“The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.”

Pascal, Pensées

“I’m in charge of entertainment.”

Ted Bundy

It was shortly after the New Year of 1976, in the affluent Detroit suburbs of Oakland County—Birmingham, Royal Oak, Franklin Village, Berkley—that the nude, violated corpses of abducted boys and girls began to be found, like nightmare artworks, by roadsides or in parking lots or snowy fields. The children, objects of intensive local searches, had been taken in daylight close by their homes or schools; they ranged in ages from ten to sixteen. By March 23, despite highly publicized police vigilance, there were to be at least seven victims. Most of the children had been sexually assaulted and then killed, by diverse means—shooting (handgun, shotgun), strangulation, suffocation, carbon monoxide poisoning, bludgeoning. What linked the murders and gave to them their particular signature was their mock-ritualistic nature; the killer had taken time to meticulously wash and scrub several of the children, either before or after their deaths; their bodies had been laid out for public discovery in funeral positions; in several cases, their freshly laundered clothes had been neatly folded and placed nearby. Because the murderer’s scrupulosity suggested a cruel parody of solicitude, local media baptized him “The Babysitter.”

To live in a narrowly bounded area in which a “serial killer” is operating, with seeming impunity, is an experience virtually impossible to explain, or to forget. If there is any personal connection with the victims, it alters permanently one’s sense of the world. In 1976, though the “hippie” Manson family had been execrated in the press, the very term “serial killer” was relatively unknown: yet to burst upon America’s consciousness, though already in rehearsal, were “Son of Sam” (first murder, July 1976), Ted Bundy (first national notoriety, late 1970s), Henry Lee Lucas (first national notoriety, early 1980s), “The Green River Killer” (first known killing, 1982). I was not acquainted with the families of any of the murdered children, but among my Birmingham, Michigan, friends were several who were and I remember the atmosphere of those days, and weeks: the talk, the emotion, the visceral dread; the horror and astonishment that such acts should happen there, in a suburban world so attractive, so affluent, so exclusive, so “policed.” Detroit, its inner core still bearing the war-zone look of the race-motivated riot of 1967, was the region of “senseless” violence, not its white suburbs.

I remember, en route to a luncheon at a friend’s house, driving out of my way into an adjoining residential neighborhood to pass the home of one of the murdered children—how typical the street of handsome, primarily colonial houses, how typical the house where tragedy had struck, motiveless as a shaft of lightning. If we are not safe here, then where? To live in an area in which a serial killer is stalking his victims is to feel oneself trapped within another’s mad, malevolent dream, for the serial killer behaves with the logic of dreams—his madness yields a distinct pattern, yet is unpredictable, and seemingly unpreventable.

After March 23, 1976, the chain of murders ceased. “The Babysitter” was never apprehended and the case, in theory, remains open.


Somehow it has happened that the “serial killer” has become our debased, condemned, yet eerily glorified Noble Savage, the vestiges of the frontier spirit, the American isolato cruising interstate highways in van or pickup truck which will yield, should police have the opportunity to investigate, a shotgun, a semiautomatic rifle, quantities of ammunition and sixpacks and junk food, possibly a decomposing female corpse in the rear. Serial murder has emerged as the “crime of the 1990s” and our collective fascination is matched by a flood of luridly packaged paperback books on a vertiginous assortment of killers from “Adorno, George” to “Zon, Hans Van.” (See Hunting Humans, Volumes 1 and 2.) The enormous critical and popular success of the Hollywood film The Silence of the Lambs, an entertainingly improbable reimagining of of some of the crimes of the psychotic Ed Gein,1 both heralded the phenomenon and contributed to it. Even the San Francisco poet Thom Gunn has written oddly sentimental verse apparently celebrating, if not Jeffrey Dahmer’s numerous murders and cannibalizations of young men in Wisconsin, Jeffrey Dahmer’s imagined passion:

I beg from memory each limb,
Each body-part that spoiled with time:
The sidelong hungry look of him,
From him a stammer, from another
A single bicep blue with Mother,
From one a scalp, with hair’s regalia,
From one large hands and lazy grin,
From someone reddened genitalia,
And last, the image of the chest
From my original conquest,
The cage once tented in its skin,
Now great free-standing ribs that I’m
Leaving as bare bone rather than
Refleshing, best part of the best,
Only Love, Iron Man.
—from Troubadour,
Songs for Jeffrey Dahmer2

If statistics are reliable, they are certainly alarming: from 1970 to the present, there have been more serial murders reported than in all previous American history combined. In the years since World War II, the annual solution rate for homicides has dropped from 90 percent to 76 percent—that is, one in every four murders remains unsolved.3 (It is commonly believed that 50 percent of all violent crimes in the United States go unreported.) Of these approximately 20,000 unsolved murders, the FBI estimates that at least 3,500 are committed by serial killers who will kill again, and again, and again, so long as they are capable, since these are individuals whose self-definition, whose sole happiness, is bound up with killing. The FBI also estimates that there are at least five hundred serial killers currently at large and unidentified in the United States and that, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States produces an astounding 75 percent of the world’s serial killers.4 “These people are the crème de la crème, the ultimate challenge to society and law enforcement,” says an FBI special agent, adding, with no apparent awareness of the irony of his remark, “We’re not interested in causes, and we’re not interested in cures. We’re interested in identification, apprehension, incarceration and prosecution.”5


