“Mindhunter” John Douglas Breaks Down Behavior and Psychology in Four Profiles

Book review: The Killer Across the Table, by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker (Amazon / Book Depository)

This is a book about the way violent predators think – the bedrock of my twenty-five years as an FBI special agent, behavioral profiler, and criminal investigative analyst, as well as the work I have done since my retirement from the bureau.

John Douglas hardly needs an introduction, but for those unfamiliar with him, he’s a former FBI profiler who was instrumental in establishing a behavioral sciences program at the bureau and widely implementing the use of such techniques in criminal profiling. He was the inspiration for Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs, and more recently, Holden Ford in Netflix’s Mindhunter.

With his longtime writing partner Mark Olshaker, this latest book is an exploration of the behavior and motivations of four murderers, employing Douglas’s valuable commentary on where their criminality stemmed from, and what it all means within the study of  behavior, especially predictions of whether they’d kill again.

The book begins with some background about the initial difficulties of establishing a Behavioral Sciences unit under J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, since Hoover “never would have embraced anything as impressionistic, inductive, and ‘touchy-feely’ as behavioral science.” Douglas always appreciates a challenge, he’s certainly faced his share of them in his career and the work and research he’s done since retiring, and this early challenge of allocating resources to behavioral studies was a big one.

Along with fellow agent Robert Ressler, he expanded the idea of interviewing incarcerated criminals about what was happening mentally when they committed crimes. Namely, “how behavior indicates criminal intent and perpetration, and how that behavior correlated to the thinking of the perpetrator right before, during, and after the commission of the crime.” He even refers to his criminal subjects as “instructors”.

By the time we had completed our initial round of interviews, we knew what type of person could do such a thing, and three words seemed to characterize the motivations of every one of our offenders: Manipulation. Domination. Control.

A detailed section covers each of the four profiled here, describing the narrative of their offenses and important details in explaining behavior. Douglas interviewed all of them, although one was analyzed via written questionnaire.

First is Joseph McGowan, a New Jersey teacher who killed a neighbor girl who came to his door selling Girl Scout cookies. Douglas had to interview McGowan to determine his potential for recidivism if paroled. He lays out so clearly what he was looking for in the interview and how he interpreted what he got. We’ve long been fascinated with this topic, in fiction and nonfiction iterations, and readers who are drawn to it will find a wealth of psychology broken down accessibly.

Second is Joseph Kondro, who Douglas met after MSNBC producers approached him to do an in-prison interview for a documentary. This is a particularly disturbing one, also involving child murders. He caught Douglas’s interest because of his high-risk behavior of preying on the children of people he was close to. Kondro’s case allows Douglas to explain motivational concepts of planning and excitement and the power/control dynamic. As the people profiled here aren’t particularly well known, Douglas links their psychological motivations and behavior analysis to figures we may already know, making for a fascinating study.

Third is Donald Harvey, another connected to the MSNBC documentary and a so-called “Angel of Death” – he was a nurse who killed an astonishingly high number of people in a hospital. These terrify me and I don’t like reading or hearing about them because they’re so insidious. “Medical murder” is even its own category in the Crime Classification Manual, I was dismayed to learn. As Douglas puts it, “he perverted one of our most cherished values: the mission to heal and comfort the sick.”

I can barely stomach these, but Douglas isn’t the lurid sort even though he doesn’t shy from details or ugliness at all (be prepared for that,  so it was more manageable than I anticipated. Although just the fact that Douglas does this work is some comfort, and helpful for prevention. He explains his interest in Harvey included “what factors went into his going undetected for so long.”

He also expounds a bit on why we’re so fascinated by murderers and crime, something he’s had ample time to mull over given his line of work and experience writing textbooks on behavioral science: “The fascination with ‘true crime’ is actually fascination with what writers and philosophers call the human condition.”

I think part of this is connected to a need to understand deviations from the norm, and why these people are outliers from societal standards. Douglas has a scale for categorizing killers that he implements repeatedly, and it helps to see these things more scientifically, providing some solid framework for understanding behavior. There’s an organization, a method to the madness, if you will.

Douglas is also empathetic to victims, devoting chapters to the “human fallout” of these crimes. He gives plenty of page space to victims’ loved ones and psychological and emotional aftereffects, which was incredibly moving.

I was most intrigued by the section on Todd Kohlhepp, the South Carolina real estate agent who committed multiple murders and when caught, had a young woman captive in a shipping container. Kohlhepp agrees to take the questionnaire Douglas and Ressler developed to determine behavior, motivators, and emotion. Oddly, Douglas seems to accept some of Kohlhepp’s answers and stories without further questioning them or providing the careful analysis he does elsewhere.

For example: Kohlhepp invited two separate couples (Johnny and Meagan Coxie; and Charlie Carver and Kala Brown) to his property with work offers. He claims that both of the males wanted to rob him, and that he shot Johnny after he tried robbing him and held Meagan captive because he didn’t know what to do with her. The same thing allegedly happened again with the second couple. He claims he overhead Charlie talking about robbing him so he shot him, and held Kala captive (she being the one found alive, Meagan was killed after a period of captivity.)

So both of these males considered robbing him, and he conveniently had a gun in his hand when he heard it and instead of merely threatening them, he killed them both and imprisoned the women? Douglas doesn’t touch on the idea that he did it purposely, especially since he killed one of the women and planned on killing the second one (her grave was dug when police found her.) He seemingly buys it, listing Kohlhepp’s rage triggers as drugs and drug dealers (the Coxies), and people trying to steal from him. This was weird considering how meticulously he pokes holes in stories elsewhere.

