I knew long before I started killing that I was going to be killing.
Mother was my biggest fear.
From the case histories of Peter Woodcock, Edward Kemper, Kenneth Bianchi, and Jerry Brudos in previous chapters, one can see that these killers had all exhibited abnormal behavior in their childhood combined with unusual family circumstances: Woodcock, given up for adoption; Kemper, abused by a neurotic, overbearing mother; Bianchi, subjected to his mother’s neurotic fears; Brudos, subjected to his mother’s derision. But many people are given up for adoption, and many grow up with domineering mothers—they do not all become serial killers. Were these killers born with something that made them respond with murder to the circumstances of their childhood? For example, both Woodcock and Kemper killed their family pets at a very early age—the killer instinct was apparently there in early childhood. David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam also killed his adopted mother’s pet bird. Animal cruelty along with bedwetting and acts of arson are frequently found in the behavioral history of serial killers when they were children.
Scientists and psychologists have been puzzling for decades over the mystery of serial killers and have collected a huge amount of data that is beginning to reveal certain distinct patterns. The most groundbreaking study was probably the one carried out by the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit in which FBI agents interviewed thirty-six sex murderers, including serial killers, about every detail of their life and crime. Since then, many other projects have attempted to confront the question of what motivates serial killers. The conclusion is that serial killers are both made and born.
When children born with certain predetermined factors are then subjected to certain life experiences, they are highly likely to become serial killers. But it is not a simple and predictable one-two-three step-by-step progression. Unraveling the making of a serial killer is like aligning a Rubik’s Cube.
The single most common factor attributed to serial killers is the likely absence of infant bonding. From the very first weeks an infant attempts to establish contact with its mother through smiles, gestures, and crying. If its efforts are rewarded with affectionate touching and attention, a baby reaches out into the world to grasp and feed. As it grows, an infant begins to distinguish between strangers and parents and between various familiar people, and it seeks close contact with its parents in a bonding process. These early stages are crucial to the adult personality because it is believed that 50 percent of a human’s “life knowledge,” which forms the behavioral and personality components, is acquired in the first twelve months, and another 25 percent in the second year. The remaining 25 percent of life knowledge is acquired between age three and death. It is believed that infants who are deprived of human affection and touch can be substantially developed psychopaths by age two, lacking a normally developed range of human emotions such as sympathy, empathy, remorse, and affection.
It is questionable how much affection Peter Woodcock’s birth mother would have shown him during the month she had him, knowing that he would be given up for adoption. It is therefore possible that no amount of loving care could have overcome the damage already done to Peter Woodcock before the Maynard family took him in.
Adoption is a frequent characteristic of serial killers. Kenneth Bianchi was adopted, as were David Berkowitz and Joel Rifkin, who murdered seventeen prostitutes in the New York area. Berkowitz and Rifkin interestingly enough are among the few rare cases of Jewish serial killers—although Berkowitz became a born-again Christian shortly before he began killing. Both were adopted into loving and stable families, which challenges the argument that chaotic family environment alone can create a serial killer.
One very common factor in the childhood of serial killers is their loneliness and isolation from their peers—even in cases where there is little or no maladjustment in parental histories. As children, they rarely fit in with their playmates. Henry Lucas and Albert DeSalvo were obviously isolated from other children outside their family by their living conditions, but the histories of other serial killers are frequently typical of Peter Woodcock’s. By the subtle rules of childhood society, they do not fit in—something is already out of kilter in their personalities.
Both Berkowitz and Rifkin had lonely childhoods and harbored secret aggressive fantasies. Berkowitz surreptitiously crushed boxes of his grandparents’ fragile matzoh and saltine crackers. His grandparents always thought the damage had happened in the store. Like Woodcock, he killed his adopted mother’s pet—in this case, a bird. Berkowitz had no childhood friends. He said, “It was a mysterious force working against me. I felt bothered and tormented, ‘Die Schmutz’ [Yiddish for ‘the dirty one’].”
Rifkin was adopted by college-educated parents who were very supportive of him and sensitive to his handicap—dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to read and spell correctly. (Lee Harvey Oswald also had it.) Rifkin unfortunately was also clumsy and stuttered slightly, isolating him from his peers. He was bullied and the butt of jokes throughout his high school career, and he maintained a very lonely existence despite his place on the track team and position as yearbook photographer. When the yearbook came out, all the students who worked on it threw a party—and Joel was the only one not invited. Rifkin showed no signs of anger and frequently took the abuse in stoic silence. Later, however, he revealed that he secretly harbored fantasies of torturing and killing passive female slaves.
