Manipulated Against Our Natures: When Good People Do Bad Things

Does it matter that a person was seduced into evil? Does it excuse them? How far back do we take the issue of victimization as a defense for our own behavior?
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It is an archetypal scenario: innocent nave falls victim to the chicanery of a malevolent, urbane and --most importantly -- seemingly innocuous predator.

The archetype of the black widow seizing on the hapless victim has been in literature for thousands of years, but perhaps one of the most famous manipulators is Lady Macbeth, who tricks the irresolute Macbeth into killing Duncan. Convincing Macbeth that she is a victim and that he would in fact be doing something important, righteous and courageous, her implied promise is that he would also be bonding himself to her forever and protecting their monarchy.

Macbeth started out as a supposedly "good" man. If Lady Macbeth had not been so irresistibly manipulative, he would have lived his life and died as a good, if not terribly impassioned, man.

What happened? Can we really be so changed by the arguments or cajoling of another? Can we be persuaded to things we don't want to do, that are truly against our natures?

It seems that to some extent, the answer is "yes." We have all seen variations on this theme in which good people can indeed get convinced to do very bad, destructive or foolish things.

One woman was arrested for stealing because her husband's drug habit had confined him to the home with kidney disease. Because he was no longer able to steal to support it, she took up his trade, believing that he would die without her help. This immediate argument was held up by a foundation of belief. She had long been told that a suffering wife was a good wife. This had been taught to her by her mother and father (who was also a drug addict) and was now reaffirmed to her by her husband.

And we all remember Pamela Smart, the 23-year-old media coordinator who seduced the otherwise ordinary 15-year-old, William Flynn, and threatened to leave him unless he killed her husband. Played by her fictitious complaints of spousal abuse, Flynn shot Gregory Smart as one friend held him down and another friend waited in the getaway car outside.

One famous case was examined by Mark Gado in his article "The Lonely Hearts Killers." In the late 40s in New York, Raymond Martinez Fernandez was arrested for the deaths of 17 women. As he was questioned, the slim, city-slick Fernandez told police, "I have a way with women, a power over them."

He told police it was voodoo that gave him that power, but it may have been quite a bit more mundane. He was an expert at the predatory manipulation of vulnerable women, particularly his girlfriend, Martha Jule Beck, only 29. She was obese, lonely and completely controlled by Fernandez, so much so that she helped him kill a couple and their two-year-old daughter by drowning her as Fernandez looked on.

Two Mints in One: A Mom and an Assassin

Jennifer Forsyth Hyatte was another example of a seemingly good girl gone very, very bad. A nurse in the prison system, she was considered a model citizen until she met career criminal George Hyatte and fell unreasonably in love, so much so that on Aug. 9, 2005, she shot a Tennessee prison guard to set her lover free. In one of the letters she wrote to Hyatte, she declares her devotion to him and describes their "celestial love" for one another.

In an interview with Nashville News reporter Jennifer Johnson, Jennifer stated, "The thought
of killing somebody never came into my mind."

How is that possible when she was sitting in a car with a loaded gun, waiting for her husband to come out of the East Tennessee courthouse, knowing she was going to kill the escorting officer and drive away with her husband, soon to be one of the most wanted escaped convicts in the country?

Apparently, it is possible when the process starts in a way that is innocent enough to be initially seen as both understandable and excusable in the person's own mind.

"He started dropping notes in my pocket and, 'Do you mind if I do this? I just want to talk to you.' It just led from there," she said to Johnson.

Then Hyatte began plumping her for the kill. He started to wire her money so that she could "pamper" herself and said things that made her feel "special."

When asked why she didn't stop dating him after she got fired for sneaking him fancy dinners, she claimed that she was scared of him. But it didn't seem that she was scared enough to stay away from him, because even though he was transferred to Nashville, she moved to be near him and agreed to marry him.

It took only weeks for Hyatte to ask his new wife to plot his escape. She thought he meant by getting him a new lawyer. He said, "No, get me out!" So, somehow the nurse and mother became the Bonnie for Clyde, bought a gun at a pawn shop and killed a corrections officer.

One of the most famous and confounding of these was the case of Jennifer Reali, who had one day been an army officer's wife and mother of two young daughters but in a startlingly short time became an assassin.

On Sep. 12, 1990, Diane Hood was walking to her car when someone in a ski mask grabbed her purse. Although Mrs. Hood threw her bag at her mugger, she was shot at point blank range with a .45 caliber Colt revolver, once in the shoulder and once in the chest.

