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What Makes a “Sadist”? Exploring the Psychology of the Cruelty Impulse So Common to Millions

By Michael Carmichael

ONCE upon a time—I’d better warn you that this is not a bed-time story for the timid or the young —once upon a time there was a man called Bluebeard who had a very bad habit—that of murdering his wives.

He’d marry a pretty girl, and, after a brief honeymoon, would tell his bride that he must take a trip and that he counted on her to run the house well in his absence. He handed her the keys and warned her that there was one room which she must not enter. He pointed out the key and the location of the forbidden room, kissed the lady good-by and departed with a cynical certainty that the trap was laid and baited. Curiosity would draw her to that room as a magnet attracts a needle.

The poor creature would struggle against the attraction a few days and then enter the dreadful room, spattered with the blood and decked with the corpses of her fair predecessors in the affections of this monster. Of course, she dropped the key in her fright, and of course she could not remove the tell-tale bloodstain, and when Bluebeard returned he had his pretext for the slaughter of another bride.

Strange that he felt the need of a pretext, this hardened old sinner. But such rationalization of the blood-lust is nothing new to the psychiatrist. Every Bluebeard has his rationalization.

This grim story is more than a fairy tale. It is part myth, part moral tale, since it preaches a sermon to wives on the evils of disobedience and too much curiosity about the hidden chambers in their husbands’ lives. It is also a case history observed by untrained psychologists. Almost the worst thing about it is that we now believe that it is a true story, a distorted and fancified history of the terrible Giles de Retz.

This Giles de Retz, or de Rais, was Marshal of France in the time of Joan of Arc, a brave soldier and one of the great nobles of Brittany. He is not remembered for his military exploits but for his hideous reputation as one of the cruelest monsters who ever lived.

He seems at first to have wished to become an alchemist and magician. Believing that the secret knowledge he desired could be acquired only through the powers of evil, he became a Satanist. A noble in those days had the right of life and death over his vassals. There were few to dare protest against any treatment a noble meted out to the helpless peasantry.

Behind the thick walls of his castle, the peasants whispered, unspeakable rites were conducted. Children disappeared, and were never seen again. Their wretched parents knew that son or daughter had met as hideous a death as the perverted mind of Giles de Retz could devise, on an altar of unholy sacrifice.

It was only after years of cruelty and the murder of hundreds of innocent young victims that he was seized, tried as a sorcerer, and condemned to be both hanged and burned. It was the disappearance of so many young girls which created the Bluebeard legend about him.

If ever history is taught without evasion we shall be appalled at the procession of morbid monsters who walk its pages. Blood-madness—hematomania—our school-books never mention the word. We sprinkle rose-water over the ugly stench which rises from the deeds of tyrants and despots. Some of them are national heroes —they are revered as “Strong Men.” A knowledge of psychology would make it plain that they are more often “Sick Men”—mentally sick. At best, they are infantile adults, at worst, they are perverted monsters, criminally insane paranoiacs who should have been locked up where they can do no harm.

The words “sadist” and “sadism” are derived from the name of a French author, the Marquis de Sade. Like de Retz, he had spent his early life in a military career.

Although he was a daring soldier, he acquired more vices than medals and became such a scandal that a civil court condemned him to death for crimes committed in his unnatural practises. He escaped his prison and the death penalty, but was later caught and committed to the Bastile for life. This removed his physical presence from society, but not his vicious influence, for he found vicarious satisfaction by turning out a series of scandalous novels, which won an evil fame for their combination of cruelty and pornography.

Sadism is loosely used to mean the mental twist which causes some individuals to find enjoyment in cruelty. This is its common meaning in speech, but its technical meaning in psychology is more narrow—in medical parlance a sadist is one who achieves sexual satisfaction through cruel acts. His opposite is the masochist, who is unsatisfied sexually unless cruelty is inflicted upon him. The curious fact is that these two—masochist and sadist —often live in one skin. Some of our most revolting crimes are committed by the abnormal individual who is alternately masochist and sadist. The repulsive Albert Fish was of this type, and pious to boot, a combination which turned the stomach of the most hard-boiled reporter.

We all have a cruel streak, and we all have in us at least a bit of that feeling which makes us feel satisfaction in being punished when we have done wrong. The punishment seems to us to wipe out the guilt we feel for a misdeed. We feel clean when we have paid up, so we actually relish the punishment.