Rifkin made it into his first year of community college and had several girlfriends, but he appeared to them uncommunicative and unemotional. By now Rifkin was patronizing prostitutes. He brought one home to his parents’ house and she subsequently robbed him. The next one he brought home, he killed. He went on to murder seventeen women until 1992, when police discovered a corpse in his pickup truck during a routine stop.
In 1998 police arrested twenty-seven-year-old Kendall Francois—a six-foot-four, 300-pound public school hall monitor nicknamed “Stinky” because of his bad personal hygiene. He was charged with the murder of eight Poughkeepsie, New York, prostitutes. They were found in plastic bags in the attic of his parents’ house and under the front porch. The entire neighborhood complained about the smell, but Francois convinced his parents it was coming from dead raccoons in the attic.
Kendall was taunted throughout his childhood because of his excessive weight. When he passed by, the children taunted the overweight black youth, “How now brown cow.” He is remembered by his fellow students and teachers as a “gentle giant” with limited intellectual abilities. He participated on the wrestling and football teams and attempted to adopt various identities. One high school picture shows him standing apart from the wrestling team, showing off his recently developed muscles. Another picture shows him posing in a preppy cardigan, his hand thoughtfully poised beneath his chin, a school ring prominently visible on his finger. But again, Kendall had no friends in school.
Loneliness gives these individuals time and space within which to develop, evolve, and dwell upon a fantasy life. The hostile and disempowering circumstances behind their loneliness often gives these fantasies a nasty and violent context focused on revenge and the desire for power. (See the discussion on the role of fantasy later in this chapter.)
Feminist theoreticians deeply dislike the mother component of serial killer theory, dismissing it as just another aspect of the “blame it on mother” gynocidal aspect of the male drive to kill females. Perhaps. Nonetheless, there are remarkably many serial killers whose mothers showed tendency to be highly controlling, overbearing, or overprotective of their sons.
This supports the theory that some serial killers’ behaviors are rooted in gender identification involving a boy’s ability to successfully negotiate his masculine autonomy from his mother—a challenge not faced by females. When a boy cannot achieve this autonomy or when there is no solid foundation for him from which to negotiate this autonomy, a sense of rage develops in the child, and he subsequently carries the anger into adolescence and adulthood.
We saw that Kenneth Bianchi’s adopted mother seemed to be hysterically concerned with Kenneth’s health as a child, and that the child responded to these concerns with ailments. Peter Woodcock’s foster mother is described as highly controlling and seems to have relished the challenge of her troubled foster child’s behavioral problems. Upon being arrested, Woodcock feared only one thing: “My fear was that Mother would find out. Mother was my biggest fear. I didn’t know if the police would let her at me.” Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, is remembered as a normal child except for his strange need to constantly cling to his mother’s skirt. Joseph Kallinger’s mother refused to allow him to play outside, flogged him with a whip, beat him with a hammer, threatened to cut off his genitals, and selected his wife for him. Ed Gein so worshipped his mother that he preserved her bedroom as a shrine (but not her corpse, as in the Hitchcock movie Psycho.)
Other serial killers have had mothers who were either rejecting or blatantly abusive of them. Even in his adult life, Arthur Shawcross was obsessed with pleasing his critical mother. Just before he was arrested for killing eleven prostitutes, he had sent his mother a carefully selected expensive gift, which she kept but wrote back that he was a fool for wasting his money on stupid junk. Edmund Kemper’s mother kept him locked in the basement; Jerry Brudos’s mom stuck him in the back shed. One does not need a degree in psychology to understand why children like that may grow up hating females and harboring raging homicidal fantasies.
Cases of serial killers—particularly sexual killers—where the mother was characterized as loving and encouraging toward the son’s independence are rare except in some cases of adopted children—or in the case of Ted Bundy, who thought he was adopted.
The father seems to play a lesser role in the formation of the serial killer. Nonetheless, abusive or offender fathers frequently become role models in the child’s future.
The FBI study reveals that sexual and serial killers often came from unstable family backgrounds where infant bonding was likely to be disrupted. Only 57 percent of killers in the FBI study had both parents at birth, and 47 percent had their father leave before age twelve. A mother as the dominant parent was reported in 66 percent of the cases, and 44 percent reported having a negative relationship with their mother. A negative relationship with the father or male parental figure was reported by 72 percent of the convicted sex killers.