Of the diverse materials considered here—hardcover and paperback books, newly published and reprinted; a low-budget English documentary film on America’s “first female serial killer”; a facsimile of “the controversial trading cards they couldn’t ban” (i.e., True Crime: Serial Killers and Mass Murderers, Vol. 2)—all warrant interest, if only clinical interest. Milwaukee Journal crime reporter Anne E. Schwartz’s study of the necrophiliac-necrophagist Jeffrey Dahmer, psychologist Jack A. Apsche’s study of Philadelphia “Bishop” Gary Heidnik, and former Manhattan prosecutor David Heilbroner’s account of the one-man crusade by Louisville lawyer Steven Kenney to expose the serial killer “practical nurse” Virginia McGinnis make for compelling if painful reading; Lionel Dahmer’s self-lacerating memoir of his failed relationship with his son Jeffrey, written with the assistance of the mystery novelist Thomas H. Cook, is a melancholy, unnerving document; perhaps a classic of its rarefied genre, Brian Masters’s revoltingly detailed account of the homosexual necrophiliac English killer Dennis Nilsen, a best seller in England when first published in 1985, is reminiscent of the hybrid prurient-speculative work of Colin Wilson (Order of Assassins, The Encyclopedia of Murder)—depravity examined through the lens of a serious intelligence. Ann Rule’s memoirist account of the life and career of the infamous Ted Bundy, whom Rule had known as a friend and colleague at Seattle’s Crisis Center, has gone through thirty printings since its original publication in 1980 and has attained the status of a genre classic, like Joel Norris’s more recent Serial Killers, part textbook and part psychobiological polemics. Hunting Humans is the Who’s Who of the genre—first published in 1990, and many times reprinted.


In the burgeoning recent literature of serial murder, Norris’s work is considered a milestone. Cerebral yet passionate, judiciously if doggedly argued, based upon a medical-psychological model, Serial Killers contains detailed case studies of, among others, Henry Lee Lucas who in 1984 was convicted of eleven murders, including that of his mother; Bobby Joe Long, found guilty of fifty rapes, and nine murders in 1985; and Charles Manson, whom Norris interviewed at San Quentin. Norris makes the point that serial killers, the overwhelming majority Caucasian males between the ages of twenty and forty, are—unsurprisingly—physically and psychologically damaged individuals; most of them have suffered brain injuries from childhood beatings, and most of them are visibly scarred; nearly all are chronic alcoholics and drug users. (Manson, for example, was an unwanted, battered child, already pathologically brutalized by the age of twelve.) None of them is “sane” if to be “sane” is to exercise volitional control over one’s actions. For all of us, but tragically for the abused, Norris thinks, heredity, biology, and environment are fate, and there is no escape from severe childhood trauma.

According to Norris, the compulsive killings of serial killers constitute “morality plays” in which, repeatedly, with different victims, the same tale is enacted; committing and recommitting murder may be interpreted as

a sum total of the perceived childhood horrors and [the killer’s] chronic damaged physical condition…the survival pattern of a person who has never developed the channels for emotions such as fear, lust, and rage and is driven by them as if…within a primordial neurological soup, an unstructured conscious dream world in which there is no logic and no social order.

The killer employs ritual as a kind of “behavioral skeleton—much like an insect” to provide an architecture for his fantasies. In Norris’s harshly determinist cosmology, as brainlessly mechanical as any state of nature envisioned by Thomas Hobbes, the serial killer has no free will, no free intelligence, no “self” apart from the psychopathological predicament of his fate. The serial killer is an active pathogen in the organism of society; serial killing is a “disease,” indeed an “epidemic” in urgent need of diagnosis and treatment by professionals. Predictions involving potential serial killers should be the result of “interdisciplinary projects” in the fields of biochemistry, neurology, genetics, social psychology, and criminal justice. (Norris is of this professional class—a psychologist and consultant on criminal cases in Georgia and Florida.)


Because, in Norris’s indefatigably detailed scheme, the serial killer reacts to stimulus as a tropism and does not behave as a rationally functioning human being, his actions can be codified and predicted. According to Norris there are seven “key phases” of serial killing:

The “aura” phase, involving compulsive fantasizing, withdrawal from reality—“The killer is simply a biological engine driven by a primal instinct to satisfy a compelling lust.”

The “trolling” phase, involving an active search for prey, a series of “compulsive, frenzied, and paranoiac behavior patterns” in which the killer becomes hyper-alert and focused; an obsessive “weaving” as if laying out a net as “neurons deep in the primitive brain begin to fire and cause a turbulence of early memories and primal emotions to mingle with live sensory data.”

The “wooing” phase, in which victims are disarmed by winning their confidence and luring them into a trap.

Capture, and murder, follow, often bringing orgasmic relief; and, in Norris’s apocalyptic imagery, “an insight so intense that it is like an emotional quasar, blinding in its revelation of truth.”

The “totem” phase, during which the killer may take photographs of his victim’s body, and/or ritualistically dismember it, possibly eating parts; often he preserves organs, or buries them in “sacred” places. Personal possessions of the victim are kept as souvenirs.

The “depression” phase, post-murder, when the killer’s sense of omnipotence fades with the revelation that the symbolic murder has not altered his life.

