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A R T S    &    C U L T U R E
The Human Face 
a Furnace Seal'd
Eve Tushnet • A new book from the FBI’s premier serial crime profiler • 1999

The mind is its own place, and can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n 
—Paradise Lost 

Few men have stood alone in a maximum-security prison, facing a serial killer who wants to discuss whether or not he could kill you too. John Douglas did this—and convinced the man that it would not be worth it to kill him. Douglas was conducting an interview for the FBI’s new project, begun in 1978, when Douglas and Robert Ressler decided to find out what convicted and imprisoned serial killers had to say about their crimes and personalities. The information collected in these interviews helped the two men develop the practice known as “behavioral profiling,” which has since been used to solve murders and rapes in the United States, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa, among other countries. 

Douglas has been able to review the crime scene evidence—place, time, victim’s occupation, positioning of the body, mutilation or sexual contact, and much more—and predict what color car the killer will drive (VW Bugs were once the serial killer’s car of choice), whether he will pass a lie detector test, and whether he will have a speech impediment. Douglas was the model for Special Agent Jack Crawford in Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs

Behavioral profiling spent a long period in which it was considered akin to reading the entrails of chickens, but it is now becoming acceptable for use in court testimony. It rests on the theory that killers (and rapists) express characteristics about themselves through the physical aspects of their crimes. This expressive aspect of the crime is the killer’s “signature,” as distinct from his “modus operandi.” The signature—whether it is posing his victims, speaking cruelly to them, entreating them, or anything else—is the behavior he cannot change. It is the reason he commits the crime. 

Thus a “blitz-style” attack may, under certain conditions, signal that the killer is not confident that he can approach a woman openly, and other evidence may point to reasons for his belief; it was in a blitz-style attack case that Douglas predicted, correctly, that “the killer will have a speech impediment.” 

Criminals can and do change their m.o. A criminal who follows news reports of his crimes (as many do) may stop leaving bodies in woods and begin leaving them in rivers, to wash away evidence. He may start using a van as a mobile murder site. He may stop tying up his victims, if that act was primarily strategic rather than sadistic. Over and over again, Douglas stresses that criminals choose how they express their desires to kill. Some criminals, like David Berkowitz (the “Son of Sam”), go out looking for someone to kill but, because they do not find someone who fits their very specific victim profile, they choose not to kill anyone that night. Others, like Ed Kemper and William Heirens, make attempted to be caught and stopped or brought to justice by police. (Heirens, after killing two women and a six-year-old girl, scrawled on a wall in his victim’s lipstick, “For heAVens SAke cAtch Me BeFore I Kill More I cannot control myself.”) Although Douglas has seen many cases where killers successfully manipulate prison psychiatrists, juries, and others who attempt to evaluate them, he does not believe that Kemper and Heirens were being manipulative or dishonest—they truly desired to be caught. It is not true that such murders and rapes are like a tornado, uncontrollable. 

Nor are they traceable to any one cause, other than the will of the criminal. In an earlier book, Mindhunter, Douglas discusses an attempt to trace killer Richard Speck’s crimes to the XYY gene combination; yet after the connection was announced, tests revealed that Speck did not even have this combination. 

Similarly, attempts to describe the environment that produces serial sexual criminals have proved inconclusive. As Douglas, Ressler, and Ann Burgess demonstrate in their Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, although such killers are more likely to have been psychologically abused, and to have a “negative relationship with [their] male caretakers,” every other family combination has also produced killers, and the likelihood is anything but overwhelming. 

Many theorists have tried to link sadistic crimes to culture. On one level this is true. Lonnie Athens’s Violent Criminal Acts and Actors Revisited proposes that many rapists and other violent criminals form groups in which their pro-rape, pro-violence attitudes are supported and their actions justified. However, people choose to enter these groups, and many of them choose to leave the groups as they grow older. Athens’s interviews with violent criminals who were never imprisoned by grew less violent on their own prove that men who have raped or killed can extricate themselves from violent groups. Moreover, these groups are only subcultures, opposed by the larger society. Culture is not monolithic. 

Even more importantly, the killers and rapists in Douglas’s books had no violent companions. A few worked in pairs, with another man or with an accomplice wife or girlfriend, but the overwhelming majority committed their crimes in isolation. They received no reinforcement for these crimes from anyone but themselves. 

This reinforcement starts at what is, to some, a startlingly early age. As Sexual Homicide documents, violent sexual fantasies can start as early as three years old. Children can display the “homicidal triad”—fire-starting, animal torture, and late bedwetting—well before they hit puberty. In Sexual Homicide, the authors depict men who from their youths retreated into fantasy worlds, intensely strong visions of violence and sexual coercion. Nothing is, as yet, known about whether all children who have such strong and sadistic fantasies ultimately become criminals. 

We do know that these fantasies develop into elaborate scenes without any help from pornography. Although many sexual killers and rapists use an enormous amount of porn, they seek out the porn after their fantasies are already well-developed. The porn is another source of specific violent fantasies; without it, the killer will construct his own fantasies (and some killers have recorded their crimes, making porn more specific to their desires). In the hearings on the Minneapolis anti-pornography ordinance, supported by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon among others, women supporting the ordinance told horrifying tales of rapes, beatings, humiliation, even forced drug use, and all recounted, “He wanted me to do what he had seen the girls in the magazines do.” The anti-ordinance side countered with owners of feminist bookstores and women’s studies professors, worrying that they would be censored. Their pleas seemed shallow and callous in the face of the previous testimony. They did not respond to Dworkin’s and MacKinnon’s view that pornography causes violence. John Douglas does respond to that view. 

What pornography provides is a place where these men can see other humans treated as objects, as extensions of their selves or tools for their own gratification. This is the line separating pornography from any other use of words or images. Porn is predictable, and the men and women who populate it have no inner life. This is why porn is so specific—each desire has its own subset of magazines and videos, so that every customer knows exactly what he (or she) is getting. 

In pornography, and in the minds of killers (although the two are by no means equivalent), emotions collapse in on the self. The desire to be loved, or to express love or anger, becomes totally detached from the actual other people with whom these men and women interact. To that degree, we are on a continuum with the killers. This is not an original insight; in fact, Douglas emphasizes that the art of behavioral profiling only succeeds when practiced by men who have consciously developed and controlled their abilities to think like both victim and killer. To understand sexual murderers, Douglas had to use his ability to view others as the killer would view them. 

Our own, uncontrolled tendencies to view other people as objects do not mean that we will ever go out and kill; we do, however, act wrongly, act evilly, because we want others to be predictable and to be at our disposal. C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed that after his wife died, he began to replace his memories of her with fantasies of what she would have done or said. In these fantasies he had total control; he could make her completely predictable. At that point he realized he was no longer loving his wife, but attempting to possess her, for what he had originally loved in her was her difference from himself. 

It is this kind of “relationship” of love as the desire to possess and control the other person, in its most extreme form, to which serial killer Edmund Kemper referred when he said, “Alive, they were distant, not sharing with me.... I was trying to establish a relationship. While they were being killed, there wasn’t anything going on in my mind except that they were going to be mine.” Almost all of us have seen ugly streaks of this desire in our own natures; John Douglas has managed to transform our familiarity with evil thoughts into an ability to prevent evil deeds. His books let us see into furnaces of the heart. 

Eve Tushnet, Editor-in-Chief


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