The history of the parents had also a great role to play in the child’s future. Researchers at the Washington School of Medicine determined that biological children of parents with criminal records are four times as likely to commit criminal acts themselves as adults—even if they have been adopted by law-abiding parents! The FBI study showed that 50 percent of the offenders had parents with criminal pasts and 53 percent came from families with psychiatric histories. 161
Gerald Gallego, Jr., for example, was nine years old when his twenty-six-year-old father, Gerald Gallego, Sr., was executed in Mississippi’s gas chamber for two murders. When Gerald Jr. was thirteen he was charged with having sex with a six-year-old girl. By age thirty-two he had been married seven times and was living in California.
William Mansfield, Jr., on whose property in Florida police discovered the remains of at least six murdered women, was the son of William Mansfield, Sr., serving a thirty-year prison term for child molestation.
The FBI’s research program describes one unnamed killer’s background:
The offender’s father shot and killed one of his own brothers when the subject was thirteen. Prior to this crime, the father had been investigated concerning acts of arson and insurance fraud. The father was tried for the murder but found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was diagnosed during the trial as suffering from paranoia. The father was also suspected in the killings of two other persons, including a trespasser on his property and a foster child who had disappeared. After the murder, the father was committed to a state mental hospital; however, two years later he escaped with the help of the subject’s mother.162
Many serial killers had a truly traumatic childhood. In the FBI study, 42 percent of the killers reported physical abuse and 74 percent reported psychological abuse, while 35 percent reported witnessing sexual violence as children and 43 percent reported being sexually abused themselves. “Sexually stressful events” were reported by 73 percent of sex killers, and 50 percent admitted that their first rape fantasies began between ages twelve and fourteen. It should be noted that the FBI carefully structured its survey to eliminate self-pity and explanatory tendencies from the offenders surveyed: When asked, only 53 percent of the serial and sex killers felt themselves to have been treated unfairly as children, despite the higher reported rates of abuse.
Some psychiatrists explain the development of psychopathic tendencies as simply the brain’s defensive mechanisms. An infant that is denied human touch and affection develops a sense of only itself—it becomes completely oblivious to others. This is necessary for the infant to survive. When that infant becomes an adult, that sense of self and disregard of others becomes defined as “psychopathology.” Thus what starts in the infant’s brain as a purely defensive mechanism can become a destructive trait in adulthood.
Physical trauma, particularly head injuries, is evident in the childhood histories of many serial killers. Earle Leonard Nelson was dragged under a streetcar at age ten and remained in a coma for six days; Carlton Gary, Richard Ramirez, and John Wayne Gacy were knocked unconscious by playground swings; Gary Heidnik fell out of a tree in grade school, causing an injury that prompted his classmates to call him “football head”; Bobby Joe Long fell from a pony and remained nauseated and dizzy for weeks; Max Gufler was subject to uncontrollable outbursts of rage after being struck on the head with a rock at age nine. The FBI sexual killer study showed that 29 percent of the subjects were “accident prone” in childhood.
In some cases it is not that the psychopath necessarily wants to hurt somebody, but that he simply does not care whether he does so or not. Eventually the sexual act becomes interchangeable with murder. Henry Lee Lucas explained, “I get sex any way I can get it. If I have to force somebody to do it, I do. If I don’t, I don’t. I rape them. I’ve done that. I’ve killed animals to have sex with them. Dogs, I’ve killed them to have with them—always killed before I had sex. I’ve had sex with them while they’re still alive only sometimes. Then killing became the same things as having sex.”163
Officially, Lucas was convicted of killing “only” eleven people, mostly hitchhikers in Texas along Highway I-35. However, he claimed to have committed 360 murders across the United States, Mexico, and Canada, beginning from 1952, when he was fifteen years old, until his arrest in 1982. Police discount some of his confessions and believe that most likely he killed in the vicinity of “only” a hundred people, tops.
At one point in his history, Lucas was joined in his killing by Ottis Elwood Toole, a cannibalistic male prostitute. There was no recognizable sense or pattern to their killing. The victims were men, women, and children. They were young and they were old; they were prostitutes, businessmen, homemakers, tramps, and students. They were strangled, shot, stabbed, and battered to death. Some were raped; others were not. Some were mutilated and cannibalized while others were carefully buried. Some victims have never been identified to this day. Lucas’s childhood history can serve as a manual on how to incubate a serial killer. It includes virtually every factor reported by different serial killers in one single life.