As Norris lays out the anatomy of the serial killer, with deadpan Laputan precision, there emerges a profile of a bizarre species of romantic love, the project of a ghoulish Don Juan whom no quantity of bodies, or body parts, will satisfy. His experience approaches the mystical, as well—though Norris does not say what the insight of the serial killer might be that is “blinding in its revelation of truth.” Norris’s romantic-mechanistic model may apply to the serial killers whom he has interviewed, but it doesn’t seem very convincing generally, for while battered children are not uncommon in our society, serial killers are; in fact, despite their high-profile publicity, they are a statistical rarity among murderers.

Norris does not address the riddle of why some “damaged” people grow into active psychopaths, while the majority do not. (Conversely, what stimulated “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen, and Jeffrey Dahmer, among others, who had not been brutalized as children, to become murderers?) What precisely is a “psychopath”? One who has committed acts defined as “psychopathic”? Is there a genetic predisposition to violence, a “bad seed” carried by chromosomes? If such a “bad seed” is isolated, what procedures should follow to block its recurrence? Abortion? Sterilization? And should certain “damaged” individuals be detected by way of an “interdisciplinary project” and their condition diagnosed before they kill, how exactly would they be treated? Continuous therapy? Continuous detention?

Experts on serial killers, including Norris, make the point that the serial killer is virtually impossible to “reform,” let alone “rehabilitate”; he is frequently highly manipulative and charming (even the brain-damaged Henry Lee Lucas is described by a religious counselor as “One of the gentlest and most loving Christian persons I have ever known”); he tells psychiatrists, judges, parole boards, and interviewers what he senses they want to hear. Short of imprisoning these “damaged” people permanently, it is unlikely that, in a democratic society in which all citizens’ civil rights are honored, much can be done to prevent them from killing if they want to kill. Can, and should, the mere potential for violence be, in effect, punished?

Moreover, what faith have we, at this point in history, in the efforts of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, “counselors” of whatever variety, parole and probation officers? Even when not cruelly overburdened with clients, these professionals are often gullible, careless, and self-serving. For instance, Jeffrey Dahmer was already a convicted sex offender on “supervised probation” at the time he killed fifteen young men and stored parts of their (partially cannibalized) bodies in his apartment; in theory, he was under the jurisdiction of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, but his female probation officer never visited his residence and clearly knew nothing essential about him. (Several of Dahmer’s murders were within hours of his visits to his probation officer.) Equally ironically, numerous hospitalizations and “therapies” failed to prevent the delusional racist Gary Heidnik from abducting, raping, chaining, impregnating, and in some cases killing and cannibalizing a number of women in the basement of his Philadelphia house; in his account of Heidnik’s career, Probing the Mind of a Serial Killer, Apsche notes a psychiatrist’s report that “with continued psychotherapy, Mr. Heidnik’s prognosis is good.” The date of this report happens to be March 18, 1987—the very date that Heidnik killed one of his female victims, carved, cooked, and stored parts of her body in a freezer for appalled Philadelphia police to discover a week later.

Typically, when convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas—convicted for the brutal slaying of his mother—found himself recommended for parole in 1970 from Michigan State Penitentiary, he warned prison officials that he would kill again if he was released—but the parole board released him anyway. Lucas retaliated by killing a woman only a few miles from the prison shortly after he was freed; as a witty rejoinder, he dumped her body within walking distance of the prison gate. Then he took off on a spree of sadistic killings that would not end until 1983, thirteen years later. (Lucas, found to be neurologically impaired, and now on Death Row in Texas, is suspected of between one hundred and five hundred murders committed from 1971 to 1983, and was convicted of eleven.) Apsche quotes serial killer-torturer John Wesley Dodd, whose specialty was young boys:

I can’t really say that I’ve discovered much about myself….The biggest thing is that everything could have been prevented…I’ve had so many contacts with police and confessed to so many crimes and never been charged, or the charges were dropped and I was never prosecuted for one reason or another.6

Dodd was repeatedly freed because the law required that only part of his extensive record be available for review during his trials and because, as a Caucasian male of some intelligence, he made a “good appearance” in court.

Clearly, serial killers are quite distinct from the clockwork model Norris presents. Virginia McGinnis of Heilbroner’s Death Benefit is, in fact, the antithesis of the fantasy-driven murderer: the Ice Lady, as she was called, methodically planned her crimes, which were essentially insurance frauds, with herself as beneficiary. Her motive?—“She was obsessed with having beautiful things.” In the course of her twenty year career, McGinnis was the beneficiary of life insurance policies on, among others, her husband, her mother, her three-year-old daughter. Poisonings, thefts, fires, even a ludicrous “accidental hanging” (of the daughter) ran through her life—yet authorities, including insurance company investigators, made no effort to apprehend her. McGinnis even tried to buy her baby grand-daughter (for $500) from her impoverished daughter-in-law so that she could insure the child, and presumably murder her.

Were it not for the zeal and courage of Steven Kenney, a Louisville lawyer who abandoned his lucrative corporate law practice to pursue McGinnis, in the face of outrageous prosecutorial indifference, McGinnis would be free today, enjoying the “death benefit” from her last victim—a mildly retarded young woman whom McGinnis insured the day before she pushed her off a cliff in Big Sur. (At McGinnis’s trial, the State Farm officer who issued the policy admitted that McGinnis’s many prior claims for insurance worried him and that he feared, if he issued the new policy, twenty-year-old Deana Roberts would be killed. But he issued it anyway—business is business.)

