Claudia Miles, MFT San Rafael, California
January 14, 2011
I chose to become a psychotherapist after working in another field, motivated by the intense experience I'd had volunteering with people diagnosed with HIV at a time when HIV was a swift death sentence. Having the opportunity to talk with people who must come to terms with dying, especially at such a young age, was scary, humbling and moving. When people know they are dying, the facade we all put up tends to fall away, and the people I met were so present--and more than that, so ALIVE. I'd never considered psychotherapy as a career before, despite my years as a client, but the experience somehow mirrored my passion for music, and underscored my lifelong search for meaning.
I have had the opportunity of working with people who genuinely do want to know themselves beneath the "mask", to know others in that way, and to live life authentically. I have watched clients become better parents, better partners, better citizens of the world.
So how did my fascination with people's goodness translate into an equally strong interest in people's badness and in the criminal justice system? But more importantly, since I am not alone in this, how did we as a culture become so obsessed with crime and punishment? People are not merely interested in crime drama, but true crime (i.e., the First 48) and also developments in forensics and forensic psychology formerly probed only by law enforcement, scientists and psychologists who research the criminal mind. Since the advent of Court TV (Tru TV), then shows like the Forensic Files, American Justice and CSI in the 90s, solving crime has become "cool." By this the first decade of the new century, criminal profilers like Robert Ressler and Jack Douglas, and Candace DeLong have become mini-celebrities and most people understand the basics of forensic evidence like DNA, fingerprints and ballistics- And shows like Criminal Minds (based on famed profilers Robert Ressler and Jack Douglas) have elicited an abiding interest in the sociopaths and psychopaths who commit serial murders.
When I grew up in the 60s and 70s, I'd never heard of criminal profiling, as if I had, I might have considered it as a career. In those days, only those in law enforcement knew of such things. And becoming, say, an FBI agent certainly was not in the cards for me. I was too young to have been a hippie, but I seemed to have an instant simpatico with the era, and its anti-establishment sentiment. Becoming a cop was the last thing I could imagine doing.
At some point, though, I heard a forensic psychologist discuss the psychological traits that were most likely there in a person who had committed a particular unsolved murder. They discussed motivations that normal people do not have, and how did they possibly know, I wondered? How could a normal human being without such deviant interests ever understand someone who wanted to have sex with a lifeless body? The kind of murders they studied, now known as "serial murders", were not murders motivated by jealousy, greed or revenge--those were easier to understand. They were motivated by a lust for killing and even torture, something I just couldn't understand, no matter how deeply I explored my darkest thoughts and the mustiest corners of my mind.
No, I could not relate with the idea of finding pleasure of some kind in killing no matter how I searched myself. But I could understand being under the spell of some obsession or compulsion--something one needs to do no matter the fact we'll regret it tomorrow. And I have most definitely come to see that reading into the behavior of serial criminals is incredibly similar to reading people in general. One small thing tells me so much about someone-- Some specific action tells me so much about the person who committed it.
With police work, the most noble of units would seem to me to be "Homicide", and the chance to speak for the dead. I always felt for homicide cops in that, no matter how much a family wanted to see someone caught, once that person was caught, you always knew the family would have it hit them that, well, it is a good thing, and a necessary thing-- but it just does not bring the person back.
People who lose loved ones often want to know why. They often have a longing to understand why the killer did it. Understandable, of course, but I have yet to see a reason that would satisfy anyone. The justice part is a different story. But could there ever be a sufficient reason for the family as to why their loved one was murdered?
Understanding the "why" as a criminal profiler is something else entirely. In many cases, it may be the only way to stop a killer who will continue to kill victim after victim. Before Robert Ressler and Jack Douglas developed the FBI's famed Behavioral Analysis Unit, most "stranger murders", murders committed by someone unknown to the victim, remained unsolved. Robert Ressler, who was largely responsible for capturing Ted Bundy, recognized that until one could figure out the "why" in a case like that, with a killer smart enough not to leave forensic evidence, was the only was of stopping him means saving lives.
