Why is it that the media and the culture have become such suckers for serial-killer schlock, the giddy hype and kitsch, the meretricious pseudo-science, and the half-baked books and movies that celebrate it all?
Could it be that the serial killer has become our Raskolnikov, the realization of some shared, secret dark-side fantasy of the culture-the radioactive isotope of an atomized society? Or is the serial killer just a cash cow for the infotainment industrial complex, a reliable breadwinner, like big scary lizards?
You can see the recrudescence of all the old serial killer crap in the culture in the confluence of the hype surrounding Summer of Sam with the hype surrounding the new Hannibal Lecter novel-all coming at a moment when the TV news featured a railway killer on the run down on the border and the prime time schedule was suffused with shows that celebrated the alleged uncanny prowess of F.B.I. “profilers” who are supposed to be able to single out serial killers by “personality markers.”
It’s amazing to me the way the media continues to buy into the myth of the omniscient, unerring F.B.I. “profilers,” considering all the evidence of their failures. Time after time, these credit-grabbers have been exposed for making wrong calls, doggedly pursuing the wrong leads, arresting the wrong guy (remember Richard Jewell), missing the right guy (remember the Unabomber). And yet, time after time, they proceed in flogging their only true success-their real talent, self-promotion-and gulling the “science”-intimidated media into lavishing them with book contracts, movie consultancies and TV chat-show appearances as “serial-killer experts.”
Why does the media continue to buy into the myth of the serial-killer expert? Perhaps because there’s a need to believe that someone has it all figured out. That, disturbing and frightening as the phenomenon might be, the idea that we might not be able to explain it-that we might not have the Answer-is even more threatening to our complacency. It doesn’t matter how dumb and dangerous so-called serial killer science is, we need to believe in it. It’s virtually a religious thing.
I say dangerous because without genuine scientific foundation the profilers are in the business of criminalizing personality types. They are heirs to the persistent “forensic forecasting” tendency in the behavioral sciences which claims to identify “criminal types” and predict who the dangerous criminals will be before they get a chance to be dangerous-thus preparing the ground for advocates of “early intervention,” perhaps even preventative detention of people who “fit the profile,” even if they have yet to commit a crime.
Is it extreme to suggest that the officials who burned alive the women and children of religious dissidents in Waco-acting on the advice of their profilers-might begin to build files in which people who want to be left alone become phenotyped as dangerous “loners”? If Thoreau were alive today or the clumsy profilers were around back then, they’d have that loner recluse in their cross hairs in a New York minute and they’d be calling Walden Pond “Walden Compound” before they moved in to firebomb it.
Perhaps my animus to this bogus science and the unexamined reverence the media accords it comes from having spent considerable time a few years ago investigating one of the most spectacular (but conveniently overlooked or forgotten) blunders by serial killer pseudo-science: the Henry Lee Lucas case. Lucas was a con artist and drifter who hoaxed the legendary Texas Rangers back in the 80’s by spinning tales about how he killed 200, no, 300, no, it’s 600 people before he finally confessed to being a fraud. He probably killed two people, but got himself an air-conditioned jail cell with premium pay cable, and a hold on his death sentence for as long as he kept taking credit for “solving” unsolved murder cases. The Rangers had him touring the nation like a serial killer rock star coptering into a town and “taking”-confessing to-long unsolved murders. The serial killer to end all serial killers.
But what I remember most about the story was reading all the analyses of Henry Lee Lucas that appeared in the serial killer pseudoscience texts afterward-about how the details of Henry’s life and crimes, even his brain scans, all supposedly vindicated and corroborated the predictive indicators, all the mind-personality typing indices and measurements, all the brilliant serial-killer science the profilers had devised. He was their prime exhibit, in the many, many compliant interviews he gave that so precisely corroborated their theories. He was the “Anna O.” of serial-killer science, and, it turned out, the source of conclusions just as bogus as those Freud fabricated in his primal case.
But none of the serial-killer science texts re-examined the data after the hoax was exposed, none of the “science” based on the hoax was ever reconsidered. It would be too complicated for the “experts” to explain that little problem in their data in a sound bite on Geraldo .
