A Timeless Biography of the Dark Side of Human Nature–as Told Through the Devil
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A Timeless Biography of the Dark Side of Human Nature–as Told Through the Devil

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A Timeless Biography of the Dark Side of Human Nature–as Told Through the Devil

Randall Sullivan was a contributing editor to Rolling Stone for over twenty years. He has since written many books on topics of history and true crime. His work has been published in Wired, Esquire, Outside, Men’s Journal, Washington Post, and the Guardian, among others.

Below, Randall shares five key insights from his new book, The Devil’s Best Trick: How the Face of Evil Disappeared. Listen to the audio version—read by Randall himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

The Devil's Best Trick Next Big Idea Club Randall Sullivan

Reader discretion is advised: the following content may be upsetting or disturbing to some audiences.

1. Evil has no synonym.

I realized this back in the early 1980s, when I encountered Lawrence Bittaker. Bittaker was a particularly heinous serial killer and the most frightening person I’ve ever been in the presence of. He and his partner, Roy Norris, had met as inmates in the California Men’s Colony, where the two devised a “game” in which they would snatch a girl for every teen year, from thirteen to nineteen, then rape, torture and murder them. Behind bars, Bittaker and Norris concocted a scenario that involved keeping each victim alive and screaming for as long as possible.

A month after Norris was released from prison in 1978, they met at a seedy hotel in downtown Los Angeles and agreed to play the game for real. Bittaker and Norris spent months cruising up and down the Pacific Coast Highway in the GMC cargo van they called their “Murder Mack.” During that time, they abducted, raped, and murdered five teenage girls, torturing them with Bittaker’s pliers and Norris’s sledgehammer, taking Polaroid photographs and making audio tapes for their later enjoyment. One girl’s agony lasted almost two full days.

It was my misfortune to be in the courtroom on January 29, 1981, when an audiotape was played of Bittaker and Norris torturing a sixteen-year-old named Lynette Ledford. Norris testified that Bittaker had constantly played the tape during the last weeks before they were captured and considered it “real funny.” The tape began with Bittaker slapping Lynette and shouting, “Say something, girl!” “What do you want me to say?” Lynette whimpered. The slapping continued, with the girl alternately crying, gasping, shrieking, and pleading. Bittaker’s frustration was audible as he shouted, “You can scream louder than that, can’t you?” Then he went to work on her with the pliers, repeating, “Scream, baby!” several times “Make some noise there, girl!” There was the sound of Norris hitting the girl’s elbows with his sledgehammer (detectives counted 25 blows) as he chanted, “Keep it up, girl! Keep it up! Scream till I say stop!” The prosecutor, most of the jurors, and nearly all of the spectators wept openly. The only two people in the courtroom who displayed no distress were Bittaker and Norris. Norris’s expression was blank, but the corners of Bittaker’s mouth curled into a tight-lipped smile; he was enjoying himself.

Afterward, when I heard several of my colleagues in the press corps describe Bittaker as “sick,” I felt infuriated. Bittaker was not “sick.” He did not have a disease that anyone was going to treat or find a cure for. In print, I described him as “depraved,” and I’m ashamed of it now. Like the other reporters covering the trial, I refrained from using the word “evil” because of the religious connotations. But I’ve come to understand that evil is the only word describing Lawrence Bittaker. While researching and writing The Devil’s Best Trick, I came to understand evil as a radical and utter departure from good that is irreducible to psychological or cultural explanations. Evil is evil is evil is evil.

Bittaker, by the way, lived on Death Row at San Quentin Prison for nearly forty years before his death in 2019. He regularly received fan letters. When he wrote back, he signed his own letters the same way every time: “Pliers.”

2. The existence of evil has, over the centuries, been the greatest obstacle to religious faith.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus summed up the problem so succinctly that more than two millennia later it is still described as the Epicurean Dilemma: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked.” Atheists have been using the Epicurean Dilemma as their central argument for centuries. Enlightenment philosopher David Hume did, and so has today’s evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, among many others.