It is probable that these strange emotions have their beginning in early childhood. A child has done something “naughty.” He feels the disapproval of his mother, or father, or teacher. It is as if a cloud came between him and the sunshine. He is used to the warmth of affection, and suddenly it is withdrawn. He is spanked, but then, after the spanking, mother washes his tears away, tells him that now he is a good boy. He can have a cookie because she is sure he’ll never pull the cat’s tail again.

In his mind, the spanking has led to clearance of guilt, to love and reward and approval. If the misdeed he committed was some childish sex experiment which shocked his mother, his mind immediately links sex and guilt, pain and restoration to affection. There is no logic to it except the sequence of events, and the sequence of emotions— most of us never pass beyond such logic to cold abstract examination of real cause and effect.

Most of us never pass beyond the childish idea that the way to atone for a sin is to be spanked. We think we expiate by receiving pain in our own person, not by a manly effort to undo the misdeed, and to make up the pain and loss to our victim. I read some time ago of a magistrate who inflicted a realistic punishment upon a driver guilty of manslaughter. Instead of sending him to the penitentiary the Judge sentenced him to support the wife and children of the man he had killed. Such logical punishments will be more common, we hope, in the future.

BOTH sexes, all ages, all professions, and every class of society show individuals who have a tendency toward sadism, a “cruel streak.” Some nag. Some bully. We compensate for defeats, for disappointments, for a feeling of inferiority. We “take out a grouch” on the nearest person who cannot retaliate.

Just because it is so crude and cheap and easy a way of conquest it is often-est chosen. It comes to children by instinct. Our ancestors, and those whose thinking is purely conventional, try to preach cruelty out of children.

We discover that human beings are the possessors of contradictory impulses. Just as electricity has its positive and its negative manifestation, so the individual has his positive and his negative impulses. We want to see, and to be seen—so we are Peeping Toms of curiosity, and we are exhibitionists, “showing off” quite shamelessly. We also wish to hurt and to be hurt.

This article will have space only for an examination of that mental quirk which makes us take pleasure in being cruel—sadism as it is technically known. Sadism does not exist of itself. It is always a substitute for another impulse. It is a mask slipped over the face of desire. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say it is a distortion of desire.

People shy away from the word “desire” as if its only meaning were “lust.” Psychology took the word libido to escape the popular interpretation of the word desire. But “libido” has fared no better. To most people libido means sex desire alone. In simple English libido, desire—even lust, mean “want.” I want, you want, we all want certain great satisfactions. They may all be summed up in two great common wants—food and love.

There is nothing shameful about either of these desires, but we are perpetually being shamed about them through tradition, misunderstanding, and ignorance. There must be social checks upon their satisfaction but there should be no taboos. It is the taboo and the shame which produce such distortions and mental deformities as sadism.

‘”THE desire exists. Instead of recognizing the desire and finding an intelligent way of satisfying it, or, if satisfaction is for the time being impossible, finding a happy sublimation for it, we disguise it. We do not check it. It slips out of its prison in the subconscious in another suit of clothes. I shall have to illustrate with a story which shows the senseless cruelty of the ill-adjusted individual in a society which is almost blind to this problem.

A young woman is bicycling along a pleasant country road in England. The morning is fine, and she is full of the joy of life. Suddenly she is conscious that a motor car is approaching from behind, too close for comfort. The road is walled by high banks, so she swings out to the other side.

The car swings too. She casts an indignant look backward. There is a man in the car. He smiles at her but does not change direction.

“He must be drunk,” she thinks, “or is the silly fool trying to flirt with me?”

She takes the center of the road. Again the car follows. She begins to be alarmed. A glance shows her that the man is still smiling.

Quickly she swerves back to the left. The motorist imitates the maneuver. She puts on speed. She pedals frantically. She takes the right, the left, the center of the road. In vain. The car is at her heels. She races, she screams, and then A scornful burst of speed from the car, and her young life is crushed out. The car roars on, as indifferently as if it had merely rolled over a snail or toad in its passage.

This hideous cat-and-mouse game had a witness. The description of car and driver brought about the capture of the murderer and solved the mystery of the killing of several women in the same way.

The killer was a lance-corporal in a well-known regiment. None of his officers or companions had noticed any abnormality of behavior in their contacts with him. Once caught, tried, and sentenced to hang, he talked, freely and unashamedly.