What’s fascinating when you think about it is that the media’s romance with this bogus “science” with its criminalizing and potentially totalitarian personality typing implications-a first cousin to The Bell Curve , not to mention Orwell and Kafka-can probably be traced back to the way liberal and lefty film buff types, beholden to Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster, swooned over Silence of the Lambs . Made it chic-without questioning the fraudulent cult of the F.B.I. “profiler” it engendered. (Not to mention the homophobic subtext and the implication that anyone who differed from white-bread Midwestern normality was a potential psychocriminal. Talk about “internalizing the values of the oppressors”!)
Annoying as the knee-jerk reverence for serial-killer “scientists” is, the way serial killers themselves have been endowed with some special wisdom is even more irritating and problematic.
So excited, so giddy are the Lecterphiles among the intelligentsia over Hannibal Lecter’s mock erudition, they must be in love with the idea that he makes culture, literacy look dangerous , and every intellectual wants to think of himself as secretly dangerous, an International Man of Mystery at heart. The new Lecter novel picks up on that, makes him a swinger in a Jaguar. Lecter as Austin Powers. (And, by the way, isn’t Lecter’s reputation for criminal genius overrated? Has anyone considered how pathetically obvious his “brilliant diagnosis” of Clarice Starling is? Does it take a genius to figure out that someone who has dreams of screaming lambs, might have, you know, like, anger issues about innocence being violated? Duh. Any “dream book” you buy in a bodega could tell you that.)
But what prompted all of these reflections is a new development previously unreported on, totally ignored in the flood of media hype over Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam . (A movie I liked, by the way.) The way David Berkowitz has become, in effect, not just a convert to Christianity but a virtual Christian cult figure, a cult he’s building on the basis of a lie he continues to tell about his crimes.
It’s a disturbing, potentially scary and sinister story and when I say it’s unreported on, that’s not precisely the case. It has been reported on, quite scrupulously by one of my students at the Columbia journalism school. It’s not unreported, it’s just as yet unpublished, because the media seems to have a limitless appetite for infotainment schlock and movie tie-in promo material about Son of Sam, but apparently little desire to look beneath the surface at the disturbing story of the growing fundamentalist David Berkowitz cult. At the disingenuous dance of mutual manipulation going on between David Berkowitz and some opportunistic fundamentalist ministers who are turning him into a cash cow for their ministries-and exploiting the poor befuddled followers who are buying the Big Lie from their serial killer and his pious pimps.
It’s a big lie, one that my student nails Mr. Berkowitz with. Her name is Lisa Singh, and she’d gotten onto the story when she came across a slickly produced videotape by a Florida ministry that was being shown to gatherings of curious invitees at churches and in private homes. The video is called Son of Sam, Son of Hope: The Powerful Testimony of David Berkowitz Featuring Evangelist Stephen Hill . Along with The Choice Is Yours With David Berkowitz , these videos have made Son of Sam, the Jewish serial killer, a worldwide Christian video star, with the tapes being translated into numerous foreign languages, including Romanian and Tagalog, as we speak.
Most of the reporting on David Berkowitz’s conversion to Christianity has depicted it as something of limited interest, just another jailhouse conversion, maybe like Ted Bundy who at the last minute tried to postpone his execution by telling tales of how pornography was to blame for all his crimes, or like Karla Faye Tucker, who wrapped born-again rubes around her bloodstained fingers with her simpering piety.
There’s an element of that, there’s certainly a political dimension to the use to which Mr. Berkowitz’s “conversion” has been put. But Bundy never lived to be the kind of ministering guru Mr. Berkowitz poses as now, giving religious counseling in prison, receiving worshipful Christians from the outside world, getting his message across to untold hundreds of thousands on every continent who write in to “Brother David” seeking guidance. Hannibal Lecter only had Jodie Foster for his disciple. David Berkowitz now has potentially millions of brain-washable minions to pray for and prey on.
The key to it all, the reason he’s being commodified by fundamentalists and peddled all over the world, is the lie at the heart of the deal: David Berkowitz wants to absolve himself of personal responsibility for his murders by saying the Devil (and a Devil cult) made him do it. And the fundamentalists want testimony to support their superstitious scare tactic belief that Satan (not human nature and human society) is responsible for crime, that Satanists infest the cities of America, particularly its minority neighborhoods. ( The Son of Sam, Son of Hope video lingers on shots of Satanic images in inner-city graffiti murals.)
