|Title:||Written in Blood: Serial Killing and Narratives of Identity|
|Publication info:||Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
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Written in Blood: Serial Killing and Narratives of Identity
vol. 2, no. 1, Winter 1999
Written in Blood: Serial Killing and Narratives of Identity
One can start with Foucault's famous and endlessly circulated statement in The Order of Things:
Man the Universal Subject, a cookie-cutter mold of (post)technological identity, stamping out simulacra of individuality.But why should we be "comforted" and experience "relief" at the thought of his imminent dissolution? Perhaps because, at least from Adorno on, the subject of reason has also been identified as the subject of violence. The universal Man of the Enlightenment has been reconceptualized as the universal killer, armed with the most potent of weapons—representation. In their Introduction to the collection typically entitled Violence of Representation Armstrong and Tennenhouse offer the basic formula of this approach:"The violence of representation is the suppression of difference" (8).
In this particular reading of Foucault the discursive constructedness of identity is directly responsible for corporeal violence inflicted by some (post)modern subjects upon others. In his recent book Serial Killers and in the series of articles that preceded it Mark Seltzer applies this insight to the fascinating and grisly phenomenon of serial killing, variously identified also as "stranger killing" and sometimes "lust murder". For Seltzer the enigma of the serial killer's personality consists in "an experience of typicality at the level of the subject":
Violence of representation, representation of violence and violence per se smoothly link into an unbroken chain, leading from statistics to mayhem and from typology of subjects to fingertyping of putrefying bodies. My goal in this essay is to put a hitch into this chain, to question the easy fit between discursive moulds of identity and the individual self-experience of serial killers, and to suggest that representation may be not so much the cause of violence as a post factum defence against it.
I do not imply, however, that violence in general or serial murder in particular are totally free from the constraints of discourse or that the identity of the serial killer is not constructed using the building blocks of cultural narratives (though the narratives in question are more variegated than Seltzer suggests). Rather, I would claim that the serial "form of violence" is conditioned not so much by the monolithic coherence of representation as by its breakdown. The violent behavior of a serial killer is not a direct outcome of any social construction but a random, causeless choice which is retrospectively incorporated into a generic narrative of identity. The repeated ritualistic violence, then, becomes a means of reinforcing this identity but achieves precisely the opposite, its complete disintegration.Rather than being generated by representation, corporeal violence offers a resistance to it.
Murder has two aspects: it is both uncanny and rational, a metaphysical mystery and a logical puzzle. On the one hand, murder has the power to destabilize identity. "The world [after a murder] is made strange and uncertain...At such moments we turn away or deny the characterization of the act because otherwise our very identity seems in doubt" (McGowen 140). But on the other hand, murder stimulates ratiocination, generating both scientific disciplines, such as criminology and forensic psychology, and highly structured genres of the detective story and the police procedural whose purpose is to establish the identity of the criminal, to reduce the uncanniness of bodily harm to the soothing neutrality of rational explanation.
Explaining identity means producing identity. This production endows the murderer with a framework for understanding him/herself, granting him or her a socially recognizable subjecthood. And yet this subjecthood is always threatened by the corrosive power of violence which "sets the perpetrator outside of society, not just morally but beyond our rational comprehension as well. Violence has become the domain of the other" (McGowen 140). If so, then the self of the violent murderer is the impossible and oxymoronic self of the Other whose intelligibility, even to him- or herself, is always fractured, incomplete, structured around some missing piece of the puzzle, some black hole of unreason that can never be articulated but only mutely pointed to.
In Tony Parker's interviews with convicted murderers the same pattern repeats itself. Their life-stories, generally highly polished and articulated in accordance with some instantly recognizable narrative pattern—the melodrama of victimization, the boastful memoir of the unrepentant social enemy, the romance of erotic obsession—hit a blank wall when the killers struggle to articulate the pivotal event in their lives, the murder itself. The typical responses: "I know what I did was wrong, and I don't know why I did it" (117; the husband who shot his wife); "I've lost count of how many psychiatrists have interviewed me before the trial and time and time again after it for the first few years. But when they did, it always came down to the same question: 'Why did you do it?'. That was always the bottom line. My answer to it too was always the same; 'I don't know why I did it, I thought you were supposed to tell me'. I don't have any insight into it, and I don't have much remorse or regret for it either" (171; the man who raped and killed an old woman during an aimless break-in). "The price I'd paid for being stopped for a minor traffic violation was the thing no one could understand, and least of all me" (197; a successful young lawyer who ran over the cop who stopped him for speeding).
All these people feel themselves to be both typical and special, ordinary folks but marked by some elusive force that has ruptured their lives. Their name for this force is most often "accident," though none denies responsibility for their crime. If, according to Seltzer, the serial killer "typifies typicality, the becoming abstract and general of the individuality of the individual" (34), the killers themselves see their individuality as residing precisely in the inexplicable act of violence that marks them off as unlucky, damaged but also unique. Most regret this unwanted "specialness" and harken back with nostalgia to their "ordinary" childhoods. And yet at the same time many refuse to live with what one of them calls "a hole...where there used to be a human mind" (186), an inexplicable and deadly hiatus in their narratives of the self. It is remarkable how many of them use literary models to make sense of what they simultaneously deny has any sense: murder. Quoting the poetry of Robert Frost or e.e.cummings, they attempt to patch over the lacuna of violence which seems to gap even wider with every new explanation that reduces the specificity of their "accident" to the general, the representative, the universal.
It is this paradoxical and self-contradictory dynamics in the construction of the serial murderer's identity that I want to explore. On the one hand, the serial murderer as a cultural icon is a product not so much of what Seltzer calls the general "wound culture" of postmodernity as of specific scientific narratives of deviance whose conflict and interaction I will analyze below. On the other hand, these narratives, the representational molds of the criminal self, always fail to explain and thus to contain the very violence whose unruly opacity constitutes their raison d'etre. In fracturing scientific, rational discourse, violence exceeds its determinants, creating a self whose freedom lies neither in some impossible essence beyond the reach of cultural conditions, nor in the uniform "resistance" to monolithic representation but rather in the inconsistiences, gaps and fissures within representation itself.
Narratology of the Self
The serial killer or lust murderer has become the postmodern subject par excellence. While the actual incidence of serial killing remains small compared to other kinds of violent crime, the literature on the subject is enormous. This literature spans the entire spectrum of narrativity, from fiction to science, bounded on the one end by the bestselling mystery novels of Thomas Harris, Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson and others, and on the other by criminological explorations of "the serial killer's mind". By far, the largest part of the spectrum is covered by the murky genre of "true crime," predominantly consisting of the biographies of every significant serial killer of the last thrity years. With a string of blockbuster films on the subject, from Hitchcock's classic Psycho to Silence of the Lambs, Seven, Kiss the Girls and others, the serial killer looms disproportionately large in the contemporary universe of discourse.
Whatever their genre, writings on the phenomenon of serial killing often stress its representative role. The killer becomes what the protagonist of Caleb Carr's novel The Alienist portentuously calls an image of "all that is dark in our very social world" (592). Maria Tatar, in her analysis of the iconography of lust murder in the culture of the Weimar Republic, points out its "virtually ubiquitous presence" which she derives from the ubiquity of misogyny (4). A number of writers subscribe to the argument that serial killing is a recent phenomenon brought about by the conditions of modernity. Colin Wilson, for example, boldly states that "there were no sex killers before the late nineteenth century" and links this new phenomenon with his somewhat idiosyncratic diagnosis of the modern malaise (3). Finally, Mark Seltzer suggests that the postmodern creation of the "pathological public sphere" with its confusion between public and private, action and image, natural and technological, body and machine is the underlying cause of the proliferation of Jack the Ripper look-alikes. His project traces "the links between the problem of serial murder and the more general problem of the body in 'machine culture'...the forms of repetitive and addictive violence produced, or solicited, by the styles of production and reproduction that make up machine culture" ("Serial Killers(1)" 92). Jeffery Dahmer becomes the monstrous offspring of "machine culture", a latter-day Frankenstein's creature. For Seltzer serial killers are "emptied" of their psychic interiority by social forces and their violence "might be taken as the traumatized intimation, at the level of the subject, that his interior states are nothing but outer or social forces and fantasies turned outside in: the subject, as it were, flooded by the social and its collective fantasies" (Serial Killers 126).
All such schemes, however much at odds with each other, share one feature: emphasis on a tight causal connection between killer and social milieu. They are all driven by the necessity to "explain" the serial killer in terms that assimilate the corporeal particularity of violence to some abstract modality of meaning. This explanation generally takes the form of a narrative of origin. Such narratives, freely exchanged between literature and science, treat violence as a symptom or an outer manifestation of a hidden truth, an oblique symptom of an intelligible cause.
However, taken as a whole, the bulk of available cultural narratives of serial killing is riven by unresolvable contraditctions. The stories are not merely different from each other but incompatible, representing the killer as either a monster or a victim, either a chameleonic "man of the crowd" or a hideous mutation, either the product of severe psychopathology or somebody "abnormally normal" (Serial Killers 106). The problem is not so much of a shopping-list of identities which every postmodern subject supposedly carries around. The difference between the serial killer and other such subjects is that his narrative of the self is structured around an act of radical physical violence that cannot be fully accomodated by any explanantory model. Quoting Hannah Arendt's observation about the banality of evil, Seltzer likens the serial killer to the Nazi bureaucrat: both represent "the replacement of the soul and, in this case, the soul of evil, with knowledge systems, expert and scientific" (107). However, necrophilia, dismemberment and cannibalism carried out on actual and not simulated bodies are not banal (and, in fact, neither was Nazism). The unexpected appearance of the "soul of evil" alongside "knowledge systems" testifies precisely to the insufficiency of any kind of causal model, whether psychological, cultural, biological or sociological, to account for the serial killer's violence.