Heilbroner’s book, richly detailed, is a model of unobtrusive investigative reportage. Rare in this genre, it moves to an uplifting conclusion: Virginia McGinnis may be the very image of evil’s banality but her nemesis Steven Kenney emerges as the image of the stubborn curiosity, skeptical intelligence, and idiosyncratic altruism we wish for in ourselves. He is a lawyer who jeopardizes his own career and private life in a quest for an elusive, possibly quixotic justice—and he succeeds. (McGinnis is serving out a life sentence without possibility of parole in a California prison.)

The luckless Aileen Wuornos, crudely (and inaccurately) touted as “the first female serial killer,” is another who resists classification in Norris’s scheme. Since confessing to the murders of seven men in Florida, in 1992, with the explanation that she killed in each instance in “self-defense,” this Michigan-born prostitute has been the subject of much media attention. (A feature film is planned on her life and career, with the Florida police who arrested her serving as consultants assisted by the very woman who’d been Wuornos’s accomplice, who turned state’s evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution. A True Crime trading card in her honor is forthcoming, as is a True Crime Comic.)

In the well-intentioned but maddeningly protracted and repetitious film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer; one of those hand-held-camera documentaries that make of their own limitations and rebuffs a theme of the narrative, and which can only be viewed by VCR, with one’s thumb firmly on the fast-forward button of the remote control, Wuornos emerges as a pathetic, delusional, doomed figure who may well have killed her first victim, an abusive customer, in self-defense but who thereafter killed for money and property. (Typically, Wuornos and her female accomplice, who was also her lesbian lover, were driving a stolen car belonging to one of the dead men when they were arrested.) Abused as a child, alcoholic and adrift as an adult, Wuornos is overweight, untidy, and badly dressed, and uninspired as a prostitute; a born loser who is betrayed with dismaying alacrity by her lesbian lover, whom she still adores; betrayed by the absurd “born-again” Christian woman who adopted her with the transparent intention of exploiting her notoriety (for instance, by charging extravagant fees for interviews); and by the inept, obese public defender who cynically advised her to plead no contest to charges of first-degree murder, with the result that Wuornos has been sentenced to death in the electric chair—several times over. (The public defender too accepted cash for an interview; the film shows him taking $10,000 from the film director Nick Broomfield to share with Wuornos’s adoptive “mother.”)

Wuornos is so little in control of herself that, when things go badly for her in court, she shouts at male officials, “I hope your wives and daughters are raped!” Exiting, she frequently makes an obscene gesture at the judge. She insists in interviews that she is not a serial killer “like Jeff Bundy” (sic). By the film’s end, Wuornos is beginning at last to realize that her only friends are eagerly selling her out—it’s to their advantage that she die as the “first woman to be executed in Florida.” Taken back into custody, however, she smiles and waves at the camera under the delusion that, through the film maker’s efforts, she will avoid the death penalty. (In fact, Wuornos’s case is being appealed. But, with seven confessions to capital crimes, her prospects are as grim as her prison-issue clothes.)

As Ann Rule presents him in her lengthy, indeed exhaustive and exhausting The Stranger Beside Me, Ted Bundy is far more complex than any schematized “serial killer” profile can suggest. This most infamous of contemporary sex-murderers, America’s own Jack the Ripper, Bundy remains an enigma: handsome, charismatic, much-admired by women to the very end;7 a graduate of the University of Washington with a 3.51 average; a law student active in Washington Republican politics for whom Governor Daniel Evans wrote a glowing letter of recommendation in 1973; blessed with the sociopath’s boundless faith in himself and the ability to make others share that faith.

It was said of Bundy that he could have had a career in Republican politics. It was said of Bundy that he was simply too normal to be the serial killer responsible for a growing number of rape-murders in Washington in the early 1970’s and then (after Bundy moved to Utah) in Utah in the mid-1970’s. (When Bundy was tried for first-degree murder in the deaths of two young women in Florida, he would claim insanity”—“diminished responsibility”—as a defense.) In short, Bundy was the exact antithesis of the stereotypical sex-fiend loser, the man who wreaks revenge on women because, like “Son of Sam” Berkowitz or Joel Rifkin, he was ignored or scorned by women, the proverbial outcast at life’s feast; nor had he any reason to be violently angry at society for having brutalized and marginalized him, like, for instance, the Satanists Richard Ramirez (Los Angeles’s “Night Stalker” of the 1980s) and Charles Manson. Bundy’s first probable killing, according to Rule, was the murder of a little girl in 1961, when he was fifteen, for which he was never suspected. His last victim, in Florida, in 1978, was a twelve-year-old girl.

Elated by his courtroom performances, in which he intermittently acted as his own lawyer, Bundy successfully appealed his Florida convictions for an astounding ten years, costing the state between $6 million and $7 million in legal fees. As the date of his execution neared in early 1989, Bundy began suddenly to confess to his murders as a way of negotiating another stay of execution, a shrewd maneuver which yet did not succeed. Now blaming the baleful influence of pornography for his crimes, Bundy confessed to twenty-eight murders; experts believe he probably killed as many as one hundred young women. Though clearly, by his own admission, under the sway of the sexual compulsion “to cause great bodily harm to females,” Bundy was a clever petty thief and con man who planned his savage murders rather like theatrical adventures. (He often wore disguises, including a plaster cast on his leg.) He was not a multiple personality in whom memory is fractured and inaccessible. Above all, Bundy took enormous pleasure in media attention, both before and after his arrests. As Rule notes,

It was only after the killings that Ted realized just how newsworthy he was. He began to exalt in the thrill of the chase, and it became a part of the ritual, a part even more satisfying than the murders themselves. His power over the dead girls lasted such a short time, but his power over the police investigators went on and on…How often he would talk to me of being in the limelight, being the Golden Boy.

