Can Empaths Be Cruel? The Science of Evil

I’m glad I didn’t read Simon Baron-Cohen’s  The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty before I began writing The Secret Lives of Librarians.

Not  that it’s a bad book.

If I’d done more academic research into empathy, narcissism, and evil before beginning my novel, I might have tried to fit Lilah Burns into the framework of this book instead of allowing her to develop on her own.  Instead of academic research, I relied on my personal experiences as an empath and in dealing with other empaths, narcissists, and others with zero empathy.  Now, at the last couple of chapters, Lilah is fully formed in my mind and her actions have surprised me many times as well as my own discovery of why she did what she did and why she is the way she is now at this point of telling her story.

I went into writing this novel knowing two important things about my protagonist:

1. Lilah is a high-level empath–as I am–able to feel the emotional and/or physical pain of others unless she purposely “raises her shields” or disconnects from others.

2.  Daegan is convinced that Lilah is “evil,” both as a result of her expertise in torturing terrorists and because those she tortured  (but didn’t kill) most certainly regard her as “pure evil” and cry out from the grave for her.

I was drawn to this book more because of Daegan’s impression of “what is evil?”  than anything to do with empathy–or so I thought.  After listening to the audiobook version of The Science of Evil, I have an even better understanding of this protagonist I’ve created, as well as a few more glimpses of the man who abducted her as a child and turned her into the monster she herself feels she is.

The reason Lilah was so successful as an administrator of psychological and physical torture in her pre-librarian career was that her high level of empathy allowed her to know exactly what would terrify a subject into giving up his secrets.  Typically, an empath would find it very difficult to hurt another human being or even an animal or insect.  The impression is that Lilah has no heart and does not feel anything toward her victims.  This is untrue.  She feels everything.  She can rationalize that these are killers she’s extracting information from and she can approach the torture scientifically so that she connects what she feels coming from the victim with the results she can get, but she can never really distance herself from the pain she’s causing.  She cannot shut off her empathy entirely, and this is much of the reason for the self-hatred she carries throughout the book and her search for a life purpose that does not include the exquisite use of blades.  Lilah has not been true to herself as an empath, instead using her empathic skills to cause pain, and the result is that she has caused great pain and damage to herself.

This is an area of Lilah’s personality that I really want to explore in future books in this series, particularly as I further investigate her relationship with her childhood abductor and her need to find both him and closure.

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