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Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility by Francesca Biagi-Chai is mainly devoted to the case study of Henri-Désiré Landru who was found guilty of having killed several individuals, mostly women, and consequently sentenced to death by guillotine. Some readers may be tempted to consider the case of this serial killer as so archaic to be immaterial nowadays since the events surrounding the case occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet recent memories of massacres such as those at Columbine (Colorado), Malmo (Sweden), Aurora (Colorado), and Oak Creek (Wisconsin), not only make the Landru case timeless, but also highlight the urgency of understanding actions that are unconstrained by basic ethical and moral considerations. Comprehending the motives and trigger mechanisms behind gruesome and ostensibly senseless actions is not a mere intellectual exercise, but an attempt to enhance a society's ability to predict such actions and hopefully thwart their re-occurrence.
A window into the mind of an individual admittedly responsible for the loss of several lives is not an uncomplicated and comfortable enterprise. Although one's attention may be captured by the 'rationale' unique to a serial killer, the real conundrum is understanding the key determinants of 'evil behavior' that may apply to more than only one serial killer. Are evil actions performed by intrinsically evil individuals or by individuals whose social environment sustained, if not promoted, such actions? Research by well-known scientists, such as Milgram (1963; 1974) and Zimbardo (1973; 1998; 2009), suggests that good people can do evil things if circumstances dictate. Yet individuals who are exposed to violent models and trying circumstances do not always adopt a path of wickedness, leaving room for arguments supporting the role of nature over nurture. To address this conundrum, personality traits, which, to a large extent, tend to be inherited, may be conceptualized as predispositions to think, feel and act in a specified manner. Within this conceptualization, traits' behavioral expression depends on the situation (see Mischel, 1968; 1984; 2010). Thus, if 'evilness' is a personality trait, then such a trait may not predict in every situation the behavior of the person possessing it (e.g., the individual may be kind to his/her neighbors). Across many different situations, however, a behavioral pattern is expected to emerge that reflects 'evilness'. Regretfully, an assumption that the expression of a personality trait is linked to 'a situation' does not make prevention of horrifying acts substantially easier. In real life, a trait is not as perceptually distinctive as a billboard sign on a highway, and trigger mechanisms of horrifying acts are generally known or understood only post-facto. Consequently, prediction and prevention remain a puzzle that is yet to be tackled by applied research and social policy.
Surprisingly, the narrative of Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility avoids dwelling on the relative responsibility of nature and nurture in accounting for 'evilness'. On the contrary, the narrative seems to place the spotlight on the uneasy relationship between the legal concept of 'insanity' and the psychological concept of 'madness', detailing objective events that have punctuated the life of Landru and using these events to conjecture thoughts and emotions that might have accompanied them. The author tries to capture Landru's self-serving narrative where victims emerge as mere marionettes in a ghastly play, and where the puppeteer appears to be so determined to demonstrate his purported 'greatness' that he remains undeterred by the failure of all his 'inventions'. Although the author's writing seems to capture the mental life of Landru's ostensibly ordinary existence quite literally, her selection of events is not uniform. Her narrative is theory-driven as much as the purported depiction of Landru's mental life, which is not only colored, but literally shaped by psychoanalytic probes.
Yet two components of the author's writing appear to exist. The sections of text where details and events of Landru's ordinary life are intermixed with his gruesome actions bring to the forefront the concrete existence of this individual so shockingly that astonishment becomes an understated description of the reader's reaction. These sections demonstrate the author's narrative skills. Regretfully, when the overriding theoretical approach takes control and re-arranges such an attention-grabbing narrative into an expected path of deductive reasoning, the reader's primordial horror towards Landru's actions is likely to be substituted by horror filtered through reasoning. Irrespective of whether the goal of examining both the ordinary and gruesome details of the life of a serial killer is crime prevention, examination of the legal concept of 'insanity', or a way to satisfy one's need to make sense of horror, the reader is entitled to develop, as much as is feasible, an unfettered view of the case. In Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility, the reader is not given such a chance, rendering the narrative at times utterly predictable. For instance, during the entire duration of Landru's legal ordeal, the 'puppeteer' claimed innocence and remained defiant even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Albeit his denial of evidence could be a simple attempt at 'impression management', his proclaimed innocence fits the psychoanalytic view of personality in which forces of the unconscious mind govern existence without conscious knowledge. As such, his claim reinforces the deductive approach used by the author, and by doing so, it illustrates how a psychoanalytic filter of the case can deprive a potentially valuable narrative of any novel insight into the mind of serial killers. Obviously, most of the human mind consists of unconscious (i.e., outside awareness) processing, as cleverly demonstrated by Bargh's research (2008), but not of the type implied by the psychoanalytic model.
If more than one theoretical approach and its investigative tools had been used to attempt an explanation of Landru's case and of the other cases briefly overviewed by the author, and scientific findings regarding abnormal brain functioning had been discussed (Raine, 2008), Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility could have been a useful intellectual exercise at understanding horrifying actions perpetrated by a purported 'fellow human being'. As such, the narrative would have uncovered the strengths and the weaknesses that diverse theoretical models exhibit when attempting to explain the actions, past experiences, thoughts and beliefs of a serial killer. The narrative could even have explored the useful art of profiling (i.e., identifying behavioral patterns that have predictive validity) and explored the difficulties inherent to crime prevention. Instead, the narrative attempted to tackle the notorious inadequacies of the concept of insanity through the eyes of a single theoretical model whose scientific validity is questionable. Thus, Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility remains an interesting intellectual exercise at deductive reasoning, where evidence seems to fit a theoretical tapestry that has faded with the advances of psychological science.
© 2012 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York