I love the term psychological gargoylism which was probably coined by M.Scott Peck. It’s the only reason I’m writing any of this at all. I actually just wanted to put the term out there, the rest of this post may well be no more than window dressing.
But for now, it’s about those kids…..
Excerpt from People of the Lie, by M. Scott Peck (1983).
“Since almost all young children demonstrate a formidable array of narcissistic characteristics, it is assumed that narcissism is something we generally ‘grow out of’ in the course of normal development, through a stable childhood, under the care of loving and understanding parents. If the parents are cruel and unloving, however, or the childhood otherwise traumatic, it is believed the infantile narcissism will be preserved as a kind of psychological fortress to protect the child against the vicissitudes of its intolerable life. This theory might well apply to the genesis of human evil. The builders of the medieval cathedrals placed upon their buttresses the figures of gargoyles-themselves symbols of evil-in order to ward off the spirits of greater evil. Thus children may become evil in order to defend themselves against the onslaughts of parents who are evil. It is possible, therefore, to think of human evil-or some of it-as a kind of psychological gargoylism.”
Children? Evil? Really?
I know some who can be awful, and yes, I mean make your skin crawl and your blood-run-cold-with-a-certain-look-in-their-eye. I have children, have always been around children – large numbers from childhood right through to adulthood. I have only ever met only one or two who I felt genuinely uncomfortable around. But, I have never met a kid I would actually consider evil. I’ve met plenty who were seriously awful and capable of extremely bad behaviour; malicious, nasty, vindictive, violent, I could go on, and on and on.
There still appears to be a pretty big split in how the wrong sort of kid is viewed; we’ll have one camp sitting on the there-must-be-a-reason-for-their-bad-behaviour side of the fence, and the other side claiming they-were-born-like-it. All normal enough for the masses who tend to see humans as a black and white species with a distinctive reluctance to acknowledge those grey areas. Peck’s book is over thirty years old and there’s now more evidence coming from science that answers can be found in brain structure and its chemistry which could support the idea these so-called evil kids are a natural occurrence. But then, have they turned that way through some kind of trauma? And if so, are they capable of changing? Of choosing differently? Of re-wiring/being rewired? Is it a chicken and egg scenario? A larger amygdala may well indicate high levels of empathy but what real use is this information? Are we gonna start screening people before letting them apply for jobs where they’re in direct contact with vulnerable people? Only those with fat amygdalas may apply…
This morning whilst re-editing this post I came across a BBC podcast called Destiny and the Brain. It may not be available for long but I’ll link it anyway. It makes some good points about neuroplasticity, and how genetics may play a bigger part in where we end up in life. Although, Hannah Critchlow, does make a point of saying biological determinism helps to counteract some of the responsibilities of living during the age of never-ending decision making and parental anxiety. However, Sharon Begley makes the claim that study after study shows the brain retains the capacity for large scale change in structure and function well into the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s. She also mentions one of the most important changes we’re capable of is the growth of new neurons. I’d rather think the truth is somewhere in the middle, that nature works in tandem with nurture. Critchlow is more than right to point out that the inherent danger in believing in biological determinism is that you seriously categorise and limit individuals.
I then thought about films and how they’ll often deal with contentious issues. The evil kids we see in a bog standard horror movies are relatively tame when compared to their adult counterparts. They’re mostly shown to have a connection to the supernatural rather than being capable of evil in any real sense. They’re frequently ghosts who have met an untimely death and are seeking vengeance on the living, or they need releasing from their earthbound status. They may be alive, but only half human. Damien, the demon spawn of the Omen films, shared half of his DNA with a jackal. Plenty of other films will portray the child as a vampire, zombie or even alien, but then I’m wondering, does that say something in itself about how we approach the idea of children being genuinely sinister? It’s possible that I need to do some specific searches, but on the whole, I’ve found very few entirely human portrayals of evil children within film.
