Yes, I know, that is a very big question that cannot be met with a single cut and dry answer. But it is something I have thought a lot about because of personal experience.
Longtime readers of this blog, well if you consider going back to this past January to be a long time, will remember I did a series about my oldest brother Bobby called "What About Bob?" To newer readers of this blog who may be unfamiliar with this series, I invite you to click on the link to my January 2007 archive to read all seven parts and the conclusion.
To summarize briefly, both Bobby and my other older brother John, who is the middle child of the three of us, did not turn out the way my parents hoped they would. By their early teenage years they already had issues with getting drunk, getting high and getting into run-ins with the law. Neither of them would go to college and both of them ended up working in construction, with Bobby becoming a bricklayer and John working as a spackler. They also both got their girlfriends pregnant and married them, and each ended up fathering three children. Both of their marital relationships were tumultuous to say the least and they both ended up divorcing their respective wives. Presently, John lives in Florida with his now ex-wife and three children in a rather odd arrangement, though at times he has lived with another woman until that relationship went sour. As for Bobby, I have not spoken to him in almost nine months (read the "What About Bob?" series and you will find out why) though I have heard through the grape vine that he is still going to bars and getting drunk. To put it simply, John is forever treading water while Bobby seems to be forever drowning.
My mother often compares us to the three children of her friend Rita. Sometimes I would hear her lament, "Rita's three kids all turned out okay. They got college educations, stayed out of trouble, they are all well off financially. I had three kids and only one of them turned out right." And it is true. Rita and her husband Tom had two sons and a daughter. One son made a fortune with his beverage delivery route business (and as an aside, how come when I was in high school no one ever mentioned this fucking possibility to me!?!) and the other son worked in finance. The daughter also got a college eduation, though her husband makes a good enough living that she had the option to be a stay at home mom and crank out lots of kids to help save Social Security.
My brothers and Rita's children, as I did, had the privilege of growing up in suburban environments. Rita's kids grew up in Bayside, Queens while we were raised in Hicksville. What, I wonder, made the difference in the outcomes between how my brothers turned out and how Rita's kids turned out? Why were my brothers bad and Rita's kids good?
For clarification, when I use the terms good and bad to describe people, I do not mean to imply that they are entirely evil or angelic or 100% good or bad. Though I consider myself to be a good person, I am certainly flawed and commit my share of mistakes and regret certain things I have done in the past. Likewise, though my brother Bobby would fall under the label of bad, it does not mean that he never was or still is incapable of good things. Several years ago, when he was living in a friend's houseboat in Seaford, he and another person pulled a neighbor out of another houseboat that was on fire, which probably saved that man's life. Despite my stint as a volunteer firefighter, I never got the opportunity to do something like that. But I would say that Bobby is a bad person based on the totality of his actions as a person throughout his life up to the present day.
Since I am six years younger than Bobby, I was not a witness to his early years as a child growing up in the late 1960's into the early 1970's. It was not until I entered elementary school in the mid-1970's that I was old enough to start understanding what was going on around me and to remember it. I do remember that by the time Bobby was already 12, he was already wearing his hair long as was popular at the time, and that he was already getting into trouble in school and with the law. As I recounted in Part 1 of "What About Bob?", one of my earliest memories of Bobby was when I heard my dad yelling at him in Bobby's room. I looked into Bobby's room and saw my dad on top of him on the bed wailing on him while Bobby had his arms held up trying to deflect the blows. I had already categorized Bobby as a bad boy in my mind by then, and out of a desire to help my dad punish Bobby, I pulled out a belt from the closet outside of Bobby's room and called to dad to take it so he could hit Bobby with it.
The great unknown for me regarding Bobby was at what point between when he was born up to the age of 12 did he go wrong and why? I know my father, raised in a strict Irish Catholic family and working as a cop in New York City, was not a warm, nurturing figure. Did Bobby turn out the way he did because my parents made mistakes in raising him, was there something inherent in him that made him bad, or was it a combination of the two? And that question applies not just to him, but to all people that could be loosely characterized as bad.
An excellent example from film of a character who is corrupted by his environment comes from one of my favorite movies, "Full Metal Jacket". One of the main characters in the first half of the movie, which follows a group of Marine recruits through their basic training at Parris Island, is that of Leonard Lawrence, a somewhat slow-witted but gentle giant played memorably by actor Vincent D'Onofrio. From the outset of the movie, Lawrence incurs the wrath of the unit's bellicose drill instructor for his bumbling and awkward mannerisms. This clip from the film gives but a taste of the abuse that Lawrence, whom the drill instructor derisively refers to as Private Pyle, receives on an almost daily basis. Be forewarned though that this clip contains a lot of shouted profanity, so keep that in mind before clicking on the link.
After Lawrence is violently hazed by his fellow recruits in the barracks one night, his behavior undergoes a radical transformation. His performance as a recruit swiftly improves, earning him the acknowledgment and grudging respect of the drill instructor, but his personality becomes dark and creepy. The Parris Island segment of the movie ends with Lawrence shooting the drill instructor in the chest in the bathroom on the last night of basic training before turning the gun on himself and plastering the bathroom wall with his brains. Leonard Lawrence epitomizes a person who turns bad because his psyche could not handle the cruel environment into which he was placed and in the end he snapped. Many of the shooters in the school shooting incidents such as Columbine and Virginia Tech were like Leonard Lawrence, kids who were often mercilessly teased and abused, until finally they lashed out violently at the society they felt was persecuting them. But while I know that Bobby was physically abused by my father, I suspect it was in response to Bobby's behavior rather than a cause of it.
Then there are those people who seem to thrive on being disobedient and preying on others. This clip from the 1979 film "Over The Edge" features an early Matt Dillon as the archetypal Seventies juvenile delinquent who appears to rebel against authority simply for the pure pleasure of it. There is an echo of my brother Bobby in Dillon's early film portrayals of bad boys whose personas combined equal parts swagger, menace, and charm. As shown in the clip above, even the threat of going to prison does not elicit any concern from Dillon's character, and in fact he seems to revel in the possibility of it.
And that is what has always baffled me about many bad people. Threats of punishment or even the implementation of it rolls off of them like water off a duck's back. My brother Bobby did a stint in Catholic middle school, spent time in a facility for juvenile delinquents, and served in the Marines, where he was let out early with a general discharge because of his insubordinate behavior. Nothing, be it harsh punishment or positive rewards, could straighten my brother out.
And while some people might like to point the blame for such deviant behavior on the Sixties, this is a problem that is at least as old as civilization. The Hongwu emperor, who founded the Ming dynasty in China in the 14th century, expressed his bafflement with government officials who continued to engage in corrupt behavior despite receiving harsh physical punishment. He wrote of giving "them countless lashes, I cut off their feet, and I showed all this to other members of the Board. With my own eyes I witnessed this punishment and my hair stood on end because of it. I was sure that there would be no repetition of the crime. But while the survivors were still in terrible pain and bleeding, and the corpses of the others had not yet been taken away, more misconduct occurred. I don't know how the world can be securely ordered." A book I have describes the punishment of one granary clerk accused of embezzlement, who was twice branded, then hamstrung, and then lost both kneecaps, but who still continued to pilfer supplies.
While the optimist in me believes that everybody has the ability to transform their lives to become good people, the realist in me, like the Hongwu emperor, is baffled and frustrated that so many bad people are seemingly incorrigible in spite of all of the punishments that are inflicted on them. Ultimately, is the best we can hope for simply to try and contain the damage that they can do to the rest of us?