How proud Bundy would be to consider the numerous books written in his honor, the most abidingly popular being Ann Rule’s admirable if distressing work. One can imagine him smiling as he reads, on the back of the paperback, that a reviewer for The New York Times has called him “the most fascinating killer in modern American history.”


“The death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover?”

Edgar Allan Poe,
“The Philosophy of Composition”

“I wished I could stop but I could not. I had no other thrill or happiness.”

Dennis Nilsen

The serial killer has come to seem the very emblem of evil, for his crimes are flagrant and self-delighting violations of taboo, so excessive as to beggar any measure of punishment. Merely “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is inadequate here. The burgeoning chronicles of serial killing are unnervingly illuminating and suggest that beneath a mask of civility, as Voltaire argued against the naive idealism of Rousseau, the nature of man is that of a beast of prey; indeed, of madness itself. Yet to examine the mind of the serial killer is to examine the human mind in extremis, and should anything “human” be alien to us? Where the “human” crosses over into the “monstrous” is after all a matter of law, theology, or aesthetic taste. (Or politics. Recall that US Army lieutenant William Calley, who led his platoon in a slaughter of between three and four hundred unarmed civilians, including children, in My Lai, Vietnam, on March 16, 1968, was court-martialed and sentenced to life imprisonment as a first-degree murderer—but pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1969, presumably because mass murder committed in US Army uniform is something other than mass murder.)8

Our fascination and revulsion for the “monstrous” among us has to do with our uneasy sense that such persons are forms of ourselves, derailed and gone terribly wrong, as the autistic personality is oneself deprived, by a fatal trick of brain chemistry, of the ability to relate to others through language, eye contact, touch; as the schizophrenic is a mirror of oneself trapped in a dream life endured in consciousness. The psychopathic serial killer is a deep fantasist of the imagination, his fixations cruel parodies of romantic love and his bizarre, brutal acts frequently related to cruel parodies of “art.” The serial killer’s immersion in fantasy; his apparent helplessness in the face of his compulsion—in some cases, like “Son of Sam,” the killer claims to hear demonic voices; the ritualistic and totemic elements of his grotesque “art”; the seemingly insatiable need to orchestrate, and reorchestrate, a drama of hallucinated control; the mystical-erotic “high” released by the consummation, after a lengthy period of premeditation—all suggest a kinship, however distorted, with the artist. It is as if the novelist, playwright, visual artist were incapable of translating his fantasy into words or images but was compelled, by powerful unconscious urges, to locate living individuals to perform for him, at his bequest.

And there is the actual “art”—the totemic rituals that led an anonymous ax-murderer in 1985, in New York, to arrange his victims’ skull fragments in identical patterns, or “The Babysitter” of Oakland County, Michigan, in 1976, to bathe and scrub his child-victims and lay their bodies in formal funeral positions to be discovered. Among Ed Gein’s numerous macabre ornaments were skulls on bedposts and a belt of female nipples. Jeffrey Dahmer painted his victims’ skulls and took Polaroid photographs of their dismembered body parts, arranged as “still lives.” John Wayne Gacy,9 now on Death Row in Illinois, has painted hundreds of primitive, cartoon-like images of his clown alter-ego Pogo, a gigantic, malevolent smiling figure—“A clown can get away with murder,” Gacy has said. And there is Dennis Nilsen’s self-pitying verse, written in homage to the sixteen young men he’d drugged, strangled, fondled, masturbated over, and at last dismembered—“I try to smile/Despite the vengeance looking at me,/Covered in your tomato paste,/A man of many parts/I try to forget./Even the perfume of your passing/Lingers on./ More problems now/ With all your bits and pieces…/I try to smile/ But you’re not smiling now./ In April death is dead/And all the new life lives/Upon our garbled inquest.”

Killing for Company includes as much as any reader will want of Nilsen’s verse, stream-of-consciousness prose ramblings, and “Sad Sketches,” romantic line drawings of the naked, mutilated bodies of his young male victims, which he frequently covered in body makeup and photographed as well, afterward boasting to Masters, “I did it all for me. Purely selfishly…I worshipped the art and the act of death, over and over.” The banal rhymes of a typical Ted Bundy poem, addressed to one of many woman friends, suggest the shallowness of the man’s soul: “I send you this kiss/deliver this body to hold./I sleep with you tonight/ with words of love untold. /I would love you, if I might/with words that unfold/these arms to press you tight.” Even Joel Rifkin, Long Island’s most recent tabloid killer, who killed at least seventeen prostitutes, turns out to be an impassioned, prolific scribbler of verse as an adolescent: “A siren temptress calls me near/ a stranger beyond darkness haze/ pleading from within the shadows/ and though I be helpless to help her/ help her I must…” (See New York Post, October 8, 1993, for more of the same.) As Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert dryly observed in Lolita, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy…style.”

