A Secular Analysis of Evil (Review of Trauma Bond)

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, 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.” To help make his case for the psychological 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 patriarchal 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 soldiers have in breaking the bonds of multiple forms of indoctrination. The military-industrial complex begins 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 verbal and physical abuse — not to mention sleep deprivation and insufficient food — are used to strip young recruits of all moral values they may have internalized. When they have been thoroughly indoctrinated, they are shipped off to war zones where they are likely to become both the subjects and perpetrators of violence. Violence is especially traumatic in counterinsurgency operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where a majority of the people killed tend to be civilians. It is small wonder that so many returning veterans (30 percent by some estimates) have internalized profound amounts of aggression and exhibit the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Unless the veterans can find an appropriate way to act out or deconstruct the aggressive emotional orientations inside of them, they may act them out violently against themselves or others.

Swaim also draws from a variety of historical periods to show how trauma bonding works at the national level. In a perceptive discussion of Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, he shows how decent human beings were led to participate in the violence of the state. Hitler and the Nazis used “trauma, control, systemic deceit and victimology in a focused and highly calibrated way as part of their campaign to create a society based fundamentally on aggression,” Swaim writes. Individually and collectively, many Germans were harboring a belief that they were victims of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I — a treaty that they blamed for a weak economy and their loss of honor and status in the world. As Swaim points out, Hitler knew how to use the Germans’ sense of victim-hood to breed anger and contempt for anyone who could be perceived as the cause of their problems:
While victimology could create the identification with victim status on one level, the state would demonstrate its capacity for punishing opponents on the other — thus did it teach people the unique dynamics and privileges of the victim-aggressor as a primary type. In fact, Hitler used the trauma of unprecedented but irresistible state violence as a kind of political theatre to reinforce all elements of systemic evil, as experienced by both cowering victim and triumphant state sadist.
We know all too well how Hitler used emotional trauma as his storm troopers committed unending brutality on the streets, while the Nazis worked to consolidate the Nazi state. Hitler acknowledged this strategy himself, saying, “The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those that fear it to imitate it.” Slobodan Milošević used the same methods to stir up the Serbs to commit genocide against the Bosnian Muslims. First he convinced the Serbs that they were pitiful victims; then he promised them relief through violence.

In the chapter “America and the Trauma Bond,” Swaim also applies his psychological model to American culture, exploring the trauma bonds growing out of slavery and segregation, U.S. settlers’ attacks on Native Americans, and the traumatizing culture shock awaiting immigrants to America. In the antebellum era, the powerful white Southern planters promoted the idea that they were victims of Northern aggression, and by posturing themselves as victims, they could ignore and suppress the suffering of the slaves they were themselves victimizing. When the Civil War ended, white Southerners used their feelings of victimization during Reconstruction to justify the brutal repression of African Americans, which further traumatized the former slave population; and so the traumas were passed on through the eras of Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and segregation. To a great extent, American political life is still beset by the traumas of racism, slavery, and segregation.

The Psychological Dimension of Evil

Swaim offers his deepest analysis of the working of the trauma bond in “Trauma Bonding and the Milgram Paradigm,” his chapter on the most famous psychological study of the twentieth century. In it he tells the story of a young Yale professor, Stanley Milgram, who had long been fascinated with the Holocaust and the question of how ordinary Germans could have been part of the state machinery that killed 6 million Jews. He set up an experiment to discover if ordinary people could be ordered to deliver ever-increasing electrical shocks to someone in the next room whom they were supposed to “punish” to “help” them learn material more quickly. As most of us now know, nearly two-thirds of the test subjects complied fully, meaning they continued to administer lethal electrical shocks as long as they were told to do so.

This experiment has been discussed at length in popular and academic publications, but Swaim has an interesting new interpretation of the results. He sees the high level of compliance of Milgram’s subjects not as a result of character weakness or even mere obedience to authority (as Milgram thought) but as a result of the fact that the subjects were thoroughly traumatized by the unfamiliar situation, the screams of the person they were supposedly electrocuting in the next room, and the robotic commands of the experimenter. Swaim argues that Milgram created such a traumatizing and deceitful set of circumstances that very quickly (in less than an hour) a profound trauma bond was generated, causing two-thirds of the subjects to lose all moral and cognitive agency.

As Swaim points out, those who continued to follow commands until the subject in the next room was supposedly dead or incapacitated experienced shock and horror at what they were doing but couldn’t stop following the commands of the “scientist” leading the experiment. In other words, they were so deeply traumatized that they were unable to stop following the commands of the only authority figure in the room. Although Milgram’s aftercare protocols were very good, these subjects lived for the rest of their lives knowing they were capable of killing a complete stranger for no reason, if subjected to sufficient pressure. It is small wonder, then, that people who have been subjected to longer and more devastating traumas —as victims, witnesses, or even perpetrators — find it difficult to deal constructively with their experiences.

Paths to Healing

Though Trauma Bond focuses almost exclusively on the creation of the trauma bond and its tie to systemic evil in the world, it does hint at Swaim’s abiding belief that human-kind can develop positive ways of dealing with people who have internalized aggression because of violent experiences. In the sections on his work with clients in the residential treatment program, as well as in the Milgram section, he suggests that people must receive the support they need in order to recognize the manner in which past violence could be affecting them, acknowledge the strength of the bond it created, and then begin to talk about it. While it may seem a weakness in the book that more space is not given to solutions, in reality the book must be seen as part of a whole. It is the middle book in a trilogy, the first one being The Death of Judeo-Christianity: Religious Aggression and Systemic Evil in the Modern World, in which Swaim demonstrates how religion can be misused to create aggression in believers. The last book will be a discussion of the ways both individuals and communities have overcome experiences with violence.

The last book in the trilogy is still in progress. In talking about the themes he plans to discuss, Swaim notes, “A ‘recovery dualism’ is required to break free of shared traumatic memory. Individuals seek to deconstruct the fears and anxieties they feel personally but sense that there are larger social contradictions that exacerbate their personal anxiety.” Individuals, therefore, will fare best if they not only seek help to deal with their own traumas but also work to create change in their societies. For example, Swaim says, a survivor of rape “seeks personal relief, but obtains it more quickly if she works with other women to oppose patriarchy in society,” adding, “The combat veteran can deconstruct the aftereffects of war more quickly by advocating for proper treatment for all vets, and for a world without unnecessary wars.” In his next book, Swaim will deal at length with examples of recovery from internalized aggression and emotional trauma. He is working on a chapter about Rwanda and the ongoing recovery there and also plans to discuss Israel/Palestine, recovery from intergenerational Holocaust trauma, and even a fascinating case of a British soldier who was tortured in World War II but who, against all odds, achieved reconciliation with the man who tortured him.

While we might wish immediately to see a bit more of Swaim’s proposed treatment for internalized aggression, Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil is successful on its own terms. It succeeds, using entirely secular and nontechnical language, in making the case for the existence of both personal and systemic evil. This is a book that adds to our collective knowledge of good and evil. It shows us how aggression replicates itself in the world and how even systemic evil can be deconstructed when people decide they must free themselves from the tyranny of past violence.

Author Information

MARILYN GLAIM, PH.D. in American Studies, is professor emerita of English at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California. She divides her time among her interests in following American culture and politics, gardening, volunteering for community organizations, and enjoying four grandchildren.

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