A Secular Analysis of Evil

By Glaim, Marilyn | Tikkun, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

A Secular Analysis of Evil


Glaim, Marilyn, Tikkun


A Secular Analysis of Evil Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil by Lawrence Swaim Psyche Books, 2013

review by marilyn glaim

As a child in a parochial school, I was required to memorize Exodus 20:5, in which God promises to visit the "iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me." How spiteful, I thought. I didn't think I should have to bear anyone else's sins. Gradually, however, I came to understand the text as a statement of cause and effect rather than a spiteful threat. What it suggests, I realized, is that evil acts have lasting effects. We internalize trauma and pass it down to the generations that follow us.

Lawrence Swaim's Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil takes up this difficult topic, explaining in strictly human terms what causes aggression to replicate itself and how aggression-when rationalized, con- cealed, or dissembled-can become evil. Swaim also discusses how evil, in the form of intergenerational trauma, can be communicated from one generation to another.

Swaim asserts that he is "uninter- ested in theological or philosophical speculations about good and evil." He starts from the premise that "evil exists" so as to explore how it is passed on through aggression. The victims of aggression often internalize it, he explains, because identifying with aggression is an authentic human orientation. This internalization is a sharp, pervasive, emotional response to aggression, in which the victim's emotions violently reorient themselves. As a result, the victim may take on an aggressive emotional orientation that he or she did not have before experi- encing the violence. This is not merely an accommodation to the aggression; at some level it may include a need to conform to the aggression in an effort to defeat or survive it. The longer the violence continues, the more the vic- tim's personality changes and the more difficult it becomes for him or her to transition back to relative normality. Thus family members sub- jected to years of domestic violence or soldiers experiencing the extreme violence of war during one or more tours of duty may experience personal- ity changes that are very difficult to overcome.

Swaim insists that victims can and must become survivors and creative protagonists of their own life stories. In noting the deep emotional impact of aggression upon victims of vio- lence, Swaim argues that "aggression and evil can best be approached as psychological problems, since it is in the human personality that good and evil are encoded, and in human behavior that they are acted out." To help make his case for the psycho- logical dimension of evil, he draws from a broad selection of historical and psychological texts and from his experiences as a long-time counselor at a residential treatment program in Northern California. His clients demonstrated a variety of behavioral problems that usually stemmed from aggression they had suffered, and in turn some of them inflicted aggression on other people, sank into depression, or hurt themselves through substance abuse or self-harm. It is not so much that adults become bonded to an aggressor, as that they become bonded to aggression itself, Swaim argues- and this is especially true for patriar- chal men who identify with violence as a way of solving social problems.

The Traumas of War, Genocide, and Slavery

In his chapter "War and the Trauma Bond," he points out the difficulty sol- diers have in breaking the bonds of multiple forms of indoctrination. The military-industrial complex be- gins its relationship with young people by using the nonstop trauma of basic training to bond them to patriarchy, nationalism, and aggression. For four months, humiliation, threats, and ver- bal and physical abuse-not to men- tion sleep deprivation and insufficient food-are used to strip young recruits of all moral values they may have in- ternalized. When they have been thor- oughly indoctrinated, they are shipped off to war zones where they are likely to become both the subjects and per- petrators of violence. …

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