Yet not, it seems, female murderers, an estimated 8 percent of American murderers, who are rarely sentimental, still less morbid. Sexual fetishes, the great passion of the male psychopath, seem not to engage them at all. They kill for money, or because they are in positions where killing is easy (babysitting, nursing) and they have a grudge against the world. Most often, they are merely the distaff half of a murderous couple whose brainpower is supplied by a man; often, like the slavish females of Charles Manson’s harem, they are willing disciples of a cult-leader, sexually and emotionally bound. The most famous, or infamous, necrophile in American literary history is, of course, and unfairly, a woman—the redoubtable Emily of William Faulkner’s Gothic tall taleparable, “A Rose for Emily,” who sleeps in secret for decades with the mummified remains of the Yankee seducer who meant to betray her, and whom she poisoned before he could escape. Here are the elegiac cadences of Edgar Allan Poe put to a use more subtle than ever in Poe:

For a long while we just stood there, looking down at the profound and fleshless grin. The body had apparently once lain in the attitude of an embrace, but now the long sleep that outlasts love, that conquers even the grimace of love, had cuckolded him. What was left of him, rotted beneath what was left of the nightshirt, had become inextricable from the bed in which he lay; and upon him and upon the pillow beside him lay that even coating of the patient and abiding dust.

(Contrast Poe’s characteristic death-intoxicated erotic work—“Lenore,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Sleeper,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” “Berenice,” among others—in which the deceased beloved is imagined in abstract, melodramatic language so lacking in specificity as to seem hardly more than Poe’s fevered fantasy.)

Necrophilia in actual women, however, certainly in women serial killers of record, would seem to be virtually nonexistent. Even heterosexual necrophilia is a rarity. (How most accurately to characterize the California “Co-ed Killer” Edmund Kemper, who murdered numerous young women in the early Seventies, dissected their bodies, and raped various organs; who killed two of his grandparents and his mother, whose decapitated head he preserved as both a masturbatory object and a dart board?) Homosexual necrophiliacs demonstrate a curious, compulsive, surely self-defeating habit of storing or burying the remains of their victims in their residences, beneath floor-boards (like Dennis Nilsen) or in closets and deep freezers (like Jeffrey Dahmer). The horrific crawlspace beneath John Wayne Gacy’s house was so packed with decaying bodies that the stench pervaded his property, yet Gacy only began dumping bodies into the Des Plaines River as a last resort—he would rather have kept them at home. “It may be that when I was killing those men I was killing myself,” Dennis Nilsen observed. Naturally, one would not want to physically abandon oneself.

Necrophilia is a cure, for some, for (male) impotence; at any rate, an imaginative attempt at a cure. The necrophiliac exerts control over the dead body as, he believes, he could never exert control over the living. (In Dahmer’s case, as it came out at his trial, the necrophiliac’s preference was to have sex with the viscera of his victims, as if the “whole” were too intimidating. Cannibalizing of the parts came next.) Or it may be, as Brian Masters quotes Erich Fromm, that necrophiliacs are deeply narcissistic individuals whose aim “is to transform all that is alive into dead matter; they want to destroy everything and everybody, often even themselves, their enemy is life itself.” Why necrophiliacs tend to be homosexual is not explored in these books, but the narcissistic “mirroring” of the living murderer-lover in the dead victim would seem to be the motive.

I knotted the string because I heard somewhere that this was what the thuggi did in India for a quicker kill. I…looked at Stephen. I thought to myself, “All that potential, all that beauty, and all that pain that is his life. I have to stop him. It will soon be over…” His heart was stopped. He was very dead. I picked up his limp body into my arms and carried it into the bathroom…I washed the body…I threw him over my shoulder and took him into the back room. I sat him on…the chair. I sat down, took a cigarette and a drink and looked at him…”Stephen,” I thought, “you’re another problem for me. What am I going to do with you?”…I laid him on top of the double bed…I lay beside him and placed the mirror at the end of the bed. I stripped…and lay there staring at both our naked bodies in the mirror. He looked paler than I did…I put talcum powder on myself and lay down again. We looked similar now. I spoke to him as if he were still alive. I was telling him how lucky he was to be out of it. I thought how beautiful he looked now and how beautiful I looked. He looked sexy but I had no erection. He just looked fabulous.

This is Dennis Nilsen, quoted at exhaustive length in Brian Masters’s cogently titled Killing For Company. The hallucinatory identification of murderer with victim, “I” with “him,” the mad hope of “vivifying” another by killing him—these are motives that underlay Nilsen’s acts, suggesting a profound incomprehension of the otherness of others. When his killings were over, Nilsen spoke of feeling “intense fulfillment and mutual release for us both…I cared enough about them to kill them…I was engaged primarily in self-destruction…I was killing myself only but it was always the bystander who died.” The excessive attention Brian Masters lavishes upon this serial killer begins to pall fairly early on in Killing for Company, despite the unfailingly intelligent nature of the author’s prose and the obvious sincerity of his involvement with his subject.

By far the most illuminating chapter in the book is the final one, “Answers,” in which Masters, the author of literary studies of Molière, Sartre, Rabelais, Marie Corelli, among others, breaks out of his claustrophobic reportage and considers a vast range of thinkers on the subject of murder, perversion, punishment—Dostoyevsky, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, psychological theories of aggression and nihilism advanced by Anthony Storrs, Ernest Jones, Colin Wilson, and others. By the time Masters reaches an epiphany of sorts vis-à-vis his garrulous subject, the reader may feel he or she has anticipated him.

