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.