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My Life Among the Serial Killers
is a fascinating look at some of the world's most notorious serial
killers. Forensic psychiatrist Helen
Morrison has interviewed these murderers for hundreds of hours in an attempt to
understand them better, and she describes her impressions of Richard Otto
Macek, John Wayne Gacy, Wayne Williams, Bobby Joe Long, and several others. The details of these meetings and
generalizations she makes from them are by far the most interesting part of the
book. She explains that serial killers
rarely murder members of their own families, and often have bizarre inabilities
to tell whether a person is alive or dead.
They are often of above intelligence and are not retarded. Yet Morrison relates many cases in which
these killers they are caught due to bizarre lapses in their rationality,
sometimes letting victims go or escape for no apparent reason. She points out that while they often have
troubled childhoods, there is nothing very distinctive in their past experience
that would predict that they would go on to become serial killers.
Morrison describes many of the
murders and even rapes in vivid detail for both adult and child victims. This may be disturbing for some readers, yet
it is clear that as a scientist, she needs to understand such details in order
to understand the motivations of the killers.
Given the details we are already familiar with from Hollywood movies and
forensic TV crime shows, most readers will probably not be too shocked. Morrison herself reads the audiobook, and
she is a surprisingly good narrator.
She reads her own words with conviction and energy.
The book is rather less interesting
when Morrison describes her own career, her decision to refrain from telling
her children what her job entails, and even the failures of the police in their
attempts to solve crimes. These parts
of the book do give some background to the story, but they don't add to our
understanding of the murderers.
The most problematic part of this
book is in Morrison's theorizing about serial killing. Even though she has published four academic
books and more than 125 academic articles, you would never guess it from her
half-baked speculation and her vague use of language. One of the first warning signs is her surprising use of
psychoanalytic theory to discuss Richard Macek. She trots out the theory of the different psychosexual phases of
infancy, oral and anal, and speculates that he was stuck at one of those
phases. Of course, most academic
psychologists have long ago abandoned these parts of Freudian theory. Similar remarks apply to her use later in
the book of the concept of "personality structure," which is rooted
in psychoanalytic theory. But Morrison
is not an old fashioned psychoanalytic theorist; rather she seems to embrace
many different theoretical paradigms simultaneously.
Maybe her most bizarre suggestion,
put forward as an incredible realization that came to her in a "eureka
moment," is that serial killing is a form of addiction. The idea is problematic not so much because
Morrison lacks any evidence for her hypothesis, but rather because it is hard
to know even what the claim might mean.
It is not as if psychology has provided an uncontroversial general
theory of the nature of addiction and so to describe anything as an addiction
seems more metaphorical than literal.
This is why it is so hard to evaluate other addiction claims about gambling,
shopping, sex, love, or the Internet.
She does not even provide any evidence that serial murders feel strong
cravings to kill, or feel withdrawal symptoms when they have not killed for
some time. Most addictions involve
addictions performed repetitively hundreds or thousands of times, and it is
hard to make sense of the claim that one could be addicted to an action that
one performs less than ten times in most cases of serial killing, and generally
less than fifty times even in the cases of the most prolific cases.
At the end of the book, Morrison
waxes eloquently about the future study of serial killers, and she expresses
her belief that genetics and brain science will provide the ultimate key to
serial killers. She believes that one
day we will be able to predict which people will be prone to serial killing and
we will have to face difficult ethical questions about when to make such
predictions and what to do with the information. She does not explain exactly why she has such confidence in these
fashionable parts of psychiatric science, and her belief seems to be based on
faith rather than evidence. This is
based on a fundamental assumption that serial killers form a natural kind, a
genetic anomaly. This assumption seems
highly dubious. It seems much more
likely that serial killers have a variety of different mental disorders,
involving aggression, disturbed personality, inability to appreciate the value
of human life, sexual perversion, psychosis, paranoia, and compulsion, among
other traits. Despite Morrison's
theorizing, her descriptions of the serial killers she has met display a
striking diversity in their character types and their methods of
At various points, Morrison says
that serial killers are not human because they lack some of the fundamental
attributes that make us human. She does
not quite spell out what those attributes are, or indeed, what she means, and
so readers are left to speculate. She
does say that serial killers are not psychologically complete, but this does
not clarify her meaning. Who of us is
complete? We can't take her claim about
the lack of humanity of serial killers in a scientific sense, because obviously
serial killers are biologically human.
My guess is that by "human" Morrison seems to mean something
like "capable of moral understanding." But if this is her claim, it is implausible, since the cases she
describes show that serial killers entertain all sorts of beliefs about
morality and are even capable of kindness and warmth in some parts of their
lives. Morrison also argues that serial
killers are legally insane, and thus should not receive the death penalty. However, from her descriptions of various
murders, there is little indication that they were suffering from psychotic
delusions. While they may not have a
solid understanding of right and wrong, they do often have a good understanding
that murder is illegal and needs to be kept secret if one is to get away with
Acting as an expert witness in one
trial, Morrison testified that she did not think that a serial killer would be
able to refrain from carrying on a murder even if a policeman was present. This is a bizarre claim however since even
heroin addicts can refrain from shooting up if a law-enforcement officer is
watching. When she says that serial
killers are not psychopaths because psychopaths have self-control while serial
killers do not, she is probably wrong on both counts. It is well documented that many psychopaths, also known as people
with antisocial personality disorder, have very poor impulse control, and
indeed can act aggressively if given very mild provocation even if this is
likely to get them into immediate trouble.
It is worth remembering that most personality disorders, and certainly
antisocial personality disorder, are not well understood, and people with these
disorders form a very heterogeneous group.
The blanket statement that serial killers are never psychopaths is bound
to be false.
It is disappointing that there are
such obvious flaws in the theories of an eminent expert in the field of
psychiatry. Nevertheless, My Life
Among the Serial Killers is an interesting and provocative read full of
powerful characterizations of the men she interviewed.
© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of
the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at
Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online
Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine,
psychiatry and psychology.