It is not why [Nilsen] dismembered bodies that bewilders, but how he could face himself having done so…How is it possible to wake up in the morning to a man’s head in a pot on the gas stove? How can one place pieces of people in suitcases and leave them for months at a time…? How was he able to tell me, with quasi-scientific curiosity, that the weight of a severed head, when you pick it up by the hair, is far greater than you would imagine?…It is Nilsen’s inhuman detachment, his invulnerability to the squalor of human remains, that makes him finally unrecognizable.

One can sympathize with the exasperation here without sharing in the conviction that it is a serial killer’s demeanor that should most distress us.10


“Nothing can exist in a natural state which can be called good or bad by common consent, since every man who is in a natural state consults only his own advantage, and determines what is good or bad according to his own fancy and in so far as he has regard for himself alone…; therefore sin cannot be conceived in a natural state, but only in a civil state… The law and ordinance of nature under which all men are born, and for the most part live, forbids nothing…that appetite suggests.”


“I really screwed up this time.”

Jeffrey Dahmer, to his father

Definitions remain riddlesome and tautological: what is a “psychopath” except an individual who is perceived to have committed “psychopathic” acts? Can one be a “non-practicing psychopath”? And since the specific nature of “psychopathic” behavior is contextual, can one be a “psychopath” at one time, a “normal” individual at another? The romance of Ted Bundy, for those who continue to find him fascinating, is that he gave every appearance of being a supremely “normal” man, who never lacked for female companionship and intimacy; his “psychopathic” behavior seems to have occupied a fairly limited portion of his life, about as much as some “normal” men allot to avocations like hunting, fishing, squash. Radical feminist theorists who posit all men as (potential) rapists would interpret the Bundy phenomenon as non-“psychopathic” but in fact “normal”—if the male is the rapacious sexual predator, the female the inevitable victim. The difference between Bundy and other men is that Bundy executed his fantasies, and was caught.

Violators of taboo strike us as atavistic, primal. It is comforting to think of them as “strangers” among us who are somehow not us. They excite our fear, our revulsion, and our desire to severely punish; simultaneously, they excite our fascination, and, in some, whether secretly or openly, our admiration. (T.S. Eliot, for instance, admired the notorious English murderer Dr. Crippen, and once went to a party disguised as Crippen.) There is no more celebrated serial killer in history than Jack the Ripper of London’s Whitechapel district, though, by contemporary standards, his kill count was modest—seven known victims. Here is a historic figure, of 1888, who has been elevated to the plane of myth: a celebration of male misogyny and physical revulsion for women. The individual who violates taboo in so spectacular a way is perceived as undefined by society’s restraints, unlike those who believe themselves defined, and so it’s a temptation to project extraordinary powers—romantic, dark, “Satanic”—upon him. But as the materials under review here, and others, make clear, this is a naive and mistaken assumption. Most criminals are losers, in crime as in life. The romance of crime is purely that—a romance, a fiction.

Of serial-killer losers, none is more pathetic than Jeffrey Dahmer. The dullest sort of light plays about the workmanlike pages of Anne E. Schwartz’s The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough, which covers the Dahmer case from the evening of his arrest in July 1991 through his “sensational” trial and sentencing in early 1992. Schwartz is the Milwaukee Journal reporter who broke the Dahmer story when a police source woke her with an excited telephone message: “Rauth and Mueller found a human head in a refrigerator at 924 North 25th Street, apartment 213. There are other body parts in the place, too. You aren’t gonna believe what-all’s in this goof’s apartment. He was cutting up black guys and saving their body parts…” The book’s tone is of this quality, suggesting the antic breeziness of a television cop program in which a clever, feisty female reporter is featured; it is informative as a daily newspaper is informative, with a good deal of ephemeral Milwaukee political gossip thrown in. There is little engagement with Dahmer as a subject, or with the phenomenon of the necrophiliac serial killer as anything but a celebrity-freak to be gawked at. Schwartz remains steadfastly on the outside, as if to align herself with the most ingenuous of readers:

Many people came to court to see if they could sense any underlying evil in Jeffrey Dahmer by looking at him. I remember being filled with a strange sense of anticipation as I waited in the courtroom to see what a serial killer looked like. I was shocked to see that he looked just like an ordinary fellow. I had thought the pupils of his eyes might do spirals. What he had done was awful, but I could not get over how ordinary he looked. The times I saw him up close, I saw nothing there. He did not appear crazed, like mass murderer Charles Manson, nor did he exude the charm of serial killer Ted Bundy. There was just nothing to him.

And so on.

The particular poignancy of Lionel Dahmer’s A Father’s Story is that it is so clumsily groping and questioning a document; so much a cry of pain, a sequence of anguished questions that yield no answers. Lionel Dahmer tries to deal with the fact that he is the father of Jeffrey Dahmer and that, somehow, father and son are meaningfully linked; the book’s epigraph is from William Wordsworth—“In deep and awful channel runs/This sympathy for Sire and Sons.” As the psychopath feels not the slightest gram of guilt for the cruelest of crimes, so often those close to him take on the burden of guilt, trying to locate, in themselves, possible causes, motives, the wellsprings of horror. When, in 1988, Jeffrey Dahmer was first convicted of a sexual felony, Lionel Dahmer thought, “In the eyes of parents…children always seem just a blink away from redemption. No matter to what depth we watch them sink, we believe they need only grasp the lifeline, and we can pull them safely to shore.”

