Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Kelleher and Van Nuys: "This is the Zodiac Speaking"

Having had a taste of serial killer literature (with the Ted Bundy death row interviews), I decided I'd continue a bit with the theme. On my shelf was a book by Michael Kelleher and David Van Nuys called "This is the Zodiac Speaking". I'd always had an interest in learning more about this elusive killer. He took five lives and wounded two others in the San Francisco Bay area in 1969 and 1970. He focused on rapidly-executed attacks on young couples in isolated areas. His style had a paramilitary cast, and his victims were not sexually assulted.

Despite the fact that he enagaed in a correspondance with area newspapers, the Zodiac was never caught. But his series of letters- including threats, cyphers, diagrams, explicit details of the crimes, and a healthy dose of adolescent braggadocio, alarmed the public and stumped investigators. The Zodiac continued to taunt police investigators through these letters. Over a period of several years, he claimed to have killed up to 37 people, but there are a lot of experts (including the authors of this book) who seem to believe he stopped his murderous campaign after the 1970 murder of a Yellow cabdriver.

The Kelleher and Van Nuys book (written in 1997) claims to have a bold new interpretation of the events and writings of the Zodiac. Kelleher and Van Nuys examine the letters written to the San Francisco chronicle (and other papers) line-by-line, and make speculations about the man behind the legend. David Van Nuys is the chair of the Psychology Department at Sonoma State University, and in this capacity was asked to look at the letters, without contextual information or identification, and create a profile of their author.

For the beginning portion of the book, Van Nuys doesn't even know that he is reading the words of the Zodiac. His insights therefore are almost laughably general. As he builds a base of speculation, he begins to form a case that the Zodiac suffered from Dissociative Identity Disorder. The lay reader recognizes this DSM IV diagnosis under the term "split-personality". Understandably, Van Nuys expresses a hesitancy to make such a diagnosis. He had never made a similar one in over twenty years of professional practice. There is quite a lot of controversy about the legitimacy and existence of this particular disorder. Van Nuys claims that he realizes the risk his conclusion poses to his reputation.

I understand Van Nuys' hesitancy. I believe he was correct in his initial impulse to withhold that type of judgement. After all, the evidence is limited... There are the firsthand observations of the Zodiac's surviving victims... Add to that the momentary impressions left on a pair of cops who encountered him in their response to one of his crimes (not realizing until later that he was the man they sought)... And then there are the letters. Other than those letters, there is little in the record to suggest Dissociative Identity Disorder.

For ample reason, there is uncertainty over which of those letters were actually written by the Zodiac. Some of them display multiple spelling and grammatical errors. Others read like routine letters-to-the-editor, with complaints about contemporary film or columnists. Sure these disparities could be the result of some sort of dissociative disorder... but the simpler answer is that they were written by different people. The only proofs given to support the authors' claims of legitimacy are the testimony of a single handwriting analysis "expert" and the beliefs of various criminal investigators. In my mind, the authors fail to substantiate their case. And they repeat themselves... a lot. Many of their claims are baldly stated with the insinuation that they must be taken at their word, yet in a case with as many unanswered questions as this one, that type of uncritical reaction would be folly.

Given that I was largely ignorant of the Zodiac case, I did benefit from the outlines of the events provided. All the correspondance with the public is in there. The details of the crimes are presented. I just felt that the authors were assuming way to many indulgences in forming their conclusions. There were multiple times when their confidence seemed to approach the level of hubris. And yet many of their contentions were not very convincing. Many of their judgements about possible scenarios seemed to be simply arbitrary. Ultimately, I don't understand what they have added to the general understanding of the Zodiac phenomena- and as a summary of pre-existing research, it was merely adequate.

If you want to find out more about the Zodiac killer, this webpage is an excellent resource.


Blogger John Morris said...

Where was Sadam, during this time period? As the dictator of Iraq, since I think 1968; Sadam likely had enough time to be doing this too.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Hmm... if this were true, I'd have to reconsider my steadfast opposition to the war. Perhaps Dubya WAS justified?!

6:05 PM  
Blogger John Morris said...

I double checked my facts. Sadam only came into power in 1978 or so. So, like where was he??? The evidence is likely in Iran somewhere.

9:14 PM  

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