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Johnny Depp on Whitey Bulger

Johnny Depp on Whitey Bulger

Bulger wasn't hardwired to be a murderer. No one is.


Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, marked the culmination of the Days of Awe, the solemn period of introspection that began on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Like many Jews, I have been thinking about the themes of this season – repentance and forgiveness, wrongdoing and reconciliation.

I have also been thinking about Johnny Depp.

More precisely, I've been thinking about some things Depp said at the Boston premiere of "Black Mass," the new film in which he plays the gangster James "Whitey" Bulger. Speaking to reporters before the screening at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline – on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah, coincidentally – Depp was at pains to emphasize the human qualities of the serial killer he portrays in the film.

"There's a kind heart in there," he said. "There's a cold heart in there. There's a man who loves. There's a man who cries. There's a lot to the man."

Bulger was convicted in 2013 of involvement in at least 11 murders and numerous other crimes; he is now in federal prison serving two life sentences. But Depp said his priority as an actor "was to understand him first and foremost as a human being." He described Bulger as "a man of honor" toward those he loved, and rejected the notion that he was innately wicked. "Everybody, especially the families of his victims, could say: 'He's just an evil person.' I don't believe that exists," Depp said. "People have their humanity.... There's a side of James Bulger who is not just that man who was in that business."

Depp's comments understandably offended many, especially those whose loved ones suffered from Bulger's brutality. To be sure, the Hollywood star was talking about his technique as an actor and his approach to the role of a notorious monster. Perhaps some of his remarks should have been saved for an acting class rather than the red carpet. Perhaps some – like how he was "kind of glad" that Bulger had evaded capture for so many years – shouldn't have been said at all.

Nevertheless, Depp is right: Bulger must not be seen as wholly evil, devoid of any grain of goodness. That is a crucial moral point, regardless of acting style and character preparation. "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins," declares Ecclesiastes. The opposite is equally true: No one is absolutely evil, incapable of behaving with kindness or decency. Not Whitey Bulger. Not Charles Manson. Not Jeffrey Dahmer. Not the worst murderer or rapist or torturer.

Not even Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot.

To insist that even the most depraved criminals are human beings is not to downplay their depravity or to minimize their evil deeds. On the contrary: It is to affirm their responsibility for the damage they wreak and the pain they inflict. It is to underscore that they are morally responsible agents endowed by God with free will. They decide how to use that freedom. And they, like all of us, are answerable for their decisions.

Men and women are not cancer cells or rattlesnakes or tidal waves, killing and destroying willy-nilly. We are not robots, programmed genetically to be good or bad, honest or crooked, kind or cruel. We choose. And our choices have consequences.

Bulger wasn't hard-wired to lie or steal and murder. Every time he did so, he chose to do so. For proof, look no farther than all the times he could have lied or stolen or murdered, but elected not to.

"We must believe in free will; we have no choice," exclaimed the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer. In that seeming paradox lies the essence of our humanity. It isn't DNA or economics or the stars that determines character. We determine it. Without freedom, there could be no saints or sinners, only automatons.

Bulger was no automaton. None of us is. We are born neither righteous nor monstrous, but free to be either one. Among all the Earth's creatures, only we have the power to act differently tomorrow than we acted yesterday. That is why we can always aspire to be better, and repent when we have been worse.

Reprinted with permission from the Boston Globe.

September 23, 2015

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Visitor Comments: 19

(18) Anonymous, November 18, 2015 1:56 PM


A psychopath is an aberration. I cannot consider Hashem made them. Natural selection and of course genetics is the culprit. Hashem gave us life and breathed our Spirit/Soul into us as well as our destiny/mission. A psychopath also has a mission which is NOT of God. I refrain from calling them "animals" because an animal has a spirit, kills to supply itself food and or self protection. We are responsible so it is up to us to handle such people and hopefully, remove them from Society to prevent MORE harm. Once they kill they never stop so removal is imperative. Plato once said, "to be human is to bury your dead ". Memorialize, eulogize and remember fondly. A psychopath will leave his/her kill where they fell. Sometimes in a shallow grave. Interestingly, Hitler consciously chose the worst of the worst psychopaths to extinguish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during WW11. There is no humanity in a paychopath. I despise what they do, but I have no time to hate them. Killing is simply the Nature of this particular Beast. They are BORN this way. Acting out as early as infants. One or both parents generally affected. If both are affected, a Serial Killer/mass murderer is inevitable. It is upto Heaven to forgive and not in my hands/heart. I cannot play God.

(17) Anonymous, November 12, 2015 4:06 AM

Serial Killers

The more irrational a person is, the greater risk for violence. Serial Killers/Mass Murderers play God. It is NOT uncommon for them to show varying degrees of racism. They KNOW what they are doing. The lack of rationale comes from frontal lobe brain deformity therefore it cannot be cured, medicated, treated and there is no cure. Case in point-homicide bomber-head separated from body but in perfect condition. Severe frontal lobe brain damage and if the deformity affects the northern/southern hemisphere of the brain it also affects their speech. They lack human emotion or conscience. One could reasonably argue that such a brain is not that of a human being. In fact, the kill is exciting for then and they cannot relate to being han. They are incapable of empathy or compassion. They are nihalstic predators.

(16) Yehudis Feinstein, October 29, 2015 7:48 PM

Whatever Torah says is the truth.

Bs"D Hashem told us to wipe out Amalek in total. You can't argue with that. It's up to our Rabbinic leaders and Tzaddikim to help us understand who descends from Amelek. If Hitler, ימח שמו וזכרונו, was deemed to be descended from Amelek, then mercy to him as a baby, is against Torah. Torah is the only measuring stick. Petiod.

(15) Bev of So. Boston, October 13, 2015 2:28 PM

Really, Mr. Depp? (Whitey Bulger)

"Everybody, especially the families of his victims, could say: 'He's just an evil person.' I don't believe that exists," Depp said. "People have their humanity.... There's a side of James Bulger who is not just that man who was in that business."
Really, Mr. Depp? Now which medical school did you attend? May I suggest to you that you concentrate on acting and let the research psychiatrists formulate practical application based on very many case studies that just may prove otherwise. Furthermore, diagnosing human behavior is very complex, and your opinion, to me, is not sufficient enough to make that determination as to whether or not an individual is "hard-wired" for evilness! I'm from the same town as "Whitey" and to me, he was the personification of an unadulterated vicious reprobate!

(14) Alan, September 30, 2015 3:27 PM

Understanding the Essay

I believe that some commentators are missing the point. Mr Jacoby is not saying that Whitey Bulger did not commit heinous crimes or that Adolph Hitler was not evil, etc. I believe that the point Mr Jacoby is making that Hitler, Whitey Bulger, and so on, had free will to choose to commit evil acts. Yes they are evil because of the acts they committed; No they were not born evil or somehow programmed to be evil against their wills. There is no moral relativism here. In fact, just the opposite - all of us are responsible for our actions.
Another point is that those of who strive to do the right thing at all times, still make mistakes (although certainly not the commission of heinous crimes), but those of us who seemingly lack a conscious and commit evil acts still do some good. While the mistakes of those who genuinely strive to do the right thing should not condemn them, so to, the good that a Whitey Bulger may do does not eliminate the evil that he has done. Thus, even in a Whitey Bulger there is the capability of good and, because of this, he is responsible for the heinous acts he has committed.

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