The Net Net Home


















Contribute Masthead About Home

THE CRIMINAL PROFILERS: John Douglas, Gavin de Becker, and Stanton Samenow Talk About Criminals, How to Avoid Them, and How to Cure Them

by Caitlin Burke

Buy Obsession: The FBI's Legendary Profiler Probes the Psyches of Killers, Rapists, and Stalkers and Their Victims and Tells How to Fight Back, by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
Buy The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, by Gavin de Becker
Buy Inside the Criminal Mind, by Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.

Teenage girls disappear, ultimately discovered to have been abducted, raped, and tortured by a sadistic man -- and his pretty wife. A man is fired after harassing and stalking a female co-worker, and he comes back armed, shooting a dozen people, seven of whom die. A lifelong criminal undergoes intensive daily group psychotherapy, is released from prison, and works -- successfully -- to stay clean, get back together with his wife, and even buy a small house. America's Most Wanted? Hard Copy? Jerry Springer? Not exactly. While John Douglas, Gavin de Becker, and Stanton Samenow are clearly trading on the public's fascination with lurid stories, they tell theirs from the trenches, letting popular audiences follow along with some of the people who have made careers out of fighting violent crime.

The writing quality varies, but none of these books are dull. If you've always wondered if there's a real-life Hannibal Lecter out there, John Douglas's books are for you. He tells the high-profile stories, from Ed Gein (a primary inspiration for both Psycho and Silence of the Lambs) to Ted Bundy, the Atlanta child murders, and the sad story of browbeaten accomplice Karla Jean Homolka. John Douglas helped develop the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Behavioral Science Unit (yep, the pre-X-Files assignment of Fox Mulder), now called the Investigative Support Unit. He tells the stories of notorious serial offenders as well as describing the typical profiles of such offenders and the FBI's use of profiling to solve cases. Although Douglas's descriptions can't help but be repetitive over multiple books, he does vary the themes of his books, and the current offering, Obsession concentrates (though not exclusively) on rape and rapists.

Written with Mark Olshaker, who also co-authored Virus Hunter with C.J. Peters, Douglas's books let his personality shine through. Called "flamboyant" by Robert Ressler, a mentor at the FBI and author of books along the same lines, Douglas intertwines his grim case histories with expressions of his passionate commitment to his work -- and descriptions of the marriage that suffered and withered under it. Obsession feels frank but is still a typically aggressive Douglas offering. He may realize how difficult his job has made the lives of his loved ones, but he seems to channel his energy right back into law-related activities, even since his retirement from the FBI. Obsession underlines that Douglas has no patience whatsoever for defense attorneys who use the "nuts or sluts" argument to tear down rape victims, and one gets the impression that it would be ... unwise for such an attorney to provoke him. The consistent intensity and even anger of Douglas's books, Obsession in particular, can be wearing, although in the end it feels faintly ironic. Douglas is a serial offender-hunter, by his own admission obsessed with his prey.

Douglas is gracious to colleagues and mentions his mentors and associates frequently. He also highlights relevant related work, and Obsession pays particular attention to Gavin de Becker, a threat assessment expert, and Stanton Samenow, a clinical psychologist who treats repeat offenders. Obsession is positioned in part as a self-help book, while de Becker's The Gift of Fear is labeled squarely as "Self Help / Psychology." Both books describe ways women can recognize threatening people and avoid rape or at least manage some damage control. Both books seek to empower women, but de Becker's is more supportive in tone where Douglas is more protective. De Becker's theme is that intuition is an invaluable tool for recognizing threatening situations -- if "it feels wrong" it probably is. De Becker's book is filled with interesting information about the ways people try to manipulate others, and how to recognize and counteract their techniques quickly and effectively. Maybe three books like this would be just as exhausting as Douglas's oeuvre, but that's doubtful; de Becker is a more engaging writer, and assessment and prevention is an inherently more positive theme than clean-up after a serial killer.

Samenow's Inside the Criminal Mind is a psychology book, aimed at describing the "criminal personality" and Samenow's approach to "habilitating" career criminals. Douglas relies heavily on Samenow's experience with criminals when he talks about their amenability to rehabilitation, but Samenow is actually more optimistic than Douglas. For Douglas -- and no doubt for many of his readers -- serial offenders are "broken." They can't be rehabilitated, because they were never "habilitated" in the first place. While Samenow's experience supports much of Douglas's opinion in substance, Samenow does believe it's possible to habilitate some career offenders, although his category "criminal personality" probably simply overlaps with Douglas's targets, rather than including them all.

Serial killers, who repeatedly perpetrate often sadistic homicides of strangers, are probably so alienated that no amount of treatment can give them enough of a stake in society that they actually change their behavior. According to Douglas, sexual offenders often, by their own admission, rape or molest women and children because they enjoy it, making Samenow's claims of cure almost frightening. The personalities described by all three of these authors do include some real losers, but they also include some very smooth operators, people who definitely derive pleasure from snowing the psychologist. It might also just be that the people Samenow is concentrating on are the ones he thinks he can work with, whereas Douglas's and de Becker's targets don't actually want to change.

