When working as psychologists, one wants to understand the motivation behind peoples’ mind and behavior. But, the more cultural deviant the symptoms are, the more challenging it seems to be to understand them. Jack the Ripper, Theodore Robert Cowell (Ted Bundy), Gary Ridgeway (Green River killer), Dennis Rader (Bind, Torture, Kill) and David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) are men that have in different ways killed several women. They seem to lack more human qualities than any other living people, and because of this prominent deviance, I want to establish whether it is possible to understand their behavior. An understanding of the criminal phenomenon of killing is important as it, within criminological terms, can ease the hunt of the defendant (the man behind the pseudo Jack the Ripper is, after over 100 years, still a controversial topic, and it took 10 years to find the Green River Killer and 31 years to find Dennis Rader) and most of all, it will have implications for how they ought to be handled. The main focus in this work will thus be on an extreme form for deviant behavior that is not very usual. However, one may think of extremes as an upper level of a continuum. This is as personality often is seen as a matter of dimensions and not as definite categories (Karterud, 2001, p. 27; Schroeder et al., 1992; Reisby, 2000, p. 31; Jaspers, 1997, p. 577). This way, a serial killer might share a wide variety of features with other individuals that are not murderers. This can indicate that an analysis of a serial killer also can contribute to an understanding of less extreme antisocial behavior or other milder forms for pathology.
There is indeed different kind of consequences for people who commit multiple murders. Someone are legally termed “insane”, as they were psychotic when they committed the murders, and thereby get treatment as a consequence, while others, even though in public often referred to as “sick”, are termed as sane and thereby deemed to jail or death penalty (Hare, 1999, p. 22). There is an underlying understanding that offenders from the two different circumstances can be separated to respectively one “mad” and one “bad” category. This classification can make one wonder about whether or not serial killers are somehow mentally ill too. This is a relevant question, as the American Psychological Association (APA) has stated that the “mentally ill” have the right to “adequate care and treatment” (APA, 1976).
Related to this, is also the question of whether to punish or somehow try to rehabilitate them with treatment or educational inputs. To decide this, it is of importance to investigate whether their behavior can be improved. As there has not been a tradition for trying to treat serial killers, there have been minimal, if any, theories or research about this topic. But, as for criminal psychopaths in general (the link between serial killing and psychopathy will be discussed later), there has been conducted substantial research and also written a lot. However, a search in literature concerning treatment of psychopaths shows that the vast majority of views predict poor results (Hare, 1998; Reid & Gacano, 2000). If one were to evaluate the possibility for therapy with serial killers, one might, based on the destructive nature of the serial killers’ actions, suppose, that two of the often claimed essential factors for successful therapy; the therapeutic alliance and the patients’ attitude to therapy, would be deeply challenged. This is as serial killers usually seem to lack remorse, guilt and insight to their problems. One might wonder if it is at all possible for a therapist to appear as a “warm” and “understanding” towards the patient, which is often seen as essential in therapy (Hougaard & Rosenberg, 1999), with a client that might state: “I like to kill. I wanted to kill.” (Ted Bundy in Stevensen, 2005, p. 2). Despite the deep pessimism, or rather to say, because of the deep pessimism, the potential for serial killers to be able to behave in accordance with the culture’s norms, and not commit killings again, will be investigated. In this, it will be discussed what it is that makes the majority of therapists dissatisfied with the treatment outcome of patients who are capable of conducting destructive antisocial behavior. The pessimism for treating criminal psychopaths and the claim that serial killing has been “largely understudied and neglected” (Ferreira, 2000, p. 16), indicates a possible need for the society to reconsider the nature of serial killing and also to consider the possibility for promising treatment strategies of these criminals. This forms the basis for the following problem formulation:
“Is it possible to understand serial killers? Can they be successfully treated?”