Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Art, Therapy With a Profit Motive

Can Art Cure a Killer?

Some killers turn to writing as their preferred art-form, such as the book that Ian Brady wrote while in prison. The Gates of Janus came about from Brady's contact with noted crime writer Colin Wilson. Brady wrote him hundreds of letters about the nature of killing, offering his insights into other murderers and affirming Wilson's classification of him as "a self-esteem killer." By that he meant that some murderers are fueled primarily by the need to affirm their sense of self as superior. In other words, for Brady, killing appeared to be a creative expression of his nihilistic ideas about life.

In the Belly of the Beast
In the Belly of the Beast

Convicted felon Jack Abbott became a celebrity from his book In the Belly of the Beast, which became a bestseller and garnered a great deal of support among America's literati. It had developed from a series of letters he had written to Norman Mailer during the 1970s, and Mailer had helped him to get the collection published. Mailer then championed Abbott's release before the parole board, with the assurance that Abbott was a "powerful and important writer."

In 1981, Abbot got out of prison and received numerous invitations to dinner parties and television shows like "Good Morning, America." He was celebrated as a reformed man, thanks to his ability to rechannel his thoughts into the more spiritual form of literature. Yet no one seemed to notice that he had dedicated the book to the international predator Carl Panzram, an unrepentant rapist and multiple killer who bore extreme hatred for everyone and had described himself as the "spirit of meanness personified."

Abbot disappointed his supporters when, six weeks after his release, he stabbed Richard Adnan, a 22-year-old waiter, to death. Then he dismissed the killing in a sequel My Return as "necessary" and said that Adnan didn't have much talent, anyway. In other words, this "literary giant" had no concern for another person's life. Art had not bettered him.

Jack Unterweger
Jack Unterweger

More devious was Austria's Jack Unterweger. He killed a woman and was sentenced to life in prison, but while there, this illiterate man learned to read and then to write. He penned a self-pitying work about being in prison, which was hailed by fellow writers as high art. They petitioned for his release from prison, and he, too, made the rounds of talk shows and parties. He also wrote plays and watched them being performed, and on the side he started killing again. More clever than Abbott, he covered these murders as a journalist, criticizing the police for their bungled efforts, and on an assignment to Los Angeles, actually got the police there to unwittingly assist him to find his next victims. He managed to kill eleven women before he was stopped. Even then, he utilized his celebrity to keep his supporters on his side, and few could believe that this charming, talented man could be a serial killer. But he was.

Elmer Wayne Henley
Elmer Wayne Henley

Yet Elmer Wayne Henley, who as a teenager assisted Dean Corll with the brutal rape and murder of 27 boys in Texas, insists that art has calmed him and made him think about God. He likes to draw seascapes and surrealistic pictures, but does indulge now and then in depictions of what got him in prison in the first place—nude boys.   What many killers (and artists who support them) fail to understand is that when they're in an environment in which the typical triggers to their murders are lacking, they will likely feel less inclined to kill—or not feel it at all. To believe that art has cured them just because they aren't feeling the aggressive drive that had inspired their earlier behavior is a naïve comprehension of both art and murder.

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