Rather than offering a choice of identities, the discourse of serial killing piles all the models together in a vain attempt to cover up the emptiness at its core. The result is incoherence. Seltzer notes how pop-culture representations of serial killing tend to deploy mutually exclusive cliches indiscriminately and then gravitate toward "nonexplanantion and noncomprehension as a way of conserving the mystery of evil" (120). However, his own reference to the "soul of evil" seems to suggest that the fault lies not only with the shallowness of pop-psychology but with the nature of the serial killer's violence itself.
As opposed to the violence of war, state persecution or terrorism, the violence of the serial killer is devoid of political imprimatur: it is non-ideological and therefore, at least partially, situated outside the discursive field of power. Seltzer compares the putative psychology of the serial killer with that of the fascist male described by Klaus Theweleit. But the fascist always acts in a group where extreme violence is rendered meaningful within the group's Weltanschauung. There is a profound difference between the state-sponsored concentration camp and the private torture-house because the latter is not subrodinated to any collective goal. Serail killers are sometimes represented as Storm Troopers in search of ideology (see Fox and Levin). What they may be looking for is the kind of selfhood the fascist male possesses, the selfhood that, propped up by external ideology, can contain extreme violence without being blown up into incoherent fragments.
If narratives of origin circulating within culture produce identities, subjectivities might be said not only to have genres but to be genres—a claim I will return to later in the paper. According to Selzer, the serial killer's subjectivity is a faithful reflection of the social construction of violence. But if all such constructions fail, the resulting subjectivity is bound to be a narrative failure too: splintered, incoherent and fragmented. As Cameron and Frazer point out, serial killers' accounts of themselves are "representations, often consciously constructed, which draw on cultural as opposed to individual resources" (71). But when these "resources" are radically self-contradictory, the resulting account is bound to be generically hybrid, monstrous and mutant. Thus representation, rather than being a seamless conduit between social compulsion and individual violence, becomes a site of their conflict.
But it is precisely the resistance of the serial killer to representation that acts as incitement to representing him again and again. In his encounters with an array of forensic specialists, psychologists, medical examiners, criminologists, scriptwriters and authors, the serial killer functions as a figure of the Real, soliciting explanations and defying or deflecting them. And yet his own paradoxical and tormented subjectivity is delineated precisely by those narratives of violence whose perpetual renewal is the result of their perpetual failure to contain their subjects. 
Nero on the Couch
In his scandalous essay "Pen, Pencil and Poison" dedicated to the career of the serial poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, Oscar Wilde chooses a particularly effective way to vex his audience. It consists in refusing any psychological speculation on the motivations of the man who was a promising journalist, a talented artist, an admired dandy and a mass murderer. Any contemporary work in the same genre, from paperback biographies of Ted Bundy and John Gacy to Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, begins and ends with the question that Wilde nonchalantly brushes aside: why? Nor was this preoccupation with the killer's subjectivity any less evident in Wilde's own time, since both naturalism and the sensation novel made it one of their hallmarks. Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton, both of whom explored the minds of malefactors at great length, are mentioned in the essay. But Wilde abides by his own dictum that the true mystery lies in the surface, not the depth, and short-circuits the reader's expectations of a plunge into the abyss of sin or madness. Instead he dissects Wainewright's style.
Discomfiting the audience is Wilde's aim, and his success is the measure of how widespread the assumption is that murder has to be not so much displayed, condemned or even punished, as explained. Much of nineteenth-century psychological realism bears witness to the power of this assumption—from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment to the novels of Balzac. It is commonly agreed that Dickens's most penetrating psychological insights are reserved for his murderers—Jonas Chuzzlewitt, Bradley Headstone, John Jasper. Precisely because the murderer's psyche is seen as aberrant and opaque, it functions as a test-case for the power of psychological analysis which derives its prestige from the kinship with the epistemology of science. Wilde notes that Wainewright's more famous predessesors in the field of mass killing, Nero, Tiberius, Cesar Borgia "have passed into the sphere of art and science" where they are free from sanctimonious expressions of moral horror but not from the sharp scalpel of "disinterested curiosity" (856). Wilde's own piece, however, refuses both moral condemnation and psychological explanation, becoming an unsettling comment not so much on the killer himself as on the drive of "art and science" to assimilate his murderous pecularity to some grand scheme of meaning.
The killer's resitance to this drive is his epistemological crime which can be as disturbing as his physical violence. In Caleb Carr's retro-thriller The Alienist, set in Wilde's own epoch, Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, the "alienist" of the title, is a medical man-cum-psychologist-cum-detective—the combination that has become de rigeur for the serial killers' hunters in contemporary popular culture, signifying the re-joining of science and detective fiction, the blending of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson into a single hybrid figure. Kreizler hunts down a serial killer of boy prostitutes in fin-de-siecle New York, presciently employing the techniques of contemporary criminal profiling. However, when the killer is captured and interviewed, both Kreizler and his assistant experience increasing frustration, for the criminal refuses to yield the final mystery: not the how, where and when but the why. Not that he is evasive; he simply does not know himself. When he is mortally wounded, the alienist desperately attempts to wring a death-bed confession, only to hear: "I—have never known..." (574). The psychological scalpel yields nothing and neither does the surgical one: the killer's dissected brain shows "no evidence of either congenital abnormality or physical trauma" (589). All the patiently assembled knowledge of the killer's identity and modus operandi is worthless compared to the one thing the alienist craves: the secret of his subjectivity. But this is the secret that is hidden from the subject himself, and so the narrator's description of Dr. Kreizler as the "man who knew [the killer] as well as he knew himself" (570) becomes profoundly ironic. The ending of the book displays none of the detective's exuberant smugness, so common in the Golden Age mysteries of Doyle and Christie. Rather, Dr. Kreitzler sounds tired, defeated and disappoined: "We'll never know now. Ah, Moore—there are so many things we'll never know, now..." (592).
Both Wilde's teasing renunciation of the desire to know the murderer and Dr. Kreizler's foiled drive to satisfy it, are testimonies to the fascination of the serial killer's benighted subjectivity. This fascination is different from the opacity of the Foucauldian Other of madness who is positioned outside the boundaries of discourse, confronting the classical subject of the Enlightenment "without a possible dialogue, without a common language" (Madness and Civilization 111). A majority of apprehended serial killers do not fall under the McNaghten rules defining legal insanity. Though the rhetoric of "madness" is an important one in the public controversies surrounding serial killers' trials, most of them are quite competent to engage in a "possible dialogue" with their society and, in fact, actively do so.  A serial killer is a subject who speaks not an alien tongue but a horrifyingly mangled version of the "common language," the version that rings unsettlingly familiar but never quite coalesces into meaning. Thus, the necessity and urgency of translating the killer's motivation into discourses of "art and science" stem not from absolute difference but from uncanny similarity. And it is precisely because of this similarity that his resitance to meaning becomes an epistemological scandal of epic proportions.
Murder, a supremely irrational act, generates the most rational of all literary genres, the classic detective story. Its founder, Edgar Allan Poe, was a master of Gothic horror whose emotional impact derives from mysterious inexplicability of its grisly events. However, in his three detective stories ("The Murders in Rue Morgue," "The Purloined Letter" and "The Mystery of Marie Roget") he created a mirror image of the Gothic. The core of violence in these tales may be just emotionally wrenching as in "Ligeia" or "Berenice." But at the end all mysteries are provided with logical solutions, whose rationality defuses and displaces the rawness of violent death. At the end reason is triumphant, the question "whodunit" answered, all the loose ends tied up and the detective is free to run to the ground another troublesome enigma which initially appears in the shape of a mangled body, only to be reduced at the end to an analytical explanantion of the criminal's identity, motives and modus operandi.
Through discursive rationality, transgressive violence is both displayed and contained. The emotional parameters of the classic detective story are set by the opening of "The Murders in Rue Morgue" in which Poe's detective, Augustus Dupin, coolly but in great detail, describes slashed throats and broken limbs.We are ostensibly invited to emulate the detective's detachment in considering signs of violence as mere data. But, in fact, the real bait of such descriptions is our prurient interest in blood. Sometimes fictions are explicit about this double manipulation of the audience, even foregrounding it as a means to derive additional frisson from the knot of lofty rationality and furious slaughter. In Mark Morris's The Secret of Anatomy the protagonist who witnessed the mass shooting by a crazed gunman is "infuriated and appalled" by the media profiling of the killer: he feels that the media "has moved in on this situation and diminished it with their slick neat theories, imposing order on a chaos they couldn't possibly comprehend" (269). This does not prevent the novel itself from imposing "order on chaos" for all of its formidable length, inventing more and more complicated theories to account not only for this specific act of slaughter but ultimately for all of the world's evil.
