenger’s pants were undone and his penis and testicles were exposed. He also had ligature marks on his wrists. That spelt the end of Randy’s murder spree.
The comparison here is irresistible. On one side is Henry, who suffered an abusive childhood. And on the other side is Randy, who in contrast had a good one. So, what made Randy a serial killer? What’s more, Randy was academically equipped and had everything going for him.
The neat answer here would be the brain. Randy had a malfunctioning brain. The theory goes that Randy is considered a cold blooded one with proactive aggression. This means that he was able to keep his cool under pressure as he makes diligent and conscious plans to seek out his victims. This accounts for his proactivity.
Unfortunately, people like Randy have some parts of their brain damaged. Here are the parts of the brain where the experts think may have been compromised: angular gyrus, the hippocampus, the parahippocampal, and the posterior cingulate. I will not delve further into them to avoid being bogged down by unnecessary details.
But suffice to say that should any of the parts mentioned above suffer from cell death (shrinkage), lesions, low glucose metabolism, structural defects or abnormality due to awry genetic mutation at birth, dysfunctional neurodevelopment in later years, or head trauma resulting from an accident, it would increase the propensity of a person towards violence, anti-social aggression and even murder. This is a neat theory but like all neat theories, closer examination usually uncover something more.
Now, while Henry and Randy sought victims out (which is described earlier as proactive aggression), there is another class of killers who are generally reticent and reserved until provoked. And when provoked, they would lose their head (or cool). They suffer from reactive aggression and are known as hot blooded killers. Again, the theory is that they too have brain damage. But the part that is damaged is in the control department, that is, the prefrontal cortex. Most of these killers suffer from the lack of activation (or activity) in their prefrontal cortex.
Take James Filiaggi for example. Here we have an accountant by profession with a pretty good upbringing. He was a smart kid who graduated with honors in finance. But he had a temper which he could not control. Due to his violent streak, James attacked many at the slightest provocation, including nuns, when he was young. One night he had an argument with his wife and when she called 911, he took out a gun and shot her in the head. This is what a damaged prefrontal cortex can do to you. It compromises your ability to control your emotions.
Here is another case similar to that of James. His name is Herbert Weinstein. He was a 65 year old advertising executive. But Herbert had a strange brain defect. He had a large chunk missing from his prefrontal cortex. Imagine that – a hole in his brain. This was in fact his defence at his trial when he pleaded insanity. His lawyers actually brought an expert (the acclaimed neuroscientist Antonio Damasio) into court to successfully testify that due to the missing chunk in his brain, Herbert’s ability to regulate his emotions and make rational decisions were greatly impaired. His crime? He strangled his wife to death just like James “the hot fuse”. The evidence revealed that in a domestic spat, Herbert actually backed away from the argument. He withdrew and retreated. But his wife didn’t want to let go. She charged at him and furiously scratched his face. This caused something in Herbert to snap and he grabbed her by the throat and choked the life out of her in uncontrollable fits of anger. So, blame it on the missing prefrontal lobe?
Of course, it seems like the low hanging fruit syndrome when we choose to blame it all on a defective brain. But personally, I can’t say that there is a dearth of credible evidence supporting this theory. Randy, James and Herbert are not the only people whose brains were impaired or dysfunctional.
The textbook case on how a damaged brain can effectively change someone for the worst is the story of Phineas Gage. His is a strange story.
It all happened in September 1848 when Phineas met with a most unusual accident. He was working at a projected railway track at that time. The operation was to drill a small hole into a large boulder so as to fill it up with gunpowder. The aim was to blow the boulder up. The next step of the operation after filling the hole with the gunpowder was to fill it up with a protective layer of sand. After that, Phineas was supposed to insert the metal tamping rod, which was three feet seven inches long, into the hole to compress the sand with the gunpowder. However, the culprit here was the missing sand.
