“Serial murder may, in fact, be a much older phenomenon than we realize. The stories and legends that have filtered down about witches and werewolves and vampires may have been a way of explaining outrages so hideous that no one in the small and close-knit towns of Europe and early America could comprehend the perversities we now take for granted. Monsters had to be supernatural creatures. They couldn’t be just like us.”
TITLE & AUTHOR: Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by John E. Douglas, Mark Olshaker
GENRE: True Crime/Nonfiction/Psychology
FIRST PUBLISHED : October 31st 1995
MY RATING: 5/5
He has hunted some of the most notorious and sadistic criminals of our time: The Trailside Killer in San Francisco, the Atlanta Child murderer. He has confronted, interviewed and researched dozens of serial killers and assassins, including Charles Manson, Richard Speck, John Wayne Gacy, and James Earl Ray – for a landmark study to understand their motives. To get inside their minds. He is Special Agent John Douglas, the model for law enforcement legend Jack Crawford in Thomas Harris’s thrillers Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, and the man who ushered in a new age in behavorial science and criminal profiling. Recently retired after twenty-five years of service, John Douglas can finally tell his unique and compelling story.
I’ve talked many times before how I enjoy listening to true crime podcasts and watching any and all docuseries on the subject, but I’m really ashamed to admit this is only my third true crime novel. The first two were I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, one of the best nonfiction books I ever read (HBO docuseries starting tomorrow!!!), and Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, by the hosts of my #1 fave podcast – My Favorite Murder. Both of those were sort of trending in the true crime world once I happened myself on them, but I thought it’s high time I tried some of the classics in the genre. And what book better to start with than the OG Holden Ford’s Mindhunter. (John Douglas, sir, if you’re reading this, I am SO sorry.) And yeah, it was also trending, because of the insanely good Netflix TV show of the same name. So.
John E. Doglas was an FBI agent, but more importantly, a profiler. One of the first men witnessing major changes in the final phases of Hoover regime, including the inclusion of women to the ranks, important changes to the ruthless cop-lifestyle, but also the use of psychology and profiling to discover serial offenders. In the early 70’s, when Douglas was a young freshman agent, the term serial killer wasn’t even coined yet, but it was evident that some killers were different than the others. Some killed out of, let’s call it necessity – money/drug feuds, scorned lovers, revenge killings, but some were so devious in the way they planned their crimes, then acted on their urges, and then they did it all over again. Serial offenders were both morbidly fascinating and ultimately unreachable to some agents, that this resulted in the creation of a special unit inside FBI – Behavioral Science Unit or BSU.
Douglass was one of the first agents attached to it, and one of the biggest players. This book contains his experiences with many infamous and many lesser known serial offenders, many anecdotes, if we can call them as such, but is also a memoir of his career, his life work. It’s a book about how psychology influenced major advances in criminal investigation, in cop lingo. The style is pretty gritty, and reads like something Horatio Caine would write, but talks about something eloquent, like behavioral profiles. I liked that contrast, and how, once the BSU agents adopted the basics of this new profiling, the field agents were acting on it like magnificent robots. At one point in the book, Douglas was consulted on the phone for a crime he couldn’t attend to because of the sheer volume of his work, and based on just a few things, like the verbal description of the crime scene, the victim, and the area where the crime happened, he provided a full profile of the killer, including his day-to-day habits, level of education and a probable area where he might live. And yes, it all turned out to be 100% true. They were like the modern Sherlock Holmes.
There are tons of stories in this book, of many people you’ve heard of before, like Manson, Kemper, Berkowitz, and for all the fame they garnered in later years, Douglas talks about them like about any other perp, I really like that. If I can take one thing I learned from this book, it’s that it solidified my stance on the death penalty, life imprisonment and criminal rehabilitation, because no matter how much we glorify Manson and Bundy and Dahmer, put them on our t-shirts and jokingly name our pets after them, that doesn’t erase the fact they committed some of the most heinous acts outside any military conflict. Here’s an anecdote which put things into perspective for me:
“Another time he found an injured sparrow that had flown in through one of the broken windows and nursed it back to health. When it was healthy enough to stand, he tied a string around its leg and had it perch on his shoulder. At one point, a guard told him pets weren’t allowed. “I can’t have it?” Speck challenged, then walked over to a spinning fan and threw the small bird in it. Horrified, the guard said, “I thought you liked that bird.” “I did,” Speck replied. “But if I can’t have it, no one can.” – This speaks volumes on the different ways our mind works comparing to the one of a serial killer. The fact that we can misconstrue a nursing of a bird for love, and acknowledge that act as a sign of change, repentance or even rehabilitation, it just means we cannot even grasp what goes inside their heads. They always put power over love, even if that IS love in the way we feel it, and as soon as they feel that power wane, they are prepared to end lives and do the most horrific things like that *snaps fingers*.
“But what my colleagues and I have found and have tried desperately to get across to others in the business or correction and forensic psychology is that dangerousness is situational. If you can keep someone in a well-ordered environment where he doesn’t have choices to make, he may be fine. But put him back in the environment in which he did badly before, his behavior can quickly change.”
Tying to the story above, it can definitely seem that a person has changed, and it doesn’t even have to happen through narcissistic manipulation, it doesn’t even have to be intentional, it can only be the fact they’re out of their physical area, or a comfort zone, they’re out of victims to harm, so how can you say a vicious murderer or a rapist is rehabilitated, when he’s spent the last 10 years with men, and he usually attacks 15 year-old blonde girls? I am not for the death penalty, at all, as in most cases it doesn’t come close to the horrifying suffering the victim endured, I am all for the life sentence, which will firstly keep the offender off the streets, and secondly it will usually subdue them in a way they will start to lead almost a normal life. Which again, is not a sign of rehabilitation for this kind of offender. There is no change for a serial killer or a rapist, once made that way, it’s what they are, forever.
I’ll finish this review with another quote from Douglas, perhaps the most meaningful one on the topic:
“In all my years of research and dealing with violent offenders, I’ve never yet come across one who came from what I would consider a good background and functional, supportive family unit. ” – “So what I truly believe is that along with more money and police and prisons, what we most need more of is love. This is not being simplistic; it’s at the very heart of the issue.”