by Jancis Long
Behavioral Science Institute, Semmelweis University, Budapest.

An earlier version of this paper was published in:
Pacific Psychologist
Special volume on Evil.

Can one speak of a 'natural history' of the aftermath of evil? Can one speak of what can be done, what 'should' be done? How may we speak or analyse at all about what happens next, after the 'unnatural' and the 'unspeakable'? Of course we know why we should try. Because beyond witnessing and honoring great suffering is the possibility of preventing more suffering and perhaps more evil. By evil I am thinking of a far edge of cruelty, captured by Shengold's term 'soul murder' (1989), where there is an intentional breakdown of the victim's sense of self, and where the perpetrator creates an impression of unlimited power and right to use the victim at will.

I shall propose some constants and variables in this topic by outlining four problems that.are regularly found in the aftermath of evil acts. These are: the problem of silence; the problem of recovery from grievous assault on soul, will and self hood; the problem of the afterlife of perpetrators, particularly in relation to the recovery of victims, and the problem of prevention.

I propose that we think of two particular scenarios in which evil regularly takes place. The first is where a child at home is subjected to severe physical/psychological abuse, usually, including sexual abuse. The second is where, in say war or a police state, certain appointed people are encouraged to break the will and create fear in certain others, using imprisonment, starvation, humiliation, beating, rape, torture, murder or other sadistic acts. In both these scenarios witnesses who could become victims may also be considered survivors of evil. We may call these private and public settings for evil. We may note that private evil exists in defiance of social taboos, albeit some social complicity, while our public version is supported by an evil political system. We may also note that though the loneliness, helplessness and suffering of victims is similar in both cases, the aftermath of public evil includes profoundly damaged communities. The disgusting particularities of evil and its effects in both these settings, can be found in two growing bodies of literature: (a) family abuse and recovery; (b) traumatic stress and psycho-social effects of extreme political conditions such as war, totalitarianism, torture, the Holocaust, and the Soviet Gulag. Differences in the private and public scenarios and in the research relating to them can perhaps also be a way of looking deeply into this phenomenon. Here there is little space for more than some signposts to existing work and further thought. And none for the individual narratives that would do better justice than these brief comments to the enormities humans have suffered and inflicted.

The Problem of Silence

For many reasons silence tends to follow evil. Perpetrators do not want their deeds made public. Victims do not want to relive terror and sometimes use psychological ways not to 'know' parts of it. Families and communities are afraid of facing their complicity. And most people feel shamed, tainted or guilty both about the horror and the voyeuristic excitement of extreme cruelty. Moreover language itself seems inadequate. Should anyone write about Auschwitz except those who were there? Yet it is well known that silence usually does not heal, and frequently distorts memory. Freud claimed that trauma we do not remember we are destined to re-inact, either as victims or perpetrators. Recent neurological findings of van der Kolk (1994) and others show that traumatic memory is stored differently from others, returning (when it does) with vividness and emotion unmellowed by mental processing. Teichner (2001) has found permanent neuro-cognitive changes in severely abused children. Without speech, memory and loving attention to the 'catastrophic loneliness,' which Grand (2001) identified as central to the experience, one aftermath of evil becomes lifelong isolation.

At the social-psychological level silence creates communal denials and pathologies. The evidence can be found in the years long silences following the Holocaust and the Soviet purges, and the centuries of silence around domestic child abuse. See, e.g. Todorov (1997), Merridale (2001), Herman (1994). There are differences, however, regarding silence around our two scenarios. Perpetrators of domestic violence mostly do not want their deeds known and often threaten additional abuse to keep a child from telling what happened. Society has strongly collaborated with perpetrators and silenced children in not wanting to know. When evil occurs as part of an abusive political system, however, perpetrators often have confusing directives. Their power is in fact part of the intended terror and hence meant to be known.. But the 'illegal' excesses of the evil edge of an evil institution are to be concealed. These confusions are also transmitted to victims, who may be killed either to terrorize others or to achieve silence - in both cases deepening the original evil. When a particular terror is over society may also have an ambivalent attitude, both seeking to expose and dramatize what has happened as part of a past which is being left behind, and to 'forget' that it ever happened as part of that leaving behind.

The Problems of Recovery

The psychological injuries, to individuals from extreme trauma are perhaps the greatest recent advance in our understanding of what evil does. Neurological damage (particularly affecting children) and the unmodified return of traumatic experience in memory were mentioned above. Another major effect is the adaptations people make to repeated cruelty and danger, e.g. numbing, dissociation, hypervigilance, that interfere later with pleasure, rationality and relationships.. Dissociative and borderline personality traits are now thought to have their roots in extreme repeated cruelty in childhood. Less dramatic but more prevalent are the depressions, addictions, compulsions, problematic defense mechanisms, post traumatic stress, mental pain and difficulties in self esteem, self care, trust love and sex. To these we must add the special circumstances of our family victim: that the abuse has come from someone loved and trusted. While for our political victim individual injuries are compounded by survivor sadness and guilt and by a traumatized society that was also rendered both helpless and complicit. Virtually all survivors of evil, public or private suffer many of the above. Without attention, such suffering gets transmitted in one way or other to the children of survivors, in some cases even to new rounds of evil. This has been documented in the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, is being 'discovered' professionally only now in the descendants of Stalin's victims, and in the history of violent private perpetrators, virtually all of whom turn out to have been severely abused as children. But what kinds of attention are important? Despite the prevalence of symptoms, each individual and community has a particular mix. It is always important for victims and those helping them to reflect on what is and is not to be recovered from, and what may be the best approach.

