John Douglas on ‘Mindhunter’

“Mindhunter” by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker gives an insider’s view of the FBI’s elite serial crime unit. Douglas was the youngest agent, not just as a lecturer at Quantico, but also at FBI headquarters. His resume is impressive, having spent four years in the military, he holds numerous graduate degrees, was a member of a SWAT team, a hostage negotiator and the FBI’s criminal profiler pioneer.

With the bestselling book and now a Netflix original series, people are taken behind the scenes of some of the most gruesome and challenging cases. FBI profilers gather up crime scene evidence to help predict the type of personality that commits serial murders. Through interviews with some of the most ghastly killers such as Charles Manson, Edmund Kemper and the Son of Sam, to mention a few, Douglas determines their motives, attempting to figure out why they did what they did and why in such a particular manner.

The following is an interview with one of the FBI’s most legendary agents:

Elise Cooper: You speak of the why plus how equals who?

John Douglas: I wanted to interview these serial killers because I found the best indicator of future violence is past violence. To understand the “artist” you must study the “art.” I decided to go directly to the source to form an understanding.

EC: You spoke on how a good profiler should also walk in the shoes of victims. Do you feel, as Michael Connelly wrote, “I speak for the victims, for those who can no longer speak?”

JD: I got very close with some of the families. My goal with the interviews is to give families closure and help law enforcement solve crimes. We must remember the victims, but unfortunately, we do forget those “surviving victims.” They suffer from losing a loved one forever and ever. We have seen these people break down, suffer from an illness, or get a divorce.

I also broke down from the work I was doing, walking in the shoes of the antagonists to better understand them. But we also must reconstruct what the victims went through and why they took certain actions.

EC: You discuss in the book how you had PTSD and because you were so worn down you contracted viral encephalitis, a fever, which doctors said “fried his brain,” and that if you did recover you would likely be left in a vegetative stage?

JD: Success meant more work, which meant more stress and learning how to cope. I was gone one-third of the year, traveling and talking to surviving victims and the killers. I would run myself to exhaustion. I had PTSD; psychologically it took its toll. A lot of people in my unit got ill and died early. We felt pulled in all different directions: personal family, FBI family, local law enforcement, the community and victim’s families.

EC: You had a powerful quote in the book, “I’m afraid too many of us in the Bureau, in the military, and in the Foreign Service give too little thought to the incredible burdens on the spouse left behind.”

JD: It does take a toll on the family. When I would come home I would need to decompress. Hearing about my family’s day, like one of my children scraping a knee, seemed so trivial to everything I had done. I needed to decompress before I could react.

EC: You describe serial killers as controlling, manipulative, dominating and egocentric?

JD: They like to relive the excitement and stimulation of the kill. They mentally reassert domination and control. They picked vulnerable victims, such as runaways, street people, prostitutes and drug addicts. We examined why did they pick a certain victim over another. For example, if they walked into a bar they could pick out those with a broken wing. Usually, the victim has a certain posture or look.

EC: What makes a good profiler?

JD: You need to be able to recreate the crime scene in your head. You need to know as much as you can about the victim so you can imagine how they might have reacted, and put yourself in her place. You have to be able to feel her fear as he approaches, or her pain as she is being raped, beaten or cut. You have to try to imagine what she was going through when she was tortured.

EC: What are the traits of a serial killer and can you define the term?

JD: Bed-wetting beyond a normal age, cruelty to small animals and fire starting. The FBI now categorizes them if there were two or more kills. In the Netflix series, we say three or more because that was the ’80s definition.

EC: But you also interviewed people who did not fit into that description like Sirhan-Sirhan, the killer of Robert Kennedy?

JD: If I were in a prison I would not pass up anyone including a skyjacker, kidnapper, extortionist, serial rapist, arsonist or a bomber. I worked over 5,000 cases. I also interviewed James Earl Ray, the Martin Luther King murderer. Perhaps we can see some of the other interviews if there is a season 2 or in the next book, “Unmasking Evil.”

EC: Did you ever profile a mass killer?

JD: While I was in Scotland I was asked about a mass murderer of an elementary school where dozens of children were killed. I thought the person targeted the school because they had some personal connection, and (he was) a middle-aged guy. The profile helped them find him. But someone like the Las Vegas killer is difficult to profile. We look for warning signs and should educate the public to be aware of any comments and strange actions.

EC: Do you think it is an environmental influence, genetic, or both?

JD: From my experience with violent offenders, I really can’t think of one where I found that they came from a loving and nurturing environment. I don’t believe there is a violent gene in one’s genetic makeup.

Certainly you find such things as addictive behavioral patterns running through a family’s genetic pool system, but in my opinion, it’s nurture and not nature that is the major contributor to violent crime.

Experienced school teachers have told me that they can predict which child will grow up to be a violent offender one day. How do they know that? Because the children identified by them all come from dysfunctional families and they witness the child acting out at a very early age, such as crimes of bullying, animal cruelty, destruction of property and other antisocial acts. Having said that, I will add that a dysfunctional family does not mean that every child is doomed. There are always survivors.

EC: This concludes the first part of our interview. Is there anything you would like to add?

JD: What bugs me is my former colleagues who say things to the press, possibly jeopardizing the investigation. Many of these killers follow the press. For example, someone once said about the D.C. Sniper that he thought he was God. The next day a little girl was shot in the stomach and a search of the area found a tarot card. Written on it, “I am God.” Also, many of the self-anointed experts do not even have the training and are just talking heads.

Thank you. For Douglas’ comments on specific killers and the realism of the Netflix show, see part II of the interview.

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About the Author

Elise Cooper

Elise writes book reviews that always include a short author interview.