The line separating good and evil

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.

This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

More than any other, this is the idea that has captured my imagination over the last year, during which time I’ve come to know parts of myself that have been shrouded in shadow since I was a child. Our beliefs about ourselves and the world have a huge influence on the way we see ourselves and the world. They’re a prism which refracts reality based on what we want to see and what we want to deny. We deny the parts of ourselves we do not like, including our innate capacity for “evil” and wrong-doing, and we judge others whom we perceive contain these qualities. By placing them on the side of “bad” and ourselves on the side of “good” we gloss over our own selfish and destructive tendencies and miss out on the opportunity to closely examine ourselves and our own unconscious motivations.

In a recent counselling session I reflected on how changed I felt from the person I was only four years ago, how the intervening time has demonstrated, through personal challenges and self reflection, just how delusional my view of certain aspects of my world was then. Chris, my counsellor, always keen to help me reframe my self-critical impulses toward both the past and present versions of myself, commented that a certain amount of delusion can be helpful.

His comment had a resounding ring of truth to it. It caused me to rethink the question, if a certain amount of delusion is helpful, at what point does it become unhelpful? A short answer to this difficult question might be, at the point when the delusion begins to cause too much pain, for ourselves and for others. Tempted though I am to use this as a starting point to talk about the delusions of grandeur that enables our civilisation to perpetrate hideous ecological crimes without thinking through the consequences, I want to take a more personal approach to this question.

My delusions about myself began causing damage to the underlying fabric of my marriage long before my wedding day, at around the time my partner and I “pair-bonded” and began re-creating, outside of our awareness, the best and the worst of the dynamics we unwittingly participated in as children in relationship with our parents, siblings and our environment growing up. There was a great deal of love between us and a great deal of baggage too.

It’s impossible to say at which point in my childhood my more aggressive behavioural tendencies split off and went underground, resulting in the formation of passive-aggressive ways of relating to people in later life, but I can pinpoint an early experience when I came into contact into indirect contact with “evil” and a splinter of it split off and wedged itself firmly in my soul.

Before sharing this story I want to relate these personal reflections to the seemingly paradigm-shifting events which are now unfolding on an almost daily basis in the arena which is perhaps most easily identified as “toxic masculinity”. The new Gillette advert is the latest controversial contribution to this shift, one which has split opinion and sparked debate and some fascinating critiques.

I want to focus on another story from this arena, the question which was hotly debated in the U.S. and around the world last autumn: Is Supreme Court Judge (then a nominee) Brett Kavanaugh guilty of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford at a dorm party when they were both teenagers in the 1980s? The questions I ask myself are: What role did delusion and denial play in the alleged attack? What role has it played in both their lives in the intervening three decades? What role did it play in the way in which everyone reacted to the story?

Perhaps, in the absence of any memory of the incident, Kavanaugh has convinced himself of his own innocence. Perhaps guilt and shame in the intervening years has caused him to repress the memory, while at the same time the guilt, shame and trauma associated with being the victim of a brutal sexual attack has indelibly etched it into the memory of Christine Blasey Ford. I wonder if, in a very profound sense, Blasey Ford has and still is experiencing the pain that Kavanaugh was and still is unable to, the guilt and the shame he denies and which perhaps he has pushed into the shadow of his unconscious. To what extent can toxic masculinity and the current response of women and men on all sides of the debate be viewed through this lens? It certainly seems at times that many lifetime’s worth of repressed feelings are now bubbling up to the surface to add fuel to the fire.

This is not intended to be a comment on Kavanaugh’s guilt and culpability, although like many people who watched Blasey Ford’s testimony, I feel fairly convinced that she’s telling the truth. To call this a cheap political manoeuvre is an insult to all those who have been the victims of sexual violence, myself included. At the age of six I was coerced into a sexual act by a boy in my class, a child whom I have since come to believe was experiencing sexually abuse himself.

It only happened twice, but the experience left a permanent mark, a complicated confusion of guilt, shame, excitement, doubt and fear which has subtly complicated my sexuality and leads me to question the reliability of my memory whenever I think about it. Did it really happen the way I remember it? Am I making a big deal about nothing much? I believe these questions are asked by the part of myself that would like to deny the impact of the experience, and the power of the shame it precipitated, rooted as it was in the same time period in which the alleged assault on Blasey Ford took place, an era when shaming boys into numbing their feelings was a common practice, and still is in many corners of society.

I turned 13 in 1990. In the 1980’s, despite my parents’ best attempts to hold back the tide of worldly influences through an embargo on many television programmes (including Scooby Doo and Count Duckula), I was undoubtedly being primed for male adolescence by the influences of the Gillette ads and the Milk Tray ads in terms of what I understood masculinity to be. James Bond and Indiana Jones were both massive role models. The problematic influence of Harrison Ford’s version of masculinity as expressed through the characters he played during that period is brilliantly deconstructed in this engaging short YouTube documentary. To this day I still love those characters. It’s hard to accept the view that the love scene in Blade Runner depicts an act of coercive sex, that Rachel’s “no” in this scene does not mean “yes”.

At the same time as was I absorbing all those contradictory messages I was doing my absolute best to hide the confusion, shame and fear I felt because I did not measure up to what they were telling me about how to be a man. At the age of 10 I felt like a failure. I had no way to cope with these feelings, no tools, no understanding or awareness, no guidance from anybody, just an impulse to push them away and down as far as they would go, until eventually they merged with the background canvas of my identity, a set of unquestionable truths and stories which defined who I was. Those unacknowledged and unresolved feelings became a pain that was ever present and which I created beautifully elaborate coping mechanisms in order to ignore.

As an adult man I weaponised that pain as a way of defending myself, not in the way many men (and women) do, through direct conflict and aggression, but much more insidiously through passive aggressive behaviours that would leave friends and lovers feeling wrong-footed and confused by the push me, pull you, ebb and flow of my unconscious desires to both have that pain met and soothed by another and my anger that it was there in the first place, fed by the story that I needed no other – could trust no other – to meet that desperate need.

I may not have responded to the abuse I experienced in kind, by perpetrating physical abuse on others, but I have at times engaged in emotionally abusive behaviour, to the detriment of many of my relationships – in a strange, twisted way in order to even the score. My potential for “evil doing” is as alive inside me as it ever was, as it ever will be, kept largely in check by my integrity and the simple, comfortable privilege of my white, male, middle class existence (a privilege I no longer apologise for), it’s depths unknown, and hopefully never to be plumbed. Unlike the guards in the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags, I hope I will never be compelled, willingly or unwillingly, to find out the extent of my capacity for evil.

What then can I do to enter into a healthier relationship with this part of myself, to bring him up out of the shadows, firstly into shade and then into the light, so I can use his formidable energy to move forward with my life purposefully and courageously and to some extent right the wrongs of my past? Perhaps what I need to do, as an elder mentor keeps telling me, is learn how to love my inner bastard.

‘If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?’

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago