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When it comes to dissecting human nature, we’re far less interested in what makes people commit acts of good than in what makes them commit acts of evil, especially the ultimate crime: intentionally taking the life of another. The modern appetite for delving into the dark souls of murderers seems insatiable. For every viewer of Touched by an Angel, there are countless others who prefer The Sopranos, Homicide reruns, and America’s Most Wanted. It’s as though we can never know enough about people who kill, the gory details of how they do it, and why.
And few criminals provoke as many questions about the nature of evil as serial killers and sexual predators.
In movies and on television, these most heinous of the horrible have become oddly glorified of late, portrayed as twisted but brilliant creatures, worthy adversaries for our most diligent and clever crime fighters.
In Dark Dreams: Sexual Violence, Homicide, and the Criminal Mind, Roy Hazelwood and Stephen G. Michaud offer a textbooklike deconstruction of such criminals. Michaud—the author of The Only Living Witness, a portrait of serial killer Ted Bundy, which the New York Daily News once listed among its 10 best true-crime books ever published—is largely the scribe here. The story is mostly Hazelwood’s, who joined the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in 1978, when criminal investigative analysis—also called “profiling”—was still a little-known, part-time service Hazelwood and his colleagues did as a favor for investigators. Hazelwood was one of the first profilers to specialize in the kind of deviant crimes that are now so often rehashed in Hollywood thrillers. In the process, he became an expert on necrophiliacs, frotteurs, pedophiles, sadists, and erotic asphyxiators.
Michaud and Hazelwood have teamed up before. In 1999, they published The Evil That Men Do: FBI Profiler Roy Hazelwood’s Journey into the Minds of Sexual Predators. Their work is celebrated among true-crime buffs, including a serial killer on death row, who once told Hazelwood that he referenced Hazelwood’s work in an argument, and X-Files creator Chris Carter, who wrote a jacket blurb for The Evil That Men Do.
When it comes to describing who commits serial murders and sexual crimes, and how they do it, Hazelwood has few peers. And with Michaud’s help, his explanation is as easy to follow as it is gripping.
One of the many disturbing details of Dark Dreams is that most of the serial killers and sex offenders Hazelwood and Michaud describe could cross your path any day. For example, Gerard John Schaefer, who is believed to have killed more than 20 women, was a deputy sheriff. John Wayne Gacy was a building contractor and active in local politics. And Harvey Glatman, the Los Angeles “Lonely Hearts Killer” of the ’50s, was a television repairman.
Hazelwood describes in chilling, simple language the evolution of serial killers and sexual predators from men with disturbing fantasies to relentless and driven perpetrators:
The development of a ritualistic offender’s fantasy is similar to the production of a stage play. The central figure is the playwright/director—the offender. In his fantasies, he scripts the action, chooses the settings, and selects the props. Of course, he casts himself (who else?) as the star, but he also requires a costar—his victim. Once he has fully developed the
criteria for her, he’s ready to begin his search for someone to play that role.
The fantasies of such killers are fueled by everything from pornography to detective magazines—a favorite collectible among serial killers, it turns out. Some practice their fantasies on themselves, through autoerotic asphyxiation. But what is most striking is their determination. One of the killers Hazelwood profiles, Robert Leroy Anderson, who was convicted of abducting, raping, and killing two women, one of whom was pregnant, selected his victims months in advance. More than once, working with an accomplice, he put out tire poppers he had had specially made and followed his intended victim until she pulled over.
While stressing that ritualistic offenders are idiosyncratic, Hazelwood also rattles off the common characteristics that he and his colleagues have identified over the years. In fact, the book often reads like a manual: Hazelwood presents in list form the types of offenders, the sorts of fantasies ritualistic offenders act out, and even the qualities the FBI looks for when hiring profilers. Between these handy tips, Hazelwood explicates with the braggadocio of Sherlock Holmes how he and his colleagues came to accurately deduce how a particular crime played out, or identify key traits of a particular offender on the basis of the available evidence.
In places, the book reads almost as if the serial killers Hazelwood describes were lethal wild animals we could contain once we learned their habits. But Hazelwood cautions that any complacency about these criminals is foolish. “[O]ffenders are conceptualizing their crimes…at a much earlier age than their predecessors did,” he notes. “[A]s a result, their fantasies are growing more complex and, in some cases, deadlier over time.” He attributes the evolution of these criminals to looser sexual mores. For example, people used to consider erotic asphyxiation deviant; now some people just call it rough sex.
But for all Hazelwood’s skill getting inside the heads of some of the most violent murderers, he still can’t really explain why they do what they do. He dismisses standard explanations such as poverty, childhood abuse, genetics, and insanity. “Perhaps the most obvious (and most frightening) explanation of all is that some offenders commit sexual crimes simply because they want to! They like it! And they have no regard for what the rest of society thinks. This is the dark mind’s most disturbing corner of all.”
This conclusion is scarcely useful, and Hazelwood seems uninterested in going deeper than the killers’ fantasies. And though the book’s tone is by and large clinical, there is something a little distasteful about the relish with which Hazelwood lays out the horrifying details of the crimes. Much of his enthusiasm seems to stem from what can only be described as the thrill of the hunt. Clearly, the vivid descriptions of ritualistic rape and murder serve to distinguish the villains from the heroes (not to mention the rest of humanity), but their retelling has a way of making the good guys seem a little creepy, too.
By contrast, Dr. Jonathan Pincus, chief of neurology at the veterans’ hospital in Washington, D.C., and professor of neurology at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, gets specific on the issue of what motivates violent criminals. In Base Instincts: What Makes Killers Kill, Pincus touches on not only serial and ritualistic killers but also a broader array of lethal offenders.
Having examined hundreds of defendants, in many cases at the behest of defense attorneys, Pincus says he has determined that the killers often have some combination of brain damage, mental illness or impairment, and a history of severe child abuse.
Pincus notes that each of these factors separately has been considered a cause of violent criminal behavior, and not one has proved to be sufficient on its own. But, Pincus contends, when these factors occur together, they are much more likely to drive an individual toward violence. The reason, he argues, is that years of serious child abuse produce violent urges. An individual with a healthy brain can learn to contain these urges, but an individual with a damaged and/or sick brain is less able to and is thus more likely to succumb to them.
Pincus’ approach to his subject matter is far more scientific and medically based than Hazelwood’s. He throws around such eyeball-glazing terminology as “amblyopia ex anopsia” and “mylenation,” but he is good about breaking down such language for the layman and in grounding his argument in real-life cases. Also unlike Hazelwood, Pincus shows compassion for the killers themselves, whose histories are often as horrific as their crimes.
One of the perpetrators Pincus profiles is Bobby Moore, who, along with a co-defendant, was convicted and sentenced to die for having stripped, beaten, raped, and shot Laura Foss, who was seven months pregnant when she died.
Pincus’ tests of Moore revealed an IQ of 80, brain damage, psychosis, and abnormal brain activity. Moore had grown up one of 16 children. He had begun seeing visions and hearing voices in elementary school. His parents fought each other constantly, often with weapons. Interviews with his siblings revealed that Moore’s mother would regularly tie the kids to their beds and beat them, or hoist them up with ropes and beat them while they were suspended in the air. She also hoarded food and starved them. As a “big eater,” Moore was singled out for punishment. Besides tying a naked Moore to a bed and beating him bloody, she would also force him to lie under a bed in the dark, which she knew he was afraid of, for hours on end. His siblings remember hearing him whimpering, begging to be let out. On the basis of the findings about Moore’s childhood, a judge reduced his sentence from death to life without parole.
Not all abused children turn into killers, Pincus notes, and while two of Moore’s siblings also became violent criminals, the rest did not. What made Moore different from those 13 siblings was his mental illness and brain damage. “It seems likely,” Pincus concludes, “that it was abuse interacting with brain damage and psychosis that sealed Bobby Moore’s fate.”
Pincus’ theory is largely derived from his own experience with criminals in the field; he has examined about 150 murderers over 25 years. But, although persuasive in many respects, his arguments can hardly be applied as broadly as he attempts. Pincus seeks to extend his theory to all kinds of killers, from Adolf Hitler to modern-day terrorists. His starting point is the observation—one made by many others who have studied violent offenders—that violent criminals are often drawn to extreme forms of prejudice such as homophobia, racism, or misogyny. But Pincus stretches this insight to argue that societal and criminal violence may have common roots. He begins by describing the case of Trent Scaggs, a homophobe, misogynist, and murderer, who asked Pincus once, “Why was I born? What is the point of my life?”
“What if Trent had heard a political leader say ‘Women are our misfortune!’ just as Hitler said ‘The Jews are our misfortune!’” Pincus speculates. “A public condemnation of women and homosexuals as the hereditary carriers of social pathology would have dignified Trent’s suffering and provided a social outlet for his hatred.”
Hitler, Pincus surmises after reading between the lines of various Hitler biographies and Mein Kampf, was abused as a child, paranoid, and probably manic-depressive. (He bases the last diagnosis in part on reports of Hitler falling to the ground in rages and chewing the carpet.) In Pincus’ view, widespread anti-Semitism “dignified” Hitler’s pathology. In turn, the Nazis’ anti-Semitism and government-sanctioned violence, Pincus argues, “lifted the lid” on greater German society’s impulses toward violence, thus enabling ordinary citizens to become the famed “willing executioners” of Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book.
Historians have long debated whether the Holocaust was the result of millions of acts of ordinary evil or the work of a determined and sadistic minority. Pincus’ raw musings don’t add much to this discussion. Nor does his one chapter on Hitler add much to the thousands upon thousands of pages on the topic. Yet he extrapolates still further, postulating that many people involved in hate groups and terrorist organizations have similar backgrounds. “The unrestrained approval of violence in certain political parties and gangs may make such groups attractive to the abused,” he argues. “Although we have very little information about the family dynamics of the members of terrorist organizations, I believe that the history of physical and sexual abuse, and even mental illness, paranoia, and brain damage, is prevalent among them.”
This reasoning makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. Studying violent anti-abortionists, Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, and the like reveals certain common characteristics: anger, righteous indignation, ideological rigidity, and—at least in the case of the Unabomber—mental illness. But whether Pincus’ theory applies to such examples remains to be seen.
At the very least, Pincus’ observation about the nexus of childhood abuse, brain damage, and mental illness among a significant proportion of violent offenders seems worth further examination. It also injects a greater sense of urgency into efforts to prevent child abuse and improve access to mental-health treatment. Pincus’ book suggests that when we fail to invest in these areas we may be paying a bloody price. CP