Henry Lee Lucas was born in one of America’s poorest regions—Blacksburg, Virginia—in 1937. Viola Lucas, his mother, was a prostitute; his father, Anderson, was an alcoholic who had earlier in a drunken stupor fallen on some railway tracks and had both his legs amputated by a slowly moving train. He now supported himself and the family by skinning minks, selling pencils, and distilling illicit alcohol. The father taught Henry how to maintain their illegal distillery while he went off to get drunk. Henry himself was drinking hard liquor by age ten, and of his legless father he only remembers, “He hopped around on his ass all his life.”
Viola insisted that both Henry and his father watch her having sex with her customers in a dirt-floor three-room cabin in which they lived. If they refused, she beat them with a club. Henry said, “I don’t think any child out there should be brought up in that type of environment. In the past, I’ve hated it. It’s just inside me hate, and I can’t get away from it.”
One of Lucas’s earliest memories is of his mother shooting one of her customers in the leg with a shotgun after having sex and Henry being splashed with the man’s blood. From then on he seemed to be fascinated by blood and its association with sex.
When Henry was thirteen, his father got drunk, crawled out into the snow, and lay there until he caught pneumonia and died.
Viola beat Henry with broom handles, sticks, pieces of timber, or anything else she found. She did not allow him to cry when she was beating him, and she constantly told him that he was born evil and would die in prison. He claims that the only thing he ever loved was a pet mule, but when his mother found out about his affection for it, she forced him to watch as she shot it dead. She then beat him for how much it was going to cost to haul the dead animal away.
One day when Henry was too slow getting wood for the stove, Viola hit him so hard with a piece of lumber that he remained unconscious for three days until he was finally taken to a hospital. Afterward he recalled frequent incidents of dizziness, blackouts, and weightless sensation. About a year later, while roughhousing with his brother, Henry was accidentally sliced with a knife across his left eye. The eye was left untreated and eventually had to be replaced with a glass eye.
Henry admitted to having sex with his half-brother and to the two of them cutting the throats of animals and performing acts of bestiality. He later said, “Sex is one of my downfalls.”
On his first day of school, Viola sent Henry to class dressed as a girl, with his long hair set in curls and wearing a dress. Ironically, Ottis Toole, who would partner with Lucas in the crime spree, was also dressed as a girl in petticoats and lace by his mother. At least seven male serial killers, including Charles Manson, are known to have been dressed as girls in their childhood. Eddie Cole, who murdered thirteen victims, was dressed as “Mamma’s little girl” by his mother and forced to serve drinks to her guests.164
One would think that serial killers exaggerate their childhood backgrounds in attempt to gain sympathy, and many do. In the case of Henry Lee Lucas, however, the details of his childhood history have been independently corroborated through various sources and witnesses, including his neighbors and former schoolteacher. Lucas was not exaggerating when he said, “They ain’t got, I don’t think, a human being alive that can say he had the childhood I had.”
There are questions as to whether there are biological factors linked to serial killing. After Henry Lee Lucas was convicted, he underwent numerous neurological tests that revealed fairly extensive brain damage. Small contusions indicated a frontal lobe injury, and there was damage to his temporal lobe and pools of spinal fluid at the base of his brain. There was an enlargement of the right and left Sylvian fissure at the expense of the surrounding brain tissue, which indicated significant loss of judgmental functions and was the result of head injuries sustained in childhood. CAT scans and nuclear magnetic resonance tests confirmed a brain abnormality consistent with an individual with diminished control over violent impulses.
Toxicology tests revealed unusually high levels of lead and cadmium in his nerve tissue, which combined with years of alcohol abuse to destroy a significant part of his cerebral capacity. Three indicators of cadmium poisoning are loss of dream recall, excessively strong body odor, and loss of sense of smell. Lucas does not remember his dreams and rode in a car through Texas heat with the head of one of his victims for more than three days, oblivious to the smell of the decaying flesh. His teacher recalls that as a child, Lucas smelled very bad.
Malnutrition can also be a significant contributor to brain damage. Viola forced Lucas and his father to scrounge for food on the streets and in garbage cans. His teacher reports that she brought him to her home to feed him hot meals, and Lucas recalls that those were the only hot meals he received in his life prior to jail.
