Italian attorney Francesco Maresca addressed the jury in the Amanda Knox murder trial yesterday—the first of two appeals allowed under Italian law—calling Knox a “she-devil” with a diabolical side.
His words clearly conveyed the rage and grief of his clients, whose daughter Meredith Kercher was tortured before being killed, but they shed no light on Knox at all.
Labeling Knox a “she-devil” was part and parcel of Maresca’s contention that Kercher has an “angelic” side and a “diabolical” side. But, again, those words did nothing to illuminate her psyche or explain why she would inflict 40 wounds on another woman and take her life.
Such descriptions are just lazy verbal reflexes—rote reactions to horrific violence that don’t even come close to explaining it. They stop short, and urge others to stop short, of actually understanding human destructiveness. They do damage to the truth because they show no intellectual courage to dig deep and uncover the real reason why one person would slaughter another, and even take joy in her suffering.
In my experience interviewing murderers over the past 15 years, there is always a why and it is always a terribly human one. Dismissing the Mansons, Bundys and Dahmers of the world as demons or monsters shortcircuits our determination to keep our eyes open in the dark and actually see the causes of extreme human cruelty.
Those causes are found in the tortured life stories of the people who then extinguish other lives.
The simplest way to explain what I have come to know is this: Human beings are born—always and without exception—with the capacity for empathy. This miraculous trait allows us to intuit and even feel the suffering of others. It is the driving force behind acts of self-sacrifice and charity.
When we grieve “with” our friends we are at one with our empathy. When we fight for the freedoms of others in distant lands we are at one with our empathy. Even when we watch films and weep over the plight of the characters involved, we are tapping into this profound reservoir of connectedness.
Empathy, however, turns out to be fragile. Anything exquisite and inexplicably beautiful usually is. If a person unconsciously “decides” he or she is in too much psychological pain and shuts down emotionally—as many abused, traumatized, unloved children do—that will shut down his or her capacity to feel for others, too.
The “shutting down” of a person’s capacity to feel one’s own pain is the first step in setting the stage for human destructiveness.
The shutting down of empathy is the second step in human destructiveness.
The third step happens automatically, if no one intervenes with extraordinary understanding and emotionally “connects” with the underlying rage and sadness in such an individual—allowing it to be diffused through understanding. The unwieldy and dark emotions buried inside such a person intensify and become virulent. And they are then “projected” onto others.
If Amanda Knox is guilty of the torture murder of Meredith Kercher, events unfolded early on in her life that unconsciously convinced her that continuing to feel emotional pain was untenable, unthinkable and unliveable. And that is what made her hostile to the life force of others and, ultimately, led her to end someone’s life.
The great psychologist Arno Gruen has written eloquently about this process, “To the extent which our true self is lost and our human sympathies and the responsibility for them disappear, we become vengeful without even being able to realize it.”
Calling Amanda Knox a “she-devil,” or part angelic, part diabolical does nothing to explain her. If she is a brutal killer, she is no more and no less than a human being whose innate capacity for empathy died inside her, for reasons that are discoverable with enough effort. The answer to darkness is always shining a light in the direction we are most loathe to look. In this case, that would mean looking at the early chapters of Amanda Knox’s life history.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.