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Winer, R. (2001). Evil in the Mind of the Therapist. Contemp. Psychoanal., 37(4):613-622.

(2001). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 37(4):613-622

Evil in the Mind of the Therapist

Robert Winer, M.D.

Josef Stalin, Medea, Timothy McVeigh, Livia Soprano, Pol Pot, Kaiser Soze: pick your poison, evil is in the mind of the beholder. Being an analyst and thinking of evil as a subjective moral judgment, I became interested in what evil stands for in the mind of the therapist, and so I questioned twenty practitioners, and myself, to that end. I wasn't simply interested in our thoughts about people who committed evil acts—I was afraid that category would be too broad. I wanted to hear what it would take for us to consider someone, as a whole, evil. In the end, I wasn't trying to analyze the evil person, I wanted to analyze the witnesses, us. My focus was this: What might examining our attitudes about evil tell us about our therapist selves?

There seemed to be a fair consensus, with some nuances of difference, on what it would take for a therapist to find someone evil. One respondent spoke for many when he said that an evil person is someone who knowingly deeply hurts innocent people. My rabbi added, “Slowly.” Deliberateness was a key element, reflecting conscious action, singlc-mindedness, cold-bloodedness, indifference. The unknowing person, like the father who smashed his infant's head to bits under direct orders from Satan, did not seem evil to most of the people I spoke with. Closely linked to deliberateness was the idea of uninfluenceability, that the victim was totally helpless to affect the outcome in the face of the perpetrator's determination. The hurt inflicted needed to amount to radical destruction; negating the other person's soul, one person said—destruction as an end in itself. The spirit of the attack was thought of as self-righteous, without a shred of remorse. My rabbi's “slowly” captured the element of pleasure, of the sadism many respondents mentioned. And finally, one analyst offered that the evil person has an uncanny quality, a perception that I can imagine many others, on reflection, would agree with.

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