Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Wayne Gacy Jr.

Gacy's Psychiatrist

In 2004, Dr. Helen Morrison published My Life Among the Serial Killers as a final word on John Wayne Gacy, as well as a purported text on the truth about all serial killers who have ever lived. She promises to explain just how the phenomenon of serial killing occurs and how it can possibly be stopped.

Morrison claims to have interviewed 80 serial killers, though she names only a few, and her persistent naiveté belies a psychiatric career that spans 30 years. While she comments authoritatively on historical figures such as Elizabeth Bathory (accepting unsubstantiated myths), as well as murderers in other countries whom she has never met, she does offer some intriguing new information about men such as Bobby Joe Long, Robert Berdella, Richard Macek, and Michael Lee Lockhart, whom she actually interviewed. Morrison's material is best in her chapters on Gacy, although for those who know the case well, there are some disappointments.

Morrison details the highlights of her discussions with Gacy as they prepared for his trial, as well as his letters to her afterward. She knew him for some 14 years. While her rendition of Gacy's defense is accurate, her insistence that he could not control himself during his 33 episodes of murderous violence rings false for those familiar with the prosecution's side.

John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy

There is a reason the state won that case and it's not just because "too many cooks spoil the broth," as Morrison likes to say when several psychiatrists get involved in a case. Granted, there were too many psychiatric opinions about Gacy, and many were loaded with jargon (including hers), but there were also issues that none of the defense psychiatrists managed to address: If Gacy had 33 "irresistible impulses," just how was it that he was digging graves in advance? Can one plan for supposed spontaneous homicidal behavior? And if his memory for what he did was so scattered, as Morrison indicates, how did he manage to draw maps of how he had buried each of the victims? How was he able to carry on business over the phone, even as he was in the process of killing Rob Piest? And when he realized he had all these bodies piling up in his crawl space (as he must have each time he buried one there), why didn't he seek help?

Unfortunately, Morrison does not address these issues.

If one can ignore the impression she conveys that she is the only person who actually understands serial killers, it's possible to learn some things about Gacy. That he was an incessant talker is already clear to anyone who has watched the various documentaries on the case, and that he was an artist is also well-known. In addition, a presentation of the case has been done before. But she does resolve the question that some authors have raised about Gacy and corpses: When he worked in a funeral parlor, he did once get into a coffin and arouse himself (although Morrison insists that he just wanted to lie down and the coffin was available).

One might expect that her discussions with Gacy's relatives might offer some insights, but in the end they just take up space, seeming to act more as filler than as anything significant.

Morrison also bought into Gacy's "Jack Hanley" act: that the evil Jack was responsible for whatever happened. He "comes out" when Gacy is angry, and therefore Gacy claimed to be a hapless victim. That, too, was part of his act for his trial.

What's interesting in this book is that upon Gacy's execution, Morrison was allowed to go to the autopsy and remove his brain for analysis. To her dismay, a pathologist found nothing abnormal about it.

Since the early 19th century, psychiatrists have tried to associate violence with an abnormal brain, so this theory is not new. Nevertheless, Morrison does seem certain that one day we will locate the mystery of the serial killer's behavior there. She ends the book with experiments she would like to perform to prove that this behavior stems from a genetic anomaly that can be verified with specific sophisticated tests.


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