Judith Herman's now classic book Trauma and Recovery (1994, 1997) proposes a three/four stage recovery process from violent trauma. If victims are still in danger from their perpetrators, or live in a perpetual sense of danger, then the first stage is achieving Safety. If a person has to go back to a situation where they can be re-victimized most 'recovery' efforts have to go into helping that person meet the danger with greater strength, avoidance and help seeking skills, and to bear the anxiety that will be unavoidable. It is worth noting that the domestic perpetrator in our scenario unless in jail, continues as a threat until strong safety measures have been put in place. Political perpetrators on the other hand lose almost all their danger once the war or tyranny is no longer supporting their actions. For people who have partially 'forgotten' their trauma, (mostly those who suffered in childhood) the second stage is working on Remembrance. For all survivors of trauma, and particularly its evil edge Mourning the horror, the ineradicable memories, the lost companions and the normal life that has been foreclosed is an essential part of recovery. For those able to come through these stages Reconnection with supportive others is essential to undo some of the isolating harm of extreme cruelty.

A different, but compatible, approach is proposed by Peter Levine (1997). Based on a theory that our bodies both register our psychological as well as physical pain, and contain processes for 'un-doing' trauma, he outlines a set of steps for bodily involvement in the healing process.

There is no space here to discuss the question of when survivors of trauma recover better in groups of fellow victims or in individual work, or what is different for people seeking help years after the evil they experienced, or just after. It is enough to note that workbooks, accounts of survivor-led programs, and much professional literature exist to guide a person seeking to help for themselves or to help another who has come through evil. The few references at the end of this article contain extensive references to such guides.

One feature of spiritual recovery from extreme trauma is the need to link one's own suffering with those of others. People may differ in whether they seek companions in outrage, in memorializing non-survivors, in working on the difficult problem of 'justice' in the treatment of perpetrators, and the system that enabled them. For many survivors, both domestic and political, finding some personally viable emotional place 'between vengeance and forgiveness' (Minow 1998), and some social involvement in prevention, is key to recovery. This is discussed further in the next section.

The depressing fact is that because of the problem of silence, most victims of evil have to 'recover' as best they can without any help at all. While anyone working with extreme trauma comes across extraordinary stories of human resilience, moral stature and self healing (see e.g. Todorow, Levi 1987) the deformed lives and transmitted pathology of severe abuse victims is far more frequent. Nor is society quick to reform itself to see justice served and evil prevented. Hence the greatest problem of recovery is that it frequently never takes place.

The Afterlife of Perpetrators

Our deepening knowledge of victims after evil has not been matched by our knowledge of perpetrators. Baumeister in his book on evil consciously tried to get away from 'the tyranny of the victim' and to show in some detail how people may proceed from 'ordinary: human psychology to the perpetration of evil acts. We know even less of what happens to perpetrators 'after evil' Three points may be mentioned here very briefly, before considering the central problem of the afterlife of perpetrators.

The psychological effects of perpetrating evil or recovering from doing so is understandably a minor concern. It is generally agreed that victims suffer more than perpetrators in the aftermath of 'soul murder'. (Interestingly enough the reverse may be true in the 'ordinary' cruelty of organized warfare. Soldiers who have killed show more severe post traumatic symptoms than surviving non-killing victims of bombing and battles (Grossman, 2000). Keeping perpetrators from further evil is addressed with more enthusiasm. Here our two scenarios diverge. The escalation of family violence to extreme cruelty may be reduced by the kind of rehabilitation programs that teach men how to deal with frustration, insult and desire without recourse to violence. But those who have already become 'soul murderers' may be impossible to rehabilitate with safety. Thus confinement where they can be legally detained, and improving social and individual safeguards for potential victims may be all that can be done. As mentioned earlier, political perpetrators are dangerous mainly in so far as they are supported by evil regimes, but as long as these exist it seems there will always be brutal torturers to carry out, exceed and perhaps even enjoy their duties. We might hypothesize a satanic hierarchy of sickness in this respect: 'ordinary' family abusers being the least 'sick' and most available to change their behavior; political perpetrators being more deviant internally, but able to change behavior when no longer supported; and perpetrators of extreme family abuse being the sickest and least able to change.

Maintaining moral judgement in working with perpetrators (in contrast with most clinical patients) is has been raised as a problem both for researchers and clinicians. Baumeister has raised the problem of too much understanding of the psychology and sociology of perpetrators weakening one's will to moral judgement. Grand warned clinicians that they do not help their perpetrator clients by offering any form of 'forgiveness' or minimization of evil acts, even though they must obviously be prepared to hear the perpetrators point of view with more outward tolerance than the general public. This is because living the experience of his own victims (not merely his own earlier victimhood) is considered essential for 'recovery' at a deep level.

