The Anatomy of Evil Hardcover – Jul 28 2009
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About the Author
Michael H. Stone, MD (New York, NY) is professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. He is the author of ten books, most recently Personality Disorders: Treatable and Untreatable, and over two hundred professional articles and book chapters. He is also the host of Discovery Channel’s former series Most Evil and has been featured in the New York Times, Psychology Today, the Christian Science Monitor, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, the New York Post, the London Times, the BBAC, and Newsday, among many other media outlets.
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On Dr. Stone's scale, the highest numbers (the "most evil") are reserved for those who are both extremely sadistic AND are aware (that is, not driven by hallucinations, or other mental disorder) of their actions (prolonged torture, violent rape, murder, etc.), and who show little or no remorse afterward. Like Dante's Inferno, with its descending circles of Hell that Stone refers to in his chapter headings, "The Anatomy of Evil" is a sophisticated, subtle, and uncompromising analysis of the worst in humanity (including contemporary examples, such as Joseph Fritzl, the Austrian father who raped his daughter and kept her and their children in a dungeon beneath his home for decades). It also features chapters delving into the latest scientific research into pathology and the minds of many varieties of horrible people. If for only that reason -- that the book provides a scientific survey of "evil" in all its imaginative, mundane, and ruthless incarnations -- this is a worthwhile addition to the literature, and I think will be of immense value to professionals and average readers (who can stomach it!). Stone's style is gripping and his many examples (infamous and otherwise) vividly support his arguments and theses. A complete Index, with Notes, contributes to the scholarly feel. Most highly recommended.
As far as violent criminals' characteristics go, they often have the three characteristics in their youth of violence against pet animals, fire-starting, and bed wetting. In their adult years, they may move on to violence against humans. Often these children grow up unloved, unwanted, and abused. These violent criminals are narcissistic and lack empathy for other people's feelings. They have failed to become socialized by good parental care. Occasionally, violent criminals can come from good homes though. They often deny their crimes and show no remorse for their actions. Stone thinks that both genes and environment influence violent behavior in a 50/50 split. Sometimes these criminals have had a severe head injury which reduces their inhibitions or they are on drugs or alcohol which reduces their inhibitions to do evil. They no longer have the mental "brakes" to stop acting out violent fantasies. Although most people have violent fantasies, only rarely do individuals act them out. In the sense that we have violent fantasies that often are unleashed during wartime, we are not very far away from becoming violent criminals, except for the inhibitions, empathy, and moral reasoning that holds us back. Violent criminals can often have a superficial charm that can manipulate people in to doing what they want. This leads people into getting lured into becoming their victim or victimizing others.
Some of these violent criminals have received some incredibly light sentences for their crimes and are often put back on the streets again to produce more mayhem. Stone proposes that criminals that show no signs of remorse or change in behavior should stay in prison if they are determined to be still dangerous. He does think that those who have shown remorse and have changed their behavior should be let back into society again, even though they have taken the lives of others that they will never get back. He is a cautious liberal going between the ideas of "Hang `em high!" or "Give them therapy!" for violent criminals.
Now, I don't know Dr. Stone from Adam's housecat. I was coming to this book with a simple interest in psychology. My guess is a lot of the reviewers were more just fans of Dr. Stone's TV show.
I found the book to be very simplistic. The author seems to have merely created 23 "buckets" for different types of murder - from an impulsive jealousy killing to psycopathic torture. He then plugs in some very short case histories (many from the true crime lit) to illustrate each.
There is also some background, but I found that very sketchy. One reviewer, for example, mentioned liking Stone's explaining jealousy using evolutionary psychology. To me, this was actually about as basic as could be. If you've never been exposed to it, cool. Otherwise, though ... (If you want something in a little more depth, try David Buss's The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill).
Finally, I found Stone's style rather mind-numbing. Other reviewers have mentioned the repetition. I, personally, felt talked down to, like I was back in 2nd grade.
Overall, this might be worth a couple of stars for someone who's already a fan of the TV show. For anyone else, though ...
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 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 notorious 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.)
Given its disquieting subject, Anatomy of Evil is sometimes hard to read. While he knows his material, 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, 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. Anatomy of Evil likewise impels us to be correct and precise in our descriptions (particularly between mental illness and mental disorders) amidst our currently highly charged public debates about what to do after such a heinous slaughter. Anatomy of Evil makes a solid contribution to helping us comprehend, at least a little better, what is fundamentally incomprehensible.
Stone also doesn't give a text book regurgitation of facts, but also adds theories on how religion, media and social influences what our ideas of evil are, and how these notorious (often unrepentant) killers fit into that. The Anatomy of Evil is THE definitive work on killer psychology and likely will remain so for a while to come. It also tackles the difficulty of defining evil itself, the causes, effects and way society can deal with it. Stone's style, while academic is not beyond the understanding of even casual interest. The book is an incredible read, infinitely fascinating and should be a mandatory part of every public collection. Its value to research, be it to writers or budding psychiatrists and law enforcement, or just people trying to understand the motives of those around them, is immense. While Stone handles the horrible details without allowing the book to become profane, or gorish it is a hard read just because of the depths of the depravity it explores. But Stone handles the rough subject matter with delicacy and skill, and most of all composure, that most would struggle with.
Contains: descriptions of true, horrifying criminal acts including torture, rape and murder