Sexual serial killers aren't acting out random
bursts of depression or anger; they are trying
to fill an emptiness in their souls.
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By Stephen G. Michaud
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from salon.com | August 25, 1999
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It was easily the strangest interview of my life: Ted Bundy on death row explaining to me in the third person how a sexualized murder occurs:
"The initial sexual encounter," said Bundy, "would be more or less a voluntary one that did not wholly gratify the full spectrum of desires that he had intended. And so, his sexual desire builds back up and joins ... this other need to totally possess her. As she lay there, somewhere between coma and sleep, he strangled her to death."
The pivotal word here is possess. At the time, I hardly understood what Bundy meant by it, and it remains a little-appreciated particularity in the ritualistic killer's psyche. It is nevertheless central to his crimes, and distinguishes him from every other criminal, deviant or otherwise.
Possession in its aberrant sense is newly relevant this summer with the sudden rise of disturbed murderers in every corner of the country. From the killer kids in Colorado to a homicidal janitor at Yosemite, around America with serial "Railway Killer" Angel Maturino Resendez, down to Mark Barton's day-trader hell in Atlanta and on to deranged bigot Buford Furrow's rampage in Los Angeles two weeks ago, 1999 has been a banner year for murderous moral imbeciles.
Right now we seem inexplicably under siege not by armies, or even gangs, but by mostly middle-class white guys of varying ages who are skidding wildly out of control, targeting multiple defenseless victims, usually strangers, for murder.
But they are not interchangeable pieces of the same macabre puzzle. There is a world of deviant difference between deeply troubled shooters such as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High and sexually motivated ritual predators like Resendez, who has been charged in four states with nine serial murders and one rape (and is rumored to have had post-mortem sex with at least one of his other female victims), or Cary Stayner, who is accused of brutally dispatching four females at Yosemite, two by strangulation and two by slitting their throats -- decapitating one, nearly decapitating the other.
The difference is possession.
Newport Beach, Calif., forensic psychiatrist Park Elliott Dietz has shown that most mass murders (defined by the FBI as "a homicide involving four or more victims in one location and within one event") are committed by the depressed and the paranoid, who see themselves as agents, even heroes, of retribution, angrily lashing out at a world they fear and hate.
If they survive going postal (and few of them do), Dietz reports, mass killers are uniformly disappointed to discover the experience doesn't solve, but actually intensifies, their psychic pain. Moreover, for all the bloody drama, mass murder is a copycat crime. These killers take their inspiration from each other, all variations on an original theme by Charles Joseph Whitman, the University of Texas tower shooter who invented modern mass murder 33 years ago.
Not so the self-realizing ritualistic killer, who selects for cunning, psychopathology and hyper-narcissism. Above all, this killer savors his work, obsesses on it, keeps souvenirs and sometimes detailed records. He is not in pain; he causes it. His need exceeds sex and violence. It is a pathological desire for complete mastery; he wants to engulf and to annihilate a victim. As Bundy explicitly expressed it to me, the thrill in sexual homicide comes with "possessing" victims "physically as one would possess a potted plant, a painting or a Porsche. Owning, as it were, this individual."
Roy Hazelwood, a former FBI profiler and specialist in sexual criminals now retired from the bureau's Behavioral Science Unit, says it was Harvey Glatman, Los Angeles' so-called Lonely Hearts Killer of the 1950s, who first illustrated this truth to him.
Studying Glatman (who was executed in 1959), Hazelwood puzzled over his habit of first incapacitating his victims in their apartments, then binding them and transporting them out into the desert, where Glatman finally killed them. "He could have raped and killed these women in their apartments," says Hazelwood. "But Glatman kept them alive at increased risk to himself. I realized that the enjoyment he took made the risk worth it to him. I later understood that enjoyment, that sense of possession, is power to the ritualistic offender, and total possession is absolute power."
All sexual crime is driven by fantasy -- Stayner, the accused Yosemite killer, told a reporter he'd been dreaming of killing women for 30 years, since he was 7 -- and because no two serial killers share exactly the same murder fantasy, possession means something different to each of them, too.
