What Makes Some People Crueler?

Some people need someone to hate. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay, “Anti-Semite and Jew,” he says: “If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.” I don’t think it’s a far leap to put the history of Blacks in America in the same category. The important question is why? Why does this need to have someone to hate (or someone to control and use for one’s own psychological purposes) operate more intensely in some people than in others? Like in Edwin Epps, the vicious slave master (Michael Fassbender), in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

The true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) gives us a brutally searing picture of a horrific and shameful part of our country’s history. McQueen’s film, 12 Years A Slave, is set in 1841, Saratoga, New York. We become first-hand witnesses to exactly how certain entitled Southern white people thought nothing of invading the North, kidnapping free black people, and selling them on the slave trade market. This was the fate of Northup, a loving husband, father, concert violinist. How does something like this happen? And, why were some slave owners like Epps, crueler than others? What are the psychological mechanisms at play?

Hate & Getting Rid of Hated Parts of the Self

Psychoanalysts call the unconscious need to get rid of certain internal feelings or fantasies by putting them into another person (a mechanism used by Epps), projective identification, To be clear, this was Melanie Klein’s refinement of the concept of projection. Projective identification goes one step further. Unacceptable thoughts or feelings are forced into someone (who, yes, is a good hook) and that someone is induced to become—to actually live out—what is projected.

When projective identification is used to an excessive degree, especially in a troubled person like Epps, the thoughts and feelings and parts of the self are cast off because they’re violently, but unconsciously hated. The end result is an equally violent hatred of the person at the other end of the projective identification. The hated part of the self is now lodged inside them. The problem, then, is not in Edwin Epps himself, for example – it belongs to “them.” Therefore, they (the slaves) are the ones with the problem. Because of men like Epps, Northup (and countless other slaves) were robbed of their human rights and forced to suffer unspeakable cruelty, abuse, and dehumanization. What is it, though, that Epps is getting rid of?

Believe it or not, Edwin Epps feels inferior. To sum it up, he doesn’t feel like a man. Underneath his tough exterior, he’s very weak. He needs to control and mistreat people who are, in his estimation, beneath him to make himself feel powerful and strong. No one has to be so cruel, arrogant, or superior if they have a strong sense of self-esteem.

Hate & Denying Feelings of Inferiority

The truth is – arrogance, superiority, and the need for control are means of escape from deeply troubling suspicions about not being good at all. In an attempt to overcome these suspicions, Epps makes himself believe he is like God: “A n——r who don’t obey his Lord, his Master, will be beaten with many strokes; 150 lashes. That’s Scripture.” That’s not all. He must prove (to himself) he’s a good man.

He has Northup play the violin while he makes his slaves dance after a long day working in the cotton fields—and they must pretend they’re happy. After all, he feeds them, right? He sees himself as a kind man rather than the viciously cruel, arrogant coward he actually is.

Epps is a castrated man. Remember how Mistress Epps berates him: “You’re manless; a eunuch. A disgrace to your kind.” Yes, we might understand this as retaliation for the way he treats her. He’s contemptuous, flaunts Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) in her face, and doesn’t care if he makes his wife jealous. He warns her:

“Don’t set yourself up against Patsey, my dear, because I’ll rid myself of you before I will her.”) To get rid of his own feelings of shame, he exalts himself as the lord of his plantation and ruler of the people he owns; people whose every movement he can control in his little kingdom (unlike his inability to control his wife or his feelings of worthlessness).

Conquest of Others & Triumph Over Shame

Here’s a great example: “Sin? There is no sin. A man does what he pleases with HIS property.” And, Patsey is his property—in more ways than one. When she lives up to his expectations as an exceptional slave, she’s praised: “Queen of the Fields, out picks the men, a n——r among n——rs. God gave her to ME.” But when she humiliates him—after all, she’s supposed to make him feel loveable—he is enraged and brutally abuses her.


