The conversation starts with what sounds like the makings of a postwar German novel. Vera Profit, age 8, embarks on a sea voyage with her parents, away from her native Austria and her first language, from city life in Vienna and everything familiar, to a small town in the Canadian Rockies of the 1950s, where her family and one other are the only immigrants she knows.
But these are memories, and the vulnerability of them — the little girl’s wonderment at each sunrise and sunset on the open ocean, the mystery of her mother’s inability shipboard to make her favorite food, her deep-end exposure to English before school started that fall — settles me. And I need that because Professor Emerita Vera Profit is tucked away on a dormant floor of Flanner Hall, where the gestalt outside her tidy office is dimness and dust, cardboard and abandonment. We are here to talk about evil.
Not the jump-scare, paranormal variety. Just mundane human evil, worse by far if only because we are all sure to encounter it along our earthly journey — and because we’re not prepared to recognize it right away when we do.
“I’m talking about people who project a very positive self-image, but with whom you always feel you’re jostling for position,” Profit says. “You never know quite where you stand. There is a measure of integrity that is lacking in these people. In other words, it’s hard to get to know who they really are.”
There’s far more to it than that, of course, but let me pause there for now.
Profit’s childhood memories mark an early chapter of a life spent in language and story, including a yearlong homecoming back in Vienna while she studied comparative literature at the University of Rochester. During an academic career that has since spanned 46 years of teaching and research at Notre Dame, she published important studies of the French-German poet Iwan Goll and German poet Karl Krolow. But for more years than are easy to count, she has understood her job in part as helping students spot evil in daily life and prepare themselves to confront it.
Profit traces her interest to a homily she heard at Mass one day in 1984, in which the priest described psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s recent book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. “The moment I hear that title, I think of a play,” she recalls, alluding to Andorra, by the Swiss writer Max Frisch. She’d taught it many times. “The whole plot revolves around a single lie” about the identity of the central character. Bad things happen.
Profit rushed to buy Peck’s book, enthralled with his notion of evil as “malignant narcissism.” “I can’t turn the pages fast enough,” she continues. “I mean, it was so riveting that it changed my view of the world, and I wanted to get inside Scott Peck’s mind.” She read everything Peck cited in every footnote. “It was life changing,” she says.
“Because, frankly, I knew people like this.”
‘Not all liars are evil, but all evil people are liars. The biggest lies are those we tell ourselves.’
Profit sidesteps those specifics, but she recognized how Peck’s ideas moved the age-old effort to understand human evil from the abstract realms of philosophy and theology into the concrete, psychological analysis of human behavior. They soon became the framework for her popular seminar, Evil and the Lie in Modern European Literature, as well as, 30 years after that fateful homily, her fourth book, The Devil Next Door: Toward a Literary and Psychological Definition of Human Evil, which she calls “a handbook for navigating a dark terrain.” Her careful study of works like Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Suspicion, Andre Gide’s The Immoralist and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray fleshes out a “behavioral typology” of evil “so that we might recognize these folks before they inflict even more damage, even more needless pain.”
Here’s a broad-stroke breakdown on evil per Peck, filtered through Profit’s long study: Malignant narcissists — people whose evil transcends a few bad acts and may even cross a line beyond the help of psychiatry — know neither love nor empathy. They reject the autonomy of others and seek to depersonalize them. “Their unrelenting insistence on furthering their own ends, while glibly destroying others,” Profit writes, seems “to know no limits.” They acquire and exercise power for its own sake and, when challenged, blame others for their misdeeds. They are expert liars, intolerant even of legitimate criticism, and will do anything to preserve their carefully curated respectability. They willfully evade their own consciences.
Above all, Profit notes, the evil leave victims in their wake, people harmed in one way or another by the lies, the sabotage, the objectification. “If one wants to seek out evil people,” she writes, “the simplest way to do so is to trace them from their victims.”
Is there such a thing as a benign narcissist?
Profit understands that children — by nature and need — are legitimately narcissistic. Malignant narcissists, she says, are people who fail to outgrow their self-absorption, their relentless pursuit of whatever they think they “need,” using or casting aside as tools or trash the people who get in their way. The desires, schemes and tantrums of childhood become rigid, essential and far more destructive.
