Helen Morrison has spent her career working with serial killers. At the time of publication, she interviewed more than 80 killers and conducted thousands of research hours with them (400 hours on John Wayne Gacy alone).
My Life Among Serial Killers is not so much about the killers themselves, although she does go into some of the more memorable people and details, as it is about her goal to find what causes these people to do what they do. Her theory is that there is one particular aspect among all serial killers which leads them to killing over and over again.
As Morrison describes some of the cases she makes sure to go into the backgrounds and childhoods, pointing out that none are the same. Some were abused, neglected, overprotected, suffered head injuries or emotional trauma but none, universally, experienced a common occurance that could be pinpointed as their turning point for everyday person to murderer.
After reviewing the cases and separating evidence, she contends that serial killing must be an innate affliction these people are born with. In other words, a serial killing gene. She goes as far as to say that a serial killer is a killer even as early as a fetus in the womb.
But she never offers any evidence to support this theory other than that she can’t find a common denominator among the killers.
The problem with this idea is that not all mental illnesses can be mapped to a single point on a genetic strand and called the sole cause of the affliction; while other mental illnesses can be linked to several potential factors. If she is looking for a universal answer it would seem contradictory to look at genetics as a reason it if it not a universal reason for mental illnesses altogether.
But it’s not just this logical fallacy which makes the book suspect in the end. Morrison also talks about different traumas/events in these individual’s lives which seem to trigger their rampage. But since each individual trauma was different she dismisses this as a possibility because not everyone who suffers trauma becomes a serial killer.
In a way, her argument seems a little weird for a specialist with so many years in psychology. Brain functions may be similar but the way in which people use them is not. Genes may cause physical traits but there has been little evidence that suggest they control anything beyond basal emotional controls (in other words, you might be more prone to being angry but not more prone to being a criminal).
Stranger than all of this is that she states, several times, the serial killers she interviewed as never passing an emotional state beyond infancy, having very little ability to connect to people or see them as something more than an object. Yet, this trait is never discussed any further, which seems odd as she clearly says every one of her case studies has this emotional characteristic.
In the end, she is more willing to accept an idea that a genetic predestination determines our lives more than a combination of environmental issues and a low emotional IQ.
And when I think about that I am reminded of a phrase that I heard twice in my life; once by a Philosophy professor and one by a Biology professor.
“Genes make us human but they do not make us who we are.”