Maternal alcohol or drug abuse also increases the chances of prenatal injury of the fetus. The FBI study indicated that 69 percent of subjects indicated a family history of alcohol abuse and 33 percent had family problems with drugs.
Other family violence can also potentially injure the unborn child. The father of Patrick Mackay in England repeatedly kicked his wife in the stomach while she was expecting the child. Mackay’s father was a violent and abusive alcoholic until he died when Mackay was ten years old. The son then seems to have adopted the father’s identity. He assaulted other children at his school and tortured animals. He became addicted to alcohol at an early age and became, like his father, violent under its influence. By the time he was fifteen, social workers had described Mackay as “a cold psychopathic killer.”
Mackay began killing at age twenty-two in London in 1974. His victims were usually elderly women, whom he would stab or strangle in their homes and then rob. Mackay was caught when he returned to rob a sixty-four-year-old Catholic priest who had helped him two years earlier. He stabbed the priest in his home and then split his head open with an axe; however, this failed to kill the priest. Mackay then put him into a bathtub full of water and sat on the edge for an hour as the priest died. Because the police were aware of the connection between Mackay and the victim, he was apprehended within forty-eight hours and eventually charged with five murders, but suspected in a total of eleven.
In the end, what makes a serial killer still remains a mystery to psychologists. In the case of severely abused children, anyone can understand their eventual emergence as psychopathic killers. But what about David Berkowitz and Peter Woodcock? Although adopted, they seemed to have been brought up in stable and loving homes. Thousands of children are adopted and do not grow up to be serial killers. Thousands of children grow up in conditions far more desperate and abusive than Berkowitz’s and Woodcock’s, and they too do not become serial killers. Part of the problem is that we are no longer sure of what defines a “healthy” and “happy” family. The incidence of abuse, physical and psychological, is often hidden from public eye, and only in the last two decades has the true extent of sexual abuse within families come to the forefront.
Dr. Alice Miller, in her book For Your Own Good, maintains that the origins of adult violent behavior are found in a level of cruelty in the upbringing of children that is ostensibly invisible. Miller described a “poisonous pedagogy” in which children are cruelly punished while being told it is “for their own good.” Such demonstrations of pain and punishment as being “good” send the wrong message to the child. Moreover, the parents’ display of their “heroic” suspension of their love and feeling of tenderness for their child in order to inflict punishment upon him—“this hurts me more than it hurts you”—is another disturbing message a child can receive. While parental discipline is a common and necessary aspect of bringing up children, the fine line between abuse and constructive discipline is very murky and difficult to objectively define.
The agents from the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit who were interviewing convicted serial and sex killers arrived at a different and more complex theory than the one that many psychologists were advancing. The FBI rejected the notion that serial killers murdered as a defensive-reactive response to extremely abusive experiences in their life. What troubled the FBI analysts was the fact that not all serial killers whom they were interviewing suffered severe abuse in childhood. For example, Ted Bundy, although born illegitimate, grew up in an apparently stable, lower-middle-class home with a loving mother and supportive stepfather. Where, why, and how did he develop the rage that led him to kill twenty young women?
The FBI concluded that serial murderers “programmed” or conditioned themselves in childhood to become murderers in a progressively intensifying loop of fantasies. They discovered that the most common childhood trait of serial killers, which also extended into adolescence and adulthood, was daydreaming and compulsive masturbation. As defined in the study, daydreaming is “any cognitive activity representing a shift of attention away from a task.” Fantasy is defined as an elaborate thought with great preoccupation, sometimes expressed as thought, images, or feelings only, anchored in the daydreaming process.165 In the FBI study, 82 percent of offenders reported daydreaming in their childhood. An equal 82 percent reported compulsive masturbation (probably accompanying the daydreams).166 When the offenders reached adolescence and then adulthood, there was only a 1 percent drop in their daydreaming and compulsive masturbation.
Fantasies serve to relieve anxiety or fear, and almost everybody has them to one degree or another. A child who is abused may understandably develop aggressive fantasies in which he develops a power and means by which he can destroy his tormentor. But the trigger of these fantasies does not necessarily need to be extraordinarily abusive or violent events—relatively common events such as parental divorce, family illness, or even rejection by a friend can all give a child a sense of loss of control, anxiety, and fear, and may spark aggressive fantasies as a method of coping with the stress.
