With movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “Silence of the Lambs,” Hollywood has always frightened audiences with portraits of serial killers, but in real life there’s nothing entertaining about their crimes. Doctor Helen Morrison has profiled more than 80 serial killers and spent her career trying to find out why they kill. Her new book is called “My Life Among the Serial Killers: Inside the Minds of the World’s Most Notorious Murderers.” She discusses the book on “Today.” Here’s an excerpt:
Baby-Faced Richard Macek
In March of 1977, the old road to Waupun, Wisconsin, was somehow eerie and foreboding, not simply rural but isolated in the kind of way that makes you watch your back. About twenty minutes outside of Madison, the colorful, welcoming signs for homey diners and Wisconsin cheddar cheese vanished, and the whole world seemed devoid of life. The sleepy fields along the way were still brown, not yet tinged with green, and there was an uncanny quiet, made heavier by the gray, chilly day. To be quite honest, I was nervous. I was a young doctor about to step into a world brimming with horrible crime and serial murder. It was a world full of macho, hard-drinking law enforcement officials who'd seen too much, and I wondered if I would be accepted or even tolerated not only as a professional, but also because I was a woman. Occasionally, I gripped the steering wheel too hard, as if driving straight and steady on the highway would steady my thoughts. I glanced at myself in the rearview mirror, to make sure the anxiety didn't show. It was important that I appear calm and composed.
I was no stranger to challenges, to tough times. As a child living in a small town near Pittsburgh, I never knew my real parents. It's not that I didn't yearn to find out. It just wasn't part of the deal. My parents weren't that kind. Sure, six other children and I had a roof over our heads, and food, but when it came to the real security that love can provide, well, it simply wasn't present. It sometimes seemed that the reason six others and I were children to these people was due to factors not understood, even now. Our lives as children were often unremittingly dark, and we were very alone in the world the parents defined.
But in one way I was ahead of the game. I discovered an early passion for what I wanted to do. At the age of eleven, I watched as eight year-old Beth, one of my favorite siblings, came down with scarlet fever. The rash of scarlet fever usually looks like a bad sunburn with unsightly but tiny bumps. I often felt like a mother to the rest of my siblings, so as her condition worsened, her chills and shakes, high fever, and vomiting had me worried. As she hallucinated, I was sure she was near death. I became frightened, full of the kind of all-encompassing terror that only children can feel. But when a doctor came to the house to treat her, she soon began to recover. In my young mind, I thought the doctor was a miracle worker. Amazed, I vowed right then to become a doctor. I was working by age twelve to bring in money, and I believed that if I worked harder and longer than anyone else, I could accomplish anything to which I set my mind — including becoming a doctor. It didn't matter if I had to deliver newspapers or if I worked as a waitress or a clerk in a grocery store to do it. Sometimes, I stood restless at the outskirts of our small town. And I imagined myself somewhere else, traveling to the more exotic places I saw in magazines or heard about on the radio. I could get out. I would get out. I had to.
As I drove, I kept thinking about what the FBI agent had asked me. "Have you ever seen anything like this before?" Special Agent Louis Tomaselli obviously had seen a lot in the course of his job, but the gruesome nature of the eight-by-ten black-and-white photographs he showed me had him mystified and concerned. Tomaselli was smooth talking, dark haired, and wiry. He had this way of talking with his hands. Careful but darkly animated, his hands moved not simply to express what he said but also gestured, twisted, and grabbed the air to help me picture the words. Early in our conversation, he said, "There's not much difference between me and the bad guys — except the FBI got to me first." The off-the-cuff comment startled me, but it made sense. If you're straight and narrow and you're going in undercover, you may be too conspicuous and your cover will be blown. Like a chameleon, you have to blend into the environment in which you're working. It never crossed my mind that people could go either way. I was young, from a town so small you might think it was just a bunch of nondescript wood frame houses at a dusty intersection. My sense had been that you were either right or wrong, that the rules in life were very black and white. This was just one of the myriad of core beliefs that would change radically for me in the months ahead.
Tomaselli approached me moments after a seminar I cotaught in 1977 called "The Use of Hypnosis in Criminal Investigations." At that time, law enforcement was intrigued with the possibilities of using memory-enhancing techniques like hypnosis, so the seminar was well attended. I told them that hypnosis is simply a state of deep, intense focus and has nothing to do with magician's wands. I myself was the subject, but it wasn't at all about strutting around onstage like a chicken. I was shown a photograph of a crime on a subway before and after I was hypnotized. The officials in the room were impressed that I was able to recall many more of the details within the picture when I was hypnotized. Everyone in attendance learned that memory could be improved but not manufactured through hypnosis.
Hundreds of investigators like Tomaselli had gathered just outside of Madison, Wisconsin, from around the state for a two-day conference about investigating and solving homicides more effectively. Many of the seminars dealt with hard-to-crack cases ...
The foregoing is excerpted from "My Life Among the Serial Killers" by Helen Morrison and Harold Goldberg. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022. For more information you can visit the book's Web site at: http://www.harpercollins.com/catalog/excerpt_xml.asp?isbn=0060524073