Monday, September 17, 2007

Helen Morrison, "My Life Among the Seral Killers" (2004)

Given my propensity to enjoy reading true crime, I thought a book like Helen Morrison's My Life Among the Serial Killers would be fascinating. After all, I thought reading a forensic psychiatrist's thoughts about these most heinous of criminals would (at the very least) be intellectually stimulating. I certainly didn't expect to laugh out loud at flawed logic and skewed perspectives. But within the first 30 pages, that's exactly what I was doing.

Right off the bat I discovered that the author was extremely defensive about being a woman in a male-dominated field (and an attractive one at that, if the narrator is at all reliable). In the interactions she had with men, it was immediately evident from her descriptions that she had preconceived notions that would affect her ability to operate objectively. She seemed to even look down on law enforcement, with stereotypes of the class of people that concern themselves with it, and a less-than-subtle condescension toward those who don't have the luxury of doing "pure research". Her attitude made me quickly doubt the quality of her judgment. As I continued reading I began to dog-ear the pages where the most dubious assertions occurred. It wasn't long before I resolved to post here about what I had found.

I decided that the best format for my consideration of the book would be a point-by-point rebuttal, including quotes. Bear in mind that I don't view myself as an expert on criminal pathology, and my objections to the author's thinking process are generalized in nature. What I know about killers, I've learned by reading books- unlike Morrison, who has met and interviewed them in great depth. Yet (as a self-defined expert and frequent court defense witness) I would have predicted that her theories and contentions on the subject would be more logical than they appear to be. Notice that I confine myself to an evaluation of her own words alone, and that I haven't even sought other sources that may contradict her accounts.

1. Morrison puts great stock in hypnotherapy- a method of recovering memory. This is a technique that has been (at the very least) controversial, and generally discredited in the scientific community.

2. (p.24) "(...) no serial murderers are addicted to drugs, drink, or even smoking."

Morrison is prone to making blanket statements about serial killers, based upon her interactions with several of them. Nowhere does she explain her odd belief that they are without substance addiction. But no reputable scientist would frame an absolute in this manner.

3. Morrison claims that a subject that she hypnotized (Richard Macek) manifested spontaneous blisters on his hands during a session where he was meant to recall a previous experience of being burnt. Later when she explains why she had no documentation of the event, she contends that the institution guards would not let her bring such equipment into the mental hospital where Macek was incarcerated. Perhaps we should simply let her own evaluation of the event stand- "I was frightened at what seemed to be an almost supernatural event." (p.28)

4. When the same Macek lapsed into addressing Morrison as his wife in a letter, she completely omits any mention of doctor-patient transference. This is a fairly common concept in psychological therapy, and for all of Morrison's validation of Freudian theory- you'd think she would have caught this. Yet she writes, "We didn't look or act alike. How could he have mixed up the two of us?" (p.43) She concludes that "Richard had just forgotten to whom he was writing."(p.44)

5. "What happens with many normal people is that they lose inhibitions when under the influence [of alcohol], but this doesn't occur with the serial murderer, and it can't be seen as a trigger." (p.55)

So... Morrison is saying that, although serial killers are never alcohol addicts, they don't lose their inhibitions when they drink. Maybe she is suggesting that they have no inhibitions. Or maybe she is claiming that serial killers are immune to the effect of alcohol. Either way, the claims are ludicrous. Ted Bundy himself claimed that he needed to drink alcohol in order to prepare himself to commit crimes. His loved ones confirmed that his manner often changed under the influence of alcohol.

6. Morrison tells us the story of Albert Fish, a child-killer form the 1920's who ate his victims. She says that when he was arrested it was discovered that he had inserted needles between his scrotum and rectum. This would widely be considered deviant behavior. Yet our good "doctor" asserts confidently that the practice "had no greater psychological meaning." (p. 65) This claim is meant to support her theory that "serial killers like to experiment simply for the sake of experimentation." (p.65) Of course even if this were true, it would be useless due to the fact that it can neither be proven nor refuted by data.

7. "First, the serial murderer is never as organized as a psychopath in his methodology. A Psychopaths can plot and carry out complex schemes. Secondly, psychopaths have a structured personality that doctors can pinpoint, utilize and work with. That structured personality is like most everyone else's, with an ego, an id, and a superego. The psychopath has problems with the superego, where guilt and conscience reside; he has no conscience, and he's not scattered the way a serial killer is." (p.71)

There are so many problems with this excerpt that it's difficult to find a starting point for criticism. The outdated and simplistic Freudian psychology should be noted right of the bat. Later in the book, Morrison entertains us with the notion that she tries to avoid "pop psychology". Maybe she has problems with definitions and/or classification. But even if we grant her that confusion, we can't let her get away with the other nonsense here.

It is generally accepted that most serial killers fit the description of "psychopath". Morrison even uses the conventional definition for the term. Few feel remorse for what they have done. In fact, they might even be considered the archetypes of the classification. Not every psychopath is a serial killer, and it can be argued that the reverse is true as well. But Morrison frames her argument as if they are mutually exclusive descriptions. This is simply untrue, and a dangerously irresponsible claim.

Furthermore, there are both organized and disorganized serial killers. Some have undeniably "plotted and carried out complex schemes". It's ironic that the quotes above come from a section about John Wayne Gacy- a man notorious for his plotting and execution. Perhaps Morrison tries to get away with these claims here because she was hired to work on Gacy's defense team. In her capacity as defense witness, she was supposed to provide evidence for Gacy's insanity. Needless to say she was unsuccessful.

Much more to come in Part Two...

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