As Phineas was distracted, and thought that the sand had already been filled, he inserted the rod into the hole. The exposed gunpowder caught a spark caused by the rod when it rubbed against the side of the hole and exploded inside. The sudden pressure turned the rod into a deadly spear and it shot out from the hole. The rod then went through Phineas’ lower left cheek and came out of the middle part of his head. It then projected like a missile and landed eighty feet away. Phineas was rushed to the hospital for immediate surgery.
Everybody thought Phineas was a goner. Miraculously, although he had lost his left eye, he was up and about in less than a month. But the miracle only went as far as his surviving the harrowing accident and not in redeeming his character. In the eye-opening book The Anatomy of Violence (by Adrian Raine), the author quoted a friend of Phineas describing most exhaustively how he had changed.
“He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible…Previous to his injury although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”” The key word is that he was no longer Gage.
Later in life, Phineas became sexually promiscuous and a drunkard. He also got fired from his employer. The tragic life of Phineas ended with his death in May 1860 after a series of epileptic seizures.
It is tempting at juncture to ask, “Is it really that simple? Is there all to it? The compromised brain is the culprit?”
Of course, for people like Phineas or Herbert who had suffered a serious brain injury and loss, especially in the area of the prefrontal cortex, it is expected that they will go through some personality changes. But for Herbert, for the last 64 years of his life, he led a clean, crime-free life. He had therefore exercised some self-control nevertheless. No doubt, it was out of sudden provocation that he strangled his wife. But could that be an environmental trigger and not just the so called defective brain working alone? And what if his wife did not go berserk and charge at him, will Herbert ever kill his wife? And if so, will he ever find out that he had a missing chunk in his brain?
How about Phineas? Well, the book by Adrain Raine actually caveated Phineas’ case with three others which suffered largely the same injury. They all had prefrontal cortex damage. One fell from a height and landed on spiked metal gate. One of the spikes impaled his head. The other was a thirteen year old boy who was playing with his father’s pistol and shot his head by accident. The last case was a thirty three year old man who wanted to end his life due to depression. In the uncannily exact fashion as Phineas’ case, he held a crossbow to his chin and released the trigger. The arrow went through his chin and lodged itself in his brain.
Now the strange part is that none of them suffered the same post-accident fate as Phineas. Although the first victim showed signs of being impatience and impulsive, he did not degenerate into having an antisocial and psychopathic personality like Phineas. The second victim’s personality did not change much. He remained largely the same.
And the third victim was the most unusual of them all. He was in fact transformed in the opposite direction. He became a quiet, docile and content man. Here is how the author described it in the book, “The pathological aggression was eradicated overnight. The depression disappeared in a jiffy. It was a miracle cure…he became “inappropriately cheerful” and he simply cheered up.” Was the brain injury then a good thing for him?
The author attributed it mostly to the environment. All of them had supportive and caring loved ones and friends. It appears that there is no one-size-fits-all kind of brain injury to the prefrontal cortex. All the four cases above showed different personality changes arising from the same injury. It is therefore clear that the brain alone does not work alone. There are other factors involved. The brain cannot be viewed in isolation from such factors like the environment and one’s genetic makeup.
Let's consider genes. Is there really a connection? Is there such thing as killer genes? Is genes destiny?
From what I have written so far, most would resist such a cut-and-dry approach as this would open a can of monster-sized worms for discriminative criminal profiling and individual human liberty. Imagine being born with such genes and being condemned for life for having a killer within you waiting to come full bloom.
However, as strange as this would sound, here's one life that would rattle your ecumenical boat a little. His name is Jeffrey Landrigan. The clue about genes here is that Jeffrey was adopted. He was abandoned at a day care center and his adoptive parents were a geologist father and a doting mother. Jeffrey didn't know who or what kind of a person his biological father was; something which I will reveal later.
Despite coming from a reasonably good environment, Jeffrey started to do crime at a young age. At age two, he was throwing tantrums. That seems normal. But then, at ten, he became addicted to alcohol. At eleven, he burglarized a home and begun to skip school, abuse drugs, stole cars and spent time in detention centers. His first serious brush with the law was when he stabbed a friend to death and at twenty, he was imprisoned for second degree murder. He escaped from prison and continued his life of crime; a sequel. Things culminated to the murder of a stranger he met named Dyer. The victim was strangled to death with an electrical cord and there were pornographical cards strewn all over the victim's bedside.
