Dr. Michael H. Stone, a psychiatrist and scholar who sought to define evil and differentiate its manifestations from the typical behavior of people with mental illness, died Dec. 6 at his home in Manhattan. He was 90 years old.
The cause was complications from a stroke he had in January, his son David said.
Dr. Stone was best known to the public as the author of the book “The Anatomy of Evil” (2009) and as the 2006-2008 host of the television show “Most Evil,” for which he interviewed people imprisoned for murder. determine what motivated them to engage in an evil criminal act.
He classified the acts of his creation on a scale of 22 categories. Inspired by Dante’s nine circles of hell, its taxonomic scale ranged from justifiable homicide to murders committed by people whose primary motivation was to torture their victims.
Only human beings are capable of evil, Dr. Stone wrote in “The Anatomy of Evil,” although evil is not a characteristic that people are born with. He recognized that although acts of evil were difficult to define, the word “evil” was derived from “above” or “beyond” and could apply to “certain acts committed by people who had clearly the intention to injure or kill another person in an atrocious manner.” painful way. »
For an act to be evil, he writes, it must be “breathtakingly horrific” and premeditated, inflict “extremely excessive” suffering, and “appear incomprehensible, puzzling, beyond the imagination of people.” ordinary people of the community.”
“Mike’s major contribution to psychiatry was to clarify the distinction between mental illness and evil,” said Dr. Allen Frances. said a former student of Dr. Stone’s who is now chairman emeritus of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, in a telephone interview.
“The problem,” Dr. Frances said, “is that for every mass murderer, every crazy politician, every serial killer, the first trend in the minds of the public and the media is that he is mentally ill .” Dr. Stone, he says, helped change that default position.
Analyzing the biographies of more than 600 violent criminals, Dr. Stone identified two predominant personality traits: narcissism, to the point of having little or no capacity to care about his victims; and aggression, in terms of exercising power over another person to inflict humiliation, suffering and death.
In “The New Evil: Understanding the Emergence of Modern Violent Crime” (2019), a sequel to Dr. Stone’s 2009 book, he and Dr. Gary Brucato warned that since the 1960s there had been “an intensification and an undeniable diversification” of evil. acts committed primarily by criminals who “are not ‘ill’ in the psychiatric and legal sense, but rather psychopathic and morally depraved.”
The reasons, they write, include greater civilian access to military weapons; the diminution of individual and personal responsibility, as preached by fascist and communist governments at the beginning of the 20th century; sexual liberation, which freed other inhibitions; the ease of communication on cell phones and the Internet; the rise of moral relativism; and a reaction against feminism.
In 2000, Dr. Stone participated in a sensational murder trial that tested the limits of doctor-patient confidentiality. He wanted to testify in the murder trial of Robert Bierenbaum, a plastic surgeon and former patient, accused of murdering his wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, in 1985.
Dr. Stone had written a letter to his patient’s wife two years before her death, warning her to live apart from her husband for her own safety. He asked her to sign it and return it, but she never did. He had also contacted Dr. Bierenbaum’s parents, with their permission.
The judge ultimately excluded Dr. Stone’s testimony from the trial due to professional privilege. But the testimony of several other witnesses about the letter contributed to Dr. Bierenbaum’s conviction.
Michael Howard Stone was born October 27, 1933, in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of Eastern European immigrants. His father, Moses Howard Stone, owned a wholesale paper business. His mother, Corinne (Gittleman) Stone, was a homemaker.
A prodigy who learned Latin and Greek as a child, he was only 10 years old when he entered seventh grade. As the youngest and smallest student in school, as well as the only Jew, he formed an alliance with a 17-year-old classmate who was a boxer. His son David said: Mike would do the classmate’s homework, and the classmate would protect him from local anti-Semitic bullies.
He entered Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, at the age of 16, enrolling in a pre-medical program but with a double major in classics in case he was rejected by medical schools that had already reached their quota of Jewish students. He enrolled at Cornell Medical School in Manhattan after graduating from Cornell in 1954 and received his medical degree in 1958.
He initially studied hematology and cancer chemotherapy at the Sloan Kettering Institute in Manhattan, but his mother’s chronic pain disorder prompted him to turn to neurology, then eventually psychiatry. He completed his residency at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he met Dr. Clarice Kestenbaum, whom he married in 1965.
He is survived by two sons, David and John Stone, from this marriage which ended in divorce in 1978; his wife, Beth Eichstaedt; his stepchildren, Wendy Turner and Thomas Penders; three grandchildren; and a great-grandson.
Dr. Stone spoke 16 languages and, as a relic of another era, habitually wore three-piece suits. He was known for his mischievous sense of humor: his latest book, “The Funny Bone,” published this year, is a collection of his cartoons, jokes and poems.
An amateur carpenter, he built the shelves that housed his library of 11,000 books. His collection included about 60 books about Hitler – further evidence, like his memories of childhood bullying, of his desire to define evil.
As a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and professor of clinical psychiatry for many years at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Stone also conducted long-term study of patients with borderline personality disorders, including including those who had considered suicide. He concluded that, often with the help of therapy or other treatments, about two-thirds of them had improved significantly some 25 years later.
In “The New Evil,” Dr. Stone and Dr. Brucato offered a possible explanation for why “particularly heinous and spectacular crimes,” particularly those committed in America and by men, were on the rise since the 1960s They warned of “the rise of a kind of ‘false compassion,’ in which the most ardent psychopaths are sometimes seen as ‘victims.’
The two men concluded by invoking a familiar metaphor: a frog dropped into a pot of boiling water will immediately try to escape; but if placed in gradually heated cold water, the frog will remain complacent until it is too late.
“We fervently hope that after a period of terrible growing pains, our culture will eventually learn that true power and control come only after a lifelong process of self-mastery and inhibition,” they write. “Perhaps we should, first of all, admit that the water in our collective pot is getting worryingly warmer, day by day. »