An irresistible impulse

It's one of the ways you can plead insanity. The original legal standard was that you had to be so insane as to not know the difference between right and wrong. After a while the definition was expanded to include those crazies who knew what they were doing was wrong, but had -- you guessed it -- an irresistible impulse to do it anyway.

I had an irresistible impulse to set aside Cry, the Beloved Country in favor of a book called Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Hunting Serial Killers for the FBI. Steve brought it home from the library the other day. I'm not sure why. I do know that reading books like this is wrong, WRONG, WRONG! Wrong because they are so f***ing creepy and disturbing. But despite knowing full well, I couldn't resist my (duh!) irresistible impulse. I've read almost 150 pages just since yesterday afternoon.

I guess I wouldn't be Bookworm if I didn't start out by saying that this book is very well written. From a purely literary point of view it's a very good read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the true crime genre. It's matter-of-fact, clean and concisely written. The author doesn't bother with a lot of adjectives and adverbs; he lets the facts speak for themselves (and boy howdy, do these facts speak for themselves!) The author, Robert K. Ressler, is a now-retired FBI agent who coined the term "serial killer." He comes across as a very likeable, unassuming guy. He freely admits his annoyance with FBI beaurocracy, and confesses to resorting to some sneaky strategies to get around the red tape. He even manages to work in a little gentle humor here and there, despite the distressing nature of the subject matter.

And it is distressing! My mind is filled with Manson, Gacy, Son of Sam, and many others I hadn't heard of before. Such macabre horrors you wouldn't believe. And their impoverished childhoods, their mean parents, their twisted fantasies, their irresistible impulses. Oh. My. God.

Why is this stuff so fascinating?


  • My grandmother has a genius IQ and all she reads is true crime. Creepy, isn't it?

    posted by Blogger Heather on 9:34 PM  

  • YIKES!!! If I read a book like that I would probably never sleep again! I think the fascination comes from the desire to understand--stuff like that is so incomprehensible to most of us, and we think that maybe, if we know WHY they did it, we might be safer. But I doubt that's true. We want there to be some kind of reasonable explanation. I used to watch true crime shows until they started giving me nightmares and insomnia.

    But of course, I am curious. I'll never read it--but does he believe that psychopaths are born or made? My college psychology teacher said they were born, and that has always disturbed me no end.

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 11:19 AM  

  • What you say is definitely true, Laura. I think there is a voyeuristic component, too, though. I'm actually more fascinated by the descriptions of these guys' childhoods. I have always been so fascinated by abnormal psych case histories. Fascinated probably to an unhealthy degree. My dad's a clinical psychologist; maybe that has something to do with it.

    To answer your question, he (IMHO, correctly) does not come out one way or the other. All these guys share common elements in their childhood environments: abusive and/or mentally ill parents, absent father during the critical age 8-12, etc., etc. However, he also stresses that not everyone who experiences such a childhood grows up to be a serial killer! He would probably agree that there can be a genetic predisposition, but that environmental factors are also necessary. Nature vs. nurture is such a complex question that I don't think it can ever be answered satisfactorily. I'm surprised that a college psych professor would presume to do so.

    He also makes a very interesting distinction between "organized" and "disorganized" killers. The latter are usually extremely, severely mentally ill. They don't plan in advance, they don't hide the body, they really don't believe that what they're doing is wrong, etc. The organized criminals are more along the lines of sociopaths -- they plan in advance, they carry weapons in their car, they may take trophies, follow the investigation in the paper, etc. I think there's a pretty good argument that there's a strong genetic component for the former group, if not the latter. But in both groups environment also plays a big role.

    posted by Blogger Julie on 12:17 PM  

  • Oh, I know EXACTLY what you mean. I watch "Jim Jones: The Guyana Tragedy" and the Ted Bundy movie EVERY TIME their on t.v. It's so creepy, but I can't make myself stop.

    posted by Blogger SuzanH on 6:19 PM  

  • Sorry, I'm obviously very curious, so I'm using you to satisfy instead of reading the book myself, but what does he say about race/culture? Why the middle-class white male profile? Are there organized killers in other cultures?

    I'm curious about whether people can be evil without being insane. Can a person who is entirely sane still be deliberately evil? Does past abuse, attachment disorder, etc., make the actions any less evil? I understood that the definition of psychotic meant "out of touch with reality". In that case, aren't the organized murderers more psychotic (insane) than the disorganized ones?

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 7:04 PM  

  • It's fascinating because it's so hard to understand how people could be so evil. I love this stuff. For instance, the recent arrest of the BTK killer had me reading every single article on the guy.

    posted by Blogger Fred on 8:06 PM  

  • LOL, Suzan! I've never seen those but they sound grrrrreat!

    LOL, Laura, too! Heh heh, too chicken to read the book but pumping me for details!

    But seriously, yes, he does talk about those things somewhat. He says the percentage of disorganized killers is probably pretty constant thru time and place, but he does connect the organized ones with the "pressures of society" today. And you know what else? I could hardly believe this: he talked about Sheldonian types. (Sheldon: a psychologist who connected personality traits with physical body types. If you've ever read The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies you know what I'm talking about.) He said that most of these guys are ectomorphs -- small and skinny. He does not talk much about race, and not at all about other cultures. Though I still have a couple of chapters left. If anything changes, I'll let you know!

    I think your other question will be my next post.

    posted by Blogger Julie on 8:12 PM  

  • I remember reading "Helter Skelter" after the Tate-Bianca murders by the Charles Manson group... Very creepy book, but also intriguing how the clues were unraveled. If you have never read it, it's worth picking up to read since you have just finished that book on hunting serial killers.

    posted by Blogger Rhodent on 10:26 PM  

  • Yes, you've pegged me. Chicken through and through. So does he believe that an ectomorph (sounds like something off of Ghostbusters) does this because of societal perceptions of body size or for some biological/genetic reason? My husband is a small, skinny guy. Uh-oh.

    posted by Anonymous Laura on 10:03 AM  

  • I've read that book and others of similar genre. I'm fascinated by the psychology, neurology ,sociology, criminal mindset, legal procedings, our justice system, and the list goes on. I like mysteries and puzzles. More importantly, I'm intrigued by the workings of the mind, even of the criminal or deviant mind, plus those who bring such people to justice. Then there's the aspect of DNA and nature vs nurtur or combo of both. I fervently want our society to find a way to eradicate abuse, killing, etc of that type and more.

    No time to write more other than I understand why you were fascinated reading this book! WIll be back later to read the interesting comment thread further.

    posted by Anonymous SilverMoon on 5:29 AM