But why are we, all of us, so captivated by these questions? The answer to this lies in things not foreign at all, but rather our quest to understand good and evil. And while most of us don't commit evil acts, all of us have inside us something called a "shadow," a part of the psyche which possesses dark thoughts or imaginings. These are thoughts we do not act on, thoughts that most of us control, at any cost. And then of course the times we can't control those parts cause us deep alarm. I cannot, and am glad I cannot, in any way relate to the motivation behind a killer, the serial killer, who kills to work out a conflict, for some kind of pleasure. Being human, though, and having to accept the fact that my fellow humans engage in behaviors that are more frightening and twisted than anything I wanted to believe were were capable of-- this is a sobering and saddening thought.
I will never be someone who writes about killers to titillate. And I agree strongly with Robert Ressler that even in an interrogation, even when one must get a suspect to talk in order to save lives, that to pretend we can "relate" to a killers lust to molest and kill children, for example, to pretend that we think it's "neat" or fascinating to do the things a killer does, in order to get him to "trust us", is crossing a line that, for the most part, should not be crossed. He quotes Frederick Nietzsche, in discussing this topic, reminding us and himself that, "Whoever fights monsters should take care lest he become a monster himself; for if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."
My interest in serial criminals comes from my desire to understand how this strain of sickness has permeated our society, and what ought to be done, and what can be done.
Serial killers is a term most often credited to Robert Ressler, who spearheaded the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit or as its often referred to, the BAU. One might say, well serial killer-- how is that a special term? Aren't all killers who kill multiple victims serial killers? Not at all.. Those folks may be mass murderers, bombers, killers, among other things-- but the term has come to mean something specific- yet hard to understand-- it has come to mean someone who kills because he enjoys it, and kills because he's compelled to do so. It has come to mean someone who gets something like sexual pleasure from killing, whether directly or indirectly, and feels some kind of gratification. These folks tend to kill in a personal way, with a knife or a rope or their hands. They want to feel the life leaving a person's body. They tend to choose strangers as victims, so there is no personal motive like jealousy. The Unabomber, and the Oklahoma City Bombers are not serial killers. Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker), The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway, and Jeffrey Dahmer-- these were serial killers. And so too was Richard Trenton Chase, a serial killer in Sacramento who killed his human victims in 1977 and 1978.
I knew of Chase from Robert Ressler's book, "Whoever Fight Monsters," which is one of the most fascinating accounts imaginable of Ressler's experience profiling and catching killers in the FBI. Ressler profiled Chase, and in fact, because Ressler just so happened to be in the area, and brought in during the earliest stages of Chase's career, he was able to help the police capture Chase in a matter of months through an accurate psychological profile.
Being a therapist, I have an interest in the idea of what it means, really, to be sane at the time of a killing. On the one hand, yes, one does have to be crazy in some way to commit some of these crimes. But is it crazy like a fox, or crazy like insane, can't form rational thoughts, has little control over one's beliefs, is not able to "pass" as normal in our society (would be noticed easily and seen as alarming and bizarre). I can see why Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, and Gary Ridgeway could be seen as sane-- or rather, sociopaths who have no conscience, and desire a gratification that involves the torture of other humans. I CANNOT see that Jeffrey Dahmer, for one, or Richard Trenton Chase, for another, can, by any reasonable assessment, be considered sane, either while killing, before killing, or after killing.
Jeffrey Dahmer, who had "his marbles" more so than Chase, was nevertheless, gripped by a loneliness and need to be loved, and belief that this could never be, that he found gratification in curling up with comatose (but not dead) bodies--because these people wouldn't or couldn't leave. He did not enjoy terrorizing victims or causing them pain. He knocked them out with drugs, in fact. His goal, and I know this is hard to hear, to say the least, was to perform a kind of homemade lobotomy on his victims, that would leave them alive, or their bodies' alive, but leave the mind in suspended animation. Leave them brain dead. Once he went through this, and lay with what was left of the human he'd captured, and found comfort in this behavior, he then did things that are even more sickening to most. He cooked and ate parts of his victims, primarily because he wanted to united with them forever. It was a ritual sexual in nature. Just as making love causes us to feel united or one with our partner, what Jeffrey did allowed him to feel completely united with those he'd murdered. He could, finally, not feel so empty inside.
Imagine going back to an ex-lover whom you know is bad for you but just can't stay away for him. You KNOW this person is bad and wrong for you, yet you cannot seem to stop yourself. You know that you will suffer and they will suffer, if you go back, and that eventually you will have to leave. And still, you do it anyway.
