Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Faking Bad

Is James Holmes mentally ill or just hoping to fool us?

So now James Holmes, the alleged “Dark Knight Shooter” is claiming amnesia. He supposedly has told his jailers that he doesn’t know why he’s being held in detention. He apparently doesn’t recall the long list of steps he took leading up to the massacre he allegedly committed in an Aurora, CO, theater last week.

No one believes him and several observers say he appears to be acting, but he will likely call upon things he knows from his program in advanced neuroscience to support his case. I recall when I took a grad course in neuroscience. I was amazed at all the things that could go wrong in the brain, many of which could provide a mitigating factor in criminality. It was just a matter of figuring out how to malinger (fake) it convincingly. Talk about theater of the absurd!

Whether Holmes is “faking bad” or not, he’s not the first offender to act out a mental illness in order to be found incompetent or temporarily insane. In fact, Kenneth Bianchi, one of the Hillside Stranglers in California during the late 1970s, managed to dupe several mental health experts.

After his arrest, Bianchi's attorney brought in a psychiatrist to examine him. The doctor put Bianchi under hypnosis, got him to admit to several of the murders and to implicate his cousin, and then declared that he had multiple personality disorder (MPD). Bianchi had supposedly killed as his alter personality, "Steve Walker," and thus was not competent to stand trial. Three more experts were convinced by his condition as well. He was a "textbook case."

The prosecution hired Dr. Martin Orne to examine Bianchi. In the meantime, detectives had discovered that "Steve Walker" was the name of a college student from whom Bianchi had stolen transcripts to set up a fraudulent psychiatric practice. This suggested that Bianchi knew enough about psychological syndromes to fake a disorder. He had also seen the movie Sybil and had a book on the classic MPD case, The Three Faces of Eve.

Dr. Orne believed that Bianchi had faked being under hypnosis, so he used a ploy. He suggested to Bianchi that most "multiples" have more than two personalities. Sure enough, “Billy” emerged. Bianchi even pretended to touch someone who was not actually present. Since visual hallucinations were not considered to be an aspect of MPD, they knew Bianchi was faking it. Under pressure he admitted to the deception and struck a plea deal.

Then there’s John George Haigh. In March 1949, London's Daily Mirror printed a series of stories about the "vampire killer." Haigh was arrested when the remains of a woman who'd been dissolved in acid were found on his property. Once he knew he was a viable suspect, he asked about the chances of being released from the local psychiatric institution. This query signaled his intent to use an insanity defense, and what a bizarre defense it was.

Haigh offered a full description of how he had killed nine different people because he’d needed to drink their blood. He described a cycle of blood-drenched dreams that always preceded his irresistible compulsion. He even drank his own urine to try to prove how demented he was (but only when he thought someone was watching).

A dozen medical and psychiatric professionals examined Haigh before and after his trial. Most concluded that Haigh was not psychotic or in the grip of an overwhelming compulsion. None was able to state that Haigh had been insane during any of his murders. In fact, each murder had been well-planned in advance and each had provided him with considerable income.

It soon came out that Haigh had developed a friendship with an employee at the Sussex psychiatric hospital. Over the years, Haigh had gathered information about the behavioral patterns, traits, and habits of various disorders. 

It wasn’t a great leap to see that Haigh had learned how to pose as a mental patient, should he ever be caught, since he’d also falsely presented himself as a lawyer, an engineer, an entrepreneur, and a doctor. He'd even stated to a police officer, “I take the view that the world’s a happy hunting ground full of mugs who were born to be exploited by the likes of me. They are rabbits on which we feed.”

The vampire defense failed to work, and Haigh was convicted and executed. However, he did manage to convince some people. Despite a complete lack of evidence, Haigh is cited in many academic studies today as a serial killer who drank blood from his victims, and he's found on nearly every list of "modern vampires."

Back to Holmes. Like Bianchi and Haigh, Holmes is probably conversant with just how amnesia would present itself. It’s clear that his case is going to draw plenty of attention. It will be interesting to watch what he will do next. We'll definitely stay tuned.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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