Toward the end of the new movie Hustlers, the stripper and con artist Destiny (Constance Wu) sums up her thoughts on the preceding events with a single pithy phrase: “Hurt people hurt people.” It’s a line that comes straight from Destiny’s real-life counterpart in the article that inspired the movie, but neither of them claim to have come up with it. Indeed, the aphorism has been attributed to everyone from bestselling rabbi Yehuda Berg and evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren to actor and two-time Spider-Man Andrew Garfield.
In fact, when Roselyn Keo (the Scores stripper upon whom Destiny is based) originally used the adage in conversation with Jessica Pressler, a reporter with New York magazine, she personally believed she was citing Oprah Winfrey. “I always felt lifted and motivated after I watched Oprah’s shows,” Keo told Oprah’s magazine earlier this year. “That’s why I used her quote in the article.”
All of which raises the question: Where did this little piece of folk sociology come from in the first place?
The earliest recorded instance of someone saying “Hurt people hurt people” appears in the
Feb. 26, 1959, edition of a local Texas newspaper, the Amarillo Globe-Times, in its review of a lecture program put on by the Parent Teacher Association of Fannin Junior High School. The Globe-Times attributes the line to a speaker named Charles Eads, who, judging from the article’s description, spoke in the manner of vaudeville satirist and cowboy Will Rogers:
Then he made a statement that might give pause to a student of psychology. It’s worded peculiarly. The statement is, “Hurt people hurt people.” So, maybe before I wound someone next time, I’ll stop and think if it’s because I’ve been hurt, myself. I’ll try to remember.
A 1948 issue of American Childhood, Milton Bradley’s “Modern Magazine for the Primary Teacher,” lists Charles Eads as the principal of Humphreys Highland School in Amarillo, Texas. So, it’s possible that this is the same Eads quoted over a decade later by the Amarillo Globe-Times—although it’s equally possible that Eads himself heard the saying from someone else who is lost to history.
Whoever said it first, the phrase underwent a major resurgence in the early 1990s, cropping up in the writings of several self-help authors, like psychiatrist Sandra Bloom, “grandmother, philosopher and teacher” Joan Betts, and Christian humor writer Barbara Johnson. In 1993, the retired family therapist and Christian self-help writer Sandra D. Wilson even wrote a book titled Hurt People Hurt People. Given all of this, it’s not hard to imagine it cropping up in a mid-’90s episode of Oprah’s daytime show, where Keo really might have heard her say it.
As for Yehuda Berg, the “rabbi to the stars” who was regularly credited with the phrase starting around the early 2010s, he later resigned from his position as co-director of the Kabbalah Centre after facing allegations of sexual assault.
Thanks to the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro, and to the Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole, for critical research into the central question of this article.