Book review: Whoever Fights Monsters, by Robert K. Ressler & Tom Shachtman (Amazon / Book Depository)
There is no such thing as the person who at age thirty-five suddenly changes from being perfectly normal and erupts into totally evil, disruptive, murderous behavior. The behaviors that are precursors to murder have been present and developing in that person’s life for a long, long time – since childhood.
I couldn’t get into the new Netflix series Mindhunter, on which this book was partially based, when I read it. I got halfway through the first episode and the acting seemed abysmal. But I needed something to zone out to one evening, gave it another try and ended up liking the show much more. It’s not fantastic, but it’s good enough.
This book is one of two that Mindhunter is based on, at least in part. Whoever Fights Monsters gets frequently mentioned on the My Favorite Murder podcast and they make it sound so good. Maybe reading and liking it is why I gave the show another chance. Regardless, it’s a compelling read on its own.
This is former FBI agent and modern pioneer in serial killer profiling Robert Ressler’s look back at some of his career milestones. He also tells something about what got him interested in a law enforcement career, stretching back to his childhood when he noticed missing persons and killers in the headlines, his early career steps, and going on to detail his specialist work post-FBI.
Ressler’s career highlights include his experimental interviewing of imprisoned serial killers to find out more about what makes them tick. We clearly owe a lot of the common knowledge about this subgroup of murderers to his research and methods. He recalls coining the term “serial killer” in the course of his work, clarifying more about what defines a certain kind of repeat murderer. And he tells something about the all-important clues of how to identify the doings of one before a suspect is even apprehended.
Most people conceive of the murderer as being a kind of Jekyll and Hyde: One day he’s normal and on the next a physiological drive is taking hold – his hair is growing, his fangs are lengthening – so that when the moon is full, he’ll have to seize another victim. Serial killers are not like that. They are obsessed with a fantasy; and they have what we must call unfulfilled experiences that become part of the fantasy and push them on toward the next killing. That’s the real meaning behind the term serial killer.
His ability to hone in on what traits, characteristics, or mannerisms police should look for in the suspect of certain crimes was completely fascinating, and he lays out here how he came to these very specific conclusions.
Figures both infamous and lesser known, including Edmund Kemper, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Monte Rissell, and Richard Chase, among others, are depicted here in one way or another – either through interviews or Ressler’s profiling of their crimes. He doesn’t glamorize any of them, which I think is important for anything dealing with these dark figures.
On the down side, parts of the book are somewhat outdated. He references the notorious Central Park Five investigation in a positive way, which time has clearly shown very differently. Especially recently, with so much light being shed on the topic of false confessions or confessions obtained under duress and coercion, his support for such methods in this case is alarming and questionable.
But where his work shines is in terms of psychology. He allows a glimpse into his own lines of thinking and how his grim work has affected, or painstakingly not been allowed to affect him throughout his life. The book’s title comes from the well-known Nietzsche quote, which he happened across while assembling files on repeat violent offenders – he pored over these materials in search of overlooked clues or the possibility of fresh analysis.
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.
He certainly has a knack for understanding motivations and patterns, and much of his work in profiling these killers forms the basis for the understanding we have today. It’s also been crucial in building on as criminal psychology advances and develops. Reading about this kind of methodology and his on-the-ground research in these extreme cases is nothing short of completely fascinating.
In terms of outdatedness, he unfortunately makes some uncomfortable and unacceptable references to women, like their role and weighty responsibility in healthy child rearing, and about homosexual relationships. It’s really too bad, because I want to like him, but these knock something off for me. As does a certain amount of bragging, but that seems to be standard in law enforcement figures writing about their experiences.
Elsewhere I like his honesty, like in matters of wanting to solve a case correctly regardless of whose “side” he’s working on. The more I read and watch of true crime, the more I realize that this seemingly simplistic, straightforward notion is actually often ignored (a great but scary book related to this topic, The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, is coming out February 27 and I’ll review it then.)
Since leaving the Bureau and becoming a paid consultant and expert witness, I have come to understand that a true expert has but one opinion, and it really doesn’t matter which side wants to call upon that opinion, because it is based on facts and experience, and cannot be altered to fit either the defense or the prosecution strategies.
Interesting, insightful, if sometimes a bit outdated look at real-life monsters and the people and methodology at work to outsmart them.
Whoever Fights Monsters:
My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI
by Robert K. Ressler & Tom Shachtman
Great review! I’m glad you pointed out the outdated references.
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Thanks so much! It was really problematic but I decided not to let it detract from what I felt was important work he did elsewhere.
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Monsters for sure!
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I also want to thank you for your thoughtful and thorough review of this book. I was actually looking specifically for a reviewer to point out the outdated “psychological assessments” he gives of the mothers whom he blames frequently. I was annoyed by it, but also put it in the context of who wrote it.
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Thanks so much, I’m glad you liked reading it! Those areas were very problematic and I felt so split about it. I did like reading about his experiences and some of the pioneering work he did, but it was so troublesome to read those thoughts and know that this person was working in law enforcement, influencing justice in some way…especially because I think so much bias against gender, race, social status, etc etc etc still exists when it comes to how police and detectives handle investigations and criminal justice, and to see it spelled out so plainly here was incredibly disappointing. Like you I tried to put it in context, but eek..this book could use an update discussing these issues.