If all murder has a kernel of irrational mystery, serial murder appears to be irrationality squared. It is not only the sheer brutality of Dahmer's actions but their seeming senselessness that staggers the imagination. Confronted with Dahmer's charnel-house or that of his British counterpart, Dennis Nilsen, the public and the media alike insist on answering "the perennial question of how could they bear it, how could they do it?" (Cameron and Frazer 148). When John Douglas, the media-celebrated FBI Special Agent who was the real-life model for Jack Crawford of The Silence of the Lambs and one of the founders of the methodology of criminal profiling, is asked to answer this question, his answer is a rhetorical sleight-of-hand that establishes the serial killer's rationality but denies that this rationality is rational to anybody but the killer himself: "...[the serial killer] is not 'insane' because he is rationally faithful to his own ideas and values. The perpetrator of this type of crime differs from the rest of us in his character and thinking. We find it difficult to comprehend that someone would want to do something so horrible. But that's the way it is" (Journey into Darkness 265). This oxymoron capped by resignation is "true-crime" literature at its best.
Faced with such double-talk from the authority, the public at large has recourse to two seemingly contradictory but, in fact, closely related strategies of emotional response. On the one hand, it consumes increasingly large quantities of new material, evincing an unslakeable appetite for new and improved explanations of serial murder. As Wendy Lesser puts it, in reading about murder "we want to ask big questions; more than anything else we want to get answers to big questions" (13). Yet on the other hand, she also points out that we get irritated by too facile solutions: "Any explanation for murder that too easily explains away the mystery is likely to strike us as suspect" (69). When a new series of murders occurs, the first public response is to rush to psychiatric and criminological experts clamoring for an explanantion, only to deride the experts' diagnosis when the murderer is finally caught—the dynamic that was particularly clear in the case of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, in which the jury refused to recognize the psychiatrists' contention that the murderer was mentally abnormal.
However, even rejection of a psychiatric narrative of the criminal's mind does not mean rejection of all narratives: as Cameron and Frazer point out, the jury in Sutcliffe's case applied a different, and somewhat old-fashioned, explanantory paradigm, that of a wilfull commitment to evil. Precisely because the serial killer's actions are neither random nor unstructured, they cannot be simply banished from the universe of meaning. A series of "murders for pleasure" is guided by a tight inner logic that assures the repetition of the crimes according to some sort of pattern, but this logic seems to be unassimilable to any collective narrative of "art and science." Deciphering the killer's motivation means bringing him back within the purview of such a narrative. An explanantion rewrites his opaque inner logic in terms that are collectively intelligible and thus fixes not only the murderer's aberrant identity but also the identity of the bystander who can now define him/herself in opposition to what is no more a shapeless "mystery" but rather a determined signifier of either sickness or evil. It does not matter how grim or apocalyptic the narrative of explanation might be. As long as it makes sense, we keep at bay both the flippancy of Wilde and the epistemological angst of Dr. Kreitzler. As Wilde's essay slyly suggests, we use pen and pencil to revise the incomprehensible scribblings wrought by poison or, in case of Wainewright's successors, by blunter instruments.
Nature and the Police
Many sciences, such as paleontology, evolutionary theory, psychology and criminology, are modes of storytelling. What unites them is commitment to "reconstruct[ing] events in the past—sequences presumed to be unique or so hugely cyclic that they are beyond experiment" (Landau ix). Thus, what serves as an explanation for these sciences is not an abstract law to which every particular instance can be reduced as its manifestation, but a unique narrative which obeys the general only insofar as it is ruled by causality. However, such stories are also molded by generic expectations. Stephen Jay Gould writes:
Gould's own position is not the radical relativism advocated by some cultural scholars who see scientific narratives as just-so stories rooted in nothing but the social balance of power. However, his somewhat wistful recognition of the "literary bias" reveals a hunger for what Lyotard calls "strategies of legitimation." Narratives may be more or less interesting, tragic or comic, canonical or subversive, but how do we know they are right?
In one of Stanislaw Lem's stories a scientist driven to distraction by just such questions, literally tortures matter to extract its secrets. The remedy is extreme but logical. Nature, devoid of consciousness and subjectivity, responds to our queries in a way which seems overdetermined by the form of the question itself. Now, if nature but had a voice, if it could tell its own story, if, in fact, a scientific enigma could be arrested and interrogated, perhaps the threat of relativism would finally be averted. What better strategy of legitimation than a legal sanction?
Lem's joke is based on the similarity between the ethos of science and that of crime detection, between investigation and interrogation. The nexus between science and the police, which Foucault conflates into the common "scientifico-disciplinary mechanisms," is vividly reflected in the nineteenth-century paradigmatic figures of Great Detectives as scientists manque, Augustus Dupin with his disquisitions on theory of probabilities and Sherlock Holmes with his chemistry kit (Discipline and Punish 193). Both the scientist and the detective are in pursuit of the elusive "truth" and both are, essentially, tellers of tales.Gould's description of the scientist as a master storyteller is echoed by John Douglas: "...a detective's job is to collect as many little bits of information as he can and then work them into a logical, coherent narrative of the crime. That's the reason I've always found good detectives to be among the best storytellers" (Journey Into Darkness 293). 
Douglas is one of the founders of what was originally called the FBI Behavioral Sciences Unit at Quantico where combined methods of psychology, forensic medicine, and criminology are used to chart profiles of violent offenders. Criminal profiling, as employed by Douglas and his colleagues, is a practical methodology. Its theoretical underpinnings, however, are rooted in criminal anthropology which emerged in the nineteenth century as part of the project to make humanity intelligible. "Beginning with the middle of the nineteenth century, people have been speaking more and mote of the criminal in the same naturalistic sense which, in our days, found its culminating expression in Professor Cesare Lombroso" (De Quiros 1; emphasis added). In his early history of criminal anthropology De Quiros links its emergence with psychiatry and population statistics, that is, with all those "human" sciences that share the "old preoccupation and longing to discover in man the relations between body and soul, the correspondence between spirit and matter" (De Quiros 2). Sciences of man went hand in hand with the reconceptualization of crime, both theoretical and practical: "that moment when the sciences of man became possible is the moment when a new technology of power and a new political anatomy of the body were implemented" (Discipline and Punish 193).
What distinguishes the narratives of human sciences from the narratives of natural sciences, however, is the presence of a protagonist. If natural sciences are allegorical, relying on personification to tell their stories of the struggle of evolution or the birth of the solar system, human sciences are novelistic, appropriating the strategies of psychological description to analyze their self-aware—and vocal—subjects. Sherlock Holmes and Augustus Dupin do not have to be content with inferences since they have the criminal's narrative to confirm or undermine their own.The detective's "logical, coherent narrative of the crime" has as its strategy of legitimation the criminal's confession. The tripatrite plot of the classical detective story—murder, investigation, exposure—traditionally culminates in the explanation of the criminal's motive.
However, as we have seen in The Alienist, this conventionoften fails in detective fictions dealing with serial killers. In Patricia Cornwell's series of bestselling mysteries whose criminals always turn out to be serial killers rather than any common-or-garden variety lawbreakers, there is a conspicuous refusal to grant the antagonist a voice. The resolution is a swift execution by the heroine, the forensic pathologist Dr. Kay Scarpetta, rather than a traditional confession. In other texts, on the contrary, there are numerous attempts to give the killer's perspective. In Harris's Red Dragon, Robert Walker's The Darkest Instinct and James Patterson's Kiss the Girls, to name but a few, whole chapters are narrated from a serial murderer's point of view. However, such narratives are striking by the exactitude with which they conform to the detective's profiling of the criminal. They fail to provide any subjective perspective and merely reproduce the paradoxes inherent in the detective's reconstruction of the killer's motivation. This tautological construction is particularly evident in The Darkest Instinct where the murderer's attempts to preserve the bodies of his victims are glossed by another female forensic pathologist, Dr. Jessica Coran, as follows:
When her perplexed interlocutor asks for what purpose, Jessica replies: "We've got to stop looking for purpose; this bastard's purpose is totally a construct of his own making, having no validity outside his brain" (220). In other words, the criminal's aberrant behaviour is a proof of his madness which, therefore, explains his aberrant behaviour (like Dr. Scarpetta, Dr. Coran is supposed to double as a "mindhunter" in the tradition of Douglas, acting as a sort of unwitting parody of the psychiatric and criminological discourse). However, in the parallel chapters narrated from the viewpoint of the criminal, this dubious "diagnosis" is slavishly confirmed, since he does indeed try to preserve his victims whole for a purpose which, quite obviously, has "no validity outside his brain": in the time-honored tradition of Psycho, he wants to reincarnate his abusive mother. Unlike a majority of real-life serial killers who were not delusional, a majority of fictional serial killers, especially those who are granted a narrative voice, are. It seems that a closed system of psychotic belief, never mind how outlandish, is easier to represent than the violent "purpose" of a sane individual. The delusion acts as a displacement of violence which becomes a means rather than an end.
At the opening of his second non-fictional book Journey into Darkness John Douglas and his coauthor attempt something both ambitious and gruesome: a first-person simulated narrative of a real-life sex killer, the man who savagely murdered US Marine Suzanne Collins. The narrative is remarkable for its chilling sanity. At the end of it Douglas defends his experiment of putting himself in the mind of the killer: "If you understand—not in some academic, intellectual way, but in a visceral, experiential way—then maybe we can begin to make a difference" (6). The verisimilitude of such simulation is seen as a primary tool of the detective. In identifying with the mind of his quarry Douglas, a "mindhunter," follows the time-honored tradition of his fictional predecessor, Poe's Augustus Dupin, who defines his method as "the identification...of the reasoner's intellect with that of his opponent" (216).
