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Fluid fictions
Written by Editor   
Tuesday, 07 March 2006 11:58

In her book, "Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with vampires in America today," Katherine Ramsland describes her encounter with a minister who preaches by day and engages in vampiric activities by night. The man notes, "I think of the vampire as I think of gay males. A fluid fiction." and then proceeds to explain, "the works of Oscar Wilde, whose Portrait of Dorian Gray exposed and flaunted the gay charade." Says the author, "The Irish writer spent his days like Dorian: meandering among the idle rich, while his nights were spent in depravity. Wilde was eventually arrested and it soon became impossible for England to deny that buggery was a regular behavior in the salons of the stylish nobility. In short, Dorian Gray was a novel about widespread social self-deception." (Ramsland, 1998, p 61)


Although Dr. Ramslands book falls just short of capturing the essence of contemporary subcultures that have arisen around the mythical vampire, the aforementioned passage stood out for me. For it embodies the striking difference between reality and that which we think we know and/or are willing to admit. The most compelling evidence for this sometimes glaring disparity can be found within the realm of criminal profiling.

From the beginning of time, society has attempted to dissect the human psyche. Biological theories regularly trade places with social and spiritual theories in a seemingly endless volley of nature v. nurture as we attempt to determine the answer to the age old question: What makes us tick? This is especially so when it comes to inexplicably gruesome and sadistic crimes. With the publishing of Thomas Harris book," Silence of the Lambs" in 1989 and the subsequent movie by the same name in 1991, the public at large was introduced to the concept of criminal profiling--that narrow field within forensic psychology where the best and brightest at Quanticos Behavioral Sciences Unit attempt to divine the criminal mind in a race against time.

With the piqued public interest, the internet became the door through which sleuths, hobbyist and professionals alike, could walk as they explored the information super highway in their attempt to connect the dots. Some relied upon publications such as the " Crime Classification Manual" (Douglas, et al, 1997)--an attempted scientific codification of violent crime--to engage in swags, while others offered woefully simplistic "25-30 year old white male, hates women, mommas boy, childhood abuse survivor, kitten killer, bed wetter, fire-starter" cookie-cutter profiles ad nauseam. When or if the perp is caught and depending upon their ethnicity, age, physical appearance, social status, and whether they have criminal and/or psychiatric histories, some, many, or even all, will scratch their heads and proclaim, "serial killers sure have changed!"

Well, no. It is not the serial killer who has changed, rather our understanding (or lack thereof) that has and continues to change. For example, consider the term, " serial killer." To some degree it has become analogous to the concept of multiple victims, multiple crime scenes, with a "cooling off" period--the latter which is specious at best and just plain myth at worst. Furthermore, while there has been an attempt to further refine the definition of serial murder--sexual homicide and sadistic murder, to be precise--as well as operationalize the term " serial killer" in the CCM (Douglas, et al, 1997, p 123-136, p 136-144, p 264-267, respectively), validity and reliability appear to be ignored when it comes to identifying motive. Put another way, the CCM case studies, while interesting and informative in context of those cases, do not valid and reliable data make, and are therefore not generalizable. And finally, while some claim serial killer prevalence is quite rare others claim it is quite high, thereby demonstrating an agreement has yet to be reached regarding what constitutes "serial murder." For this reason alone, criminal profiling, as it relates to "serial killers" will remain in the realm of art, and some might even argue, junk science.

Whatever the case, the "serial killer" concept is a two-edged sword that appears to carry with it an interesting social relevance. For while it evokes fear among the public at large, a captured serial killer can bring relief in the form of providing closure for victims loved ones as well as resolving previously unsolved cases. There is also the seemingly little thought of consideration--one person killing multiple people v. multiple people killing multiple people. In other words, by its very nature, a single individual is limited to the amount of harm they can exact, by physics alone. Even if their strikes are devastatingly gruesome they can only kill so many people at any given time. Put another way, which idea sits better with you? A single sexual sadist preying upon multiple people, whom, when caught, removes that danger from our streets? Or several sexual sadists, each preying upon a different individual, leaving us in a perpetual state of emergency? Are you getting the drift?

