Dr. Michael H. Stone first came to prominence in 2005, when the New York Times outlined the 22-level hierarchy he designed to classify what he called the "Gradations of Evil." In 2009, following a stint traveling the country interviewing mass murderers, serial killers, and husband/wife murderers as the host of the Discovery Channel series Most Evil, he debuted The Anatomy of Evil. The book promises to expose the true nature of wickedness by examining the traits shared by history’s most heinous.
A professor and specialist in the field of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, Stone had long diagnosed and treated patients with borderline personality disorder, a fairly serious condition that’s sometimes exacerbated by eating disorders, substance abuse, and depression. Attorneys often asked him to serve as an expert witness at trial, which introduced him to the far ends of the personality disorder spectrum. From the antisocial to straight-out psychopaths, these were people who society at large—judges, prosecutors, and the average pedestrian—would deem to be evil. They showed little remorse for committing atrocious acts like torturing and dismembering their victims.
Drawn to the severe aberrations of personality that led to these unspeakable horrors, Stone identified narcissism and aggression as the two top personality traits that define evil. And he began to break down the overarching archetypes that would comprise his hierarchy. This week, The Anatomy of Evil sees its re-release accompanied by a fresh epilogue looking at what Stone calls the “New Evil.” VICE talked to the doctor by phone to find out if he thinks people are born evil, who the most evil people he’s studied have been, and how an improved understanding of the causes of evil might affect the criminal justice system.
VICE: Are some people just born evil?
Michael H. Stone: I think there are a few people who are born with a tendency to do evil things. I don’t think you can consider them “born evil,” as if they are destined absolutely to commit the kinds of acts that you and I would call evil. But there are people—men far more than women—who are born with such a deficit of empathy and compassion. They have an inability to really develop love and strong bonds with other people. [But] they are callous and do awful things and have no remorse. They have these psychopathic traits and are more at-risk for doing something to evoke this emotion of an evil action.
So what unites them?
The largest percentage of men and women who end up doing something we would call evil have often been brought up in very harsh and difficult and abusive circumstances. Even though they may not have been born with a tendency to be psychopathic and unable to feel for others, they’ve had their good feelings drowned in all of the misery they’ve had to endure through their early years. They end up doing things that have these evil qualities.
Can you talk a bit about your original conception of levels of evil?
I began developing the scales and working on it 30 years ago, in 1987. I was asked to be an expert witness in a case where a man murdered his wife and children. That was the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, the so called “Fatal Vision” case. I wanted to instruct the jury on where MacDonald’s crime fit, in the grand spectrum of crime. Obviously what he did was way worse than what Jean Harris, who shot the man who’d betrayed her, did. When she discovered that he was cheating on her, she became very depressed and very angry, and she shot him in what we would call a “crime of passion.” That was like the least evil, evil.
On the other end of the spectrum were the crimes of Ian Brady in England. He was the one who teamed up with a woman he’d managed to befriend. They would lure children to very remote and distant places in England and drag them to this cottage. Brady would strangle the children and record the screams on a tape recorder to use later in the day as a sort of sexual turn on for him and his girlfriend. I thought, Well it doesn’t get any worse than that. But it does get a little worse than that. At the time, that was the baddest I knew. I put that at the other end of the scale. There are indeed gradations, and that’s why I began to develop what I called the “Gradations of Evil” scale, which has almost two-dozens levels in it.
You spent years studying more than 600 violent criminals for your book. Who is the most evil person you have studied?
I think David Parker Ray. He built and converted one of these big trailers into a torture chamber in New Mexico. He’d hoist women up so they were immobilized and do unspeakable things to them after reading 17 pages, single-spaced, of all the terrible things he was going to do to them. And also a fellow in Wisconsin, John Ray Weber, who did terrible things like dismembering his victims' sexual parts.
They struck me as being very hard to outdo with respect to the evil and torturous and painful things you can do to another human being. In the new epilogue, I also made reference to crimes that have really never even happened before. There’ve been a number of women, about 21 since 1987, who have commandeered a pregnant woman who is about to give birth. They kill the woman, cut open her womb, and [steal] the fetus—a live baby. That’s a new kind of evil. I can’t find any record of any such thing occurring before 1987.
How do infamous killers like Charles Manson or John Wayne Gacy grade on your scale?
I put Manson as a somewhat lower number because he inspired others to kill. He did murder a person or two on the farm they used as a gathering place, but he [was more of] a kind of inspirational type to these runaways who murdered the actress Sharon Tate when she was nine months pregnant while saying, “Die bitch!” That is pretty evil and belongs at the far end of the scale. But things that Manson himself did do not show the kind of torture or heartlessness that some of his followers showed. He was a little hard to place in the scale.
Gacy would capture these boys at a Greyhound station and bring them back to his house and rape them, kill them, and dump their bodies under the porch. These iconic killers like Gacy were close to the top of the scale, but he did not personally indulge in torture the way David Parker Ray or some of the others did. They actually built torture chambers in their houses and subjected their victims to unendurable and unimaginable pain. That makes them even worse than some of these other people.
Why did you think it was important to update your book?
I began to think that there was a pretty distinct cultural change in our country over the past 50 years. Even though the murder rate went down, some of the murders were particularly gruesome. I found it unusual that some never happened before 1960. I was willing to dub that the “New Evil”: crimes that were spectacular and uncommon.
How would an improved understanding of the causes of evil affect the justice system, in your view?
You’ve got to be 100 percent certain that the perpetrator did the crime. If it’s of this extreme torturous nature, like David Parker Ray, then I think life in prison without any hope of parole or the death penalty would not be inappropriate—despite the fact that people in the last 30 to 40 years have begun to be less enthusiastic about ultimate punishment for crimes of that nature. The justice system has not paid much attention to diagnosis.
What about people who show propensities for evil at an early age?
The courts feel that if you are below 18 and an adolescent, then you should never be kept in prison for life or a great number of years because, after all, you were only a kid. There is some hope for redemption. But it isn’t always so, because there are some children who are callous and unemotional and capable of doing unspeakable things to other people. When they get to 17 or 18 and into their 20s, they become psychopaths. Untreatable and not redeemable. The judge should take that into consideration. Like, Hey, this is a person that is most likely not going to get better with treatment or age or anything else.
What does that mean practically in terms of how we sentence or handle young offenders?
We should be more strict in the sentencing of kids like this, even though the majority of kids have a chance at redemption. The rules for them could be more gentle, but if you do something heinous with a callous and pre-psychopath nature, the chances of ever recovering are not good, as compared to other kids who have redeeming qualities. They need to pay more attention to diagnosis, not just your birthday.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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