In exploring the concept of the serial killer, La Donna Beatty looks toward the violence of modern society, biology, and family. In addition, she observes the possible correlations between the de-institutionalization of the American mental health system as well as alcoholism. However, as with any attempt to map the mentality of the modern day serial killer, she is left largely with theories and inconclusive statistics. Given the broad range of factors which contribute to human behavior and experiences, the search continues while evidence, both complimentary and contradictory, builds. I expect that La Donna would largely agree that while she sets out to explore “What Makes a Serial Killer,” she comes no closer to a conclusive definition than where she began. While the facts she provides are compelling, her personal interpretations and conclusions are at times based on fallacy rather than consistently proven logic.
Beatty begins her presentation of theories by touching on the most popular of modern theories for the prevalence of violence in American society – violence in the media. While she does briefly address it later, upon initially presenting this issue, Beatty does not look at the large number of people who are also exposed to media violence but do not grow up to be serial killers. Taken a step farther in relation to criminal impulses, just as not every person who is exposed to violent video games or movies becomes violent, those who do become violent do not always become serial killers. In fact, only a small percentage could ever be classified in this manner. This does not, of course, discredit the possibility of media violence as disturbing a child already inclined to such behavior and like much of the evidence in defining serial killers, the problems with the argument do not negate the possibility of some effect.
Such media violence naturally leads into the subject of personal experiences with violence. I agree with the assertion that the high incident rate of domestic abuse in the childhoods of serial killers proves too common to be simple coincidence. Combined with the visibility of violence in society, such violence in the home could be volatile in the future killer’s behavior. However, some of Beatty’s connections are more forced than naturally conclusive. In particular she notes, “with 79 percent of the population believing that slapping a twelve-year-old is either necessary, normal, or good, it is no wonder that serial killers relate tales of physical abuse” (Beatty). In this, Beatty is drawing a connection that does not truly exist in her initial argument. While she should have tried to show the extreme types of parental attitudes serial killers may have experienced as children she instead shows the general public’s feelings of parental discipline.
The issues of alcoholism and de-institutionalization of the American mental health system can be addressed together for the assumptions at the basis of Beatty’s fallacies on these issues. As with the problem of media violence, Beatty’s sources fail to look at the broader issues of the human rights of the mentally ill or the inconsistencies of the argument that the de-institutionalization of mental hospitals unleashed a wave of violence. While restrictions of unlawful and forced stays may create issues, as in the notable cases of Richard Chase and Edmund Kemper, it is impossible and potentially cruel to re-evaluate a system that is built to serve a broad spectrum of people where these kinds of violent men are not the norm. In her discussion of alcoholism, Beatty presents an even more illogical idea when she supposes that had Jeffrey Dahmer been treated for alcoholism he may not have become an infamous murderer. I cannot say with certainty that he would have killed had he gotten his alcoholism under control. Certainly, sobriety would have brought some self-control but it would be oversimplifying a complex issue and broad range of crimes by calling it a case of alcoholism gone badly.
Taken individually, no theory presented by Beatty has yet to clearly define a serial killer class or disorder in our society. More likely, it is a combination of factors, some presented in Beatty’s essay and others of a more personal significance that may never consistently present itself in every killer. However, in the search for the reason behind their compulsions should we look for a solution? Should we attempt to find a way to stop those situations that damage these individuals, making their pain “so intense that it demands bloody revenge” (Beatty)? Even Beatty seems at a loss to decide between knowledgeable prevention and/or treatment and the reality of such men as Ted Bundy who she quotes at the end of her essay. Bundy certainly did not feel himself capable of being saved but, unspoken, is the question of whether he could be prevented. Like Beatty and Bundy, I have no answer but remain open to the theories that though they may not ever make it possible to stop everyone of these killers, can help us understand how they can veer so far from the beaten moral path.