We Are All at Risk of Being 'Evil', Says Violent Offenders' Therapist

What drives people to commit terrible acts of violence, such as murder and sexual assault?

This question is the subject of a new book, written by internationally renowned forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr. Gwen Adshead and co-author Eileen Horne, which aims to explore the true nature of evil.

The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion is based on Adshead's 30 years of experience working with people convicted of violent crimes.

The book, which is out on July 20, examines the stories of 12 of her former patients held in prisons or the mental health system, all of whom society would consider "evil" because of what they have done.

The book explores whether we can and should empathize with individuals such as these, while revealing the remarkable human capacity for change and redemption.

Newsweek spoke to Adshead and Horne about the new book. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

Adshead: I'm really interested in what makes people do horrible things. What kind of state of mind are they in when they do horrible things? So, I've been trying to think about how I could write that for a non-professional audience, because I know that everybody's interested in evil.

The concept of evil is so ubiquitous in the popular imagination. What would you say to people who view violent offenders as simply evil?

The Devil You Know
Cover for The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion. Scribner

Adshead: What I've learned from listening to people who've done terrible things is that I think evil is a kind of state of mind that, probably, all of us can get into at some point or other—that we all have a risk of. The potential is there. I think that may account for why people are so interested in evil. I wonder if deep down we know that, actually, any of us might, in the right circumstances, be in that state. So what I've been thinking about over the years is the risk factors that get you into that state of mind, which we call evil. In the book, Eileen and I describe it as like the numbers in a bicycle lock. If the numbers all line up right, then the lock might spring open and release something terrible—some terrible capacity for violence.

The good news is, probably, that it will not happen to many of us. But perhaps we have something in common with [people who commit acts of terrible cruelty]—perhaps more than we know. It is a scary thought, but it also has the potential for understanding. If we can understand violence better, we might be able to do something about preventing it.

Horne: I would just add that when you say the word "evil," I think it conjures up something very other. I've lived in England a lot of my life. But I've been back here [in America] for these last very strange five years. And what I've noticed has changed in the 20-odd years that I was gone is this incredible polarization, I mean, so acute and noticeable. I felt like this book was kind of urgent right now. It felt like in this moment, we had to talk about how we need to stop othering everyone and how much we share a common humanity.

What are the main risk factors that contribute to violence?

Adshead: Well there are more general ones and more specific ones. One very important area of research is substance misuse. We need to understand why people take drugs and why people drink. Often it's a way of dealing with pain—unresolved pain, unresolved fear, unresolved trauma. The other thing that really has come out to me from my work over the years is the importance of childhood adversity as a risk factor for violence. And the fact that so many of the people I work with have been exposed to very high levels of childhood trauma. Now, that's not an excuse for what they do. But it may be an important way of understanding how they could have gotten to a state of mind where other people just don't seem real to them. And it becomes perfectly reasonable to just stab this man in the heart, for example, because I'm frightened of him.

Horne: The other two really key risk factors for violence that data provides us are being young and male. And then the final risk factor—if you think about this combination bike lock, the thing that really springs it open—is often something so personal to the perpetrator to do with their victim. So a girl that just looked at you funny, someone who smiled in a way that reminded you of something long, long ago, someone who said a word which somehow in a disordered mind, triggered a very strange reaction. I find that fascinating.

Once we understand the psychology of why people commit violent acts, what are the implications for how we deal with these people as a society, or treat them?

Adshead: I think the first implication is that it's worth doing. Because we will get a perspective and information that we want might otherwise not get. I think the implication is that if we can find out more about what drives people to violence, we might be able to do something about it, we might be able to identify these risk factors and intervene a bit earlier.

For example, intimate partner violence is a kind of violence which is very scary, very widespread, not usually to do with mental illnesses as such but has a lot to do with unresolved distress. A lot of battering men have been exposed to a battering when they were children or witnessed it when they were children. They will have unresolved distress that needs to be worked through if they're going to desist. What we want is to get these guys to desist from using violence as a solution. We think sometimes people are using violence as terrible communication tool.

If we can get people to desist from that and find better ways to communicate their distress, better ways to reach out and connect with people, then that might be in all our interests. And also, it could mean that we might not have to spend quite so much money on huge great buildings, which are expensive to build and maintain. We might actually be able to use people use people's experience in more productive ways.

When it comes to serial killers, do you think they are driven by the same motivations as other people who commit violent acts? Or is the psychology behind their particular form of violence different?

Adshead: I think for the Jeffrey Dahmers of this world, it sort of becomes like a hobby. I think after a while these people start to inhabit a world that is completely unreal at one level. They create their own kind of fantasy reality and everyday they normalize it to themselves. But once they get caught, they're almost stunned. I do think their victims don't seem terribly real to them.

Gwen, do you find it difficult to stay objective when you are working with violent offenders?

Adshead: I often say to people, the day that some of these things don't upset me is the day that I need to hang up and go home. I still get shocked by things, definitely. Am I objective? I try to be. Ultimately, this is not about me personally. I'm a doctor going in to do some work with a person. As always in medicine, and perhaps particularly in this field, we've been thinking a lot about a kind of radical empathy in which there's a form of compassion, but it has some detachment built into it. It has a little distance built in, so that I remember the victims and I remember the families of the victims.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Horne: We hope this book will show people that at the very extreme end of feeling and mental disorder, violent people can change. I've always watched a lot of true crime on TV and read a lot of detective fiction and thrillers. I look at them through completely new eyes now. This book will be a new pair of glasses for people. I don't mean I'm all covered in sympathy and warmth for killers. I just read them in a completely different way now. I watched a film about a serial killer after we finished the first draft of the book and I had a totally different reaction than I would have done a year earlier. Because I wanted to know what had happened to them in their whole of life, not just in the lead-up to the killings, or just afterwards. In the opening of our book, we say the reason for evil in the world, according to Carl Jung, is that people are unable to tell their stories. So this is our service. We're telling their stories to try and reduce that.

Update 8/06/21 9:05 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include additional comments from Dr. Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne.

Dr. Gwen Adshead
Dr. Gwen Adshead, internationally renowned forensic psychiatrist and co-author of "The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion." © Philip Vaontrive