Genesis of the “Mindhunter”

Book review: Mindhunter, by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (Amazon / Book Depository)

It isn’t always easy, and it’s never pleasant, putting yourself in these guys’ shoes —or inside their minds. But that’s what my people and I have to do. We have to try to feel what it was like for each one.

When I mentioned FBI profiler John Douglas’s upcoming book with his longtime writing partner Mark Olshaker in a 2019 new releases post, the best way I could think to describe his books is as literary junk food. They’re kind of addictive even if you feel a little gross about it and know you might be slightly queasy afterwards; page-turning despite leaving you slightly guilt-ridden. I love reading them but ask myself why I do it at the same time.

I wasn’t particularly motivated to read anything by Douglas after reading another FBI-agent memoir/case study, Robert Ressler’s Whoever Fights Monsters, which had its interesting stories and insights but also the brand of macho know-it-all-ism characteristic of many big men who do important things and are now going to tell you about it.

But Douglas is the inspiration for Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs, among other well-known profiler characters in the seemingly unending stream of them. Respect. Plus I was (mostly) won over by the Netflix adaptation, which took awhile to grow on me but finally did. Mindhunter is the first of several readable, popular studies on criminal behavioral profiling using Douglas’s career work to illustrate development, theory and method, along with autobiographical asides.

In the case of every horrible crime since the beginning of civilization, there is always that searing, fundamental question: what kind of person could have done such a thing? The type of profiling and crime-scene analysis we do at the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit attempts to answer that question.

A forerunner in developing what he terms “criminal-personality profiling,” Douglas worked in the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, eventually heading up units including the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP). His recollections of his work interviewing incarcerated serial killers is the primary content explored here, and forms the backbone for the Netflix series (along with some content from Ressler’s book).

At the heart of it, entertaining and morbidly fascinating as it may be, profiling has been a helpful tool in law enforcement, not only in cases of serial murder (though that’s the focus in this book) but in bombings, arson investigations, and hostage negotiations, among other areas. Douglas describes his beginnings in the FBI, which unfortunately takes a long and dull detour through his personal life. We see some of this in the Mindhunter series and I didn’t find it particularly compelling in either.

His career does have notable and interesting landmarks – he’d been an FBI SWAT team sniper and hostage negotiator before transferring to the Behavioral Profiling Unit at Quantico, for one. But it serves a purpose in underscoring what toll this work takes on a person. The book’s opening, describing his experience of a breakdown, is harrowing. Like others doing similar work, including my FBI favorite Jeffrey Rinek, Douglas has suffered mentally and physically from the exhaustion and extremes of his job, not to mention the politics of it.

This is hard to read about, but speaks mightily to what they’ve sacrificed. Explorations of the departmental politics is hard to read in a different way and is what the major drawback of the book was for me, as I found it difficult to absorb or be interested in all the names and positions of who did what and why in various places and units.

Douglas shines when he’s writing about his work, and it’s clear to see how fundamental that was in building criminal behavioral profiling into a worthwhile tool in law enforcement’s arsenal, particularly in these complex cases of serial murder. Understanding something about motive and methodology has proved useful in identifying potential suspects and limiting the impact of active criminals, and following his analysis and thought process is simply mesmerizing.

Published in 1995, it is a bit outdated in spots. BTK and the Unabomber are discussed, but hadn’t yet been apprehended. He describes the hunt for the Green River Killer which was still ongoing at the time, including his belief that these crimes weren’t committed by one person. They were, though; and it’s something to consider about profiling’s shortcomings, although of course everything’s clearer with hindsight. Wayne Williams, convicted as the Atlanta Monster, is another case Douglas profiled and relates here that’s been surrounded by controversy.

Behavioral science is complicated, especially when, as in Douglas’s work, he’s drawing from what convicted psychopaths and murderers are willing to divulge for his prison interview project. They may have firsthand experience, but they’re not exactly reliable sources. Inferring from their logic and stories seems potentially problematic, or at least not always a sure thing, and involves careful management of multiple psychological disciplines on the agent’s part. As inherently fascinating as we find this topic, I’ve always felt a bit skeptical about the capabilities of it all. Profiling is like the New York City subway: when it works, it’s just grand; when it doesn’t, it can throw off everything else down the line.

But he stresses there’s enough he can draw merely from the exhibited behavior of certain criminal types, and certainly his careful analysis alongside their words and deeds underscores this often. Some of the better-known figures interviewed are Charles Manson (forever my least favorite to hear about, but his behavior analysis make sense), David Berkowitz (the Son of Sam and one of Henry’s finest impressions on Last Podcast on the Left), Richard Speck (utterly awful), and Ed Kemper, alongside less nationally-known but affecting cases where Douglas contributed expertise.

There’s a lot that’s compelling here, informative and well-explained. He doesn’t shy from details, unsurprisingly, but fair warning that some stories are brutal, emotionally and otherwise. 3.5/5

Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit
by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
published 1995

Amazon / Book Depository

8 thoughts on “Genesis of the “Mindhunter”

    1. Me too, it’s just so intriguing. And absolutely, it’s really interesting even if parts are dated and there were other elements I didn’t love (the bureaucracy, some personal stories, a touch of arrogance). When he’s focused on describing his work, it’s completely engrossing. And I don’t think the methodology is that outdated, he actually wrote the textbooks on this subject so for fundamentals it’s the place to start. I think you’d like it.

      Liked by 1 person

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