Epps uses conquest of others as a stand-in for his inability to triumph over his shame. But shen Patsey goes missing from his plantation, when Epps feels he’s lost her, he becomes desperate. Yelling hysterically for her, he screams, “My Patsey’s GONE.” When he finds her, she pleads that she simply went to get soap from Mr. Shaw’s plantation nearby: “500 pounds a day, being clean is all I ask.” She wants, really, to clean him off her; to clean away her shame – and he must know that.

Refusal To Be Humilaited In 12 Years A Slave

Now, she’s done something independently. She’s humiliated him. He’s furious and accuses her of lying. But it’s really his lack of control—over Patsey, over his feelings, over his wife—that makes him angry. Patsey has castrated him as his wife does and he can’t see her entirely as his possession anymore.

So, he strips her, straps her to a post; beats Patsey in retaliation for the way she’s made him feel abandoned, unloved, and worthless. He takes his internal pain out on her back. “You’ve done this to yourself, Patsey,” he snarls.

With his whip in hand to punish Patsey, Mistress Epps flogs him verbally: “Do it. Strike the life from her.” He won’t. He can’t. Like the coward he is, he makes Northup do it. Horrified and stripped of any fight left in him, Northup begins to whip Patsey. Meanwhile, Mistress Epps continues to taunt her husband. “That’s what your n——s make of you: fool for the taking.”

Cruel Things Insecure People Do

Epps, now feeling more and more humiliated and small, raising his gun and yelling: “Strike her! Strike her! Or I’ll kill every n——r in my sight!” He’s been emasculated— by both his wife and his forbidden lover — and this he simply cannot stand. So, what’s his answer?

He makes her feel 1,000 times over the pain she’s made him feel. He won’t; she will. It’s these feelings of inadequacy that make him interpret sadistic cruelty as personal strength and potency. This sadistic power is his only way to override unbearable feelings. To that end, Epps attempts to make Patsey feel absolutely worthless to him. In other words, Epps gets back at Patsy for the way her absence and speaking up to him made him feel worthless and unimportant to her.

Like many insecure people, using others to get rid of the feelings he cannot feel, that’s Epps’s psychological ploy. He’s made his slaves captive subjects to do just that. This is why it’s very unlikely that someone like Epps would consider for a moment that he has any problems at all. He wouldn’t be brave enough to spend time on my couch. To do so, he’d have to be willing to see what his slaves represent in him. He’d have to experience terrible guilt for his thoughts and actions.

For a moment, when his crops are plagued with locusts, we see him wonder: “What have I done that God hates me so?” But, unable to accept the guilt for his cruel actions and hatred, he, once again, blames it on the slaves:

“I’ve brought heathens here. They’ve brought me God’s scorn.” What Epps must face, if he ever can, is his extreme and vicious cruelty, jealously inflicted on innocent people. Yet, he can’t and never will.

To sum it up: 12 Years A Slave shows us that: just as the Nazis needed the Jews, Epps needs slaves. He needs to make others inferior; hate them for the terrible inferiority he must escape in his emasculated self. But Mr. Bass is a different sort of man. Caught in the South at the wrong time in history, he’s a Canadian with confidence. So, what does this mean? He can believe differently from the Southern plantation owners he works for and speaks his mind.

Bass sees slavery for what it is: “an evil that should befall no one.” And, he agrees to help Solomon even though he’s afraid for his life. His innate belief in equality and his understanding that Solomon was robbed of his freedom ultimately overrides his own fear. He helps Northup regain the freedom he lost. There will be no freedom for Epps. Because the only real freedom would be to realize that the person he actually hates is himself. But that is something Epps can’t do in 12 Years A Slave.

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Dr. Sandra E. Cohen

I’m Dr. Sandra Cohen, a psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Beverly Hills, CA. I work with creatives in therapy, story/character development, and entertainment consulting. If you are a writer, actor, or director and want help with a character – or a chance to do some of your own personal work - call at 310.273.4827 or email me at sandracohenphd@gmail.com to schedule a confidential discussion to explore working together.