Bundy, for example, desired a lifeless female form -- comatose or dead. Just before his 1989 execution, he admitted to police detectives that he kept some of his victims in such a state for hours or days before disposing of them. Various of his 30 or so victims were buried in shallow woodland graves, where he sometimes revisited them. One who was found frozen in the mountains of Utah appeared to have received a post-mortem shampoo. Another was given a fresh application of make-up before Bundy discarded her body. "If you've got time, they can be anyone you want them to be," he later told FBI agent Bill Hagmaier, who came to know Bundy intimately while interviewing him in the 1980s.
Bundy explained to the agent that "murder isn't just a crime of lust or violence. It becomes possession. They are part of you ... You feel the last bit of breath leaving their bodies ... You're looking into their eyes ... A person in that situation is God!"
Bundy even photographed his victims and kept a stash of their skulls in his Seattle apartment. "When you work hard to do something right," he said, "you don't want to forget it."
For Mike DeBardeleben, a sexual sadist who is spending the balance of his days in federal prison for crimes as various as counterfeiting and rape-abduction, possession meant a live victim, suffering under his control. "There is no greater power over another person than that of inflicting pain on her," DeBardeleben wrote in his private journal. "To force her to undergo suffering without her being able to defend herself. The pleasure in the constant domination over another person is the very essence of the sadistic drive."
John Wayne Gacy asserted total command of his young male victims by burying most of them directly under his house. They literally were arrayed beneath his feet.
Jeffrey Dahmer went so far as to physically consume his victims -- complete possession, total annihilation -- as did California serial killer Edmund Kemper, who sliced a bit of one girl's leg into a macaroni casserole.
Experts describe possession as something familiar to us all -- possessiveness -- taken to its pathological extreme. "Along the continuum of sexual behavior from an innocent kiss to rape-murder," says Robert E. Freeman-Longo, a leading authority on sexual abuse and former director of sex offender treatment at Oregon State Hospital, "possessiveness is first noticeable among intimate, consenting sexual partners, such as married couples. Possession at this level is really jealousy.
"When the behavior is pathological, you don't see possession associated with so-called nuisance crimes, such as exposing yourself or voyeurism, where the only contact is visual. Among rapists you may see a practical need for momentary control, but it's the high-end guys, sadists and rape-killers, where insecurity turns to anger and this idea of possession comes into play."
"They take the objectification of women to a pathological extreme," agrees forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy, author of a standard text on deviant criminal behavior, "The Psychopathic Mind." The key to understanding possession, says Meloy, is narcissism.
"We know from the research that psychopaths have a core, aggressive narcissism that is fundamental to their personality. If you remove that narcissism, you don't have a psychopath."
One hallmark of the narcissist is lack of empathy; they are psychically insulated from those around them. Another is grandiosity. The charismatic and handsome Bundy, arguably the first celebrity serial killer, cemented his image in the public mind by playing to the press at every opportunity, and by acting as his own attorney. Both Angel Resendez and Cary Stayner commented on their cases to reporters, contrary to their attorneys' advice, soon after their arrests this summer.
Stayner told Ted Rowlands of KBWB-TV in San Francisco how he'd skillfully thrown the FBI off his trail after his first three homicides in February. "When you outwit the police, it reinforces your grandiose fantasies," says Meloy -- even when you're a serial killer manqué.
Henry Lee Lucas, the snaggle-toothed drifter with an IQ in the 80s who may have killed three people, claimed at one time to have murdered more than 600, and easily conned the Texas Rangers into believing such an inadequate lowlife was by far the most prolific serial killer of all time.
"That was a marvelous example of psychopathic manipulation,'' says Meloy. "Lucas was able to prove he was smarter and shrewder than this notable law-enforcement agency."
Resendez, who may not score much higher on a standard IQ test than Lucas, wrote the San Antonio Express-News a three-page letter. In it, he said he'd turned himself in out of love for his infant daughter, a patently absurd claim for a serial bludgeon killer. In a second, 11-page letter to KTRK-TV in Houston, the self-dramatizing Resendez wrote ominously of his "enemy," a scary "creature" inside of him. "I've been fighting this creature all of my life," Resendez reported, "and now I know it is me, so I fear, yes I fear and shake."