I thought I’d struck gold when I began to watch the Orphan and was genuinely enjoying the plot. Esther was sufficiently evil that she came across as disturbing. All was going well; she was a kid, not superhuman at all. And then (spoiler alert) you find out she is, in fact, a thirty-three-year-old woman with a growth defect. It didn’t affect the horror of the story too much, but it DID increase the volume of the earlier thought, that maybe we have serious issues when it comes to seeing children as evil AND human. I mentioned it to Tony, and he suggested it could have something to do with the killing, that we find it more palatable if it’s an adult who gets killed rather than a child. He was, of course, referring to the endings where the bad guy usually gets it, and I hadn’t thought of that myself. I was too busy looking at it from the other side, that people find it difficult to imagine a child being monstrous as a human. Taking that one step further, is Tony echoing a collective feeling of not really being able to deal (psychologically) with children like we would an adult if they’re found to be guilty of something heinous?
I find it intriguing how we respond en masse to those incidents where kids do something most people consider to be evil. Two boys were responsible for the murder of a toddler, James Bulger, back in 1993. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables lured him away from his mother in a shopping centre and took him on a two and a half mile walk that ended in his torture and eventual death. They finished off their day by laying him on the train-track where his body was found severed two days later. They were released from custody in 2001 and given new identities so they could start to build new lives for themselves. Public opinion here in the UK is still strong when this case is mentioned; many people feeling they should never have been released despite being only ten years old when they committed the heinous act. Then there was Mary Bell, she killed two kids only a few weeks apart. The first time was the day before her eleventh birthday; a four-year-old boy who she strangled in a derelict house. Just two months later she killed a three-year-old boy on open wasteland. She was released at the age of twenty-three. She gave birth to a daughter sixteen years to the day of the first murder….which seems like a sick twist of fate to me if ever there was one. She too was granted lifelong anonymity to protect her from persecution.
I’m not old enough to remember the Bell murders, but I do remember the news breaking on the Bulger case. I’d just given birth to daughter number two, and my other child was two years old, just five months younger than James Bulger. It was easy for me to relate to the mother of James. Public opinion was largely in favour of locking those two boys up for life, and I don’t have too many doubts that had this case emerged in another time and place, those boys would’ve been lynched. They would not have been safe, even at such a young age.
Could we really use the term of psychological gargoylism here? Mary Bell almost certainly suffered at the hands of her mother but I’m not so sure about the boys, they haven’t had as much written about their past that I could find online. I’m wondering why we obsess about the pasts of those who commit such heavy crimes, and whether some people just can’t tolerate the idea that some kids are just downright nasty, and have to believe that someone is responsible for them being morally bankrupt.
Maybe it isn’t correct to call kids evil at all; they may be capable of evil acts, but they cannot honestly be considered evil as people. We can make definitive statements about our physical bodies, but we cannot BE an act…an act merely describes something we’ve done. We don’t become an action. Is this where the problems lie? Many people are inclined to base their self-esteem and standing within their families and communities by pretending to be something, such as kind, generous, responsible, or thoughtful, or whatever. If it is seen as a singular action, then it can’t be used as effectively to bolster the self-image because we’re having to constantly display these qualities and then it becomes hard work.
Do we like to see people as permanently evil because we don’t want to let go of the idea that people can be permanently kind? Or does it come down to mental laziness? It’s far easier to form an opinion and fix it in place than it is to change your mind; humans appear to be largely reluctant to engage in any deep or critical thinking. Probably because it means that much of the magical thinking would have to go; we all have our bubbles to live in. We don’t like to be wrong either. If we’re black and white when stating someone is bad or good and that person does something which is apparently contrary to their nature, we’re going to struggle to process that our judgment was somehow off.
Kids are definitely capable of evil acts, but we can no more say they are incapable of goodness than we can say supposedly good children are incapable of evil.
Or can we?
Revised and updated. Original version published 09/04/2015.