How children see evil

Lisa Steinberg
Lisa Steinberg

When an adopted 6-year-old girl was beaten to death by her adoptive dad, it made quite a splash in America.  The girl’s name was Elizabeth Steinberg, known to all as “Lisa.” She was six years old. The adoptive father’s name was Joel Steinberg and the mother’s name was Hedda Nussbaum. He was an attorney who worked the criminal courts in Manhattan; she was a former editor and writer of children’s books for Random House, one of New York’s most famous publishing houses. And together, over a period of six years, they oversaw the sad, anguished life of a little girl who never had a chance against the brutality, neglect and ultimate destruction by these two people.  Think of Lisa’s life.  At that age, you look at your parents almost as God.  And what kind of gods were they?

JewishboyAtgunpointThere is a famous photo of a Jewish boy, held at gunpoint, by Nazis.  He probably doesn’t understand the motivations behind the man with the gun.  He probably doesn’t understand the concept of ideology or the nuances of anti-Semitism all that much.

There is a little old lady who lives in a little community where my brother lives on a lake in Phoenix, Arizona.  She told me that when she was a child in Italy, her mother sheltered a few Jews.  The Nazis discovered this, and one soldier argued with the mother, saying that Christianity was against Jews.  The mother said naively “But Jesus was a Jew.” This angered the soldier so much that he shot her, in front of her child.  I was talking to the former child.  Did the child understand this evil behavior?  Does she as an adult?  I don’t fully understand it.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I would argue that good people simply do not understand the motives of bad people.  In other words there is a dichotomy in our species.  Though the famous Russian dissident Solzhenitsyn argues (in one of his fictional works) that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”, I also believe that some of us are almost like a distinct species.  Bad people don’t look different than good people, and can pass for normal people.  Bad people can boast of acts that most of us find outrageous, disgusting, and evil. Think of the death of a young Irish girl who came to school in a village in the state of Massachusetts.  Phoebe Prince was bullied so consistently that she eventually walked into her house and hung herself in a stairwell. The nastiness didn’t end there. Her tormentors posted vicious comments on the dead girl’s Facebook memorial page. At a dance some days later, some who were there say one of the bullies (a female) bragged about how she played dumb with the detectives who questioned her. In other words, the very deeds that shock us, thrilled the bullies.  And notice that this bully fit into society well enough to participate in dances, and to have friends, etc.


Children have a simple view of good and evil.  I remember (vaguely) an Israeli “settler” explaining his kid’s views to an American reporter.  He said his kids saw the Arabs as evil, because of the bombings and other attacks that they committed against Jews.  He tried to excuse it by saying kids see things in “black and white.”

When Al Qaeda-linked terrorists attacked a Kenyan shopping mall, a 4-year-old British boy named Elliot Prior told one of them “you’re a very bad man,” The terrorist was taken aback by Elliot Prior’s remark, saying, “Please forgive me, we are not monsters.”  But they certainly acted like monsters to the hostages that they kept, committing disgusting atrocities.

Was Elliot Prior correct?

And of course all the adults who do terrible things were children once.

Sources: – on Lisa Steinberg (on Tom Paulin) (commentary of February 3, 2014) – a short section of this post has a description of what I believe happened to me.


Hedda Nussbaum, whose negligence contributed to Lisa’s death, did not start out bad.  She wrote two children’s books, both of which were published by Random House. Plants Do Amazing Things was published in 1977 and was a science book explaining the workings and lives of plants. She had met Joel Steinberg two years earlier at a party. Part of the book’s dedication read, “And to Joel, my everyday inspiration.” Soon, they were seeing each other and became romantically involved. “I thought he was godlike,” she once said. Her second book, Animals Build Amazing Homes was published in 1979 and detailed how different animals built their homes in the wild. Both books were well received and remain in print.

Another of Hedda’s co-workers, Larry Weinberg, who was also an attorney, became friendly with Hedda and admired her ability to work with writers. “She was sensitive, extremely gentle and loving to a writer, enormously encouraging,” he later said to the press, “I was extremely taken with her as a friend.” Hedda had a promising future. But that rosy prospect ended when the abuse began.

Hedda was so abused that “She was physically as badly injured as any battered woman I have ever seen-short of those who were killed,” a social worker later told reporters.

Hedda could not even eat unless Joel gave her permission. If she had married a good man, she probably would have been a good woman. But married to Joel, she took cocaine with him, and engaged in sex with lots of people, and used child pornography, and did nothing when her adopted daughter was molested, and did nothing when her adopted daughter lay dying (she thought Joel would fix things). Joel was a monster, and he transformed this woman into a kind of numb zombie, and created a den of unbelievable evil in that apartment in New York. (this is based on Hedda’s own testimony, and she has also written  a book Surviving Intimate Terrorism on her 12 years with Joel).


One thought on “How children see evil

  1. Shalom,

    Jeremiah 17:9

    9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

    The SOURCE OFEVIL is within us all.

    Between DNA, Nurture & Culture some of us are fortunate to have decent parents!
    But for many, and of ALL classes, they are reared by EVIL people, who carry on the process they have learned at THEIR parents knees.

    We are ALL responsible for our actions, in the end!
    But some of us are handicapped emotionally & need to be guided into the right way.

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