“Atheists have been using the Epicurean Dilemma as their central argument for centuries.”

I began to contemplate the Epicurean dilemma myself in the summer of 1995. At the time, I was a temporary resident of Bosnia-Herzegovina, carrying a credential as a correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine. After the hideous massacre at Srebrenica, the war that had riven the former Yugoslavia accelerated toward its climax. In that unlikely atmosphere, I discovered in myself the first strong impulse toward organized religion I had ever experienced. For a period of weeks, I attended mass at Croatian Catholic churches daily. I didn’t truly recognize the wickedness all around me as an impediment to my new religious faith, though, until I visited the shattered city of Mostar. It was the packs of orphans on street corners that did it: six, seven, and eight-year-old boys who stood chain smoking and flipping off foreigners, wearing expressions of stony insolence you couldn’t have wiped off their faces with an assault rifle. When I tried to meet their gazes, they looked through me like I was an odd, vaporous hologram. All I could see in their fathomless eyes was that it was too late for us all. When I turned my back on them to stare into the abyss of rubble that had once been the loveliest city in that part of the world, I asked, as countless others have before and since, What kind of God would let this happen? Finding no answer, my church attendance dwindled.

3. Belief in God led to belief in the Devil.

The ancients don’t seem to have been troubled by Epicure’s dilemma. The Mesopotamians, Sumerians, and Egyptians worshipped gods who were at once good and bad, creative and destructive. The Yahweh of the pre-exilic Hebrew religion was not much different, alternately merciful and cruel in a free association of will that no person could comprehend. “I form the light and create darkness,” the Lord of Hosts says of himself in the Old Testament. “I create peace and make evil. I the Lord do all these things.”

The wish for an unblemished God was powerful, though, and sometime around 500 B.C., the Persian sage Zoroaster announced that he had been inspired by the revelation that evil is not a manifestation of the divine but proceeds from a wholly separate principle. He told the story of a war among the gods in which one of the losers, Ahura Mazda, became the first Devil.

The Jews only gradually accepted that some measure of dualism was necessary to protect God’s reputation. So, the figure of Satan emerged gradually. In the Book of Numbers, he is a lowercase “obstructor” serving both God and Man. By Zechariah, Satan (upper case now) is the prosecuting attorney in the Lord’s heavenly court, “the adversary” of mankind, but still working for God. Even in Job, Satan goads God but does not openly defy him. It is not until Isaiah that Satan is revealed as the angel who fell from Heaven by challenging God’s authority.

Christianity, emerging from Judaism, stuck with the story of Satan as a fallen angel who, out of immense vanity, had separated himself from God and was dedicated to the corruption of all creation. For Christians, though, the figure of Satan was much more central. Christian theology insisted from the first that the primary purpose of Jesus’s Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection was to break the power of Satan over humankind. The very name Jesus means “God Saves.”

Islam, as it developed in the 7th century, imagined a Devil quite dissimilar from the Christian one—a different species, in fact, not an angel but one of the spirits of the earth known as jinns. Iblis, he is called. Like Satan, Iblis is understood as the first being disobedient to God, not because he tried to put his throne above the Lord’s, however, but because he was infuriated by God’s creation of Adam.

So all three of the major monotheistic faiths have required a Devil to explain the existence of evil. Epicurus might have pointed out that in so doing all three subtracted some of God’s omnipotence to maintain God’s absolute goodness. It’s been a problem that theologians have wrestled with for more than two thousand years.

4. Belief in the Devil can lead to belief in God.

It did for Immanuel Kant. Kant stood among the philosophes of the Enlightenment in the late 18th century until he wrote that the existence of evil had convinced him to become religious. Observation strongly suggested that evil was a universal reality, Kant decided, one that could never be eradicated by education or any other plan for social improvement. Evil was beyond the scope of the human mind and could never be explained. Without evil, Kant contended, the universe might be seen as a perfectly functioning mechanism. But evil existed. Therefore, the Devil existed. And if the Devil existed, so did God.

