Michael Stone, psychiatrist and academic who studied evil, dies at 90

Dr. Michael H. Stone, a psychiatrist and academic who sought to define evil and differentiate its manifestations from the typical behavior of people with mental illness, died December 6 at his home in Manhattan. He was 90 years old.

The cause was complications from a stroke he suffered 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 host from 2006 to 2008 of the television show “Most Evil,” for which he interviewed people imprisoned for murder to determine what motivated them to commit an evil criminal act.

He classified the acts on a scale of 22 categories of his creation. Following the model of Dante’s nine circles of hell, its taxonomic scale ranged from justifiable homicide to murders committed by people whose main 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 while acts of evil were difficult to define, the word “evil” was derived from “above” or “beyond” and could apply to “certain acts performed by persons who clearly intended to hurt or kill others.” in an unbearable way.” painful way.”

For an act to be evil, he wrote, it must be “astonishingly horrible” and premeditated, inflict “tremendously excessive” suffering, and “seem incomprehensible, baffling, beyond the imagination of the common people of the community.”

“Mike’s main contribution to psychiatry was sharpening the distinction between mental illness and evil,” Dr. Allen Frances. A former student of Dr. Stone’s said in a telephone interview that he is now chairman emeritus of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.

“The problem,” Dr. Frances said, “is that with 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 said, helped change that default position.

Dr. Stone became known for his book “The Anatomy of Evil” and for hosting the television show “Most Evil.”Credit…Prometheus Books

Analyzing the biographies of more than 600 violent offenders, Dr. Stone identified two predominant personality traits: narcissism, to the point of having little or no ability 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 Rise 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 “undeniable intensification and diversification” of evil. acts committed mostly by criminals who “are not ‘sick’ in the psychiatric and legal sense, but rather psychopathic and morally depraved.”

The reasons, they wrote, included greater civilian access to military weaponry; the decline of both individual and personal responsibility, as preached by fascist and communist governments in the early 20th century; sexual liberation, which unleashed other inhibitions; the ease of communication through mobile 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 of his accused of killing his wife, Gail Katz-Bierenbaum, in 1985.

Dr. Stone had written a letter to his patient’s wife two years before his death, advising her to live separately from her husband for her own safety. He had asked her to sign it and return it, but she never did. She had also contacted Dr. Bierenbaum’s parents, with her permission.

The judge ultimately excluded Dr. Stone’s testimony from the trial on the grounds of professional confidentiality. But the testimony of several other witnesses about the letter contributed to Dr. Bierenbaum’s conviction.

Michael Howard Stone was born on October 27, 1933 in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of immigrants from Eastern Europe. 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 just 10 years old when he started seventh grade. As the youngest and smallest student at school, in addition to being the only Jew, he formed an alliance with a 17-year-old classmate who was a boxer, his son David told him: Mike would do the classmate’s homework, and the classmate would protect him from the local anti-Semitic thugs.

He entered Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, when he was 16, and enrolled in a premedical curriculum, 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 College in Manhattan after graduating from Cornell in 1954 and received his medical degree in 1958.

He originally studied hematology and cancer chemotherapy at the Sloan Kettering Institute in Manhattan, but his mother’s chronic pain disorder prompted him to switch to neurology and then, eventually, psychiatry. He did his residency at the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he met Dr. Clarice Kestenbaum, whom he married in 1965.

She is survived by two sons, David and John Stone, from that 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 vestige of another era, used to wear 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 some 60 books about Hitler: further evidence, like his memories of childhood bullying, of his longing to define evil.

As a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and for many years a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, Dr. Stone also conducted a long-term study of patients with borderline personality disorders, including those who They had contemplated suicide. He concluded that, often as a result of therapy and other treatments, the condition of about two-thirds of them had improved appreciably some 25 years later.

In “The New Evil,” Dr. Stone and Dr. Brucato offered a possible explanation for why “particularly heinous and spectacular crimes,” especially those committed in the United States and by men, had increased since the 1960s. They warned against “the rise of a kind of ‘false compassion’, in which the most ruthless psychopathic people are sometimes seen as ‘victims’.”

The two concluded by invoking a familiar metaphor: a frog dropped into a pot of boiling water will immediately try to escape; but, if placed in cold water that is gradually warmed, the frog will remain complacent until it is too late.

“It is our burning hope that, after a period of terrible growing pains, our culture will finally learn that true power and control only come after a lifelong process of self-mastery and inhibition,” they wrote. “Perhaps, as a first step, we should admit that the water in our collective pot is getting disturbingly warmer by the day.”