"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Bad Seed–A Child With No Redeeming Qualities Whatsoever

“Don’t be greedy”, Bart Haller’s mother said as the boy reached halfway across the table to grab the last piece of fried chicken. “Ask first”; but Bart had no table manners and was as indifferent to anyone else’s interests during dinner as he was at any other time of day.

“Sorry”, he muttered; but tore into the drumstick anyway, ripping at the meat and sucking the last bits of fat and dangling ligaments as though he had never eaten before. “You eat like an animal”, his mother said. “Slow down and enjoy your food.  Eat like a gentleman”.

Martha Haller wondered what she had done wrong with her son, Bart.  Her other two children were models of manners and good behavior who neatly folded their napkins when done, kept their hands in their laps, asked politely for seconds, and were the first up to clear the table.  “Maybe he’s autistic”, Martha thought.  Since the definition of autism had expanded to include selfish, inconsiderate, stubborn behavior, perhaps it was indeed possible that his disruptive, antisocial attitude had a psycho-physiological disorder.  Like many parents, such a diagnosis would take her and her husband off the hook.  If he had a few wires twisted, a misplaced gene, or a chemical imbalance, then they could not be blamed for raising such a difficult, ornery child.

Both child psychologists the Hallers consulted agreed that he was not autistic nor did he have ADHD or any other medical disorder.  He was purely and simply bad; and his parents had better address his behavioral issues before he got much older or Bart would certainly go off the rails.

Bart’s incipient psychopathy, however, had already gotten too deeply rooted for any discipline, cajoling, threats, or promises to have any effect. He kept grabbing for the last drumstick, stealing from his sister, spreading nasty rumors at school, and cheating at games.

“Perhaps Father Brophy can talk some sense to him”, suggested Bart’s father. “Rough him up a little in the confessional or get Sister Mary Joseph after him.”

Nun II


It was rumored that Sister Mary Joseph was not only a man but a mean one.  Every child in her Catechism class was afraid of her, and given the disciplinary leeway of the times, she raised welts and bruises on the hands of miscreants and kept absolute, perfect order.  Mr. Haller suggested to the priest that Bart be put in Sister Marie Joseph’s charge for a while.  Special after school ‘tutoring’, for example, had done wonders for some of the other more undisciplined boys in the parish. After only two weeks, however, Sister Marie Joseph quit on the job.  No more would she put up with such verbal and physical abuse from what could only be called a demonic child. “Exorcism is the only thing that will cure him”, she yelled to Father Brophy.

The priest was far more liberal in his theology than his predecessor who considered New Brighton a sinkhole of evil and ran to the archbishop for permission to exorcize moral reprobates, unrepentant sinners, pederasts, and serial adulterers.  However, Father Brophy had to admit there might be something to Sister Mary Joseph’s observation.  How else to explain a child who at such a young age had no respect for God, the Church, or his parents?

Of course his parents knew that Bart Haller was neither evil nor possessed; but the unfortunate beneficiary of bad genes, bad company, and the environment.  Had he been born only a decade or two earlier, he would have been whipped by a severe father, locked in the woodshed by a no-nonsense mother, and deprived of food, sleep, and succor until he turned things around.  Even the most pernicious DNA does not have a life of its own, and can only flourish in an enabling environment.

Why did Bart, who certainly had no worse a genetic inheritance than kids in reform school, in the juvenile justice system, or in prison; and who certainly had a set of caring, progressive parents and reasonable siblings turn out to be such an antisocial, mean, and punitive youngster?

In the 1956 movie The Bad Seed, a mother’s vague suspicions about having been adopted are confirmed: she is the biological daughter of a notorious serial killer and was adopted at two years of age by her foster father and his late wife. The mother now worries that the serial killer and therefore she herself is the cause of her daughter Rhoda's sociopathy, and that her homicidal behavior is genetic, not subject to influence, let alone reversal, by parenting or a wholesome environment.

The Bad Seed


Martha Haller was convinced that just like the character in the movie, she or her husband had transmitted bits of genetic material from some deranged, sociopathic ancestor; and that no matter how well they nurtured their son; and no matter how structured, disciplined, and penitential the institutions in which he lived and studied might be, there was no way he would turn out well.