“Without evil, Kant contended, the universe might be seen as a perfectly functioning mechanism.”

The essential image of the Devil at that time was the one John Milton had created in Paradise Lost, in which the poet cemented the idea that Satan was a fallen angel who had decided, in his monstrous pride, that it was better to rule in Hell than to serve in Heaven. In the early 19th century, the English Romantics, Byron and Shelly especially, embraced Milton’s Satan as the first anti-hero, rebelling against God’s tyranny.

The French Decadents, who came along later in the 19th century, took their admiration of Satan even further, declaring that to frolic with the Devil in his fountains of evil, to indulge in drug use and illicit sex in particular, was the only way achieve true self-knowledge. What’s rarely mentioned in university courses that teach the Symbolist poets is that Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire, and their English cousin Oscar Wilde all either converted to or returned to Catholicism in the last weeks and months of their lives. All five received the sacraments on their deathbeds. The priest who took Rimbaud’s confession as the poet lay dying of syphilis said he had been profoundly moved, even shaken, by the experience because he had never encountered such strong faith. Dancing with the Devil led the Decadents to God.

5. The Devil is not going away.

You only have to take a good look around south of the border to be sure of that. Devil worship and the exercise of dark powers are endemic to Mexico, a fact that is largely ignored in the U.S. media. It’s as public as could be in Mexico, though, openly discussed in every major newspaper. Stories about national politicians, including sitting presidents, who have sought the help of the brujos, or black witches of the jungle village Catemaco, have been widely published.

The country seethed in 2001 when it was reported that Marta Saharan de Fox, wife of Mexico’s new president, had imported Santeria priests to conduct “occult rituals” in the official presidential residence of Los Pinos. The scandal was not that the First Lady was participating in such rituals, but that she had gone outside the country for assistance in performing them rather than using a Mexican brujo. Some years later, it was national news when Mexico’s best-known curandera, or white witch, Isabel Aguirre, was quoted stating that rivals were plotting with black magicians against Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leading anti-corruption politician in the country to stymie his campaign for the presidency.

In March of 2015, I made an insane six-and-a-half hour drive south from Vera Cruz through territory controlled by the Zetas cartel (at one point passing through an intersection where either thirty-five or forty-nine bodies—accounts vary—had been dumped from the beds of two pickup trucks) to be in Catemaco at what is known as “The Hour of the Witches,” a time when the power of El Diablo is supposedly at its greatest. My purpose was to meet Isabel Aguirre. Not to ask about her own work as a healer, important enough to the community that it maintained a dirt airstrip for the private jets that carried Dona Isabel’s clients, but rather to speak with her about her father, Gonzalo Aguirre, the most notorious brujo in modern Mexican history.

My trip to Catemaco was packed with fantastic and terrifying experiences, but I think of my meeting with Dona Isabel as the climactic scene in The Devil’s Best Trick. She told me many things, but the most affecting was about her father informing her as a young woman that he would teach her all he knew of healing knowledge but would never instruct her in Brujeria because those powers could only be obtained by forfeiting one’s soul to the Devil. “My father told me that people who said otherwise were ignorant or lying,” Dona Isabel said. “He told me, ‘God exists, Isabel. So does the Devil. You must know them both, but only choose God.’ So he took me to the tree and the spring, Arroyo Agria, where he had first made his pact with the Devil, and where he went to renew it once each year. We arrived, and my father spoke and repeated certain words.” Isabel’s account of what happened next impacted me profoundly. It was enough, in fact, to tip me finally to the point where I was willing to concede that, yes, I believe there is a Devil, a spirit of evil that human beings can best understand by personifying it.

Isabel’s story may not have a similar impact on you, but I feel certain that it will, at a minimum, make any person whose mind is not completely closed wonder.

To listen to the audio version read by author Randall Sullivan, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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