However, the more Douglas extols the success of his "mindhunting" technique, the more it appears to be founded not on the intellect but on a mixture of novelistic imagination and something suspiciously like an unwholesome affinity with the serial killer's dark desires. The first-person narrative of Collins's killer, Sedley Alley, is immediately undercut by presenting a third-person account of his confession which paints a strikingly different picture: according to Sedley, Collins's death was an "accident". After a while, a third version emerges, promoted by Sedley's defence: that he suffers from the Multiple Personality Disorder and that the murder was committed by one of the alternative personalities. Douglas is dismissive of both these explanations but their very presence puts his own in question. Moreover, the epistemological status of his reading of Sedley's mind is further compromised by hints that there is something "horrible" about the whole exercise and that its very success indicates a disturbance in the detective himself. Douglas can precariously retain the moral and psychological distance from the killer only by walking a tightrope between scientific detachment and artistic dissimulation, between truth-claims and fictional license. On the one hand, understanding the criminal's subjectivity is the sine qua non of criminal profiling; on the other hand, we are pointedly reminded that "human behavior...is not an exact science" (12).
The ambiguity that pervades Douglas's simulacrum of the sex murderer's self-revealing narrative is just as evident in those narratives which are indeed penned by killers. Disconcertingly, in speaking of true experience which might be expected to correct the "literary bias" of social narratives, serial killers appear to be as confused about their motivation as everybody else (this even despite the self-serving purpose of most such narratives). Analyzing the convicted murderer's Dennis Nilsen's writing as extensively quoted in his biography Killing for Company by Brian Masters, Cameron and Frazer highlight its strangely vacillating and unreal quality: Nilsen not only seems not to remember the exact details of his crimes but more significantly, "he has real difficulty in remembering why on earth he strangled the man in question" (150). Attempting to answer this question to himself in precisely the same way as the spellbound and repelled public attempts to wring the answer from bickering experts, Nilsen runs the whole gamut of options available to him: occasionally, he talks of "compulsion," occasionally of split personality, occasionally of freely chosen evil. Finally the only way he can make sense of his own actions is to identify with society that sees him from the outside, as a frightening and incomprehensible Other: "It would not do for me to escape just punishment. I am an irresponsible selfish bastard who deserves everything that is coming to him. Society has a right to call me a cold, mad killer. No other category fits my results" (151). Not only are the categories hopelessly confused (a "selfish bastard" is not the same thing as a madman) but more importantly, the resulting identification is nothing more that the tritest of all cliches. We would hardly congratulate a psychologist or a writer on their psychological acumen if the best they could come up with in dissecting a criminal's mind were "a cold, mad killer." And yet this is not merely an identification but an identity, not a label but a lived experience.
Cameron and Frazer rightly emphasize that Nilsen's writing illustrates the impossibility of escaping the discursive categories that construct the Real. The only tools that Nilsen has at his disposal to construct himself as a subject of/in discourse are conflicting narratives of criminology, psychology and fiction. But, perhaps more importantly, he is also aware that these narratives fail to encompass his experience and yet cannot use this experience to counteract their failure. "In his dilemma, finding that the language cannot adequately describe what he is and utterly failing to make up what the language lacks, Dennis Nilsen graphically illustrates the extent to which our reality is bounded by discourse. For at the same time that none of our categories 'fit the results,' so they all do: they all make sense to us, they all give us a way of understanding Nilsen's acts" (151). But one cannot live with several mutually contradictory ways of understanding one's actions, especially if the actions in question are mass slaughter and necrophilia. At the end Nilsen's subjectivity becomes exemplary not so much of the "bad" or flawed subjectivity of the Other as of the impossible subjectivity of an object. Like nature, he obediently accepts any story that science chooses to tell about himself. Unlike nature, however, he casts himself into the identities projected by these stories, creating a generically hybrid and monstrously inconsistent selfhood.
The Ape and the Minister
In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" Dupin, the prototype of all the subsequent Great Detectives and the man who brings the knowledge of the "Calculus of Probabilities" to sleuthing, finds the main clue to the solution of the crime precisely in what has left the police baffled: "the seeming absence of motive...the atrocity of the murder" (154). As he dispassionately examines the horribly mangled bodies of Madame L'Espanye and her daughter, he concludes that no human perpetrator could possibly commit so bloodily senseless a deed. Therefore, the perpetrator is not human. Q.E.D. Dupin, who likes to boast that "most men, in respect to himself, [wear] windows in their bosoms" (144), is under no obligation to turn his mental searchlight onto the Orangutan apprehended for the murder. The beastly nature of the beast is a sufficient, if tautological, motivation for its violence.
It is instructive to compare this tale with "The Purloined Letter" where Dupin solves the conundrum by penetrating the criminal's subjectivity, deeply identifying with his motives and modes of thought. In the latter Minister D. commits an elegant theft, not a disgusting butchery. It seems to let Dupin off the hook; even if, as he half-confesses later, there is something criminal about himself, the criminality of a clever blackmailer is not the same thing as that of a lust murderer. However, in "The Mystery of Marie Roget" the body which he "reads" in excruciating detail is that of a rape-murder victim, and the criminal with whom he identifies is a man of superior intelligence and cunning, a moral brute, perhaps, but not a dumb animal. Yet the deed is as cruel as the murders in the Rue Morgue, suggesting that lust murders can be committed not only by monstrous Orangutans but by people very similar to the urbane and intellectual detective.
The two extremes into which the narratives of murder, particularly of serial murder, tend to fall identify the murderer as either the bestial monster or as the detective's double, as either the ape or the minister. In Mindhunter Douglas easily shifts from the serial killer as beast of prey to the serial killer as the guy next door. On the one hand,
On the other hand,
Both paradigms generate narratives of genesis. If the killer is a monster, one has to find out—as Dupin does—where it comes from. If the killer is "one of us," one has to account—as Dupin does not—for his evil transformation.
The clash and interweaving of these narratives is prefigured by the conversation between Frankenstein and his creature on the bleak slopes of Mont Blanc. Frankenstein dismisses the creature as inherently defective and views his murderous rampage as an inevitable result of his tainted birth. However, the monster himself offers an entirely different interpretation in which "his vices are the children of a forced solitude" (147). The book remains open-ended, the two positions balanced against each other in a stalemate that generations of critics have attempted to break in vain. If for Seltzer the grand prototype of the serial killer is Dracula, I would suggest that Frankenstein's creature, forever caught between the poles of "born bad" and "made bad," offers a better model of the serial killer's position in (post)modern culture.
In Patricia Cornwell's first novel Postmortem Dr. Scarpetta has a conversation on the nature of evil with her precocious ten-year-old niece.
This is Frankenstein's debate all over again, in which the options are the ape and the minister, the naturally evil creature and the ordinary person who has gone bad because "people were mean" to him. And it is not likely to be settled any time soon.
The view of the serial killer as a monster born goes back to Lombroso's criminal anthropology which viewed the offender as a creature of different species, indelibly marked by the stigmata of biological degeneracy. Enrico Ferri, Lombroso's son-in-law, explains the purpose of the new science: "as zoology is the natural history of animals, criminal anthropology is but the study of a single variety of mankind" (4). "Variety" here is understood in its primary biological sense: the criminal is, first and foremost, a body whose constitution lends itself to physical taxonomy. The secret of violence can be read in the shape of his skull, the form of his ear, the assymetry of his face. The typological view of the criminal precedes Lombroso: Morel in 1847 talks about "the strange and unknown types which people our prisons" with the zeal of a naturalist discovering a whole new animal kingdom (quoted in De Quiros 7). Lombroso himself studies criminality "among the lower organisms, detecting it even in the vegetable world" and focuses on the "embriology of the crime" (12). The rhetoric of criminal anthropology nudges it closer and closer to natural, rather than human, sciences since its primary goal becomes "the organic study of the criminal, both anatomical and physiological" (Ferri 7).
The end result of criminal anthropology is the incorporation of crime: removed from the sphere of moral or even legal judgement, it becomes the matter not of doing but of being. Paradoxically, criminal activity itself ceases to be of any particular importance in defining the criminal or adjudicating the proper punishment, for if the criminal is born, his actions are mere symptoms, superficial expressions of his immutable nature which precedes and determines any particular instance of lawbreaking. A criminal, in fact, can be detected before he commits a crime. This shift from activity to corporeality is exemplified in De Quiros's statement: "The criminal type, as the scholastics said of the soul, is in its entirety in the whole body and in each of its parts" (18). This, of course, is a profound break with the classical legal theory that views the criminal as morally autonomous agent, whose exclusion from the community is the result of his own freely-chosen misbehaviour. "For classical theory, each being was a person, a subject of law, subject to law" (Pick 136). The criminal was a lapsed citizen and every citizen a potential criminal. Lombrosian criminal anthropology, however, renounces "the assumption that we can measure the moral culpability of the accused" (Ferri 165). Instead the sole function of the judge is to be a competent taxonomist: "the one and only possible issue between the prosecution and the defence will be to determine, by the character of the accused and of his action, to what anthropological class he belongs" (Ferri 164).
The criminal's "class" is his species. In nineteenth-century racial anthropology polygenism views different races as different species of the genus Homo, creating a science-fictional world populated by racial aliens. For criminal anthropology "born" criminals are "if not exactly...a degenerate species, at least...a degenerate variety of the human species" and the only "problem" they pose is the same as posed by any fast-breeding vampire or werewolf, which is "to diminish their number as much as possible" (Ferri 238-9). For the teratology of crime, every criminal is Frankenstein's creature, a misshapen "fiend" whose body "produces meaning and can represent any horrible trait that the reader feeds into the narrative" (Halberstam 21). The body itself becomes the locus and breeding-ground of evil, while active violence is merely the clinching argument of this corporeal semiotics.