Only at this point do the other factors noted in the serial killers’ childhood take effect. The child who lacks bonding and a sense of contact with others will internalize his fantasy and cloud the boundary between fantasy and reality. Living in his own private world, the child begins to repeat and elaborate on the fantasy, finding comfort in it while continually narrowing the perimeters between fantasy and reality. Of the killers interviewed in the FBI study, 71 percent reported a sense of isolation in their childhood. As they grew into adolescence, the sense of isolation apparently increased to 77 percent of subjects.167 Such increased social isolation only encourages a reliance on fantasy as a substitute for human encounter. And as we have seen, so many serial killers were lonely and isolated children.
The individual’s personality development becomes dependent on the fantasy life and its themes rather than on social interaction. The total escape and control that the child has in his fantasy world becomes addictive, especially if there are continued stresses in the child’s life.
If the particular fantasy involves violence, revenge, or murder, they become part of that addiction; when they are combined with masturbation, a sexual component to the fantasy is developed. Psychologists identify this process as classical conditioning, in which “the repeated pairing of fantasized cues with orgasm results in their acquiring sexually arousing properties.”168 One serial killer who murdered young boys, John Joseph Joubert, remembers as an adolescent compulsively masturbating to fantasies of strangling and stabbing boys dressed only in their underwear. Joubert said that he could not recall whether these images brought on the masturbation or whether masturbation brought on the fantasies. Violence and sex become merged into a murderous obsession, which often is kept secret. As one unnamed killer in the FBI study said, “Nobody bothered to find out what my problem was, and nobody knew about the fantasy world.”
As the individual continually refines and “improves on” his repeated fantasy, eventually it becomes a rehearsal for future action. At some point the serial killer, as an adolescent or as an adult (and occasionally even as a child), begins to take his fantasy out into the world on “test runs.” This testing of the fantasy is what Ed Kemper was doing when he went to his schoolteacher’s house at night armed with a knife and a fantasy of making love to her corpse. Thirteen-year-old John Joubert rode by a girl on his bicycle and jabbed a sharp pencil into her back. Monte Ralph Rissell, who raped and murdered five women by age nineteen, shot his cousin with an air gun when he was nine years old. When Ted Bundy was three years old, his fifteen-year-old aunt awoke one morning to find him secretly lifting up her bedcovers and placing three butcher knives beside her. As an adult, Bundy began sabotaging women’s cars without any clear plan of what he would do if he succeeded in trapping a woman by those means.
The stage at which an individual begins to project his fantasy into the real world and involve other people in it is the fundamental difference between the fantasies that you and I as children spin out in our imaginations, tranquil or violent, and those that originate in the mind of the serial killer.
The most common testing out of murder fantasies in childhood involves the torture and killing of animals and bullying of fellow children. The FBI study indicated that 36 percent of subjects displayed cruelty to animals in their childhood, and 46 percent did so by the time they were adolescents; bullying of other children increased from 54 percent to 64 percent from childhood to adolescence.
Accompanying cruelty to animals and bullying, other behavioral traits were reported in the FBI survey as follows: stealing, 56 percent in childhood and 81 percent in adolescence; fire setting, 56 percent and 52 percent; bedwetting, 68 percent and 60 percent; nightmares, 67 percent and 68 percent; and rebelliousness, 67 percent and 84 percent.
Fire setting, cruelty to animals, and bedwetting form a behavioral triad that is most often identified with the childhood histories of serial killers. Most psychiatrists agree that the appearance of all three behaviors in a child signals a high likelihood of a future violent adult.