This time, Jeffrey was sentenced to death. But in a twist of the most bizarre kind, he met his biological father, Darrel Hill, in prison. Jeffrey was in fact a splitting image of his father. And this is where genes come into play because the splitting images spilled over to their largely splitting histories. Jeffrey's father started his criminal career young just like his son. He was also a drug addict and he too killed twice. The parallel lives did not stop there. Darrel also escaped from prison and to cap it all up, Darrel's father (that is, Jeffrey's grandfather) was shot to death in a drug store robbery turned sour in 1961. Imagine that, three generation of criminal heritage. Is this random coincidences or genetic destiny?
Personally, I am not inclined to put all my “destiny” eggs into one “genes” basket. To me, the factors are just too multivariate for laser-precision enumeration and identification. For a start, I see our genes and the environment as no different from our right and left hands. It really takes two to clap. You see, a genetic mutation at birth may incline a child towards antisocial aggression or cause it to remain dormant until triggered by the right mix of circumstances, opportunity and people. Or it may never find expression at all when the environment is constantly nurturing and supportive. I imagine a good environment like a river flowing with fresh water running over dry “delinquency-like” land and preventing the parchness from ever erupting into cracks of violent personality traits.
Even a serious brain injury, which predisposes the victim to certain traits involving compromised self-control and suicidal conduct, could be turned around for good with the right environment of care and nurture. Of course this works in the reverse too. Bad social environment and bad genes would be a potent cocktail mix of a life of crime and killing. Take the unfortunate case of Jolly Jane Toppan for example.
She was an orphan and was institutionalized until five years old. That is clearly the first (but not definitive) environmental trigger to predispose a person towards a life of crime. Sure enough, Jolly Jane became known by the nickname "killer nurse". But she had an morbidly strange way of finishing off her victims.
You see, she treasured life and lived to the fullest. However, she also enjoy witnessing life slowly ebbing out of her elderly patients. Go figure. Her killing methodology was quite simple and perverted. She would overdose her patients with morphine and wait for her victims to slowly sink into a coma. Just before crossing that flat-liner threshold, she would revive them with a jab. And somehow, this apparent yo-yo-ing between life and near-death gave Jolly Jane a literal sexual high or as one author described it as "voluptuous delight."
Of course, most of her patient would die out eventually but this was not before Jolly Jane took the ultimate orgasmic pleasure of watching life being slowly sucked out of them. And she made sure of it with god-like, sadistic, and full control. However crazy this may sounds, Jolly Jane's actions were not without a proximate cause and it is known as "affectionless psychopathy" (a description coined by the renowned psychologist John Bowlby).
To me, this appears to be the actions of a really sick mind, wholly insane. But then, like Henry, Jolly Jane may have had her share of growing up woes with little or no affection being shown to her.
Seen in this light, and in view of the many causes highlighted here, that is, poor and abusive socioeconomic upbringing, genetic flaws at birth, structural brain abnormality, and later-life brain injuries like Phineas Gage, I see a mental picture of a see-saw with multiple long boards branching out from the fulcrum center, each of them ridden by a cause as stated above and going up and down at their respective end. It is therefore a very complex see-sawing of the interplay of many factors or causes that come together at specific time and place to create who we are and what we will become at any given moment in time. Although this does not override the sense of control in our life and the choices we make, they do play some part in leaning us towards certain tendencies.
Let’s take a page off my own life. I am an inordinately impatient person. I got that from my father I guess. My wife however is amazingly patient like her mother but she has her moments, albeit rarely, when she would breakdown into self-wallowing pity of the most Korean-like sob-story kind. I don't know whether this is attributable to genes, social upbringing or too much Korean serial. The question here is, “Will I snap one day and go amok like James and Herbert?” Mm….food for thought?