Samenow claims success in about a third of his monitored cases, and he doesn't break out the successes and failures by type of crime. Samenow makes obvious efforts to define his terms and seems very awake to some of the pitfalls in work like his. For example, while he describes a "criminal personality" present from early childhood, he is careful to avoid any suggestions that might seem to advocate screening for (and discriminating against) classes of people. However, the notion of a "criminal personality" is one that definitely needs careful qualification, as does the notion of "treatment" or "cure" for that personality.

Samenow's work is fascinating stuff, and his descriptions of egomaniacs with little regard for the feelings of others brings up an interesting contrast with the representations of Douglas and de Becker, who also rely on psychological terms in describing their quarry. Douglas's mantra of "inadequate personality" is echoed by de Becker's "loser." In some ways, the stalkers, assassins, and serial rapists and killers they profile might seem to be the sine qua non of the criminal personality, so how does that square with Samenow's description of egotism? The question could be semantic -- Douglas describes many rape/killings as ending in death precisely because the reality doesn't live up to the killer's fantasy of being loved or respected, and killers often articulate contempt for or superiority to their victims (particularly those that target prostitutes).

But occasionally a sociologist crops up who says the problems of criminals are not problems of self-esteem that's too low but rather of self-esteem that's too high -- and the idea that high self-esteem (as in, a serious belief in one's essential value as a person) is compatible with the behavior of the serial killer or stalker is simply not acceptable to Douglas or de Becker. The sociologists may differ, but the guys in law enforcement are tired of these criminals being lionized as "loners" and "geniuses" and "mysterious" and "armed and dangerous." Douglas and de Becker want them represented as pathetic losers made desperate by their own inadequacy.

All of the profilers grapple with the concept of perpetrator as victim; serial offenders do tend to come from exceptionally awful family situations. Robert Ressler even states simply, in his 1992 book Whoever Fights Monsters (see below) that bad mothers and absent fathers breed serial killers. Samenow, on the other hand, reports that some of his career criminals came from loving families composed of law-abiding siblings and completely distraught parents desperate to steer their wayward child right. Douglas, de Becker, and Samenow all chorus that a particular kind of mother doesn't "create" a criminal, and Samenow is especially interested in getting families off the hook. Douglas may remark that a serial killer had an awful childhood, but Samenow has delved more deeply into some of his subjects' pasts to learn that the rough treatment they complained of (often with a self-serving spin) came only after years of escalation as the parents struggled, with less and less patience, to cope with a child that seemed to be bad from the day he could walk.

So, are The Answers in these books? If anything, Douglas, de Becker, and Samenow dispel the myth that people like Ted Bundy or the Son of Sam are "just crazy." They uncover motivations and histories, and they describe fairly consistent categories of offenders. De Becker's The Gift of Fear, in particular, works to provide concrete useful information to help people prevent bystander comments like "We never saw it coming" and "He seemed so quiet." And John Douglas's books contain at least some information about most of the high-profile serial rapists and killers that have intrigued the public. As for Stanton Samenow's 30% success rate -- in a small, carefully selected group of repeat offenders -- well, let's not dismantle the prison system quite yet.


Trace Evidence, by Bruce Henderson. Lieutenant Ray Biondi, a Sacramento homicide detective, says he doesn't much hold with the FBI's criminal profiling business, but he employs similar techniques himself, as described in this fine read. Tracing the pursuit, arrest, and conviction of I-5 killer Roger Kibbe, Trace Evidence is also about the dramatic improvements in law enforcement's ability to use small amounts of physical evidence to link suspects to crimes.

Mindhunter and Journey into Darkness are John Douglas and Mark Olshaker's previous two books. Each one has a slightly different theme, the first dealing primarily with lurid stories of serial killers and the second focusing more on offenders who target children. Journey into Darkness includes extensive information about helping children stay safe, reprinting some of the materials from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. John Douglas has also published Unabomber: On the Trail of America's Most Wanted Serial Killer.

Stanton Samenow, too, has published a self-help book, the 1989 Before It's Too Late: Why Some Kids Get into Trouble and What Parents Can Do About It. Inside the Criminal Personality is enjoying a new wave of promotion, perhaps to pave the way for the upcoming Straight Talk About Criminals: Understanding and Treating Antisocial Individuals, due out this month.

Whoever Fights Monsters and I Have Lived in the Monster are by Robert Ressler, a mentor to John Douglas. His views seem slightly dated by comparison to Douglas's and Samenow's -- he rides the "bad mother" horse a bit harder than the other two -- and his apparent antipathy for Douglas has created some interesting public moments, particularly around the JonBenet Ramsey case.

Have another opinion on any or all of these books? Tell The Net Net!

The Net Net is affiliated with
All contents of this Web site are copyright © 1996 - 2001 The Net Net and individual artists and authors. Do not reproduce contents of this site without permission of The Net Net and the artist or author. You may link to this site freely.
Design by Marmoset Media. Illustrations by Les graphiques Grenade. Hosted by The Anteroom.