In 1989, Ted Bundy summoned Dr. Dorothy Lewis to Florida State Prison for a visit. Sitting face to face with a serial killer was nothing new to her: Lewis had spent his career as a clinical psychiatrist talking to murderers in maximum security prisons and on death row, trying to figure out what who had them killed. But the timing of that particular conversation the day before her execution was frightening, even to her.
It made me uncomfortable, Lewis recalls in an interview with Vanity Fair. While we were in the room talking, with his lawyer Polly Nelson, the principal’s secretary came in to ask Ted who he wanted to see the day before his execution and what he wanted for dinner. It was really dark.
By this point Lewis had already met Bundy on several occasions. The murderers’ defense team had called her three years earlier to assess it. She and her team of experts determined that Bundy was not psychotic because he had been diagnosed by other psychiatrists; instead, based on his significant mood swings, they believed he was suffering from bipolar disorder.
Bundy had hoped that at this final meeting Lewis might be willing to offer him a Hail Mary from the electric chair and argue that he was incompetent to be executed. Lewis refused, saying it would invalidate his life’s work. Bundy got it and sat with her for over four hours anyway, answering her questions about her education.
I wasn’t fascinated by his perversions, Lewis says in Crazy, not crazy, Alex gibneyThe gripping new HBO documentary that follows the psychiatrist as she reflects on her encounters with Bundy. I was much more interested in how he had become who he was.
The serial killer ended up sharing a few never-before-known details about his childhood.
Why was Bundy being so candid with her? A lot of people wanted to see him, talk with him, write books about him and make money with him, Lewis said. I think I was the only one who didn’t write a book about him or whatever. [My initial evaluation] was a favor we were doing his lawyers. And I think he trusted me a lot more because I wasn’t making a living from him.
Through his research, Lewis and his longtime collaborator, Dr. Jonathan pincus had come to identify three common factors in murderers: abnormal brain function (especially in the lobes that govern emotional regulation and impulse control), predisposition to mental illness, and a history of horrific childhood abuse. Bundy did not fit his model at the time; he maintained that his childhood had been idyllic.
Still, she did what she could to help Bundy understand why he had become the person he was the best closure she could provide on the eve of his death.
I was able to talk with him about impulses in the deepest part of his brain and how the frontal lobes are supposed to contain these kinds of impulses and that for some reason his brain didn’t do that, has Lewis said. I drew pictures of the brain, frontal lobes, and limbic system, and tried very hard to give him some insight into his loss of control.
In the 31 years since Bundys’ execution, Lewis has uncovered evidence that the serial killer had in fact suffered significant childhood trauma, and re-diagnosed him on a documented trip to Crazy, not crazy. In the film, now available, Lewis carefully takes viewers through his captivating discoveries, making the ultimate argument that serial killers are more useful to society alive and behind bars than dead. If only Lewis could have shared his more precise diagnosis with Bundy himself. I wish I knew that before he died, but I didn’t, Lewis said regretfully. I blundered.
Lewis has been described as the real life version of Clarice Starling, the FBI agent-in-training and insightful serial killer played by Jodie foster in Thesilenceofthelambs. The comparison is fitting when Lewis saw the film, she noticed such a similarity that she suspected the actor might have been looking for it. I thought it was wonderful. But I felt like she was copying me, Lewis said, noting that by the time the movie came out in 1991, I had been doing this for years.
Her decades of research have led her to believe that people are not born murderers, but are murdered by a cocktail of traits. Speaking to Arthur Shawcrosst, the serial killer known as the Genesee River Killer, who did indescribable things to sex workers in the Rochester area in the late 1980s, Lewis determined he had suffered horrific sexual abuse from members of his family. (She also discovered that he had a cyst that was pressing on his temporal lobe, as well as scarring on his frontal lobes, possibly caused by abuse.)
Children who experience such traumatic abuse often dissociate as a survival mechanism, sometimes triggering dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder). In 1990, after seeing Shawcross disassociate himself during his interviews, Lewis testified on behalf of the defense that Shawcross suffered from this disease. His testimony and controversial diagnosis have been criticized and rejected; Today, however, dissociative identity disorder is an accepted condition listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association.
Lewis approaches every interview with empathy, even speaking with the most dangerous people in society though she might have ended up on the opposite side of the conversation had she been through a different upbringing. This understanding is what prompted Gibney to make a movie about her.
A lot of times people are obsessed with killers and serial killers, and I think they’re obsessed with them in part because they feel like they’re so different, Gibney explained. What was interesting about the place Dorothy took us was that she took us to a place where, studying their behavior and also what shaped them as adults, it brought us back to their childhood. And in childhood we see a kind of common broad.
We have a tendency, which is exacerbated by the court system, of thinking that people live in different categories, like you’re going to be shopping from people in different aisles of a supermarket, Gibney said. You know, the good people are in aisle 10, and the bad people are in aisle seven, and the weak are in aisle six. This is very often what the justice system tries to do.
As a result, most of us think we have nothing in common with serial killers, he continued. Lewis, of course, thinks differently. The film opens with her asking a provocative question: Have you ever wondered why you don’t kill?
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