This brings me back to the question I first posed in the beginning, "Are we monsters or saints?" I suspect that most of us are somewhere between the two extremes but never unchanging at one spot. The everyday reality is this, most of us are law abiding citizens with a family, whether married or single, and it would be unthinkable for us to even entertain the thought that we would one day snap and plunge into a killing spree in the same macabre fashion like what Henry, Jeffrey or Jolly Jane did. I am sure most of us cringed when we read their sadistic, callous and shocking stories.
I guess hell is always other people (a Sartre’s twist) and by this I mean that when we read about what thieves, cheats, molesters, rapists, and serial killers do, and their horrible accounts of torture to their innocent and helpless victims, we occasionally turn the turret at ourselves and confidently say, "Only if hell freezes over." In other words, we are so sure that we will not become the monsters that they are.
As a fact now, I am sure with a self-assuring smirk that I will not commit those evil and dastardly acts as described here. Personally, if you ask me, I really can't see myself strangling my beloved wife (or kids) or torturing/raping young male victims or snuffing the life out of senior folks. They are completely disgusting to me. I cringed when I read it. Even stepping on a trail of ants would cause me to pause for a rueful moment.
But then, did I speak too soon? One author, Professor Roy F Baumeister, made a statement that caused me to reflect deeply about this hidden side of our humanity. He wrote in the book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty this, "To understand evil, we must set aside the comfortable belief that we would never do anything wrong. Instead, we must begin to ask ourselves, what would it take for me to do such things? Assume that it would be possible." That observation rattled me. And here is why.
I once had a conversation with my wife and I threw at her what I'd call a "Then/What-scenario.” It went something like this, "What would happen to you my dear if I'd to go rogue? What choices would you make if I become unfaithful and betray you by keeping mistresses and remaining unrepentant about all that. And that’s not all. To compound matters, your kids all became ingrates and abandoned you to be with their new families. Then, you were told that you have a life threatening illness and you took to drinking to drown your sorrow. At this stage, imagine that you are completely disillusioned with life, have no one to talk to, feel totally alienated and alone, and even entertained suicidal thoughts. Then, one night, you meet a caring man who chat you up and you guys clicked and he then propositioned you. What would you do? Or one of my mistresses confronts you and tells you she is pregnant with my child and I am leaving you for good. What would you do? Or you are invited by a group of equally downtrodden women with unfaithful husbands who are signing off a suicide pact by jumping off a cliff. What would you do?”
I think this is what Baumeister's statement about the banality of evil means to me. Evil doesn't really need to look like the devil, carrying a pitchfork and howling like a menacing wolf. The evil of humanity is in fact an everyday reality.
Here’s what I mean. I have read about how a pretty young mother in 1994 told the police that her car was stolen by a black man at gunpoint with her two little sons inside. Thereafter, the police and authorities went on a nationwide man hunt with extensive media coverage. After a week of futile search, the mother (Susan Smith) finally confessed to the authorities that there was no car-jacked. Neither was there a black man nor gun. She admitted that she had drugged her boys, pushed her car into a lake, and drowned her sons. She was sentenced to life imprisonment. Now, is the face of that young distraught mother the face of evil?
There is another incident where a wife by the name of Lorena Bobbitt sliced off her husband's penis with a kitchen knife while he was laying in bed. She admitted to the mutilation but her defence was spousal abuse and repeated rape by her husband. In the end, both of them were surprisingly acquitted.
The last case is a man named John Wayne Gacy who murdered his victims by torturing and sexually abusing them. He would then hide their rotting corpses under his house. Imagine that. He had killed 33 people and they were all buried underneath him. I suppose his neighbors had all along treated him like a typical guy-next-door with no cause for suspicion whatsoever.
My point here is that the monster in us seldom rears its ugly head. And for most of us, never. Some of us may have wished for some misfortune to befall on another out of sheer frustration. Or that a friend of ours was never born. Or that our colleague would fail. Or secretly long for an early death to our enemy (I have a wife in a divorce proceeding who admitted to me that but I guess she was really angry with her philandering husband at that time).