What criminologist David Canter calls "the 'monstrous creation' vision of people" generates the poetics of display and menagerie. If serial killers are either "badly built or their original programming got out of control" (Canter 207), the defects, the "missing bits" can be exposed to "the exercise and decisions of the gaze" (Foucault, Birth of the Clinic 89). Conceived as a disease, criminality blossoms into a show as the "disease, emerging before our gaze, becomes embodied in a living organism" (5). A serial killer is criminality personified, not an individual but an anonymous and typical representative of a species.
A lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume Serial Killers has recently been published by Time-Life Publishers. The book opens with a short introduction, titled "The Nature of the Beast" and printed above an enormous photo of two staring eyes. Turned into a beast of prey, the serial killer becomes the classical subject of the gaze: caged in a textual Panopticon and pinned down by a definition. But if for Foucault incarceration in a see-through cage is one of the "technologies of individuals" which produce disciplined human subjects, the visual display of the serial killer positions him as an animal in a zoo, offering him a subject position on the murky biological boundary between humanity and beasthood.
Lombroso's theory of atavism explains criminality as a throwback to earlier evolutionary stages, thus literally turning the criminal into an animal: "in the criminal there are numerous anatomical traits, especially craniological, that suggest the structure of primitive men and even of the leading mammals" (De Quiros 14). Poe's Orangutan would qualify as a full-fledged felon, after all. Despite its triteness, le bete humaine is far from a meaningless term of abuse. Rather, it expresses the shift from moral condemnation to biological classification. Stephen J. Giannangelo's rhetoric in The Psychopathology of Serial Murder is an example of how easily the "beastliness" of murder can produce the "beast" of murderer:
Since Giannangelo's purpose is precisely to show that the behaviour of serial killers has "a neurological basis that is different from that of other kinds" of violence, his analogy with a predator collapses into an equation that, perhaps unintentionally, resurrects Lombroso's blunt claim that criminals are throwbacks to "leading mammals." In Douglas's comparison between a serial killer and a lion in the wilderness, quoted above, the same dynamics is at work: from the figurative to the literal, from the criminal being like an animal to the criminal being an animal. Animality indicates both the biological difference that defines the serial killer as "a single variety of mankind" and his accessibility to the naturalistic gaze.
The continuity between the contemporary "monstrous creation" paradigm of the serial killer and Lombrosian criminal anthropology is most evident in their shared opposition to traditional legal theory and practice. If the criminal is "a degenerate species," then the proper task of the court is not justice but classification. The criminal, not the crime, becomes the focus of the legal proceedings whose functions is diagnostical: "to determine, by the character of the accused and of his action, to what anthropological class he belongs" (Ferri 164). In a move calculated to medicalze jurisprudence, Ferri boldly declares that "in every criminal trial the basis of inquiry is or ought to be formed by the data of criminal biology, psychology, and psycho-pathology" (170). He is indignant that ignorant magistrates poke fun at experts' minute examination of prisoners' ears. In his recent book Serial Killers Joel Norris cites 23 visible signs of genetic disorders in suspected serial murderers which do, incidentally, include misshapen ears. Norris treats serial killing as "an infectious disease" and "a public health issue" (326). Killers are "physically and psychologically damaged people," displaying unambiguous stigmata of their monstrosity: "scars on their bodies, missing fingers, evidence of previous contusions and multiple abrasions on and around the head and neck area" (17-8). The killer is both the carrier of the disease and the disease itself, deadly to his victims but ultimately the victim of an "epidemic": "...the epidemic of serial murder is spreading. Passed on from generation to generation...serial murder is actually a disease that is thriving in Americal society" (Norris 38). Redefined as a hereditary taint, serial killing must free itself from the obsolete shackles of morality and pass from the hands of lawyers into those of physicians. The question of the killer's responsibility for his actions becomes irrelevant to the diagnosis of his inherent condition. Norris's critique of the McNaghten rules for determining legal insanity is couched in the terminology of scientific progress: "To premise a legal definition of insanity on the McNaghten rules is like applying nineteenth-century medicine to treating cancer of AIDS" (19). The irony, of course, is that Norris paraphrases the criticism of the classical legal theory by Lombrosian criminal anthropology, thus, in fact, applying "nineteenth-century medicine" to his newly-discovered malady.
Criminological descriptions of the serial killer as an embodiment of a deadly disease or a beast of prey pave the way for the serial killer as a monster. This is the mold for the serial killer in popular fiction and film. Perhaps the most famous popular-culture serial killer is Dr Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris's Silence of the Lambs, played in the film version by Anthony Hopkins. Lecter is a prodigy, an evil genius gifted with marvellously acute senses and an uncanny psychological penetration. But his many gifts, as in the case of Dracula, only underscore his essential monstrosity. In Red Dragon, the first book in the series,he is described by the protagonist thus: "He's a monster. I think of him as one of those pitiful things that are born in hospitals from time to time. They feed it, and keep it warm, but they don't put it on the machines and it dies. Lecter is the same way in his head, only he looks normal and nobody could tell" (56). Lecter, in fact, is even physically monstrous, though not in the spectacular way of the Red Dragon, another serial butcher whom he helps to track down. The Red Dragon has a "bat-like" face with a cleft palate; the dapper Dr Lecter hides his six-fingered left hand.
The assimilation of serial murderers to legendary monsters proceeds apace as, on the one hand, cultural scholars like Seltzer find Dracula and Mr Hyde in every Ted Bundy, while on the other hand, "true-crime" writers suggest mythical monsters are merely serial killers writ large. Douglas writes, for example:
The last sentence exemplifies the ambiguity inherent in viewing the serial killer as a "monstrous creation": monsters, by definition, are not "like us." The rhetoric of monstrosity, poised on the borderline between metaphor and medicine, forces such an extreme separation between the killer and the ordinary run of humanity that the former appears to be a force of nature, vicious and brutal to be sure, but as impervious to psychological analysis as Poe's Orangutan. For Norris the serial killer is "a nonpersonality type—a nosferatu," Dracula without his fangs (71). He also explains the legends of vampires and werewolves as somewhat exaggerated but essentially accurate reflections of "individuals who seemed to kill out of a blood lust for the act of murder itself and not from any other motivation" (72). But if so, any attempt by judicial system to treat "nosferatus" "as though they had volition and were capable of managing their own behavior...as though they were within the range of normal human existence" is misguided. Serai killers for Norris are literally the Undead "who seem to come alive only during the episodic cycle of murder" (60-1). Such a drastic denial of agency is bound to feed contempt for the judicial system, hopelessly mired in the old-fashioned ideas of choice and responsibility. The only certain cure for the "plague" of serial killing appears to be the one practised by another physician, Dr Van Helsing, to stop the spread of Dracula and his vampiric cohorts.
If the "monstrous creation" paradigm is problematic legally and morally, it is even more so narratively. A narrative is supposed to provide the satisfaction of an ending, to tie up all the loose ends in a decisive closure. But at its extreme, the notion of the killer as a natural-born monster is anti-narrative. As a monster on display, the serial killer is frozen into an image whose circulation in culture becomes possible only as endless reproduction of the same frightening icon, a "serial" proliferation of simulacra which unnervingly imitates the killer's own modus operandi. The serial killer acts out a fantasy whose realization involves a chain of substitutions, anonymous victims being merely disposable props in some violent tableau. The narrative of the killer's desire is short-circuited into repetition. Similary, the narrative of the public desire for the killer to be known, explained and exorcised is short-circuited by the typological model into reiteration of the same emblem of monstrosity. "The monstrous creation" is put on display, generating the visual poetics of the zoo or the freak show rather than the narrative poetics of chase and exposure. Denied the release of an ending, the discourse of serial killing fragments into a series of snapshots that exhibit violence but but do not exorcise it.
The Time/Life book on serial killers, with its abundance of ominously black-and-white illustrations, is perhaps the ultimate in this trend to display the killer as a monster. However, it also clearly marks the limits of this trend, for without the text, the mug-shots of Ted Bundy and John Gacy, the smiling photographs of their victims, and the blurred images of suburban houses, would have been trivial, a handful of visual odds and ends. What gives a hideous significance to Bundy's forgettable face is the appended narrative in which the serial killer and the police take upon themselves the classic roles that Stevenson called "Mr. Hide" and "Mr. Seek".
However, in order for there to be a "Mr. Hide," his monstrosity must remain hidden. If serial killers are, as Norris claims, "obviously physically and psychologically damaged people," the task of detection becomes simplified out of existence: arrest anybody who displays the tell-tale signs of of the "disease" (17). Agatha Christie, who is often credited with formalizing the literary conventions of the classical detective story, explicitly prohibited madness as a possible motive of the fictional criminal (though she did not always abide by this prohibition in her own work). One reason for this is that she saw madness, like physical monstrosity, as something self-evident. As the old-fashioned raving maniac the killer offers no purchase for the narrative grip of investigation. Lombrosian approach, with its emphasis on the visual, can become embarrassing: what is the function of the criminologist if any police officer can apprehend hereditary criminals by being on the lookout for large ears and prognathous jaws? Both in Red Dragon and in Alienist where the criminals are very striking-looking the reader, after a while, feels impatient with the slow-witted society that allows people branded with such an obvious mark of Cain walk freely in its midst. The "monstrous creation" paradigm lacks suspence.To produce it, it evolves the poetics of hidden monstrosity.