Aside from that curious lack of analysis, this is another well organized, clearly laid out and fascinating book from Douglas and Olshaker offering expert insights into a psychology we struggle to comprehend but remain endlessly intrigued by. 4/5

The Killer Across the Table:
Unlocking the Secrets of Serial Killers and Predators with the FBI’s Original Mindhunter

by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
published May 7, 2019 by Dey Street Books

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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22 thoughts on ““Mindhunter” John Douglas Breaks Down Behavior and Psychology in Four Profiles

    1. You could read this one before Mindhunter, this focuses almost entirely on the cases he’s explaining instead of him personally and Mindhunter has more of his background and a memoir element, so it’s not really necessary to have read that one first. His work is fascinating, it does make for a great read!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely check it out, it’s very similar stylistically to Ressler’s, or at least the one of his that I’ve read. Douglas is maybe a little more academic but it’s still very accessible.

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  1. This seems to appeal to our need to make sense of things in human behavior that are beyond the scope of our imagination. Did he accomplish that? I like that there’s a commitment to victims as that’s rarely given much focus in a lot of true crime. I agree the author’s approach to Kohlhepp was curious. I remember the case vividly and never believed his story.

    Well done💜💜💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s such a tricky question, it definitely works in that direction but the stuff he describes as happening is still so horrible that it’s hard to fathom. But he does make sense of it in parts, like in showing what can happen when extreme anger, long built-up frustration, superiority complexes, etc. aren’t dealt with in and eventually are relieved with acts like these. I think he makes as good a case as possible for understanding something about what motivates this kind of behavior. I really like how he explains complex concepts but in an accessible way without dumbing them down.

      The Kohlhepp thing was weird…I knew that story from an Investigation Discovery show and while it seemed obvious he had rage issues and was easily set off, that story about the same thing happening twice was so obviously nonsense. He had a shipping container set up to hold someone prisoner but it was just a spur of the moment thing?! This author is usually big on saying “Here’s what they said and here’s why it’s BS” but ignored it here. Regardless, I think you’d like this one, it’s well worth a read! And thank you 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your expansive response! I’m definitely getting this book and have it on my list to recommend at my library, of course on audio (I’m blacked out for two days). I followed the news story on Kohlhepp in real time and agree with you wholeheartedly. Maybe the author is still analyzing? Who knows but I’ll certainly ask after I’ve read the book.

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      2. I’m glad you’ll read it, I’m excited to hear what you think of it! Maybe it had something to do with his only analyzing a written questionnaire from that guy so exercising some caution/avoiding speculation, but even his written answers were really detailed…it seemed obvious enough.

        I really don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into it but it bothered me!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed reading your review. But having read the Ressler book recently (which you also did an excellent job of reviewing) I think I will give this one a miss. The Ressler book creeped me out! Was impressed how Ressler could advise police to look for tall thin white guy who does not drive and lives with his mother just from looking at the crime scene!

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    1. I completely understand, these kind of stories are not easy to read at all. I ask myself why I do it sometimes. And I always have to read something really bright and positive after something like this.

      Profiling impresses me too, I’m always curious about how they can come up with such accurate ones with seemingly so little to go on! This one was less focused on profiles of suspects and more on the behavioral psychology of why they do what they do, so it was pretty troubling in parts.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The Angel of Death ones freak me out so much! He talks here about why those are so deeply rattling to us, about the breaking of trust and how that also plays into the psyche of the person doing it. It was chilling but I’m glad I read the section, I admit I considered skipping it when I saw that’s what it was. It was interesting to see how he applied behavioral science differently than in other cases he’s written about, so where he was looking for an unknown suspect. Here he was predicting what known offenders would do later and trying to learn what motivated them. So fascinating!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating review. I’m with you: it’s hard for me to read about medical murders. They just hit me in such a hard and unique … which is interesting because I generally don’t have a problem reading true crime. But then, you’ve made the rest of this so tempting I think I’d be willing to read through it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ugh aren’t the medical ones the worst? He addresses that a little here, about why that affects us considering how much trust we place in the people who care for us. It still horrified me, but he handles it well and tries to make some sense of it all, if that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent review!

    I also noticed in the Kohlhepp section that Douglas doesn’t consider another motive or hidden intent for the crimes involving the shipping container, which surprised me as well. Especially when Kala’s statements didn’t always match up with Kohlhepp’s, it seemed odd that Douglas put so much faith in Kohlhepp’s level of honesty. That section felt the most speculative to me, especially since the “interview” did not take place face-to-face. But intriguing nonetheless.
    It does seem like I might benefit from trying another book by these authors.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wasn’t that odd? That was the only case here I already knew of because I’d watched the People Magazine Investigates episode about it, which helps drive home how ridiculous his story was. I have to think Douglas just didn’t want to speculate since it was all written communication, but still, that’s basically his job, isn’t it? You can’t always talk to someone face to face? I dunno, just strange all around.

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      1. I haven’t seen that episode but my interest is certainly piqued now. I did wonder why he even chose to include that case as one of the main features for this book if he hadn’t met the killer and wasn’t willing to refute his claims. It was still an engaging read, but that was the only section that I felt like I was learning more about “what” happened than getting into the “why” of it. Learning a bit more about the profile questions used to evaluate the convicts was interesting, though. Perhaps that played a role in its inclusion.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh that’s right, I forgot he had that kind of specific criteria for the ones he even agreed to include. And you’re right, it was much more learning the what than the why. The episode of the show doesn’t really go into the why either, but having it already in mind just made me more skeptical of his presentation of it here. But definitely, seeing the questions was really illuminating too!

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