A Secular Analysis of Evil

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

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, concealed, 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 “uninterested 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 experiencing 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 victim’s personality changes and the more difficult it becomes for him or her to transition back to relative normality. Thus family members subjected to years of domestic violence or soldiers experiencing the extreme violence of war during one or more tours of duty may experience personality 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 violence, 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.”

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