Within this poetics, the signs of the serial killer's disorder are not self-evident stigmata but rather symptoms, what Carlo Ginzburg describes as "infinitesimal traces that permit the apprehension of a deeper, otherwise inaccessible reality" (101). The meaning of violence is hidden within the criminal's secret anatomy which necessiates the epsitemology of dissection, bent upon rooting out the mystery of violence which seems to be retreating deeper and deeper into the body. Now the criminologist pursues not just visible signs of trauma but faulty chromosomes, brain damage, chemical and hormonal imbalance. Often, apprehended serial killers are subjected to a battery of psychological and physiological tests meant to elicit the secret of their deviance. There is nothing particularly new in this corporeal sleuthing of Norris's "new criminologists." Lombroso's eureka moment, as he describes it in Criminal Man, occurs at the dissecting table when he reads in a criminal's misshapen skull the cause of his misdoings. From the moment of its birth, "essential" criminality is seen as both corporeal and elusive, blatant and hidden, invisible to the untrained eye but triumphantly revealed to the probing gaze and sharp scalpel of the scientist:
Conceptualizing the killer's monstrosity as hidden resurrects the narrative development thwarted by the poetics of display. The function of the crimonologist-cum-detective is to expose the secret at the core of the killer's body and/or psyche. The "new criminologistk," on the lookout for genetic damage, hormonal imbalance, signs of malnutrition, head trauma, realizes that these can only be revealed through indirect and often obscure symptoms. The serial killer's body and psyche are double-layered, combining the deceptively normal surface and the monstrous depth: "...the overwhelming majority of serial killers seem on on the surface to be normal-looking individuals...But in reality they are walking time bombs ready to ignite at just the right combination of events...An individual who is on the verge of becoming a serial killer may seem like a dormant volcano. No one knows that beneath the usually bland exterior is a psyche in turmoil..." (Norris 40-1; emphasis added).
However, precisely because the work of the criminologist consists in opening up the killer's psyche, it bears an unsettling resemblance to the killer's own craving for opening up the victim's body. The criminal and the criminologist are locked together in a Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship, attested to by the persistent rumor that Jack the Ripper was a physician, and incarnated in Dr. Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant savant of the criminal mind, including his own. Cornwell's Dr. Kay Scarpetta is a forensic pathologist whose work is extensively documented in the novels. In extremely detailed descriptions of autopsies the Scarpetta novels seek to titillate the reader with a show of corporeal vulnerability, while simultaneously positioning their heroine on the side of the angels: it is she, after all, who has to confront the serial killers' handiwork in order to aid their just punishment. But since the scene of the actual murder(s) is generally left to the imagination, Dr. Scarpetta, in cutting open the victims' bodies, appears less as the killer's nemesis than his proxy.
The doubling of the killer and the detective/physician/psychologist whose function it is to cure the "disease" of serial killing appears with stunning regularity in fictions which otherwise seem to comform to the "monstrous creation" paradigm. Again, the roots of this phenomenon seem coterminous with serial killing itself. Not only Jekyll-and-Hyde but Dr. Van Helsing, the fearless vampire killer with his sharp stake, seems, surreptitiously, to mirror his adversary with his sharp tooth. If some contemporary serial killers choose the problematic diagnosis of multiple personality as their line of defence, the idea was thoroughly explored already in Arthur Machen's 1917 novella "The Terror" in which a suspected (though, in fact, non-existent) serial killer is profiled as "a madman only at intervals," with a "fluid and unstable" personality which is not a unity but "a mere polity, a state in which dwelt many strange and incongruous citizens," unaware of each other's existence (351). The man who expounds this theory ends up by suggesting that the lawyer who heads the investigation into mysterious deaths may be the culprit without having "the faintest suspicion that there is another Llewelyyn within him, a Llewelyn who follows murder as a fine art" (352). The monster within the law-abiding citizen can appear as another personality such as the Red Dragon whom the killer perceives as something external to himself or as the "real face" of the detective, as in James Patterson's Kiss the Girls where the serial rapist and killer Casanova turns out to be a police officer on the case.
The "monstrous creation" paradigm of the serial killer generates a paradox that explodes the very identity it assigns to its subject. The location of criminality in the body, meant to separate cleanly the normal and the abnormal human species, ends up blurring the very distinction it was supposed to uphold. Once the criminal anatomy becomes a secret anatomy, hidden in the deepest recesses of the body and accessible only to a diligent search, who can be completely sure of escaping its taint? The actions of the psychokiller and the physician become structurally identical: digging for the secret of the Other that may turn out to be the secret of the self. The monster is one of us, after all.
A Fine Line
In Cornwell's From Potter's Field Dr. Scarpetta has a peculiar conversation with her psychologist whom she asks to "dissect" her latest adversary, performing on his mind the same operation she herself performs on the bodies of his victims. The psychologist says, simply and chillingly: "I don't give a damn why any of them do it...I think they should all be hanged" (255). This renunciation of a professional duty chimes with the dialogue between Scarpetta and her niece quoted above. The niece defends the killer as a past victim, providing her own childish answer to the question "why": because "people were mean to him." Doesn't any attempt to answer this question in terms of psychological identification with the killer ultimately lead to a kind of forgiveness? As Wendy Lesser tentatively suggests: "But is it not possible for murderers to be a different kind of victim on their own, without usurping the role of the people they themselves have victimized?" (83).
In order to do so, the serial killer must be seen as the product of a trauma, a victim of abuse. The "victimization" paradigm and the "monster" paradigm are, in practice, not mutually exclusive. Most criminologists, even those committed to a genetic or physiological explanation of sexual violence, readily admit the etiological contribution of the environment. "True crime" books are omnivorous, adopting both explanantions with ease. In a typically mixed presentation Margaret Cheney in Why—The Serial Killer in America notes that "many such killers were severely abused as children," while at the same time referring to serial murder as 'disease" (xi). Stephen Giannangelo, in a much more serious investigation of violence, gives equal weight to biological and environmental factors: "The combination of physical predisposition and environmental stressors helps develop a pattern of maladjustment with two major consequences: a distorted sense of self and the dysfunctional sexual component" (27). John Douglas, while stressing that serial killers are not "like us," is not particularly enthusiastic about crude biologism either. Referring to the Speck case in which the murderer had originally been supposed to have a genetic defect that was later disproven, he denies that any of "his" killers were biologically abnormal.
However, taken as narrative paradigms, the "monstrous creation" and the victimization stories are quite different, both structurally and ideologically. The psychologist's brusque refusal to understand the killer testifies to the fear of finding him pitiable or, worse, sympathetic. The conversation between Scarpetta and her niece recalls the anguished confrontation between Frankenstein and his creature, in which the origin of the monster's violence becomes the moral crux of their relationship. If the creature is "made bad," Frankenstein is right in denying all his pleading for justice and recongintion as the low cunning of a habitual criminal. If the creature is forced into violence by his parent's rejection and society's cruelty, he is a victim and then Frankenstein himself is rightfully to bear the blame for all the corpses he leaves in his wake. Despite the psychologist's disclaimer "I don't give a damn," it does matter whether the killer her client is hunting is viewed as an evil alien or as a abused and traumatized human being.
Narratively as well, the two paradigms produce quite different stories for their subjects. The "monstrous creation" narrative focuses on the aftermath of violence, it is the story of search and exposure. The "victimization" story works from the crime backwards to account for the genesis of the killer. It allows a psychological identification with the murderer which is stalled by biological determinism. By definition, a monster is Other, incomprehensible and alien. He can be unmasked but his subjectivity remains forever opaque. Reconstructing the murderer's narrative of traumatization and abuse, on the other hand, makes it possible to identify with him. If we go back in time far enough, we encounter—as in Alienist and The Red Dragon—the serial killer as an abused and helpless child. Even in Postmortem where Dr. Scarpetta resolutely refuses to consider her niece's proposition that "people were mean to him first," the FBI profiler on the case brings back the victim theory by suggesting that the "killer was from a 'dysfunctional home' and might have been abused, either physically or emotionally, by his mother" (78).
As the series progresses, Scarpetta seems more and more obviously torn between her professional need to understand the mind of the killer, and her resolute denial of any human kinship with the monster. In From Potter's Field Scarpetta encounters a "malignant genius" Temple Gault who seems beyond any psychological explanantion. No profile for him, he just "does what he pleases" (39). Gault defies both models of serial killing: reared in a decent family, he cannot be easily seen as the product of a biological taint either, since he has a "good" twin sister whom he cold-bloodedly murders. A monster is a monster is a monster. When asked what Gault is, Scarpetta answers "There is no description for what he is" (29).
