The Anatomy of Evil, by Michael H. Stone, M.D. New York: Prometheus Books, 2009.
Reading a book called The Anatomy of Evil would be a challenge in any normal time. It is especially trying just now in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. But read it we should, so better to think about a critical yet little understood reality that intrudes all too often in the world, as again it did in Newtown. Evil: we must learn to see more clearly what we sadly must sometimes confront.
After the Sandy Hook school massacre, the nation understandably erupted in a hysteric search for answers. A critical impediment is society’s
imprecise understanding about distinction among possible causes of such violence. To hear some talking heads, there is an inextricable link of such
violence to “mental illness” and that there should be a national registry of all those with mental illness, even though only a very small percentage of those with biochemically based psychiatric disabilities (like thought and mood disorders) are ever violent. The majority of others usually do have not mental illness, but instead have mental disorders as what psychiatrists term “personality disorders” (as opposed to thought or mood disorders), such as schizotypal, antisocial, or narcissistic personality disorder. Any or all of
these together can contribute to rendering someone a psychopath, someone who lacks basic empathy and compassion for others. The asbence of empathy and compassion is apparently highly determinative of evil acts.
The book’s author, psychiatrist Dr. Michael H. Stone, defines evil acts as “breathtakingly awful”, having malice aforethought, causing a wildly excessive degree of suffering, and being incomprehensible to normal imagining. Based on his numerous case studies, Stone has created a 22 category scale for rating evil acts. Sixteen of them are deemed psychopathic. The worst category is populated by the likes of serial killers, torturers, and sadists such as the dastardly David Parker Ray. (Interestingly, Sandy Hook’s Adam Lanza’s assault, while heinous, would probably be slotted into Dr. Stone’s rather less heinous 8th category: “Murders sparked by smoldering rage–resulting sometimes in mass murder”, although Stone might conceded greater evil to this act because of its particularly depraved multiple child murders.)
Figure 1: Stone’s 22 Gradations of Evil Scale
Source: Stone, M.H. (2009), The anatomy of evil. Prometheus Books. New York. p. 46.
Given its disquieting subject, The Anatomy of Evil is sometimes hard to read. While he knows his material, Dr. Stone’s clinical recitation of one vile case after another grows (at last to this neophyte) tedious and depressing. Also challenging is the frustration of their imprecise causalities, since inevitably several factors (environmental, circumstantial, familial, genetic) may be smoldering all together in an evil doer’s maladjusted premeditating psyche. At least Dr. Stone does make clearer, if no less confounding, the difficulty of curbing psychopaths who would commit evil acts. Psychopathy stems from the realm of emotions, characterized by the absence of empathy and compassion. It is not necessarily treatable with medications. Indeed, some now fear the opposite: the overuse in adolescents of certain medications like antidepressants may in fact diminish empathy in their users over time.
The book also confesses a certain self-satisfaction of its author. Dr. Stone is clearly well-read not only in his field but a broad range of literature. The book also attests to thorough research. Psychiatrists as authors tend to be discursive in their accounts, perhaps as an occupational characteristic. Dr. Stone is no different. More incisive editing would have helped the effort. But one really cannot complain too much since Dr. Stone brings such a wealth of case knowledge to his writing.
Because of its difficult topic material, The Anatomy of Evil may be a difficult read. But it is an indispensable one for all who seek deeper understanding from its useful differentiations of the types and degrees of evil acts. The Anatomy of Evil likewise impels us to be correct and precise in our distinctions (particularly between mental illness and mental disorders) amidst our currently highly charged public debates about what to do after such a heinous slaughter. The Anatomy of Evil makes a solid contribution to helping us comprehend, at least a little better, what is fundamentally ncomprehensible.