Terminology and such aside, I would argue we are no closer to understanding the underlying motives of a serial killer (or even a sadistic killer for that matter) than we were a century ago. While we may be able to identify potential predictors, such as studies that suggest 30-40% of those diagnosed with conduct disorder as juveniles--onset as early as one to three years old--will meet the criteria for antisocial personality disorder as adults (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2004, p 444), causation remains ever elusive--the cycle of abuse myth (GAO report, 1996) notwithstanding. Especially in light the research of Robert Hare, PhD, author of the book, " Without Conscience" (1993) and developer of the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) and Psychopathy Checklist: Youth Version (PCL:YV), which suggests a possible genetic component.

If preliminary research is to be believed, then questions such as "Good or bad parents? Rich or poor? Black or white?" arguably do not matter. This is the nature v. nurture debate in its purest form. Though I would proffer other personality traits as well as familial and social interactions could tip the scales in either direction for those genetically predisposed to psychopathy. Nonetheless, criminal profiling is only as good as that which we know. And we know very little when it comes to the human psyche. It is therefore no surprise (at least to me) that our supposed successful profiling cases are nothing more than retrospective post hoc ergo propter hoc musings, than they are concrete--that which actually helped to "solve the case"--our protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Now, dont get me wrong. I am as guilty as the next--as can be seen in my last post--when it comes to profiling perps... divining their motives. Needless to say, it is certainly intellectually challenging to apply both experiential knowledge and research in an attempt to solve cases such as these. Furthermore, the old idiom, the more eyes applied to a problem, the better chance of finding a solution, comes to mind. Nonetheless, at the risk of driving a perhaps overused metaphor into the ground, I would argue that we need to think outside the box if we are to make headway where criminal profiling is concerned. To this end I would suggest we lose the fallacious assumption that we can recognize a killer by looking at them. Contrary to popular belief peoples physical features reveal little, if anything of what lies beneath. The repeated "he was such a normal guy" is a pretty strong indicator that these people are not going to be walking around advertising their taste for sadistic murder. And no. 20/20 hindsight does not count. Once seen, the subjective bias is nearly impossible to extricate from allegedly objective post mortem clues.

The cooling off bit is another rather unfortunate assumption that people have come to believe. And what exactly is the ubiquitous cooling off period anyway? It is a term coined by John Douglas to describe that period between murders wherein the killer supposedly experiences an emotional decline (or "cooling off") from the alleged emotional high of having tortured and killed someone. Furthermore, with this theory comes the view that this period will decrease over time as the need to satiate the killers taste for murder grows. The source of this assumption seems apparent (at least to me). That is, it parallels the theory of substance addiction--as an individual acclimates to their drug of choice, increased amounts of that drug are required to achieve the same "high." While this may very well be accurate for substances, I do question the seeming overgeneralization. Especially in light of the underlying assumption as it applies to serial murder: the time between murders will decrease with each kill, eventually reaching critical mass, at which point the killer will spin totally and completely out of control, screw up, thereby allowing us catch them. Dennis Rader (aka BTK) as well as numerous unsolved serial murder cases, nationwide, seem to controvert this idea.

Another assumption we need to rethink, is that serial (or sadistic killers) are going to be young white sexually frustrated and angry men who were sexually abused and tortured small animals and set fires when they were children. Banduras learning through modeling is only relevant to a certain developmental age and within certain constraints. Rape or molested child turned violent predator isnt one of them. As for gender, headlines certainly indicate that women can engage in abominations. One need only read about the mother who cut off her infants arms or those women who drown their children to see just how wrong this idea is. And who can forget Karla Homolka? We also know that "children" can engage in appallingly ugly behavior as can those in their golden years. As to motivators, anger and sexual frustration are not the only motivators when it comes to sadistic crimes. I would argue that the allure of power, perceived or otherwise, can be a compelling motivator to some. And lest we forget, there is the killer instinct, that innate predatory nature which helped us to reach the top of the food chain in the first place.

Regardless, crime scene analysis can only tell us so much where behavior and motives are concerned. The organized v. disorganized, for example, can be useful in determining everything from single perp to multiple perps to crime of convenience v. planned to the perps level of experience. The latter, which in and of itself can lend clues with regard to the perps age. Staging can reveal possible clues that include, but are not limited to, predilections, an intended message, an attempt to cover up the original motive, or even as a means of removing those elements that could tie multiple crimes together. Victimology, such as age, ethnicity, and gender of the victim is a necessary component as well. Again, these elements, while useful, should be judiciously considered rather than tenaciously believed.

In the final analysis, criminal profiling is about applying patterns we understand to that which we do not understand in an attempt E17to rule out the obvious with the hope of revealing the obscure.


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