However, the aim of the text as a detective story is, precisely, to provide an intelligible description for Gault. In fact, the case is only solved after a lenthy excursion into Gault's childhood. No matter how much the killer is demonized, the epistemological framework shared by both fiction and science of crime requires an explanantion of his motivation which always incurs the danger of sliding into empathy with, and pity for, the serial murderer. On the one hand, according to Douglas, identification is sine non quo of detection: "We must try to feel what it was like for each one" (26). Yet on the other hand, "feeling like" can all too easily mutate into "being like". The horror of being sucked into the killer's mind through understanding it accounts for the narrator's outburst at the end of Alienist:
Seeing the child-killer as a snivelling kid can flip into seeing any snivelling kid—including one's own childhood image of oneself—as a potential child-killer. Moore shoots the murderer in a futile attempt to establish the boundary between detective and criminal, victim and victimizer. The taint of violence, however, freely circulates across this boundary, carried precisely by those strategies of knowledge which have created it in the first place. In one of the episodes of X-files the FBI profiler who, for three years, has pursued a serial killer commits copycat murders after the killer is arrested, having been infected by his madness through a too-close penetration of his mind. The detective in Lewis Shiner's horror story "Love in Vain" realizes that the serial killer Charlie whose gruesome exploits he investigates is part of himself, in fact part of every male, an incarnation of sexual violence implicit in "normal" male sexuality. The mindhunter is both empowered and disabled by his affinity with his prey, as Douglas illustrates in an episode he reconts with wry humour. During a conversation with mass murderer Richard Speck, the latter turns to the FBI agents and says: "You fucking guys are crazy. It must be a fine line separates you from me" (21).
Am I Evil?
The narrative aporia of Frankenstein prefigures the aporia of the serial killer's identity. The two paradigms described above cannot be reconciled but neither of them is sufficient on its own. Both fail to account for the violence which necessitates their deployment in the first place. Defining the serial killer as a monster offers a temporary relief from the emotional shock of murder: "Branded a maniac, beast, monster, or vampire, the sexual murderer often escapes psychiatric and legal definition by moving into a special category beyond human terms" (Tatar 26). However, neither criminology nor fictions of crime can accept this "special category" without giving up their raison d'etre: the will to knowledge. Their plots require the orderly progression from question to answer, from the killer's MO to his identity. If the mind of the killer is an alien, impenetrable mystery "beyond human terms", this progression is stalled.
The "victimization" paradigm offers easy understanding but leads to the slippery slope of sympathetic identification at the bottom of which the killer becomes "one of us." As Charlie says in "Love in Vain": "You can't get rid of me that easy...I been around too long. I was Springheel Jack and Richard Speck. I was Ted Bundy and that fella up to Seattle they never caught...You can't never get rid of me because I'm inside you" (382). But even if the serial killer is Everyman, not every man is a serial killer. Even if inside each lust murderer hides an abused child, not all abused children grow up into murderers. Both seductive and sickening, the pull of identification with the mind of the killer is checked by the gap between fantasy and deed. "Through murder and mayhem, the serial killer literally chases his dreams" (Fox and Levin 51). But though it may be argued that, as Jocasta says to Oedipus, "all men have dreams like this," obviously not all men go on to make these dreams real.
Thus, if the "monstrous creation" paradigm fails to account for the killer's similarity to the ordinary run of humanity, the victimization paradigm cannot explain his difference. Turned into a monster-hunt, criminology has to abjure its scientific claim to understand the serial murderer's psychology and motivation. Attuned to the killer's history of victimization, it fails to account for the unique horror of his violence. And mixed together, however pragmatically useful this may appear, the two paradigms create a narrative muddle when employed to tell the story of the killer.Their blending always fails as they work at cross purposes, fracturing the text. The "real" nature of the serial killer is, perhaps, best acknowledged by these fractures, just as, in Lacanian theory, the Real can only be glimpsed in the rifts and cracks of the Symbolic order.
The doubling of the serial killer in Thomas Harris's Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs provides a startling example of that. Lecter, the psychotic cannibalistic monster (who is also, as many critics have noted, the most appealing character in the books and the films), functions as the full-fledged Great Detective, while the FBI agents Clarice Starling and Jack Crawford play Watson to his Holmes. He appears as a hybrid of Dupin and Minister D., with the ravenour Orangutan thrown in for a good measure. But ultimately his subjectivity remains the only unsolved (and unsolvable) enigma of the novels, while he easily gets under the skin of everybody else, criminal and non-criminal alike. A mindhunter in his own right, Lecter reconstructs the twisted life stories of Red Dragon and Buffalo Bill whose violence is ultimately explained as an outcome of severely abused childhood. They are sick, delusional, victimized. Red Dragon is physically deformed, but the text, after some vacillation, settles for the claim that his pathology stems from the rejection and mockery occasioned by his defect rather than from any biological taint. Both he and Buffalo Bill are descendants of Frankenstein's creature as he sees himself: monsters "made bad," not "born bad."
Lecter, on the other hand, seems to be just the opposite: Crawford defines him as a "born" monster whose evil is a result of some incomprehensible snag in brain chemistry. However, Lecter himself is quite aware of this explanantion and mercilessly ridicules it in a remarkable conversation with Clarice Starling who seeks to "quantify" him: "Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can't reduce me to a set of influences. You've given up good and evil for behaviourism, Officer Starling. You've got everybody in moral dignity pants—nothing is ever anybody's fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I'm evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?" (20).
"Nothing happened to me" is the ultimate rebuff of all narratives of the killer's genesis. Neither made nor born a monster, Lecter freely chooses monsterhood. Lesser notes, somewhat puzzledly, that the film audience cheers for Lecter and explains our "sympathies" with him by the process of psychological identification (51). However, Lecter has no psychology; he is a walking abstraction of autonomous, self-willed subjecthood, the generic Man of philosophy reincarnated as a mass murderer. Unlike Buffalo Bill and Red Dragon, he has no story, he is not shackled by the past or pinned down by an explanantion. He flaunts his conscious and carefully tended evil as a badge of freedom from both nature and nurture. In a sense, his is the most traditional identity of all, the ahistorical incorporeal identity of a moral monad. And yet, in the age of scientific causality, of narratives of origin that strive to bind every subjectivity by a memory chain, Lecter's moral absolutism appears seductively anarchic. He is, in fact, Everyman but Everyman as tabula rasa of ethical choice, not as the hidden destructive presence beyond the reach of consciousness. He is not a serial killer inside each of us but a serial killer that each of us can become if we so choose. Lecter the gentleman killer holds the impossible promise of a non-narrative identity, not conditioned by the past or glumly marching toward the unavoidable future, but created anew in each moment of choice. It is for the sake of this promise that we are willing to forgive his murders and to believe that he will, indeed, not harm Clarice Starling, for having chosen evil, he is still perfectly free to choose good. This is why the author, with the connivance of the reader, kills off Buffalo Bill and lets Lecter go scot-free, even though they both commit the same repulsive crime. Bill kills and flays women to make himself a suit of female skin; Lecter escapes imprisonment by tearing off a warder's face and wearing it as a mask. But Bill is an essentialist; he strives to fashion a real identity for himself because he believes becoming a woman will liberate his true self. Lecter is a bricoleur who creates disposable identities, an opportunist who refuses to be bound by the psychiatric bildungsromans he so deftly imposes upon others. For the culture tired of the stalemate between Frankenstein and his creature, it seems to be a relief to meet a monster who cheerfully says: "I am evil because this is what I have chosen to be."
Of course, a real-life Lecter would be quite a different matter. There is a profound difference between a discursive construct pretending to be a man and a flesh-and-blood man attempting to be a discursive construct. We applaud Lecter's sovereign self because he is, after all, only a character in fiction. But among real serial killers there were people who seemed to have adopted the ideology of the "transcendental" self with predictably abhorrent consequences. Ian Brady who, together with Myra Hindley, committed the Moor Murders was described by his biographer as "a disciple of the philosophy of amoralism and the absolute right of the individual to engage in whatever evil he chooses" (in Cameron and Frazer 140). Cameron and Frazer consider all serial killers to be infected with what they call "masculine transcendence." Despite their cogent analysis of other narratives of serial killing, they fall into the same trap of offering a grand explanatory paradigm that would assign a unified identity to the killer: if not Buffalo Bill, then Dr. Lecter; if neither a monster nor a victim, then, perhaps, a too-singleminded reader of Sade. But even though Brady might have thought of himself in not dissimilar terms, this, of course, does not guarantee that such an identity is closer to the "truth" of serial killing than any other. 
The subject of free choice is an amnesiac. Presupposing that at any given moment one is confronted by two equally weighted ethical alternatives denies the importance of the self-awareness of the past. The dice of choice is always loaded by memory. Lecter is an impossible subject precisely because the memory of his past crimes contributes nothing to the current state of his personality; it's a storehouse of specialized information, nothing more. But if psychoanalysis taught us anything, it is that subjectivity is a story. Identities are not only public roles imposed from the outside by the grand collective narratives of culture, they are private dramatis personae within individual scripts written by memory and revised by the imagination. It is the complicated relation between these individual scripts and cultural master narratives that has to be probed if we are to approach the subjectivity of the serial killer. This subjectivity is not a passive product of the postmodern confusion between representation and reality, as Seltzer claims; rather, it is an outcome of the active manipulation of representation by the subject himself.
Criminologist David Canter in his book Criminal Shadows: Inside the Mind of the Serial Killer sharply critiques both "the monstrous creation" and the "victimization" paradigms, noting that both are of little practical use in apprehending criminals. He refuses to consider the criminal's life-story as an unfolding of his ontology. Instead, he sees the ontology of a serial killer as a precarious construct of his life-story. Rather than looking for the deeply-buried secret of violence, he opts for a "narrative" approach, distilled from the basic insight of psychoanalyzis in all its many variations: that "human life unfolds through a series of episodes" (221) and subjectivity is constituted through a process of perpetual internal storytelling.
