Prisons We Choose to Live Inside

English: Doris Lessing, British writer, at lit...
English: Doris Lessing, British writer, at, Cologne literature festival 2006, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Doris Lessing; Perennial, An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers; @1987; 78 pages.

This book addresses one of my primary questions about human history and human behavior. How is our species capable of doing the horrible things that it has—and is? Why do we do it? Can we stop?

A few months ago I watched somewhat recently discovered film footage (A Film Unfinished) which documented the living conditions of the Jews in the Warsaw slums during World War II.

Horrified does not begin to approach my reaction. I have seen photos before, but the film footage and the fact that it was filmed, and staged, and shot over and over, was so callously heartless, I guess, I had not conceived of this possibility before.

What horrible evil. How could anyone participate in such a thing?

We know that this kind of behavior is not limited to World War II or to the Germans.  It can be found in many societies and at many times in human history, and undoubtedly some iteration of it is happening right now.

Lessing, thankfully, does not go into graphic detail, but does give us anecdotes and references some psychological experiments, including the famous Milgram experiment, in which it takes shockingly little to convince people to torture others and excuse themselves by saying they were just following orders.

Lessing maintains that humans (any of us), because of our psychology, are highly susceptible to acting in horrible ways in certain situations and can be influenced easily in groups. It is very rare for any of us to go against (disagree with, challenge) our groups.

She asks how is it that we have this information about ourselves but have not yet incorporated it into our institutions of government so that we don’t repeat these kinds of horrible actions? If we can just admit that we are wired in certain ways, we can put safety measures in place to stop ourselves.

This is a great book and an easy short read. I highly recommend it.

Doris Lessing is a prolific author and is most famous for her novel The Golden Notebook. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.

6 thoughts on “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside”

  1. I too find it amazing how susceptible we are evil. What I like about this post \is it squarely places the responsibility on the problem: ourselves. It is not merely “those people” or “that group.” Each of us is all too susceptible to evil.

    This leaves us to seek answers for how to control and restrict our own tendency towards evil. I have spent my life seeking answers to this problem. I have quested in areas ranging from theology to psychology to government to sociology.

    I have found some answers, but even the answers I have found are far less robust than I would like to admit.

    The government solution is less appealing than we might think. I tend to believe no government can be imaginative enough to legislate the great and various ways we create evil. Even if it could, can we excuse the loss of freedom of a such a controlling government?

    Plus, any government with the power to control the intricate ways we can commit evil bears an inherent weakness. Those who are corrupt with an obsession with power will figure a way to worm their way in and take the government over, providing a power base for evil to work. Then the 2nd problem will be worse than the 1st. This is essentially what the Nazi’s did. (Hitler did not act alone after all.)

    This sounds a little hopeless, I know. One might despair. Perhaps a little despair is not altogether terrible. Once again we are left with the man or woman in the mirror. One Rabbi once said, “You must first remove the plank from your own eye before you can remove the spec from your brother’s eye.”

    Regardless of what we do, maybe we should take a cue from the beloved film, Lord of the Rings. Gandalf said, “Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay: small acts of kindness and love.”


    1. Thank you for your well-thought-out comment. You make some good points. I think what I found so shocking about Lessing’s book was that we are all capable of terrible things under the “right” conditions. Only a few of us (percentage wise) are able to go against the persuasive forces of our group.

      I think you’re right about not wanting these things patrolled by the government. I agree that it is up to each of us to cultivate compassion and kindness.

      Thanks again for your comment.


  2. I’ve always found reading about the Milgram Experiment and the variations of it interesting. There was a study done in Australia I think in the 1970s? where the females were significantly less obedient during the experiment and there was some speculation that b/c of the time period, activism and political unrest being prevalent on the campus, it may have affected how they reacted to authority figures telling them what to do. Which makes me wonder how college kids today would react to such an experiment? My hope would be that disobedience or rather outside of the box behavior would be found more often than it was in 50’s-60s. Hopefully.


    1. That’s an interesting point. I’ve been wondering lately what effect reality TV is having on us. It seems like it doesn’t take a lot to get people to be really mean to each other.


      1. oh 😦 that is a depressing point. though tv has become unaffordable to 20 somethings in this economy and the lifestyle of tv watching is dying out. That would be an aspect of tv I would hope to become extinct. Though it’s likely some new form of malicious reality tv will spring up on the internet.


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