Baiting Predators

Brain damage and the serial killer

Posted Feb 06, 2012

Tony Ciaglia was a normal adolescent boy until an accident changed his life. He sustained a traumatic brain injury to the frontal lobe that dramatically changed his personality. He felt depressed, angry, and confused, and he often hated those he once had loved. Constantly medicated to control his moods, Tony could not filter or inhibit socially inappropriate acts. Then he discovered serial killers.

Award-winning writer Pete Earley's recent book, The Serial Killer Whisperer, is quite unique. He met Tony and his family and mapped the difficult experience that made Tony remarkably resonant with some of the meanest men alive. Thus, this compelling narrative revolves around the most salient issue in criminology today: the criminal brain.

In my own research, I have tracked cases from the past century of mental health experts who cozied up to killers to woo them into frank revelations. Today we know more about the brain's role in a violent individual's warped perspective and behavior. While Earley's book supports what neuroscientists have discovered, it also adds a key point: brain scans alone will not explain what motivates extreme violence.

When Tony read some Internet accounts of serial killers, he thought that their attitudes seemed similar to his. He read more and became obsessed. He wanted to know them personally. With his father's careful monitoring, he took up dozens of correspondences with the likes of such killers as Tommy Lynn Sells, David Gore, Arthur Shawcross, Ken Bianchi, and Joe Metheny.

Tony told them about his accident and its emotional aftermath, and they freely confided their experience of targeting and killing their victims. Their letters were vulgar and brutal, but due to Tony's brain injury, he could listen without judgment. He understood their hatred and rage because he felt it, too. He even absorbed their language and began to use it.

However, at times Tony found his new friends disturbing. When he visited crime scenes, he experienced the victims as people, not just pawns in some evil game.

Realizing this, Tony began to grasp that although he shared common emotions with these killers, he did not view people as potential victims. Just because he had a similar dysfunction did not make him a potential serial killer.

With his father's help, Tony turned his disability into a gift. Some of the killers had talked about as-yet unsolved murders, so they'd provided clues that Tony believed could help close some cold cases. He set about doing this.

Despite the book's title, Earley's main focus is not the killers. The real story centers on what happens to Tony and his family as they move together into this disturbing realm. Earley invites readers intimately into a family's struggles. His typical MO is to fully immerse, so I asked him to tell me what it was like to develop a narrative that involved so much graphic violence.

"The editor and I had several long conversations about how much to include," he told me. "How do you convey the casualness of these guys and the horror of their acts without turning readers off? You want readers to see just how depraved they are."

"So we decided to err on the side of putting it all in. Some is just extremely difficult to read, like Joe Metheny giving a recipe for how to carve up a body and serve it to unsuspecting people at a barbeque stand, or Gore talking about how he raped and tortured people before shooting them in the head. I just hope that when people read this they see how insignificant these people were to these killers."

Earley had bonded with Tony's father, Al, "because he wanted his son to have some purpose in his life. It was difficult for Tony to find an acceptable hobby. When he'd discovered other people like him, he had no filter, so he wasn't shocked. He could read this stuff without judgment. I think that Tony's parents were just thrilled that he had found something to do. They never anticipated that he would get the amount of response that he did."

So, what would make a person like Tony, who shared a similar neurological profile, different from his incarcerated pals?

"What's fascinating," says Earley, "is what causes a person to cross the line. Just because you have a similar brain injury, will you be like them? Or does a loving family and a relationship make a difference?"

Although Tony's story doesn't fully answer this question, it does suggest that nurture has as much – if not more – force than nature. The Serial Killer Whisperer raises important issues about the development of individuals into offenders whom we often dismiss as lost causes. Tony's story gives us reason to re-examine some key assumptions.

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