Freud called it the Id, that most elementary part of our make-up that is a cauldron of fiery impulses, innate urges and self-serving primal desires. Left unrestrained, it could lead to personal and social chaos. It’s a part of us that is usually regulated and controlled by our identifications with loved ones, early socialization, fear, duty, compassion, courage, guilt, or all of the above. It gets melded into something we call moral values, yet is always teeter-tottering with its darker, shadowy side. Those impulses to cheat, to wound somebody, to transgress the boundaries, they all stay silent and contained within. “I wish he would just die!” That thought is common in all of us. It usually remains in the realm of imagination or fantasy. The impulses are repressed and softened, but there within, nonetheless. In his book, The Murdering Mind, the psychiatrist David Abrahamsen makes the point that even acts of violence are fundamental expressions of our humanity. Carl Jung referred to this as our shadow side, a part of our personalities we attempt to avoid, to render unconscious. Yet it remains a powerful part of us that must be reckoned with in some fashion: sometimes, we utilize simple self-deception, often times it’s evacuated by the use of a different defense, like projection. For instance, we’ll notice hatefulness in others instead of admitting it’s a feeling that comes from within.
In my criminal forensic practice, I witness the shadow side. A terrible act has occurred and exposed something about the human condition that can’t be rationalized away or controlled. The lid has popped off, a psychic hernia has occurred. A stepfather lost his moral bearings and self-control, and has sex with his seductive but 15 year old stepdaughter. A 20 year old man is insulted and laughed at by his girlfriend, in front of his friends. Feeling the sharp ache of humiliation, he slaps her in the face and gives her a hard shove. She falls to the ground, hits her head and winds up hospitalized in a coma, fighting for her life.
The shadow side of us is just that – a “side” – and not the whole of our human nature. After all, it was a human being who painted the Sistine Chapel, and the collective “we” who constructed social institutions that are democratic in nature and assert the inherent dignity of all human beings.
But we deny our shadowy side at our own peril. There’s the potential for the lid to pop off, such as when Auschwitz was divined. Our dark side surfaces in subtle forms as well. A deputy sheriff at the county jail is unnecessarily cruel to a psychotic inmate, calling him an “asshole” due to his confusion and inability to quickly comply with the deputy’s directions. Or the cynical comments made about defendants by forensic experts. Both may be understandable ways of coping with stress or feelings of frustration, even despair over repeated exposure to chronic human problems. But it’s a slippery slope toward the darker side, to what I refer to as our daimonic human nature.
What do I mean by daimonic? The term derived from the Greeks and has not always been associated with evil. It means divinity or deity. Daimonic conveys a force that can take us over, a force that could be a blessing or a curse. “Eros is daimonic,” said Plato in the Symposium. What did he mean? Erotic passion is clearly not evil, not in the “demonic” sense, but it is beyond logic and reason; it is an elemental force, like a stage-four hurricane. Erotic passion is daimonic because it’s awesome and instinctual, and it transcends rational thought. It’s beautiful, impetuous and intemperate, knocking over everything in the path to its desired object. It’s a force that can go in different directions, for good or naught, that could be moral or wanton.
The daimonic is human nature in its most natural and raw form. We feel its presence in the strength of a newborn’s powerful grasp of our pinkie with her tiny hand, and in her mighty bite and wail when she’s hungry. It takes form in the soldier’s act of heroism and the terrorist’s slaughter of the innocent.
The daimonic exposes a basic human potential that is wide and deep. It includes a possibility for magnificent love and creativity, and uncorked hatred and destruction. For some, the daimonic surface in the creation of an inspiring song, whereas for others as an abhorrent sexual act. What leads to such varied differences among people? How does the dark and light sides of daimonic duality influence each other?
I’m always asking myself: What are the elements in a defendant’s history and endowment that create the conditions for his dark, wicked side to unravel? To absorb the tragedy and trauma inherent in maintaining a criminal forensic practice is to confront a basic truth about human nature: that the difference between the savage and the civilized, the saint and the sinner, is deep yet dubious.