It was 7PM on an August evening and I had just walked out of the Sunshine Theatre onto the steaming pavement of Houston Street. My impulse was to walk forever, until the rumblings of some old unanswered questions subsided. It was a time in my life when I was beginning to surmise that the intellectual complexity of issues was actually simple. Simple questions, simple answers.
For context, a student of mine had lead a discussion on the sociopathic personality at a conference recently, raising the question of why people commit unrepentant anti-social acts, sometimes acts of brutality. The discussion was provocative and disturbing. I thought about a close friend who had taken a life, then after years of incarceration had found a way to take responsibility and work toward reconstructing his moral compass. And I thought about the faces of evil that have so easily appeared in my viewfinder throughout the years—Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, McCarthy, Osama bin Laden, killers of children in Columbine, Newtown.
The more philosophical questions my student raised were: Are some people evil? And if so, how do they get that way?
As my eyes adjusted to the fading light, I noticed that same student exiting the multiplex cinema. We greeted each other and I asked:
‘Did you see ‘The Act of Killing?’
‘I was horrified,’ he replied. ‘I’m not sure I can talk about it.’
‘You wanna walk?’
It was unusual for me to invite a student for a walk, especially one that I didn’t know well, but there we were with the same need and so we headed west. In silence. When we reached the river, half an hour later, he asked:
‘Do you believe that some people are evil?’
‘Yes,’ I responded simply.
‘What makes them like that?’
‘I don’t know. Wiring in their brains. A predisposition to violence, a sadistic compulsion, a lack of empathy. And then opportunity, you know, a military coup, a moment in history calling for decisive action, a chance encounter.’
‘I think it’s something more. Or something else.’
‘You said, Some people.’
‘Right, some people.’
‘Do you believe that evil exists in the world?’
'Well,’ he said, ‘we both sat through the same movie.’
‘And the killers in the film, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, aren’t they just other human forms of the genocidal killers in Germany and Yugoslavia and Rwanda and Sudan and…And what about the Taliban’s attempt to kill 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan who only wanted to go to school?’
‘What about them? They are human beings.’
‘Sometimes I wonder,’ I replied. ‘Human beings have remorse and the capacity to walk in another’s shoes. Human beings don’t rape children and brag about it and kill girls just because they want to be educated.’
‘Aren’t you the guy who invented a Taxonomy of Roles and taught us that to be human meant to be able to at least imagine a whole range of behaviors in role? I remember there were roles of the villain, the killer—the usual fare in genocides.’
‘I took the role types from theatre. And theatre is different from real life.’
‘It is,’ he replied, ‘but I remember a quote you read us from Erving Goffman: “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but . . . crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.”
‘Smart guy. A sociologist yet.’
‘In the movie, the lines are blurred.’
‘How so?’ I asked.
‘The gangsters who committed the atrocities in Indonesia were given the opportunity to re-enact their killings by the director. It was all staged, even when they asked local people to play the roles of villagers who were tortured and killed by the gangsters in the mid-60s.’
‘Didn’t you see what happened?’ he said.
‘The so-called actors were re-traumatized. Under the control of the gangster/directors, they were yelled at, shoved to the ground, forced into humiliating positions of rape and brutality. And when someone yelled “Cut!” didn’t you see their faces? Do you really think they were able to de-role? They were terrified as if a real act of horror was committed.’
‘It happens in theatre all the time. Method acting and its abuses. How many directors re-traumatize actors?’
‘Are they evil?’ he asked.
‘Of course not, just insensitive. Sometimes abusive, puffed up by their power to break down an actor in the name of removing psychological blocks.’
It was getting late and time to go home. Leaving, I felt uneasy. Why did I tell my student that I believed some people were evil? Aren’t all people? Or no people? What was I trying to say? In his presentation he gave a nuanced view of sociopathy, explaining that criminal acts were no longer classified as psychopathic or sociopathic, but rather as anti-social, a diagnostic category that spoke to a range of behavior from defiance to felonious. He’s young and idealistic, I thought, about to become a drama therapist. He believes in change. All young people do, I thought, who train for helping professions. The question of evil is easy for them. To say there are not evil people but rather unacceptable behavior implies that behavior can be changed, and how could they bear to be therapists without that credo?
