Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

When Psychopaths Find Love

Apparently, there's someone for everyone, even maniacs.

“Natalya” told reporters it was “love at first sight” when she saw “Bittsa Maniac” Alexander Pichushkin on TV. Arrested in 2006, Pichushkin, 32, was close to his goal of committing one murder for each of the 64 squares on a chessboard. He was convicted of 49, which enraged him, because he claimed 62 and he’d wanted to make history. The courts had spoiled his game.

Pichushkin often targeted the elderly. He’d invite his victim to drink with him in a secluded area. Once they were drunk, he’d bash in their heads with a hammer. Often he’d dump them into a sewer pit. In an interview, he stated, “A life without murder is a life without food” and had described his killing career as a “perpetual orgasm.”

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This is the creep that Natalya intends to marry. “I go to bed thinking about him,” she said in a TV interview in Russia, “I wake up thinking about him.”

It’s no surprise to learn that she’s survived an abusive first marriage, which had led to substance abuse. This is common to significant perceentage of women who get involved with incarcerated killers. Then she saw Pichushkin and began to correspond with him. “He became my ray of sunshine.”

And it wasn’t like he admitted remorse. “He told me in detail about the murders he committed, and how it was 'interesting for him to turn the living into the dead.'”

For some reason, she doesn’t grasp that she’s one of these “living” that he’d probably like to kill.

So, what’s with a person like Natalya who can dismiss such egregious behavior? Can love produce that much of a cognitive distortion? You can name almost any infamous killer – Ramirez, Bundy, Gacy, Bianchi – and you’ll find a groupie bound to him, possibly in lawfully wedded bliss.

Well, maybe it’s the danger. Some women find violence exciting. With their lover safely locked up, they’re free to fantasize. Psychologist Michael Apter suggests that once something is labeled “dangerous,” it can exert a magical attraction that makes us feel alive. "Protective frames" diminish the anxiety, so we develop narratives about evildoers that include buffers of safety. Thus, we can enjoy danger and allow ourselves close. Some of the groupies have clearly spun a "protective narrative."       

For example, the Beauty and the Beast syndrome. Some women who love killers imagine getting close to a dangerous alpha-male who will probably not hurt them – but there’s always the slight chance. In fact, for women who’ve been abused, this scenario can feel so familiar they confuse it with finding a soul mate.

However, many serial killer groupies are educated and attractive. Some have money and careers, and some are already married. Quite a few are mothers, and many have worked in some field related to law enforcement or rehabilitation. Clearly, there's something else going on than desperation, delusion, or insecurity.

Many of these women devote themselves entirely to the inmate and make significant sacrifices, sometimes sitting for hours every week to await a brief face-to-face visit in prison. They may give up jobs or families to be near their true love. A few even go deep into debt. Some have lied about the offender to try to get him a new trial or early release.

Experts who've taken the time to learn about women like Natalya have offered a variety of reasons why they get involved with men who kill. 

Some women have “rescue fantasies,” in which they believe they can reform someone as cruel and powerful as a serial killer. They view their love for him as the magical ingredient he was lacking. Or they might find a maternal need to nurture met, as they “see” the little boy the killer once was. 

Some women seek celebrity status and media exposure – even if there's a dubious quality to it. Natalya went on TV and even dressed as a bride for photos.

In addition, some women believe they cannot find a man and since men in prison are desperately lonely, it’s an easy way to get romantically hooked up. They align themselves against the world in defense of their beloved. Thus, they gain purpose and feel loved. (Also, they don't have to do his laundry or answer to him. There's that.)

Whether the Bittsa Maniac can actually love anyone, Natalya included, is unclear. News reports suggest that she hasn't actually met him. Still, this relationship has improved her outlook on life. So, for Valentine’s Day, when romantic fantasies flourish, we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

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

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