“Whatever happened to childhood innocence?”, Martha Haller asked her husband, the quality they both agreed was the only reason to have children.  The economic value of children to wealthy, middle-class families like theirs was nil.  In fact it cost far more to raise and educate children than they ever returned either in cash or in kind.  Lineage, heritage, and patrimony were archaic concepts.  Social security and IRAs took care of retirement and old age.  Yet those who never have children can never understand innocence, know that it is a state of human nature no matter how temporary, and something to be treasured.

Bart Haller defied that assumption.  He was a colicky, difficult infant.  A disobedient, demanding, and willful toddler. A destructive, mean, and defiant child. It was no wonder that Sister Mary Joseph thought that he was possessed; for if innocence had completely passed him by, then he must be the spawn of the Devil.  The Hallers thought that such ideas were nonsense.  As St. Augustine himself said, evil does not exist in the world –only the absence of good.  Such theological conundrums were, however, beside the point. Whatever words might be used to describe their son – evil, demonic, possessed, or simply a bad seed – he was congenitally deformed from birth.

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By the time he was in the third grade (passed up quickly by lower-grade teachers who wanted nothing more to do with him), the theories of inclusivity, multiple intelligences, and self-esteem were in full bore.  Educators and administrators both did their best to convince themselves and Bart’s parents that he was simply ‘different’ – as different as the transgender boy in kindergarten, the Downs girl in third grade, or the epileptic in fifth – all equal, lovely, desirable, and talented in their own way. 

Contrary to the opinion of the private psychiatrists the Hallers had consulted, school medical staff, eager to support teachers in their desperate pleas to psychologically neuter out-of-control students, quickly diagnosed him with both autism and Attention Deficit Disorder and prescribed potent medication to help him adjust to the rigors of institutional education; but neither the progressive cant of the curriculum committee nor the doctors on call had any clue about whom they were dealing with.  Only after three years of suffering his abuse, recalcitrance, and absolute indifference to authority and care-giving, did they all agree that he was simply a bad seed.

In this day and age it is hard for most liberal-minded people to simply write someone off as either worthless or worse, a perniciously destructive, antisocial being.  In other words, it was not easy to come to the conclusion that Bart Haller would always be a social derelict, devoid of compassion or moral rectitude. Whether or not he ended up in the federal penitentiary was of no consequence.  Whether he broke the law or simply ignored it and any of the social customs that regulated behavior for the common good, he would always be irremediable.

The case of Bart Haller never got written up in any professional journal, but not because there was no interest in him.  No one knew where to put him.  He was neither a dangerous sociopath (criminal psychology), a devil to be exorcized (Catholic orthodoxy), or a person with not a scintilla of good (moral philosophy and religion).  He fit into no convenient boxes.  Yet he was one of a kind, one of a million, and a reminder that perhaps good does not prevail and that the human genome, as wonderful as it seems, is quite capable of producing irredeemable monsters.

Once Bart Haller left home, his parents lost complete track of him; and unlike most mothers and fathers who feel a continuing compelling need to find their lost children, the Hallers were quite happy to be rid of him. 

“Do you suppose it was your great-great-grandfather Hiram who was responsible for his deformed genetic profile?”, Martha Haller asked her husband. As respectful as both were of science and scientific inquiry, it still seemed impossible that even with all the random mixing that goes on in the genetic soup of family lineage, such an amoral and inhumane product could have emerged only because of random selection and the bad luck of colliding genetic billiard balls.


Rather than being depressed or left to founder in guilt and self-recrimination, the Hallers gained an unusual and admirable equanimity after Bart had left home. They had always held out some hope for humanity; and while not so sanguine as their progressive friend about human progress, they assumed that things at least might get better.  Their son showed them that there was no chance.  If human nature had in it the seeds of pure, unadulterated amorality – a quality far more subtle and complex than classic enlightened self-interest, self-preservation, or natural territorialism – then there had to be hundreds of millions of children like Bart.

Despite everything, he was always their son, and they kept a picture of him as a young boy on the mantelpiece.  Caught unawares in an uncharacteristically serene moment – one of the very few in a childhood of grimaces, ugly faces, and demonic laughter – he looked almost normal.

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