Lionel’s belief in his ability to make any difference in his disturbed son’s life, if not to “save” him, was defeated at that juncture, and Jeffrey was taken away to serve a year’s sentence in the Milwaukee County House of Corrections. (As in a television situation comedy, Jeffrey is always assuring his anxious father that he’s sorry for his behavior—“I’ll never do anything like that again, Dad.” Ironically, unknown to Lionel Dahmer as to the numerous mental health counselors, therapists, defense attorneys, and probation officers who would touch his life, Jeffrey had already killed four young men by 1988. He’d been only eighteen at the time of the first killing in Ohio.)

Despite its stated intention of confronting “every error of judgment, every miscalculation, every instance of obliviousness” that might have contributed to Jeffrey Dahmer’s derangement, A Father’s Story is a testament to the futility of such an effort. Not that it is not passionately argued, or insincere in its language; not that it draws back squeamishly from its modest revelations (though Lionel Dahmer does not enumerate the details of his son’s crimes, and no one reading only A Father’s Story would have a clear idea of the charges brought against Jeffrey Dahmer).

In chapters interspersed with family snapshots, Lionel meticulously scrutinizes his own lonely, introverted childhood in the hope of comprehending his son’s; he recalls his need for fantasizing “control” in relation to Jeffrey’s pathological need; he analyzes his own adolescent predilections (for magic tricks, fires, making explosive chemical mixtures—the other boys called him “Dahmer the Bomber”) in relation to what he knows of Jeffrey’s (who, as a boy, was fascinated with dead animals—skinning and dissecting them in secret). Lionel Dahmer wonders if perhaps the extraordinary amount of powerful medications Jeffrey’s mother took through her difficult pregnancy might not have contributed to the boy’s “dull-normal,” affectless personality and his alcoholic dependency. (Like most serial killers, including Dennis Nilsen, Jeffrey was an alcoholic who became violent and dissociated when he drank. He already had a drinking problem by seventh grade.) Lionel rereads letters he’d written to Jeffrey years ago and is ashamed of the “utter emptiness” they express—the awkward, affable banalities of a parent with little to say to an estranged, troubled son with nothing at all to say to him. By the memoir’s conclusion, Lionel wonders if he is responsible for having passed on to Jeffrey a defective gene, and if the “Dahmer line” should be allowed to die out.

That Thomas H. Cook should be involved in the preparation of A Father’s Story is appropriate, for Cook is a gifted mystery novelist (The City When It Rains, Mortal Memory, Sacrificial Ground) whose predominant themes are dysfunctional families and whose plots frequently involve the search of a father for his child—a search for knowledge that may be an actual search, a spiritual adventure. A Father’s Story limns a similar quest, in intelligent and compassionate terms, but without a resolution. For, finally, Lionel Dahmer’s “confession” and his stringent self-censure are so disproportionate to his son’s pathology as to seem bleakly and unintentionally comic, like blaming oneself for having slammed a door and precipitating an earthquake.

To what extent can, or should, any reasonable parent assume responsibility for an adult child’s life?—for his or her accomplishments, as well as failures? Had Lionel Dahmer done a survey of the literature of serial killers, he would have learned that Jeffrey’s middle-class, generally supportive background is exemplary compared to the backgrounds of 99 percent of such killers: no child abuse, no head injuries, no alcoholic prostitute for a mother, no nightmare foster homes or institutions. (For an education in how parents can make of a seemingly normal child a full-fledged psychotic killer, see Flora Rheta Schreiber’s The Shoemaker, another classic in this gory genre.)

The unexamined egoism of the principle underlying such a document as A Father’s Story—the masculine line of descent of which Wordsworth speaks in “this sympathy for Sire and Sons”—takes no one else into consideration, including of course the mother. Yet it is doubtful that, if one has had the rotten luck of siring a psychopath, anyone or anything can deflect him from his course. How exactly does one deal with a budding Jeffrey Dahmer, laconic, deeply secretive, a chronic liar as a teen-ager? How does one even begin to comprehend a son who steals a full-sized department store mannikin—“a male figure, fully dressed in t-shirt and shorts”—and hides it in his bedroom closet, with the vague mumbled excuse that he’d taken the mannikin “only to demonstrate that he could do it”? (If you really want to know what young Jeffrey was doing with the mannikin, which Lionel seems not to have guessed, see Schwartz’s The Man Who Could Not Kill Enough with its catalog of Jeffrey Dahmer’s myriad perversions, including his “paraphilia” episodes.)

How does one confront a zombie son with no interest in educating or training himself, no friends, no future? Is it a defective gene? Or simply bad luck? The blunt fact of Jeffrey Dahmer, as it would appear to be the defining fact for male serial killers in their adolescence, is that, while their coevals are establishing friendships that may last for decades, while they are “dating” and fantasizing romantic and sexual relations of the kind presumed “normal,” the serial killer-to-be is fantasizing violent sadistic acts that empower him sexually and yearning for the day when he has the opportunity to make them real. I had no other thrill or happiness.

This Issue

March 24, 1994