Art on Trial

Confessions of a serial art therapist

Deftly Drawing Dexter

The art of a [fictional] serial killer: Did Showtime get it right?


OK, I must confess, I had intended on writing about a serious topic; something like the benefits of making art in solitary confinement [no really; it’s true—this will come out soon], but after a gruelingly long session of grading final papers from my ethics class, I decided that I needed to catch up on some of my own research about sociopathy. And what better resource than television?

For the past few months I have been systematically watching all seasons of Dexter via Netflix, the Showtime series about Dexter Morgan [played by Michael C. Hall], a blood spatter expert for the Miami Metro Police Department but who is really a serial killer. Unlike other serial killers, Dexter lives by a code that prevents him from killing anyone other than other murderers—a sociopath with instilled morals. This program has enthralled me, each season surprising in new ways.

Those of you familiar with Dexter and with the topic of my blog [and if you are reading this, it’s a safe bet that you are] may know where I am going with this. 

*Warning—minor spoiler alerts coming up [or am I the only one who hasn't seen the final season yet...?]

Something occurred in the first episode of the eighth and final season -- “A Beautiful Day”-- that caught my attention. The scene is less than 8.3 seconds long, and I might have missed it if I had to get up to make sure my son was back in bed; instead it seared into my professional mind’s eye like a red-hot poker.

Dexter is sitting alone on a park bench three minutes from the end of the episode.  The neuroscientist who specializes in psychopathic killers, the one consulting for the department on a gruesome murder and who has been haunting Dexter’s periphery this episode, approaches and drops an envelope into his lap. He opens it up and pulls out----wait for it----- three drawings that seem eerily familiar to him. He then recognizes his own name scrawled on one of the pages. A young Dexter, the burgeoning sociopathic killer, drew them. I don’t want to tell you how she got them—it would ruin the suspense. But she does, and we see evidence of a disturbed child on the road to murder and mayhem [literally ‘mayhem’—the legal definition. Look it up…] Or do we?

So there it is…. three childhood drawings from a serial killing psychopath [ummm…with a moral code].

Most would focus on the gruesome murders in this episode, or perhaps even the slightly titillating sex scenes, but there are drawings! How can I not be drawn to them?

The three drawings:

  • A smiling family—mom, dad, daughter…and another boy, frowning, standing far apart from the others, with a black shadow colored erratically beneath him.

 

Dexter's family drawing
Dexter's family drawing

 

  • A person with hands dripping red standing next to a floating knife with red on it almost as big as him. Beneath the knife is a frowning severed head. Black is scribbled along the edges, mostly dominating the left margin, impinging on the boy with sharp, angular shapes.
    Dexter's second drawing
    Dexter's second drawing

  

  • A figure drawn in black with its eyes closed, a knife in its chest, surrounded by red, with black encompassing the edges. It is drawn erratically, with scribbled lines all encroaching upon itself—it appears to be a man strapped to a table with a dagger in his heart [ok, I’m cheating—we all know how Dexter kills his victims.]

Dexter's third drawing
Dexter's third drawing

Truly disturbing imagery, and it seems the episode’s writers did some research. The images seem drawn by the same child, and although there are some discrepancies, they do seem to reflect a consistent developmental age, around 8-10, albeit with a few exaggerated details.

The first seems to drawing reveal unhealthy family dynamics. The boy is isolated, and the encroaching black scribbles—likely symbolizing Dexter’s “dark passenger”—is ominous. The other two drawings illustrate progressively violent tendencies; making the knife the same size as the figure in the second drawing was a nice touch.

The final image, of course, is the most dramatic. It also seems that the writers read some pop-art therapy that indicate that the combination red and black mean anger—however, while intense, it seems too contrived.

Perhaps an art therapist was consulted-- the drawings are not bad… but they’re not great.

These images are too neat—it seems that these images are what the writers imagined a future serial killer might draw. But the biggest issue is that the writers who contrived them considered more what a future murderer might draw—not what a child struggling with trauma might draw.

The benefit of this scene is that the writers emphasize the significance of drawings as self-expression and potentially revealing of one’s inner psyche. In other words, it’s a nice boost for the field’s visibility [although it would have been even nicer if Lil’ Dexter was seeing an art therapist].

Of course, there’s some detriment in this. The drawings, taken in context, may reveal, based on formal elements, a child who is experiencing some anxiety and tension, and through content, an isolated child who is potentially volatile; of course, they may be done by a child whose imagery is informed by life events or television. However, it would be wrong to see these images as predictive of future homicidal tendencies. Without proper context, examination and assessment, meeting with the child, these images may simply represent a vivid imagination.

The third drawing brings to mind a piece by a child I worked with in private practice who was considered aggressive.[*] Early in our sessions he created a sculpture out of Styrofoam, and Popsicle sticks.  A figure is impaled on a table with blood streaming off the edges. It was modeled from a documentary on torture he saw the night before with his dad (which brings up a number of other issues, none of which I can go into here). 

Torture chamber by 11 y.o. boy
Torture chamber by 11 y.o. boy

It is more loose, chaotic and expressive than Dexter’s third drawing; it allowed for a cathartic release of anger and aggression. Disturbing, yes. But was he a potential serial killer? You will be happy to know that he has grown up, found a great way to address his anger and is doing quite well.

So, did Hollywood get it right? Promoting art therapy and the significance of drawings? Yes. A potential reliance on using drawings to reveal future homicidal tendencies? A bit questionable in this regard. Am I reading too much into this? Sure. Am I taking an 8 second blip on a television screen way too seriously? Most certainly.  However, watching this program and writing this post accomplished its desired effect—it allowed me to put off grading a bit longer. Now, back to the stack of papers…

 

[*] this child is figured prominently in:

Gussak, D. (2006). Symbolic Interactionism, aggression and art therapy. In Frances Kaplan (Ed.), Art Therapy and Social Action (pp. 142-156). London: Jessica Kingsley, Publishers.

 

David Gussak, PhD, ATR-BC, is professor and chairperson for the Florida State University Department of Art Education, and Clinical Coordinator of its Graduate Art Therapy Program.

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