So David Berkowitz keeps dutifully flogging the story that he was “programmed” to kill by a Satan-worshipping cult that was into human sacrifices, a cult that he met, he says vaguely, “in the parks” in the summer before he started killing. Sometimes he says the cult had orders from its headquarters in England to make snuff movies for Satan. Sometimes he says he felt Satan enter him and program him personally. Whatever. Watching him make up the details out of thin air for gullible interviewers is hilarious, he can barely keep a straight face; he barely even tries to be credible. It looks exactly like the tapes I’ve seen of Henry Lee Lucas hoaxing the Texas Rangers.
The details vary, but one thing David Berkowitz sticks to in his tales of the cult that programmed him is that they’re real , and they’re still out there, the devil-worshipping, human-sacrificing, serial-killer programming fiends, and here’s where my student nailed him. She’d initially wanted to do a story about the paradoxes of grace and faith David Berkowitz’s “ministry” represented: the test of the limits of forgiveness, the value of a conversion obtained by a problematically repentant serial killer. But, after spending close to 20 hours over several visits with “Son of Hope” and his devout worshipful followers, and listening to him maunder on in vague and utterly unconvincing ways abut the devil-worshippers and their colorful satanic activities, she was troubled by a simple question: Does he know their names and identities?
Yes, he told her, some of them are dead, but some of them are still out there.
Then why hasn’t he gotten the authorities after these individuals, these threats to society, to the lives of more innocents? To the city he’s supposedly remorseful about having terrorized?
He didn’t have an answer, “the books have closed” on that “old stuff,” he said. But if you believe his story, the old stuff isn’t old, they’re out there now, this satanic menace-and he has their names. Too busy? Too much on his plate?
In other words, and here’s where Lisa Singh’s story nails this creep in a way no other story I’ve seen has before: He’s either lying about the devil-worshipping cult, or he’s lying about being a Christian. Because, let’s assume he’s telling the truth about the cult that programmed him to kill. If he were truly a Christian and he actually knew the names of devil-worshipping murderers out there right now “in the parks” of our city, ready to snatch children for human sacrifice and to program serial killers for murder sprees, doesn’t he have a Christian duty to try to stop them? To save the lives of the innocents they threaten? No true Christian would “close the books” on their faith.
Big deal, you say, a serial killer lying about his crime or his conversion. Perhaps you wouldn’t be so complacent if you’d seen the way David Berkowitz’s “conversion” has been incorporated into the right-wing fundamentalist political agenda. If you’d seen Pat Robertson-still a respected or at least influential figure in the culture with a powerful forum in The 700 Club -slavishly endorsing David Berkowitz’s lies on his nationally broadcast show. Virtually mainstreaming Son of Sam into evangelical political discourse because of the “proof” he represents that the Devil is real and that the war on crime is really a religious war, in which we need to find ways of identifying and “neutralizing” those who have been demon possessed, or haven’t been properly saved from Satan. It’s the sort of demonology that can lead to demonizing the innocent just for being unsaved. For Hitler, Jews were “the people of the Devil” reflecting the primal medieval witch-hunt fear that David Berkowitz, like a pale, fat spider in his jail cell, is helping to fuel: “People of the Devil” are out there now, and anyone who hasn’t found Jesus in the way Son of Sam has is a prime suspect for Christian “profilers.”
Shame on him. Shame on his Christian gulls for glamorizing an unrepentant murderer because he mouths their pieties. Shame on them for not wanting to hold him to account for his continuing unrepentant lies. Shame on the media (with Geraldo actually almost the only one who hasn’t gone into the tank for Sam) for collaborating with him.
“Son of Hope” is what he says he now prefers to be called, not Son of Sam. Perhaps a better allusion might be Son of Man, as in Manson, a multiple murderer who still wields a disproportionate influence over a loyal cult despite, or because of, his bloody past.
But, somehow, people don’t want to hear this aspect of the story. The media prefer to write about the heroic F.B.I. profilers who have the whole serial-killer thing under control, because they’re terrific material for movie tie-ins (but not for actual, skeptical reporting). There’s more interest in a fictional serial killer like Hannibal Lecter because there’s a peg, a tie-in to the book’s release, and all journalism now must have a peg or tie-in to the timetables of the publicity industrial complex.
Anyway, I thought my student’s reporting was, is, superb, still deserves to be published and in some way is far more sensationally scary than any fictional Lecter sequel. In a way, David Berkowitz is the real Hannibal Lecter, manipulating gullible minds from inside his cell. Only worse, in a way: Hannibal Lecter ate the body parts of his victims, but David Berkowitz is eating their souls.