Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Cannibal Celebrity: Issei Sagawa

A Sexual Fetish

However, for many killers, cannibalism is more of an erotic or sexual fetish. For example, Fish claimed that as he ate the parts of his victims, he would grow increasingly excited and sometimes have an orgasm.

Richard von Krafft-Ebing published Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886, listing well over two hundred cases of aggressive eroticism, some of which involved cannibalism. He described a man named Tirsch, 55, who came across a woman in the woods in 1864 and strangled her. He then cut off her breasts and genitalia and took them home to cook and eat. When he was arrested, he said his motive was "inner impulse." Another case involved a 24-year-old vine dresser who murdered a girl, tore out her heart, and consumed part of it. Kraft-Ebbing views these cases as being driven by a perverted lust that forms into a desire to possess by consumption rather than sexual intercourse. Making a living person into an inanimate object is about power and control.

In "Cannibalism and Vampirism in Paranoid Schizophrenia," four psychiatrists offer a discussion in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry on an unusual case. The person was born in a rural part of France in 1940. He was 31 before he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Nine years later, he killed an elderly man, devoured part of his thigh and drank blood from an artery. Then he murdered a married couple and was arrested. He confessed to having killed his wife, and then said that he'd eaten parts of bodies to bring God back into his life. It was a form of Holy Communion. This sentiment the psychiatrists view as consistent with Sigmund Freud's interpretation of cannibalism as appropriating the power of another person. "It seems that cannibalism may be more basic to our lives than one might want to believe," they conclude.

Issei Sagawa
Issei Sagawa

Sagawa, who clearly had a sexualized lust, told a British journalist that his compulsion for cannibalism probably came from a childhood dream he'd had that left a huge impression. He was in a boiling pot with his brother, being prepared for a meal for someone else. From that point on, he began to fantasize regularly about cannibalism, switching his role from the disempowered "meal" to the empowered consumer. Yet he wasn't interested in ingesting the girls of his own race; he envisioned eating large blond women with white skin. For him, the possibility of being intimate with them in this way was highly erotic.

After his first breaking-and-entering incident in Tokyo, he actually went to a psychiatrist to confess his dark desires. The man believed that Sagawa was highly dangerous — probably because he'd begun to act out his fantasies — but Sagawa's father managed to engineer a cover-up and then sent his son out of the country to another school. The mental health professionals who evaluated him later also saw dangerous tendencies in him, from psychosis to psychopathy.

Yet in the end, none of their diagnoses mattered.


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