“Yes, I killed her. I’ve killed other girls too, the same way. I don’t know why I do it. When I sit behind the wheel of a car, I feel a sense of power. It’s wonderful.

“I drive around on the lonely country roads and when I catch sight of a girl alone there walking, or on a bicycle—well, it’s more fun when she’s on a bicycle!—I trail her. I play with her like a cat with a mouse. I wait till she is in a panic of fear. Fear of me! I tell you it is wonderful, that moment when I swoop down on her, and she knows nothing can save her from me. Why, at that moment there is just one will in the world, and that will is mine!”

Insane, you will say, and there are many who will think he should not have been hung. In England, the public wasted small sympathy on this sadist. The sympathy went to his helpless young victims.

This case is interesting because it shows so clearly how the element of sex enters into a real case of sadism. You will notice that the victims were always young girls, that there is a definite analogy to the sex act present in this man’s murder technique. It represents the male conquest of the female—but conquest to the uttermost limit, death.

With the normal male there is recognition of the mutuality, the equal rights, of sex. There is, by the women, happy acceptance, not surrender. The conquest is mutual, the end of the act is life, not death. I have no hesitation in saying that this man was either not normal, or that he secretly thought himself not normal. He was imperfectly masculine or he doubted his masculinity and his power to attract a woman.

Society’s problem in dealing with men of this type is not solved by executing them. We make more of them faster than we can detect them and kill them off. Our sensational way of reporting and publicizing their crimes provides the very suggestion which incites the same crime from other weakly inhibited and suggestible individuals.

AND sadism is by no means confined to the subnormal, ignorant and vicious. I repeat, both sexes, all ages, and every profession and walk of life contain sadists in their ranks. I have already mentioned the Bluebeard’s need of a rationalization, an excuse for his cruelty. He always finds it. He may be cruel on the most lofty moral grounds.

Religion provides a prize rationalization. It is necessary only to read one of the sermons, such as “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” by the sainted Jonathan Edwards, to realize that he was a sadist. Torque-mada, the Father of the Spanish Inquisition, was fanatically convinced that he tortured and burned heretics from the highest of motives. Any fledgling student of psychology can recognize in Torquemada the typical sadist, finding in blood and flame the distorted satisfaction of natural desires unnaturally thwarted.

In business the sadist may find his rationalization by saying he has to keep his office staff up to the mark. The teacher whose life is denied legitimate satisfactions is apt to become a self-pitying martyr or a self-righteous sadist. “Discipline must be maintained!” is her rationalization.

We are so used to some manifestations of sadism that we take them for granted. The custom of hazing Freshmen, the often painful ordeal of initiation into a fraternity, are not recognized as outlets of the unconscious desire to inflict pain. Our conscience is shocked into realization of the dangers from these practises only when it happens that someone is seriously injured.

There is a peculiar attitude when sadism is practised by a group. The doing of a wrong thing seems less to us when we act in company with others. “Men foolishly conceive they divide a sin in society,”—says old Sir Thomas Browne. Hence the individual member of a lynching mob does not feel himself guilty of a murder. The killing was done by a group and each member acquits himself.

We find the same attitude in the larger groups called nations, particularly in time of war. Individual morality and morality within the family are as yet ages ahead of national morality.

In other words, nations may develop a group neurosis and turn sadistic from fear, just as individuals do. The cruelty springs from fear, the fear from a real or imagined threat to the security of the individual egos which compose the nation. There are national as well as individual inferiority complexes, and under stress they may erupt in group sadism, just as a staid community breaks out into a disgraceful lynching.

EVENTUALLY we will evolve an education in mental hygiene which will prevent the development of such tendencies in the individual singly and as a member of a group. It is entirely possible to do this, for there is no normal impulse which cannot be guided into constructive instead of destructive outlets.

I might make clear a method of approach to this cure by repeating a conversation with a mother whose visit to me suggested the title of this article.

“Doctor,” she said, “I’m afraid I’ve got a little Bluebeard in my home! I can’t understand what has happened to Robert. He’s behaving so strangely. He used to be such a dear, but now I’m frightened. He’s a little monster! He just lives to hurt. Anyone, anything. A dog, a cat, another child. He just seems to watch for an opportunity to do something cruel.”

She was in a highly nervous state of mind. I passed her the morning paper lying on my desk. It happened to have the account of a brutal third degree case on the part of some members of the police force of a neighboring city.