To push this thought a little further is to say that subjectivities have genres. It is true, as Cameron and Frazer point out, that in trying to make sense of their actions, Nilesen and other serial killers have "recourse to all and only these cultural categories" that define the serial killer as an identity (151). But these cultural categories are patterns of narrative ordering and as such, they produce generically diverse stories. The melodrama of an abused child who turns to evil is quite different from the horror story of a born monster, stamped from birth with the ineluctable mark of alien appetites. And both are not only public narratives that organize our perception of serial killers but also inner scripts that organize their own perception of themselves. Of course, transmuted into an inner script, a public story undergoes a transformation: the third-person antagonist becomes the first-person protagonist with all the shifts and distortions of the plot this entails. And yet, as serial killers' own confessions demonstrate, the basic narrative structure remains as they strive to represent themselves as either victims (of their parents, society or even pornography, as Bundy memorably tried to do), Jekyll-and-Hyde psychopathic monsters, or Sadeian supermen. In modeling their subjectivities on templates available from the cultural repertoire, they, as Canter points out, are no different from everybody else. They are different, however, in their choice of plots.
Thus, serial killers seem to have access to the grandest narrative of Western culture, tragedy. But, in fact, Frye's scheme hardly does justice to the multiple generic molds of popular culture which constitute the contemporary subject's reservoire of lifestories. Not Hamlet or King Lear but Dracula and Frankenstein are likely models for a narrative of violence, exclusion and concealment. What Seltzer contemptuously calls the "pop-psychology" and "pop-sociology" of serial murder are new genres of selfhood that emerge in parallel to the generic explosion of mass culture.
However, what Canter insufficiently notes is the way in which serial killers' self-narratives seem to be generically contradictory, fragmented, broken beyond repair. Rather than tidily conforming to a particular paradigm, never mind how tragic, serial killers, as Nielsen's writings graphically demonstrate, seem to possess a number of irreconcilable lifestories, bits and pieces pasted together from a pile of random sources. Ted Bundy was generous with explanations of his murderous rampage for the benefit of the enthralled audience of experts, lawyers, friends and acquaintances, and general public mesmerised by the hideous enigma of this smooth, attractive, bright young man who charmed women at day and butchered them at night. He blamed pornography; he blamed his genes, he said that sometimes he felt "like a vampire," he talked of unspecified "unfulfilled desires" which transcended the sexual, he threw in a dash of mysticism, he declared himself to be "the most cold-blooded sonofabitch you'll ever meet" (Serial Killers 6-48). No doubt, many (or most) of these explanations were adopted for specific purposes, to impress the court, to charm a psychologist, or to stay the execution. But it would be wrong to presuppose that somewhere, underneath this ill-assorted pile of cliches, a real Ted Bundy was hidden, intelligible to himself if not to others. Rather, it seems, that as Cameron and Frazer put it, the "discourse by which sex-killing is made intelligible to us, whether it comes from the killer, a psychiatrist or The Sun, is not parasitic on some higher truth: it is the heart of the matter and the rest is silence" (xii).
But silence can be more powerful than words, the determining absence more central than the weakly cohering presence. Serial killing is never made fully intelligible because it is a locus where several discourses collide and shatter into mismatched fragments which cannot be fitted together into a neat picture-puzzle. Like their grand fictional archetype, Frankenstein's monster, serial killers are patchwork creatures, made of crudely stitched partial selfhoods that never solidify into a coherent narrative subjectivity. Canter suggests that we all have a "public" and a "private" narrative of the self and what distinguishes violent criminals is the radical incompatibility of their "hidden narratives" with their public stories (233). While this Jekyll-and-Hyde model may account for somebody like Bundy, with other serial killers the "public" narrative amounts to hardly more than a threadbare social mask. Rather, what distinguishes a serial killer is the radical incompatibility of all the narratives of the self that make up his subjectivity. In the ritual enacting of his violent fantasy the killer attempts to glue together his fragmented self with blood. However, the repetitiveness of his murders serves only to mirror the reproduction of loose stories, unanchored in the terra firma of reality, which float around his disintegrating self.
The narrativity of identity is not limited to serial killers, nor is the fragmentation and aporia of subjectivity exclusive province of violent criminals. However, precisely the extremity of their self-(de)construction and the glaring failure of "human" sciences to come to grips with their motivations raises the issue of what is missing in our narratology of the self. Perhaps the lacking categories are randomness which can encompass the non-teleological, open-ended character of the human story, and choice which emphasizes agency that is capable of maneuvering among the generic molds of identity offered by culture.
Having spent an inordinate number of pages on explaining the scientific principles of criminal profiling, having variously suggested that the typical serial killer is a beast of prey, a true monster, the product of improper upbringing, and the plaything of irresistible and deviant sexuality, John Douglas pauses in the middle of describing the Hansen child murder case to deliver the surprising statement:
Choice is the one element of a narrative that cannot be predicted in advance since it does not obey the law of strict causaility. By emphasizing choice, Douglas indirectly renounces his own project. All his psycholgical profiles are now bound to be approximate, stochastic, imprecise; mere convenient stories imposed upon volatile reality. But by giving up the attempt to impose upon the serial killer a typological identity, he returns to him his individual subjectivity. This subjectivity now consists in the freedom to choose but the choice it makes places it beyond all and every generic mold of selfhood available in the cultural repertoire. By choosing extreme, repeated, and aimless violence, the serial killer breaks away from the limitations of discursive identity, only to find himself stranded in the silence of no-identity, in the mute meaninglessness of the Real.
To answer "yes" to Lecter's question "Am I evil?", to accept that there is no deep secret, no hidden truth in the serial killer's subjectivity, to view his self-chosen identity as irrevocably fragmented, the psychological equivalent of the hacked bodies of his victims, is to renounce the project of human sciences, especially criminology, which has been articulated by one of its early practitioners as follows: "...the function of [criminal] psychology is widening to acquire knowledge not only of the conceptions of human beings of themselves but also of everything which occurs or has occured within them, in other words, not only of their conceptions of, but also the whole of the objective reality of, their psychic life" (Bjerre 16; emphasis added). But if there is no such "objective reality," if the criminal's conception of him/herself is a sufficient determinant of his/her actions, and if, moreover, this conception is pliant and multiform, constantly revised by choices of the hour, the project collapses. And together with it goes the institutionalized identity of the scientist, the mindhunter, the Great Detective who is uniquely equipped to penetrate the criminal's heart of darkness. This cannot be allowed to happen. Thus Douglas retreats from his notion of choice, going back to his increasingly more convoluted, increasingly more desperate attempts to solve, once and for all, the mystery of the criminal mind.
Both criminology and detective fiction follow him. Since to accept the indeterminacy of identity, the free choice of violence, and the mocking denial of causality exemplified by Dr. Lecter means abandoning their commitment to the scientific paradigm of rational explanantion, narratives of serial killing quickly bring out a couple of representative Buffalo Bills, profile them out of existence, reduce the bodies of their victims to numbered exhibits of material evidence and offer a new and improved theory of bad genes or bad upbringing. After every encounter with the indeterminacy of the Real, the narrative picks up the shreds of its exploded models and patiently plods on to construct yet another impossible combination of monster and victim: science endlessly weaving its nets of narratives around the mystery of violence without ever catching its prey.
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1. Depending on the definition, either a vast majority of serial killers or all of them are male. Most true-crime writers simply point out this fact, or, at most, suggest common-sensical explanations of the kind "men are more violent." The feminist studies of serial killing by Maria Tatar and Cameron and Frazer focus on the "masculinity" of lust murder as represented in contemporary culture and link it to pervasive misogyny and denigration of the feminine. More radical interpretations, such as that of Robin Morgan in The Demon Lover, suggest violence is endemic to male sexuality. However, there have been several widely publicized cases, such as the Moor murders of Brady and Hindley and the activities of Fred and Rose West, in which a male and a female murderer worked in tandem, with the female partner being every bit as sadistic as the male. The gender of the serial murderer is not my concern in this essay; however, to follow up the idea of the cultural "scripts" of identity, I would suggest that Western culture has, so far, offered few scripts to a female "motiveless" murderer. However, in the wake of the popular-culture legitimization of the representation of female violence (in films ranging from Basic Instinct to Blue Steel) and of the general shift in the gender relations, this may conceivably change in the future. To indicate the situation as it is now, I will be using the third-person masculine pronoun throughout the essay to refer to the serial murderer and add the feminine pronoun only when referring to a wider notion of criminality.
2. Many (though not all) serial murderers enter into a quasi-symbiotic relationship with the media, becoming enamoured of their own notoriety. Moreover, even before being caught, they sometimes attempt to manipulate their own media image, either by writing letters to the police, as did the original Jack the Ripper, or committing more murders as Ted Bundy claimed to have done. After the capture they often willingly cooperate with psychologists or journalists. Bundy's communication skills were noted by the media and his biographers alike whom he seemed to enjoy manipulating. Nilsen's cooperation with his biographer, on the other hand, suggested an attempt to understand his own behavior. In any case, both of them had no difficulty in speaking the language(s) of their society.
3. Moreover, they are also story characters. Douglas sees himself and his colleagues as direct descendants of the nineteenth-century Great Detectives, stating that "our [criminal profilers'] antecedents actually do go back to crime fiction more than crime fact" and devoting a considerable amount of space to a knowledgeable discussion of Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle (Mindhunter 32-3).
4. Unlike the unflappable Lecter, Brady became seriously disturbed during his incarceration, shifting into the "madman" category.