The Face of Evil: Robert Williams’ Troubled Past


If you’ve been reading the tabloids over the past few weeks, you really couldn’t miss the coverage of the trial of Robert Williams, the monster (is there really any other way to describe him?) accused of raping and torturing a Columbia University graduate student last year.

The trial coverage has centered on two main narratives: the courage and ingenuity of the woman who managed to escape after 19 hours of being brutalized in utterly unimaginable ways and the complete lack of empathy or emotion shown by her alleged attacker. It is frequently noted in stories about the case that the defendant doesn’t even show up to court some days.

Today’s Post devotes a page to a story on the past of Robert Williams, where he was seen as a “bad seed” even in elementary school. There’s a reason this story is coming out now. Summations in the trial are set for today, so there is no “new” news to report for today’s edition of the paper. Many of the sources for the piece speak on condition of anonymity, as they are discussing sealed juvenile records.

So, what do we learn about Williams that hasn’t already been covered in the shocking, sickening testimony of his trial? We learn that since he was a child, he’s had a brutal cruel streak. A former teacher of his recalls a time that he grabbed a classmate by the arm, twisted it and wouldn’t let go. After the teacher finally got him off the girl, he grinned. Readers learn about his days walking around his Hamilton Heights neighborhood “like a little midget drug dealer” and that his own grandmother feared him. We also learn that in 2003, Williams went from solitary confinement in prison straight to the outside world. At that point, Laura Italiano writes, he was “26 years old and [had] spent more of his teen and adult years inside prison than out.”

When something as brutal as this attack happens, we want to have a reason for the evil perpetuated. It’s a classic case of the nature vs. nurture myth (and I’m using “myth” not to mean fallacy, but as an eternal story) and in reading this piece, you can see both “roots” of evil taking shape. We need an explanation for these things, even if there really isn’t one. It provides comfort in the face of the unknown. If we know there was a root of this evil, than the randomness of the attack can be explained.

As Jack Lule writes in his book Daily News, Eternal Stories, “myth must take on tasks too great for human logic and rationality.” Knowing Williams was a “bad seed” provides a minor comfort.