In an early episode of Hannibal, FBI profiler Will Graham describes Stockholm Syndrome as an evolutionary defense mechanism. His point was that if you can learn to empathize with and gain the affection of your captor, then you’re more likely to survive. If you antagonize someone who has total, lethal control over you, you’re more likely to be killed. There are few things more hardwired into people than their survival instinct, and so the drive to do what your oppressor asks of you is natural because the alternative is death.

Will is portrayed as a prodigy at psychological profiling. Will has high-functioning autism, and unlike the majority of folks portrayed as being on the autism/Asperger’s spectrum in popular culture, Will isn’t a mathematical or scientific savant. Will is a vessel for overpowering, disorienting empathy. Will can figure out how the show’s serial killers think because Will has a singular ability to place himself in another person’s mind. To feel how they feel. To see the world the way they do. To interpret their motivations and fears and desires.

Will’s capacity for empathy ultimately starts to break him. Time and again, Will’s superiors at the FBI place him in the midst of the most horrific and depraved bloodbaths committed by the most broken and cruel people because they believe Will is the person best equipped to stop those crimes from happening again. And each time that Will submerges himself in the sadism and terror of the murderers and their victims, Will loses a little bit more of his capacity to be stable and whole. He has seen the darkness and the abyss in the heart of humanity, and even in the “normal” world, it wants to consume him.


When I first watched 12 Years A Slave, my big takeaway from the film was that the worst cruelty oppressive systems can inflict is their capacity for robbing us of our ability to empathize with or help others who are also being crushed under the same systems that want to destroy us. Any person who has lived in a system that desires your extermination understands this. If your only option is survival — not revolution, not progress, just pure, cold, calculated survival — you becomes what matters. You try to help others when you can. But, as often as not, you can’t. And you just have to force yourself to keep going no matter the toll it takes on whatever values you ever thought you once had.

I’m a deeply empathetic person whose social anxiety was so severe that I had convinced myself I was somewhere on the Asperger’s spectrum (when you’re poor and don’t have ready access to mental health services, the internet and self-diagnosis become a dangerous combination) until I accepted I was trans and realized I had severe trauma-induced dysphoria instead. And I think a lot about the casual cruelty that pervades so much of American political culture, American sexual politics, and the nature of so much of our interpersonal relationships period. About how empathy could help resolve those issues. And then I remember the toll empathy has taken on my own mental health and I realize why so many people have lost the capacity to listen to, internalize, and help shoulder the burdens of others.


In the episode of Hannibal where Will discusses Stockholm Syndrome, a woman that abducts children convinces the children that they have to return to their families and kill them so that they can start a new life together. If these children don’t follow this woman’s orders, she’ll kill that child (or have the other children do it for her). As much as Will is wrecked by the brutality of these children’s crimes, he’s gutted more than anything else by the fact that he knows that even if they find the children and take them away from the woman who has brainwashed them, he can never save these kids. They’ll have to live with what they’ve done for the rest of their lives. How do you ever return from that? Will knows precisely how these children will feel, the anguish that will chase them forever, and it is killing him… and that will never truly be his burden to bear.

Hannibal creates hyperbolic misery for Will to navigate. He is up to his elbows (sometimes quite literally) in death and violence. It would be healthy for Will to do something else. Even before psychopathic cannibal/sadist Hannibal Lecter starts feeding him people and Will starts to suffer from cannibalism-induced encephalitis (and the mental breakdown that accompanies it), his work is shattering him. However, Jack Crawford, Will’s boss at the FBI, argues  that Will must keep going. Because he can bear it. And if he doesn’t bear it, people will die. Jack pushes Will and makes no denial that he hurts Will but he believes Will’s sacrifice is essential… as does Will.


I would be a happier person if I could detach from the world around me. I would be a healthier person if my suicidal ideation didn’t flare up each time American legislators tried to come up with fun new ways to kill poor people. I would possibly be a functioning adult if the constant, imminent threat of nuclear war didn’t keep me from sleeping and fill me with unchecked rage at the politicians and citizens who enable the worst in fear-mongering and hate and greed. But I can’t. The part of my brain that could shut all of that noise out doesn’t work. Part of me is glad it doesn’t. I know, at least, that I’m not sitting quiet in the face of the barbarism of modern life. But there’s the lizard portion of my brain. The part that wants to get by and prosper and not suffer. And if it were ever able to wrest control, it would shut all of that out.

And if you’re an empathetic leftist and you realize these things about yourself, you should understand why so many people can’t make themselves care and the immense struggle that exists to make them care. We are all, every one of us, hostages of the wanton, nihilistic carnage of capitalism, the patriarchy, and (if you’re a person of color) white supremacy. Unless you’re one of Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe,” you are crushed under the bootheel of modern existence.

We do not live in a revolutionary era. I’m a Bolshie. I wish we did, but we don’t. The material and cultural means for radical transformation of society aren’t here. And you can feel all of the suffering in the world around you. You can protest every chance you get. You can evangelize social justice and economic justice and human rights. But there is murder and injustice and suffering you will never be able to tackle. There are horrors of modern life that you will never make a dent in.

And if you have a substantive potential for empathy, you will find yourself drowning in the misery and pain that surrounds you even when you are safe from those particular horrors. And you find yourself suffocating and crushed under the weight of human loss, and there’s nothing that you can do about it that extends beyond symbolism. Life under those sorts of conditions can and should feel unbearable. Not to rehash Camus, but these are the sorts of realizations in life that make you wonder if maybe the French philosophe was wrong. Maybe Sisyphus should have let that boulder crush him rather than continue to push it up and down the hill in his endless, torturous burden.

I would have no choice but to kill myself if I actually felt that nihilistic about life. If you reject Camus’s argument in The Myth of Sisyphus, that’s more or less the only option you have left, but if you think about that alternative seriously, you can understand why so many folks choose submission and collaboration with cruelty; they intuit that the alternative is helpless misery.

I think Jack Crawford is right. I think Will is right. You keep going. You fight and you resist and you carry that weight; you push that boulder until you’ve given your last breath. Because the alternative is complicity. The alternative is acquiescence to moral oblivion. But it leads you down a path to its own sort of oblivion. And even if it is essential, how do you begin to ask someone to walk down that path with you?

 

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