Andrei Chikatilo secretly carried knives wherever he went. Jeffrey Dahmer committed his first act of violence in revenge. Edmund Kemper obsessed during childhood over visions of decapitation. Anthony Sowell was into BDSM. In his latest book, Real Life Monsters, Stephen Giannangelo notes these facts as he examines eight cases of serial murder. He also throws in the transcript of an interview with an unnamed offender.

I try to read books and papers on serial murder that avoid superficial pop culture presentations. Giannangelo is among those researchers who accept the complexity of factors involved in the development of these offenders, rather than seeking easy categories or simple answers.

“While it’s possible to create subgroups of various serial killers,” he says, “it’s my position that there is more value in the identification of the serial killer personality, essence, and motivation than to paint oneself into a corner trying to force an offender into a pattern that’s too restrictive.”

Along with a handful of other researchers over the past decade, he recognizes the interplay of biological and environmental influences, which clearly are processed differently from one individual to another.

Even so, Giannangelo acknowledges inconsistencies in the data, since some offenders get a more thorough work-up on these details than others (not to mention all the media distortions). This makes it difficult to develop a substantial theory that could assist with prediction and treatment.

Giannangelo lists some of the same false but persistent assumptions that I teach in my course on serial murder:

  • Serial killers are recognizable suspects
  • They have high IQs
  • They want to get caught
  • They must kill three to be considered a serial killer

As he works his way toward his “diathesis-stress” model, Giannangelo argues that there is a sufficient clustering of traits and behaviors to make serial murder a diagnosable condition in the DSM, the primary psychiatric diagnostic manual. It could be called Homicidal Pattern Disorder, listed in the impulse control disorder category.

In an earlier book, The Psychopathology of Serial Murder, Giannangelo examined the mechanisms of addiction, in which the brain choreographs the body’s information processing system, directing the neurotransmitters. In brief, for those who find their reward in rape or lust killing, it feels better in the brain and body to act out than to inhibit the impulse. The person grows bolder in pursuit of it, and then desperate for it.

Giannangelo describes the excitement of an assault that can propel someone over the line to commit a murder. Killers might understand the crime’s seriousness but will nevertheless experience such a rush from discovering “what they truly need” that they will proceed. If they get away with it, they develop confidence, which inspires them to seek the same excitement again.

“These killers seem to evidence a pervasive lost sense of self,” Giannangelo points out, “an inadequacy of identity, a feeling of no control. These could all be factors in a pathology that manifests itself in the ultimate act of control – the murder … of other human beings.”

The most riveting part of Real Life Monsters is Giannangelo’s interview with an incarcerated serial killer. He does not name this man (just calls him “Rick”), and it’s clear that he sought out someone who was not looking for publicity or selling murderabilia, but was willing to talk. Rick had assaulted and murdered at least ten women. He doesn't brag; he doesn't strut. He's aware that it's nothing to be proud of. However, he's willing to assist a researcher.

Rick described the process of becoming a serial killer as being rooted in extreme fantasies, adding that some men get “ultra-arousal that is personally gratifying and exciting.” Such offenders move from a controlled obsession developed in their youth to outright violence after a specific trigger is tripped. “You can only put in so much of the fantasy world,” he says, “before something escapes into reality.”

Rick thinks that failed coping mechanisms and something called “conscious override” are involved, as well as the interaction of a negative event early in life with “something else.” Violent pornography, for example, can be a significant influence on those who are vulnerable to primitive brain mechanisms. Right or wrong, it's interesting to read Rick's self-assessment.

To wind it up, Giannangelo believes that future research should focus on issues of control, especially in terms of offenders with similar backgrounds. He also thinks there should be more variety among the cases, including more in-depth studies of female serial killers. Items he identifies as important include biological factors, fantasies, early crimes, and cyclical patterns. 

This is a serious book. You’ll get case histories, but the impetus is to develop a viable theory for improved research methods. That's a good thing.

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