In The Suspicion (1953), Dürrenmatt’s villain, Fritz Emmenberger, directs a private clinic; a local policeman suspects him of being a notorious World War II concentration camp physician who had performed operations on prisoners without anesthesia. He now appears to be victimizing his rich, terminally ill patients. For Profit, the doctor’s character, established in scenes from his years as a medical student, at the Stutthof camp and after the war, anticipates Peck’s concepts perfectly. But because it is so easy to dismiss the horrors of Nazi evil as remote from our own experience, and because Emmenberger’s untrustworthy nature is established in the novel’s first pages, Profit turns to Wilde’s better-known 1890 tale to address readers’ lingering illusions. Dorian Gray, who possesses every advantage of wealth, status, health and appearance in youth, corrupts himself step by step in pursuit of his increasingly wicked desires.
“You watch him making his decisions,” Profit explains. And Gray helps Profit make another vital point about those who give themselves over to evil: “They’re very lonely people.”
The Devil Next Door mentions Gide’s 1902 novel only in passing. But because no one in this third story is murdered, the first-person narrator is young and the victim’s suffering is more subtle, Profit often asked her students to apply Peck’s criteria to their reading and decide, “Is the main character evil, or is he not?”
Very few choices are hugely consequential, but taken together small choices make us who we are.
She taught Evil and the Lie once every three years. “It was emotionally draining,” she admits. “I also had to draw a student that was psychologically strong enough to take that kind of information. That’s not a given. You’re going to learn things about yourself you don’t want to learn.” One course evaluation read, “This is a wonderful course if you want psychotherapy three times a week.”
She thought, “Kid, you’re right. We were tackling big questions.”
Call it psychotherapy, sure, or lessons in moral reasoning if you prefer, cultivated through the critical study of literature. The contemplation of human action, character and images in such novels helps us think, feel, interpret and discuss our way toward truth about human nature — and, even more importantly, to probe our own behavior.
“You’re going to have to question your decision-making,” Profit says her students soon discovered. “Do I always have to put my needs second to somebody else’s?” they would ask. “No, but you do have to put your own needs aside long enough to accept when somebody else’s legitimate needs run alongside your own. . . . How can you begin to address them?”
Novels such as these, she says, help us frame moral choices and refine our grasp of goodness by viewing it from the dark side, like parsing a photographic negative. When stories help readers assess their own choices, they’re doing their job. With a caveat:
“You don’t lie to yourself,” Profit warns. “All evil people are liars. Not all liars are evil, but all evil people are liars. The biggest lies are those we tell ourselves.”
Of course, the moral life isn’t a simple either/or. One unspoken axiom of our conversation is that we’re all sinners who make good and bad decisions every day. Very few choices are hugely consequential, but taken together small choices make us who we are. “We all mess up at times. Hey, it’s part of the human condition. Don’t we all see through a glass darkly?” Profit says. “I mean, even Ted Hesburgh said, ‘I aim for a good batting average.’”
But some people — Profit doesn’t know how common they are — lose interest in their batting average. They find the sort of introspection that conscience requires unbearable. And though Peck, who died in 2005, didn’t foreclose on the possibility of a cure for the malignant narcissists he saw, he admitted he couldn’t treat people who habitually put themselves before others, who’d lost their capacity to assign any value to empathy or self-sacrifice.
That doesn’t offer much hope to ordinary folks who encounter such people in their families, neighborhoods or workplaces, Profit concedes. “Evil people are usually highly intelligent,” she says. “Their evil is not random. It’s planned. . . . They’re very manipulative to save themselves.”
Eventually this way of being makes evil people very sick. “Charlene,” the most infamous of Peck’s case-study patients, wound up institutionalized. The fictional Emmenberger and Dorian Gray don’t fare any better. As for Gide’s immoralist?
Not all of Profit’s students agreed he is evil. She encountered this reluctance to render judgment nearly every time. “If you posit that we only recognize [in others] what is partially in ourselves,” she says, “what does that tell me about myself, if I recognize evil in somebody else?”
How willing are we to confront ourselves, to probe our choices? How many people do we hurt along our way?
Profit and I are well past the hour we agreed on, but I need one more thing, and that’s advice. What do you do when you’ve met an evil person?
This part’s more straightforward.
“Get out,” she says. And get help if you need it. “Stay away from those people. They’re not there for your good. They’re not going to enhance your life. The faster you recognize them, the faster you can get out.”
John Nagy is managing editor of this magazine.