The most important problem of what to do (assuming one has choices) with perpetrators, lies in how their 'afterlife' figures in the recovery of victims and communities. As mentioned above, for many victims it is not enough to try to heal personally. Evil calls for a stance toward perpetrators. Yet one definition of evil may well be that there is no adequate punishing of perpetrators that does not involve further evil. Minow writing of the aftermath of genocide and mass violence speaks of the benefits and difficulties to individuals and to society of different treatment of perpetrators: vengeance, trials, inadequate 'legal' punishments, truth telling and commissions, reparations, reconciliation and forgiveness. There is a deep difference here between the literature on domestic and political trauma. For Herman and others perpetrators disappear once survivors are safe and recovering. More space is given to helping victims feel and express their rightful rage at what has happened to them, and to overcome any tendency to feel themselves guilty or ashamed for what happened to them, than how to consider their abusers in the future. This is an understandable response to the silence and denial of the right to protest that child abuse often entails.

For recovery from political abuse the literature grants individuals some of the same rights of choosing their own stance 'between vengeance and forgiveness' but for the community trauma caused by evil doings within evil regimes, the problem of how to live again as neighbours, to return to the rule of law and prevent new rounds of vengeance and violence, a very different literature has grown up. In publications such as Minow and the papers gathered by e.g. Rothstein the problem of restoring relationship between groups where evil has been perpetrated by one or both sides is dealt with in some detail. This includes the problem of when an abused individual's needs for holding on to anger and a community's need to 'move on' may be in conflict. (Shriver 1999) It may be useful here to think of three forms of reconciliation (or its absence): reconciliation between actual perpetrators and victims; reconciliation between groups who have acted collectively to abuse another group, in which negotiators need not be victims, and perpetrators and victims may never meet; and internal 'reconciliation' where a victim achieves an inner peace with their horrific experience, without any face to face work with an abuser.


The modern world gives us no basis for hope that our severely abused child or terrorized political victim is about to vanish from the human story. On the other hand there are developments that lead us to hope that there are ways of responding to evil that help heal individual psyche's and damaged communities, and hence perhaps prevent new rounds of evil from emerging from the old. Examples of such developments may be the Holocaust's survivors' collective vow of 'Never Again'; Russia's Memorial Project to recall and mourn the Gulag (Merridale); South Africa's profound attention, through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to avoiding a tide of vengeance after the evils of apartheid; in the world wide beginnings of speaking out by many people grievously abused by their loved ones; in the laws of civil society; and in the recognition in some quarters that the steps between Hate Speech and Hate Acts are very few. Such hopes for prevention of the growth of the seeds of new evil out of old evil makes the problem of thinking what is to be prevented and how very urgent. The topics discussed above suggest three lines of investigation: how may the silence that so often falls after evil be broken in a way that society may be turned toward discovering private evil and acting to curb political evil before it happens? How may recovery be widened and deepened, such that the witness of survivors becomes the basis for others protecting themselves, and working to protect others from future evil? And how may communities, and nations become skilled at finding ways to deal with perpetrators, the systems that supported them and the damaged communities they created that meet at least some needs of victims, some restoration of community self esteem, and a will to seek prevention in the future?

To this I would add one more element. Evil is the extreme edge of 'ordinary' human cruelty. Can we propose that one of its elements is society's toleration and training of its members to accept dangerous levels of behavior? If child beating is not tolerated, can we assume there will be fewer children beaten to death? If there are fewer children beaten nearly to death, will there be less evil in the next generation? If police brutality is outlawed can we assume that the sadist will be stopped by his fellows from exacting cruel and unusual punishment on those in his power? If we are punished for hate speech can we assume that targets for hate will live more safely? Here is where we may begin both practically and theoretically to see where in our own 'ordinary' societies and families and inner lives, the seeds of evil are finding - or not finding - their place to grow.


Baumeister, Roy, Evil: inside human violence and cruelty, NY, Freeman, 1997
Grand, Sue, The Reproduction of Evil, NJ The Analytic Press, 2000
Grossman, David, On Killing, Boston Little Brown, 1995
Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery, NY Basic Books, 1992, 1997
Levi, Primo, Moments of Reprieve, London, Abacus, 1987
Levine, Peter, Walking the Tiger Berkeley, N.Atlantic Books, 1997
Merridale, Catherine, Night of Stone, NY, Viking Penguin 2001
Minow, Martha, Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, Boston, Beacon Press, 1998
Shengold , L., Soul Murder, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1989
Shriver, Donald 'The Long Road to Reconciliation',
in Rothstein, Robert (ed) After the Peace, Denver, Lynne Reider 1999
Teicher, Martin, 'The Neurobiology of Child Abuse' in Scientific American, March 2002.
Todorov, Tzvetan, Facing the Extreme, London, Phoenix Orion, 1996
Van der Kolk, B.A., 'The Body Keeps The Score' in Van der Kolk et al (eds) Traumatic Stress NY, Guildford, 1996.

Translated by Virág Szalai


  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.