And where does that leave me, I wondered? Why am I making my students into a generalized other, setting up a neat dichotomy of a belief in either evil or not evil? I continued my walk to allow my mind to continue its journey.
Of course there’s evil in the world, I thought, and thinking so is not shameful. The brutality of the genocide in the film, ‘The Act of Killing,’ was not so different from the one I am most familiar with, the Nazi genocide, which left its generational mark on me when my father returned from the war and unwittingly asked me to hold his horror stories.
Likewise, that evil easily becomes generalized to the point that individual perpetrators become as dehumanized as their victims in the eyes of others and of themselves. Can they be rehabilitated? I thought of the Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa, Rwanda and Sierra Leone, where civility collapsed under a flood of evil acts, the kind that potentially exists in all human beings. These commissions work sometimes, do they not? Citizens and societies forgive and forget, re-build, move forward, have children, get on with their lives. That is, I thought, until the return of the next acts of evil. Woodrow Wilson should have know better when, in 1917, he spoke of the war to end all wars. In that first world war, an unprecedented evil at the time, more than 8 million human beings died.
In the film, “The Act of Killing,” it becomes clear that although it is possible to play at killing, when it smacks of reality, its playfulness vanishes. And when severely traumatized people attempt to reenact scenes of brutality, then the act is not that different from the reality.
In the film, the unrepentant killer, Anwar Congo, dares to take on the role of his victims and submit himself to the simulation of torture and brutality, the kind he perpetrated once upon a time. Congo actually wraps a wire around his neck and asks his colleague to pull tight, pretending to feel the pain and the final throes of death. In one of the final sequences, Congo returns to the rooftop where he once tortured and murdered people with impunity. As he speaks about his brutal acts, he begins to gag over and over again throughout a sequence that is disturbing to witness, even though the audience is given little reason to care about the fate of this cold-blooded killer. Congo says to the filmmaker at the end: ‘Now I know what my victims felt like.’ The filmmaker replies, ‘No you don’t. Yours was an act. Theirs was brutality and death.’
As a drama therapist I think often about the limits of reenactment, about the unintended possibility of reinforcing profound suffering. If it is good to play the unplayable through the distance of dramatic action, then why do some people sink deeper into despair after doing so and pass on generational trauma so effectively? Plato wrote about drama and the mimetic arts as unacceptable acts within his utopian republic. Was it because they induce the kind of irrational action that leads to the commission of evil acts?
It is simplistic to say that people are not evil but that they sometimes commit evil acts, or, in the parlance of the psychiatric community, anti-social acts. But is that enough? What if there are evil people in this non-utopian republic? And what if the victims who unwittingly collude in the perpetrators’ acts of evil are marked forever, passing on an unwanted legacy?
It is also simplistic to say that change is ever possible. When Anwar Congo gags after taking on the person of a victim, has he changed? Or is the change, after all, a manipulation by an artist, the director of the film, who certainly would be banished by Plato from any moral utopia?
In my quest for simplicity, I turn to some simple beliefs, facts if you will. Evil exists, whether relative or absolute. Change is possible, but not in every instance. Some experiences of complex trauma are not playable and if the well-being of the player is central, should not be re-enacted in therapy. Having said that, I turn to the simplest principle I value: The human imagination is infinitely resourceful, whether in the service of evil or good. And when focused upon the latter, change is inevitable.
I recently heard a story of an old woman, brutalized as a young girl while incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. Approaching the end of her life, her relatives in their collective wisdom tried to convince her to go to therapy to work through her trauma. She resisted with all her might, but felt helpless in the face of their insistence. One day, a wise relative, sensing the possible re-traumatization, took her aside and said: ‘If you do go to speak to a therapist, remember that you know things that he doesn't know. You can help him understand.’ And so she went, and when asked of the outcome by the same wise relative, she replied: ‘I think I helped him to understand. That made him feel better.’