If you know what I mean, you know how Dahmer might have felt. And that is a frightening thought, but a true one.
But understanding obsession in a love relationship has no relationship whatsoever to killing and eating people, you say in protest. No, it does not. But it does have a relationship to the desire to be with someone who is bad for us, no matter how unhealthy a choice, no matter who it might hurt, including a wife and kids, and even our own children. It is the thing people do who would never do anything else under any circumstances that they knew could hurt another person. Dahmer was compelled to do something none of us could imagine doing or wanting to do, for any reason whatsoever. But he was motivated by the same thing that motivates all of us when we desperately seek love in ways that are risky, whether the risk is physical, or more likely, psychological. And he, more than any single other killer I know of, appeared tormented by his own actions. He admitted them, and said he should be locked up, and also never released. He knew what drove him, and that must have been the worst punishment of all.
Dahmer, however, pled guilty by reason of insanity. Had he been found guilty of that, he would have been locked up for life in a prison mental hospital for the criminally insane that in no way resembles a spa.. Forever, or until he could be taken to prison. He was, however, found to be sane when he committed his crimes, something which has always bothered me. The law has decided that sanity means one thing: a person knows his actions are wrong, while the insane do not. This is not by any stretch of the imagination a full definition of either what's sane and what's not sane. I think Jeffrey Dahmer did know that what he was doing was illegal, and if caught, he would be punished. But the drive to sleep next to near corpses, to keep in your apartment body parts and preserved organs in jars, and to cook and eat human beings-- to feel the need to do these heinous things in order to feel anything resembling love and connection with others--this is not sane. Yes, he covered up his crimes, because if he did not, he knew he couldn't keep on doing what he needed to do to survive. Because this was survival.
If he wasn't insane, who is?
The prosecutor in effect sought jury nullification here. This is especially easy when our justice system does things like, not given an explanation as to where he will end up if the jury finds him insane. If it means he'd be let out, and if the only option to lock him up is to find him sane, of course a jury would find him sane. Even Jeffrey Dahmer acknowledged that letting him go was not an option. Why not tell the jury that the choice is, criminal mental hospital vs. prison, so they can do their job? So in the end, they did find him sane. And as anyone could have expected, when Dahmer was tossed into the general population with the rest of the prisoners, and not left in isolation, he was murdered by fellow inmates within hours. No surprise there. Could the guards who "accidentally" dumped him there have been surprised? I think not.
Then there's the matter of Richard Trenton Chase, a man who killed people and drank their blood due to a delusion belief that he was losing his, a belief caused by paranoid schizophrenia. Chase did not attempt at all to cover up his crimes. He wandered around in blood soaked shirts. He was disoriented. He drove around with a cow's liver in his car. He believed he needed people's blood to survive, and simply was unable to conceive of them as human beings. Just as in Dahmer's case, in a case like this that is so horrific, the lust for vengeance (more than justice) takes center stage. We must have vengenance.
And the only way to get vengeance is to have these folks declared guilty. Which is why the plea should be, guilty but insane, rather than, not guilty by reason of insanity, which no one can bear. Then, people like Chase and Dahmer are locked in a prison hospital for the rest of their life, rather than thrown into maximum security prisons where the staff is simply unequipped to deal with them.
Robert Ressler advocated for the idea that Chase was not sane and should not be declared so. And again, even more than Dahmer, Chase clearly and positively was insane and psychotic. Unlike Dahmer, he made no attempt to hide his crimes. He wandered the street with a bloody clothes, and actually walked to people's homes and just walked in. He lived in circumstances too grotesque to recount. However, Chase did kill himself in his cell, so there was no way to know. I believe even here the jury would have found the man sane, and sent him off to a maximum security prison. If Chase was not insane, then no one is.
I will write more about the human shadow, how we all have a dark side, and what happens when we deny it as time goes on. But I wanted at least to start this journal and share it with anyone interested.
And I will also be writing about what I've learned of wrongful convictions, and why and how they happen; and the kind of feedback and support I give my clients that helps them to get centered, what mindfulness is, and why 20 something guys seem crazy about 40 something gals.. No shortage of topics. I sign off now. Good night to you. .