The commission of lesser crimes, such as breaking and entering, arson, voyeurism, and exhibitionism, is also a common trait in the histories of serial killers. Fetish theft—of women’s underwear from clotheslines, or shoes during burglaries—are sometimes seen in the childhood records of serial killers. Jerry Brudos, for example, was obsessed with women’s shoes, and even stole his teacher’s shoes as a schoolboy. Twenty years later as an adult, he hacked off the foot of one of his victims and kept it in his freezer, slipped into one of his favorite high-heeled shoes. The Brudos case illustrates an important lesson: Ostensibly harmless or “comical” offenses, such as stealing women’s shoes or underwear from a laundry, should not be dismissed without additional attention, especially if the offender is young. Such offenses may seem innocuous on the surface, but in murkier depths they can harbor homicidal roots. It is remarkable how many serial killers have records, some going back decades before they first killed, of minor sexual offenses such as window peeping or exhibitionism. While most minor sexual offenders do not go on to kill, most serial killers do begin with minor offenses. These offenses are often testing probes of fantasy into the realm of reality. If the individual escapes detection or avoids sanction for these offenses, especially at a young age, he can develop a sense of invincibility that carries him to the ultimate deadly peak of his fantasy. One murderer in the FBI study (probably Ed Kemper) easily made the connection between fantasy and homicide, explaining that “Murder is very real. It’s not something you see in a movie. You have to do all the practical things of surviving.”169
Unfortunately fantasy and reality rarely come together, and the serial killer is often frustrated in his attempts to perfectly bring his frequently dwelled-upon fantasy into actuality. When disappointed in the results of his attempt to realize his fantasy exactly as imagined, the killer murders again and again, searching to perfect his desperate attempts to consummate his ideal fantasy. In many ways, serial murder is a learning experience from beginning to end.
Some serial killers, when they actually succeed in realizing their fantasy, stop killing. Ed Kemper’s deepest fantasy was to kill his mother, and when he finally did that, after killing one more woman, he turned himself in. It appears that Andrew Cunanan’s fantasy was to kill a famous person, with Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone, and Gianni Versace on his list. Having killed Versace, and no doubt found it unsatisfying, Cunanan saw no point in continuing to pursue his fantasy and shot himself.
Other serial killers, however, once they find the key to acting out their deepest fantasy, continue murdering to repeat the fantasy—they “level out” and begin practicing a perfected ritualistic routine in their homicides, from which they try never to waver and which always leaves them wanting more. Other killers become bored with their fantasy once they have actualized it, and they escalate to more elaborate or violent fantasies in an addictive search of a more intensive “high.”
The serial killer’s personality is a complex cocktail of biological, environmental, and social circumstances. There is no one clear formula for the making of a serial killer. Some children in traumatic circumstances resort to humorous fantasy and become great comedians; some escape by weaving fantastic stories and grow up to be great writers; others illustrate their fantasies and become painters; others become architects, businessmen, lawyers, politicians, and generals (where in some cases they are given medals and honors for killing in numbers that far exceed any serial killer’s body count, a cynic may respond). It is remarkable how many successful individuals can have as traumatic a childhood as serial killers do. But just to complicate such distinctions, one should not overlook the fact that some serial killers are ostensibly successful. John Wayne Gacy, who murdered thirty-three young males, was a construction contractor respected in his community who earned more than $100,000 a year. Ted Bundy was a university graduate and was admitted into law school. Christopher Wilder of Florida, who raped and murdered twelve women, was the owner of two construction companies, an amateur racecar driver, and a substantial contributor to the Seal Rescue Fund and Save the Whales. Richard Cottingham, the Times Square Torso Ripper, was a valued computer data specialist at Blue Cross in New York. Gary Heidnik, who kept female slaves shackled in a fetid basement pit (and upon whom the character of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs was partially based), was a financial wizard who parlayed a small investment into a fortune. He owned several expensive cars, including a Rolls-Royce, and founded his own church in order to avoid paying taxes. Despite his wealth, he chose to live in North Philadelphia’s ghetto in a rundown home where he kept, tortured, raped, and killed his slaves.* In each of these cases, the killers’ fantasies were bigger than any achievement in their life.
The key to the making of serial killers lies in the nature of their fantasy and how they actualize it. FBI agents who interviewed convicted serial killers for their study remarked that the one thing that the murderers had difficulty talking about was their childhood fantasies. Somewhere in that dark territory lurks the killer seed. The FBI reported:
Interviews with the murderers in our study revealed that their internal world is filled with troublesome, joyless thoughts of dominance over others. These thoughts are expressed through a wide range of actions toward others. In childhood, these include cruelty to animals, abuse of other children, destructive play patterns, disregard for others, fire setting, stealing, and destroying property. In adolescence and adulthood, the murderers’ actions become more violent: assaultive behaviors, burglary, arson, abduction, rape, nonsexual murder, and finally sexual murder, involving rape, torture, mutilation, and necrophilia.170
Ed Kemper said, “I knew long before I started killing that I was going to be killing, that it was going to end up like that. The fantasies were too strong. They were going on for too long and were too elaborate.”