Jennifer was arrested for the murder but insisted that it was Brian Hood, Diane's husband, who was the mastermind, that he had brainwashed her into believing that it was God's will to kill his wife, Diane, who was suffering from lupus. According to Jennifer, she was almost as much a victim as Hood's wife.

The Strategic Svengali: Modern Narcissists

Assuming the existence of Svengalis like the ones described above, does caveat emptor ever apply? What's the responsibility of the perpetrator who claims to be a victim in cases like these?

In hypnotherapy circles, it is axiomatic that even the deepest hypnotic trance cannot "make" someone do something they don't want to or are not inclined to do. There really is no such thing as a Manchurian Candidate. (Unless you count Black Friday.)

If that is true, how is it that "good" people get used in such abominable ways by bad ones? What happens to people who are otherwise good mothers, good fathers, good spouses and good workers when they cross paths with con artists so cunning and subtle that they don't know what's happening until it's already happened? Until they're standing over someone with a still-smoking gun? Or they're facing charges for kidnapping? Or they've come under indictment for fraud and are facing 20 years in a federal prison?

How does a good person go bad, even if just for a moment?

Let's leave aside the obvious, understandable and perhaps excusable motives: desperation in war time, starvation, insanity brought on by drugs, grief, solitude...

Criminologists think there are other ways that con artists not only manipulate their prey, but locate them to begin with.

The preferred victim is:

  1. Vulnerable

He or she is often alone, abandoned and without the ordinary resources of a steady relationship, close family or steady work. This is why runaways and prostitutes (especially young ones), as well as the elderly, are such prime targets for con artists and criminals. Even people in steady relationships can be vulnerable if they are feeling particularly alone or their needs are going unmet for long periods of time. So if someone "suddenly" shows up with a magical offering of unsolicited companionship, spectacular deals or easy, good times (or money), it is usually to take advantage of that vulnerability. The vulnerable victim has little or no support. They have no one to warn them as they walk onto the tracks and don't hear the whistle of an oncoming train.

  • Gullible
  • Whether this is the result of simple innocence or delusional thinking, gullibility means we are willing to suspend a healthy disbelief and hang our hats (and even our lives) on the self-expressed good intentions of the other person, often despite solid evidence to the contrary. A good example of how gullibility can take a weak person and make them do horrible things is the case of Jennifer Reali, whom we mentioned before.

    Brian Hood called himself a good husband, father and devout Christian, but he walked up to Jennifer in a Jacuzzi at a health club. Staggeringly good-looking, he came on very strong. Jennifer already was vulnerable: her military husband was away a good part of the time, and she felt unfulfilled taking care of their two children. But she was also gullible. Although he talked to her about how strong his Christian faith was and how much he cared about his family, he was in a hot tub with her. There were other stronger and more obvious signs along the way (e.g., how he invited himself into her home knowing her husband was gone), but she believed what he said instead of what he did.

    She also believed a ton of nonsense about how killing Brian's wife (who was sick with lupus) would be an act of mercy and less of a sin, according to her testimony in court records, than divorce. He told her, "If you love me, you can do this and we can have a life together."

  • Secretive
  • There is a wonderful expression that most people who have gone to 12-step groups know: "You're only as sick as your secrets." If we don't tell, we can't get well -- the more sequestered emotionally, the more vulnerable we are. Jennifer Reali herself said in an interview on Investigative Discovery that if she had told just one person what she had been doing with Brian Hood, she never would have committed the unthinkable.

  • Fragile
  • A potential victim often has a lack or fragmentation of center. His or her sense of self has been hurt before, and the wound has not been healed. They have suffered disappointments that have damaged their core and made them question their own worth. Because of this, any reinforcement from others is received as life-saving manna. Psychological fragility makes a person both more vulnerable and more gullible, because they must have that manna. They are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the supply coming. The alternative is experienced as death.

    All this begs the ultimate spiritual question: Does the one act of surrender mean a good person has indeed become bad? Has it irrevocably altered him or her? Can people who do what Jennifer Reali did, even if she was truly "coerced" or manipulated, ever be trusted again? Should she be released from prison? Should she be forgiven?

    I think the jury is still out on that.

    So, I put the question to you: Does it matter that a person was seduced into evil? Does it excuse them? How far back do we take the issue of victimization as a defense for our own behavior?