“Read those headlines,” I told her calmly.

Her face whitened. “Brutes,” she said.

“Men,” I answered, “sick men. But they could be cured, and so can Robert. And the first step is for you to get rid of your shock and condemnation of the boy. You would not feel as you do if Bobby were just beginning to break out with the red splotches of a case of measles. Think of him as a sick boy, not a bad boy, and we can set about curing him. Now tell me how you have been treating Bobby since he showed his first symptoms.”

“Well, whatever I’ve tried is wrong,” the mother responded, “because it hasn’t done any good. When he first began to do mean little things to his younger sister, I talked to him about the way a boy should act toward girls, protective, you know, and chivalrous. When he didn’t change at all and his father caught him smashing the head of her best loved doll, he spanked Bobby soundly.

“Annette was in hysterics about it, and slipped into his room to comfort him. She brought him some cookies and he pulled her hair till she screamed for help.

“We’ve tried everything, spanking, depriving him of something he very much wanted, explaining, and pleading, and even being extra nice to him and making him sure of our love. We’ve tried everything.”

“Except,” I pointed out, “except finding out what was going on in Bobby’s mind, finding the cause. I think you’d better introduce me to Master Bobby.”

“Well,” the mother agreed forlornly, “if he gives you a peep into his mind, it’s more than he’ll give me. He’s gone inside and slammed the door. He’s as locked as a safe deposit vault.”

We doctors of the mind have our own way of dealing with locked doors. A little patience and a lot of experience make us pretty good Jimmy Valentines. Twiddling this dial and that, and listening to the tell-tale click of the tumblers inside, and before you know it the sealed doors have swung open.

Bobby was relieved not to have to live longer with the secret trouble which had been gnawing him. He had been the innocent victim of bullying and sex experimentation by an older boy. He was also the victim of the primitive male code which forbids “telling on” another boy, and he had been threatened with dire reprisals if he ever revealed what had been done to him.

HE was wild with fear and shame and helpless rage at the boy who had him within his power. Bobby was relieved to learn that there are some matters which it is quite right to report to adults because they are beyond the power of childish inexperience to settle.

He was thoroughly ashamed of the cruelties he had practised and had not the faintest idea why he had done them. Of course, he had acted on the animal-savage level of logic. He had been hurt, he would hurt. He had been the victim of a stronger force, he would find his vengeance by being a stronger force, and take out his emotional debt on the cat or his little sister.

In a way, even if a wrong way, his conduct was a witness to an indestructible self-respect. He asserted his undefeated ego. It was the only way he knew to save it.

Childish cruelty often comes from a lack of imagination. Sympathy and tolerance and fair-play come from the power to see one’s self in the other fellow’s place. Sometimes cruelty comes from ignorance. A very young child doesn’t know that a cat’s tail is anything more than a convenient handle. He has no intent to hurt kitty, and kitty herself will teach him that a hurt brings a hurt.

In dealing with behavior problems of children it is always important to look behind the act and seek the motive. It is especially important with regard to cruelty. We face reality only when we admit that we are all born potential sadists. We have an unconscious desire to inflict cruelty simply to assert our power and strength and the importance of our individual egos. The give-and-take of child life provides a natural check upon this. Adults should interfere only when the bully has no bigger bully to teach him his lesson, and the contest needs an umpire, judge, or final referee.

When cruelty tends to become a habit the wise parent or teacher will look for the cause behind behavior, and try to deal wisely with the cause instead of the symptom. To punish a child for a mental sickness is as criminally stupid as it would be to cane a boy for getting the mumps. We thereby fix the curse of sadism upon the child instead of lifting it from him.

It might be the most intelligent course, when we adults are seeking the reason for a child’s cruelty, to look first at ourselves. Is he imitating our own behavior? Are we masking a cruel child behind the dignified visage of an educator, or the tender smile of a parent? Are you just a little bit of a Bluebeard yourself?

You are curable! But don’t expect to cure the little Bluebeard in your home until you have done something to reform the old one!

  1. Blurgle says: December 20, 200710:27 am

    If only it were this easy.

  2. docca says: December 24, 200712:52 pm

    Now that’s some direct advertising (“Sex Harmony and Eugenics” on the last page):

    “No prudish beating about the bush”

    Perfect for the Bluebeard inside you. Get it now!

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