The story of Adam and Eve, examined through the lens of Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory, describes what it’s like to meet a psychopath. It is the experience of knowing evil.
In the garden there grew every kind of tree that was good for food. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat from it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Adam and Eve had experienced goodness all their lives. They knew what benevolence was, for they had experienced it in the garden. What they had never experienced was malevolence. Theoretically, they knew that evil was the opposite of good, but without an experience of evil to compare to the experience of goodness, they couldn’t really appreciate what goodness was either. Good and evil were concepts they could contemplate intellectually but without a deeper understanding. They didn’t know what good and evil felt like because without something to compare it to, goodness was undefined.
What You Learn from a Psychopath
Enter the snake. He knew what evil felt like. He was envious, both toward God and toward the people God loved. He envied them and their relationship with God. He knew that Adam and Eve’s innocence from evil gave them freedom from suffering. The plan to tempt them to partake in evil, necessitated that evil appear like a good thing. Like any psychopath, the snake didn’t have to lie to deceive. He just didn’t tell the whole truth. Lying by omission is a standard psychopathic tactic.
The Knowledge of Evil
He tempted Eve with wisdom like God’s, “your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). In this one sentence the snake planted the seed of comparison –mimetic desire to be like God, to have His wisdom. Psychopaths are very aware of envy and they will use comparison to create in us a hyper-sensitivity of our own shortcomings.
The Knowledge of Shame
After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, they saw that they were nothing in comparison to God. Where they were expecting to become powerful like God instead they realized their vulnerability and their nakedness. They were ashamed.
The Knowledge of Betrayal
The snake knew all along that there was no comparison between God and His creations. He had that realization himself when he became God’s rival. He felt shame and envy in defeat and determined to console himself by sliming others with the same feeling. He chose the most innocent beings because they couldn’t even imagine what evil felt like and they wouldn’t know to resist it. Before toppling the humans from their pedestal, he befriended them. He invited them to become wise, like him. He was after all, only mirroring God, who is both good and wise. Eve’s betrayal was double. She had expected to join the snake in friendship and to increase her status with God. Instead the snake betrayed her.
Eve had wanted to know what evil was. She learned that it can’t be understood as an intellectual concept. Knowledge of evil is a visceral sensation. The experience is one of shame, betrayal, cognitive dissonance, revulsion, disgust, humiliation and envy. It’s the feeling of being slimed.
Acknowledging evil is a difficult thing to do. Nobody wants to experience it. We turn away from it. We pretend we didn’t see it. We hope someone else will be responsible and solve it. It’s easier to rationalize that we didn’t cause it and that those who are responsible for the evil should address it.
This refusal to accept responsibility is part of the hidden scapegoat mechanism. When God asked Adam why he had eaten of the fruit of the tree, he blamed Eve. As an aside he also mentioned that, by the way, God was the one who made Eve in the first place. Eve, in turn, blamed the snake. None wanted responsibility for bringing evil into the garden.
The hidden scapegoat mechanism correlates with the concept of bypassed shame, a concept which psychoanalyst Helen Lewis first introduced in her book, Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971). Thomas Scheff, in his paper Male Emotions/Relationships and Violence: A Theory of Humiliated Fury (2003), describes Lewis’ research:
Hidden shame as the main source of anger is a key theme in the work of Helen Lewis. Since her 1971 study was based entirely on transcripts of sessions that she had not herself witnessed, she was a bit coy in naming hidden shame. She called it unacknowledged shame. That is, she noted that the word shame or its near relatives (embarrassment, humiliation) was almost never used by either the patient or the therapist in reference to shame episodes. By calling such shame unacknowledged, she reserved judgment on the issue of whether the patient was conscious of shame, but not mentioning it. After completing the study, in her clinical work she realized that patients seldom acknowledged shame because they were usually unaware of it. They were in a state of shame, as Lewis put it, but did not feel ashamed. Lewis’s interpretation of the cues to unacknowledged shame is complex enough to require reference to her graphic representation of dimensions of the relationship between self and other (Table 1).
The human tendency to avoid responsibility by directing blame toward a scapegoat is how we avoid feeling shame. The mechanism directs rage or aggression toward another person or group to cover the feeling of shame and divert responsibility.
The genius in Girard’s Mimetic Theory is that it describes the entire dynamic of bypassed shame. Eve’s first step down the slippery slope was in having the audacity to compare herself with God. This comparison inspired the mimetic desire for something God had, which she didn’t: The knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve assumed that they would have God’s power if they had His knowledge of good and evil. What they learned was that they couldn’t begin to compare with God. Their comparison left them shameful and envious. They wanted the truth but found that they couldn’t handle the truth. In their attempt to hide their shame even from themselves, they tried to scapegoat each other: Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake.
Thomas Scheff (2003) describes a spiral of shame that occurs when shame is unrecognized:
Lewis’s moment by moment analysis of shame/anger episodes in discourse (1971) suggests a shame mechanism that I have called spiraling (Scheff 1987; 1994). It seems to me that shame/anger spirals explain the emotional basis for the high energy level of humiliated fury. Lewis herself has provided a cognitive explanation that complements the emotional one. According to Lewis (1971), the predominant cognitive feature of bypassed shame is what she calls obsessive preoccupation, the narrowing of focus onto a single issue. When an individual has a propensity to isolation from others, these two processes serve to further isolate him or her. They also can help explain a lifetime of anger, aggression and violence.
Anger, aggression and violence become the process through which shame contaminates a victim of violence. Each time a human being passes their responsibility on to another through blaming and shaming, another person is contaminated. Perhaps this is the legacy of Original Sin.
Copyright © 2012-2018 Skylar
Lewis, Helen Block 1971. Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.