Rape and the Heart of Darkness at Richmond High

October 29, 2009
Ronald W. Pies, MD
Ronald W. Pies, MD

Dr Pies is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine; and Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times (2007-2010). Dr Pies is the author of several books. A collection of his works can be found on Amazon.

The press reported it in various ways-either as a “brutal gang rape” or, more forensically, as a “2½-hour assault” on the Richmond High School campus. Anyway you look at it, the horrendous attack on a 15-year old girl raises troubling questions for theologians, criminologists, and, of course, psychiatrists.

The press reported it in various ways-either as a “brutal gang rape” or, more forensically, as a “2½-hour assault” on the Richmond High School campus. Anyway you look at it, the horrendous attack on a 15-year old girl raises troubling questions for theologians, criminologists, and, of course, psychiatrists. How do we understand an act as brutal as rape? What factors and forces in the rapist’s development can possibly account for such behavior? And how on earth do we explain the apparent indifference of the large crowd that watched the attack in Richmond, California, and allegedly did nothing to stop it-or even, to report it?

In a thoughtful analysis on CNN, Stephanie Chen provides a range of “expert opinions” on this last question. Essentially, the various hypotheses asserted that:

o Bystanders in large groups are unlikely to take appropriate action in such cases, because they assume others have already done so; or because “doing nothing becomes the norm” (the so-called bystander effect).

o Witnesses who otherwise might have phoned 911 may have feared retaliation from the perpetrators.

o Bystanders do not feel a “bond” with the victim, and may actually identify with the perpetrator, who is perceived as “more important” than the victim.

The CNN report speculated at length on the so-called “Genovese Syndrome,” named for the woman stabbed to death in Queens, NY in 1964, supposedly after 38 witnesses to the attack did nothing to help her. (The facts, however, are almost certainly otherwise, as an article in American Psychologistargues.)

Most of the forensic experts quoted in the CNN piece took a predictably “objective” point of view. None ventured the opinion that the crowd at Richmond High School failed to aid the rape victim because many human beings often act in a selfish, callous, and cowardly manner. Nobody put forth the view of rabbinical Judaism; namely, that we are all born with 2 primal inclinations, constantly at war with one another. The “good inclination” (yetzer hatov) is usually held to be a kind of late “add-on” to the more powerful “evil inclination” (yetzer hara), which often gains the upper hand. The yetzer hara seems to have been alive and well at Richmond High-and nobody lifted a finger to stop it. Rabbi Bruce Kadden, however, points out that the yetzer hara is not some “devil” external to our own selves; rather,

“…the yetzer hara is very much a part of us. We therefore cannot deny personal responsibility for what the yetzer hara causes us to do. It may explain our behavior, but it does not excuse it.”

Many psychiatrists, it seems to me, have been reluctant to venture into the obscure headwaters of evil-the territory explored so vividly in Josef Conrad’s 1902 novella, “The Heart of Darkness,” Many in our profession have taken the “scientific” view that matters of good and evil are best left to theologians and clergy; and that clinicians should limit themselves to analyzing and correcting the developmental, biological, and psychological precursors of “anti-social behavior.”

I disagree. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals should not avoid the issue of evil, if only for the reason that good and evil are very real, and matter very deeply, to most of our patients. A woman who presents in therapy with a rape-related traumatic syndrome may be said to embody the problem of human evil: even her physiological responses to trauma-related stimuli have been altered by her experience. But more than that, the patient (male or female) who has suffered a brutal assault may need to explore the moral dimensions of the act and its consequences: “How could another human being do such a horrible thing? And - - why me, Doctor? Was I being punished by God? Am I somehow responsible for what happened? What should I do with all the hatred and rage I feel toward this monster? Is it right that I want him to suffer as much as I have?”

These understandable questions do not arise for all victims of trauma; but when they do, psychiatrists must be prepared to engage the patient in a serious, “I-Thou” dialogue, to use Martin Buber’s term. Similarly, philosopher and ethicist Margaret U. Walker has written of the need for “moral repair” after an act of wrongdoing. As therapists, we help effect such repair by establishing trust-the first step in mending the torn fabric of the traumatized patient’s moral universe. To gain the patient’s trust, however, we must be ready to talk frankly about good and evil. Sometimes, this means confronting the enormity of acts such as those that occurred at Richmond High.

[UPDATE 11/06/09] It seems there may be a bright spot to this horrendous story, after all. ABC News is reporting that, while nearly all the bystanders did nothing,

"...one woman called police as soon as she heard what was happening. The 18-year-old mother and former Richmond High School student was at home watching a movie when her brother-in-law came home and said he had seen a girl getting raped.

"He was like, 'I'm scared,' and I'm like, 'Well, we should call the cops because that's the thing to do,'" Margarita Vargas said. "I didn't think about it twice, I just, I'm like, I immediately grabbed the phone and said, 'I'm gonna call the cops,' because that's something I wouldn't want anybody to go through or if I was in that situation, I would want someone to do the same for me." Vargas said after making the call to police, she walked over to the school to make sure the police had arrived."