Along with obsessively seeking others' awed or admiring attention, the narcissist also believes himself omniscient and even omnipotent. "You can see how control of another person would stimulate those fantasies," observes Meloy.
The narcissist feels entitled, and when he is thwarted, he acts out, just as young children, who are supremely narcissistic, act out. "Think of a toddler raging against an object that won't do what he wants," says Meloy. "I have this image in my mind of a 2-year-old squeezing a puppy's feet. He's attempting to control the animal's behavior, and probably deriving some pleasure from that."
Among adult narcissistic destroyers, the principal animating influence is the green monster -- envy. "The wish to destroy goodness is probably the simplest definition of envy," says Meloy. "These guys often have pretty barren lives in terms of what we call 'good objects,' and they want to damage or destroy the goodness they cannot have. They need to make the almost intolerable feeling of envy go away, so they take a woman and defile and devalue her, like Bundy plucking the young flowers of the upper middle class. If you can do that completely, she wasn't worth having in the first place, and you've removed the cause for envy."
Unlike mass killers, sexual killers find the act of murder itself -- not just its objective -- profoundly gratifying. Janet Warren, a frequent research collaborator with former FBI profiler Hazelwood and a faculty member at the University of Virginia's department of behavioral medicine and psychiatry, recalls one sexual sadist she studied in particular.
"His first killing turned out to be a male hitchhiker," says Warren, "with whom he was competing for rides on the freeway. He described raising a stone above his head and beginning to crash it down on the man's head. He had an incredible feeling of exhilaration.
"Then when he started killing women, he actually breathed life back into a couple of them, because they lost consciousness too quickly. He said, 'I wasn't going to let myself be robbed of the experience. I wanted to see in her eyes that she knew she was going to die, and that I was going to take her life. It is only in having that reflected back at me -- and I need a conscious person to do that -- that I can experience the power and control of being God-like.'"
Central to possession is the necessity to utterly dehumanize the victim, typified by a comment from Robert Leroy Anderson, a sexual killer now on death row in South Dakota. According to an acquaintance, Anderson once complained that his first murder victim, a female fellow employee at a meat-packing plant in Sioux Falls, proved less than ideal for his purposes because he knew her too well and could not completely objectify her. It was therefore impossible to fully incorporate her into his fantasy.
"The perpetrator cannot see the victim as a separate, whole, real, meaningful person, with her own thoughts and feelings and perceptions," says Meloy. "She must be reduced to an object with no meaning except to gratify his desires."
Warren says the thrill lies in consuming and sexually eradicating the victim-as-possession. "It is interesting that Dahmer ate people, but that was part of the same thing. For instance, decapitating a woman. Taking off a person's head is so destructive. He is saying, 'You will be nothing. You will have no individuality.'"
Such behavior, of course, is primitive, particularly necrophagia -- cannibalism; Hannibal Lecter isn't as sophisticated as he seems. For all his slyness, creativity and rich fantasy life -- all often taken as tokens of intelligence -- the sexual killer may be more complex than a two-year-old squeezing the puppy's feet, but he is no more highly evolved.
And because he is incomplete, this killer isn't just taking what he envies, he's trying to steal what he lacks -- a core. Figuratively, literally or symbolically, he keeps trying, in vain, to fill himself up.
"These men," says Warren, "have to take women as slaves, or as dinner, or as a destroyed object. They can have no ambiguity, ambivalence, confusion, vulnerability, intense anger, fear or love in their lives. All that is fundamental to human intimacy is destroyed by what they do. But I think they have to do it that way, because they can't handle any of those experiences. They have to do it that way because they are empty.
About the writer: "The Only Living Witness," Stephen G. Michaud’s biography of Ted Bundy, written with Hugh Aynesworth, was released this week in an updated edition by Authorlink Press. He lives in Texas.
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