But yet, we did not act upon those devious desires or warped urges because our religious convictions, love from family, support from community, reasonable upbringing, resilient hope, fortified conscience, normal brain and genetic makeup, timely intervention, proper counseling, rallying optimism, and self-control, collectively or in varying measures, somehow keep us from crossing over to a point of no return. Imagine taking away some of that and then sit back and watch how the cookie crumbles, which actually reminds me of the game of jenga.
We should therefore thank god or consider ourselves fortunate that we are on the whole normal. And a normal life generally follows a normal, predictable, and law-abiding routine, right? Unless of course, if what one considers as normal actually involves a whole lot of killing and mass extermination. This is actually what was considered normal for history's greatest murderer, Rudolf Hoess (I am leaving Mao and Stalin out here since Hoess' mass killings were more hands-on and direct).
Hoess was the commandant of Auschwitz. He once admitted to have put to death 2.5 million Jews. In the book Mission at Nuremberg, the author Tim Townsend had this to say about Hoess, "(He) was involved in every aspect of Auschwitz evil. He said later that he was present at most, if not all, the gassings. When typhoid broke out in one of the hospital barracks, Hoess gave the order to kill all the patients and anyone who had worked in the hospital. One day, as SS men slowly worked at the drudgery of throwing corpses into the massive burning pits, Hoess arrived, grabbed the body of a small child by the leg, and threw it into the pit. His example cheered morale, and the SS men nearby each grabbed the body of a small child and threw it into the flames."
When asked by an Army psychiatrist whether his horrific crimes in the concentration camps had come back to haunt him, Hoess answered that he never had nightmares. Then, he added that he was entirely normal. He continued, “Even while I was doing this extermination work, I led a normal family life."
As far as Hoess was concerned, he was performing his patriotic duty and what kept him going was that he had to do the job well. His job was to exterminate human beings like anyone of us would exterminate pest at home. What is therefore normal to us in our homes was normal to Hoess in Auschwitz.
However despicable his actions were, Hoess had no remorse. In fact, in the eyes of his country at that time, before its fall in WWII, Hoess was rewarded for his tireless commitment to a cause he thought was right, justified, and morally necessary. How's that for a normal day in the office?
I wonder how many of us would have unleashed the monsters in us, with monotonous cruelty and mechanical apathy like Hoess, in the name of patriotism, honor and duty? I trust that most of us would resist that warped kind of “normalcy” with our life but yet, I suspect that there will still be some of us who would follow in the footstep of Hoess. I guess that sometimes what is grotesquely abnormal to most of us is embracingly normal to some of us.
But the question that persists is this, which line of the divide will we eventually fall if we were now abruptly taken from our protected and comfortable surroundings and made to survive most savagely in a world that stretches our neurological, emotional and physical faculties to the limit on a daily basis? Food for thought?
I started this letter with the monsters and saints divide and fired a series of questions juxtapositioning good and evil for the purpose of teasing out the fragility and vulnerability of humanity when faced with circumstances that are very much beyond our control. Such circumstances include being born with a brain abnormality, bad genes or abusive parentage, and in an affectionless environment or being struck down by a serious accident damaging the brain. All these factors would in some way affect us in our life.
My point in all this is to bring to our awareness the many factors that maketh a saint and a monster; mostly the latter in this case. Some of these factors are beyond our control and some are not. Just as Hitler did what he did with absolute power, one wonders whether history would be any different if some other leader with the likes of Nelson Mandela had won the election in 1933.
In the end, I hope in writing this that we will bear in mind what Confucius once said, "When you see a good man, think of emulating him. When we see a bad man, examine our own heart." This self-reflection exercise is done not to excuse the behavior but to understand ourselves more. And if we take the time to understand ourselves, in the light of what is written so far, we will then be able to see that the good in us is no more than the evil in us earnestly seeking, and at times, even struggling, to return to the path of redemption and repentance. Cheerz.