The Heart of Darkness
In what is now a famous cinematic moment, director John Carpenter frames the opening sequence to "Halloween" from serial killer Michael Myers' viewpoint. The audience looks through the murderer's eyes as he butchers his sister with a knife, in essence becoming him vicariously for a moment.Likewise, psychiatrist Drew Ross' new book, Looking Into the Eyes of a Killer (Plenum Trade), chronicles his journey during the last seven years into the heart of insanity as a forensic psychiatrist, where his diagnoses determined whether certain criminals were sent to jail or to a hospital. Ross discovered that we're all a lot closer to these criminals' world than we'd like to think."That was very scary for me, to find that out. I kind of wanted there to be a bigger line," Ross, 37, explains. "I think that people who commit serious offenses are often more like the rest of us than we think they are. They are struggling with the same issues we are, but in a very different way.... So at some core deeper level, they're more like us. TV and the movies make these people more recognizable than they are."In what started out ostensibly as a career move, Drew's role as a forensic psychiatrist became a soul-searching quest for meaning, and raised serious issues about the limits of the medical and legal professions. "You are either guilty or not guilty.... Psychiatry, on the other hand, is notoriously ambivalent," he writes in Looking Into the Eyes of a Killer. "This legal absolutism was no comfort for me, as I found examples of patients who clearly killed under the auspices of an unshakable and determinant psychosis, yet were placed in prisons where they [received little] treatment. They were matched by others who had successfully bargained themselves into placement in hospitals where they did not belong."While the insanity plea is used very rarely in the court systems (according to an eight-state study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and reported in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 1991, the insanity defense was used in less than one percent of cases), even a few wrongful placements of criminals sets a dangerous precedent. To make matters more confusing, each state has its own statute dictating what constitutes insanity."I think maybe an interesting issue," says Ross, "is can [an insanity evaluation] be really done? Can you really give the court a decision about this?... I tried my best."Compounding the tricky legality of insanity is the matter that criminals are brought before the psychiatrists days, weeks or even months after they've committed the crime, and the doctor's job is to determine their state of mind at the time of act. Many times, they have been medicated before seeing the doctor so their affliction, if they have one, could be less obvious or under control."You're basically trying to tell the court what someone's judgement was like at a time before you saw them," Ross explains. "If you have three or four different psychiatrists examine a patient, they'll all have different viewpoints."Other times, Ross says, the doctors' own prejudices or biases could color their view of the subject. "In the United States," he says, "there tends to be a bias against African Americans. [Psychiatrists] tend to find African Americans not insane."Beyond skin tones, Ross also contends that even smaller factors - like how pitiful the patient may or may not look - come into play. A doctor might push for hospitalization for a scared young girl who seems too "fragile" for jail, while an uncommunicative, street-wise male is more likely to find a harsher judgement. "When you have a person who seems more frail or more forgivable," says Ross, "....It's hard for you to not feel more forgiving."Like if I saw someone who was more weak or forgivable, I found myself looking for insanity," he says.Ross eventually resolved to shed his role in criminal law, due to his growing distaste of the penal system and the inaccuracies he found in his profession. He left his position in 1997 and is now mostly involved in civil cases where jail is not an issue. He advocates a revolutionizing of the penal code and the legal system, and it is here that Looking Into the Eyes of a Killer becomes an important proponent of social reform for both criminals and the criminally-ill alike. In this new system, there may not even be a need for an insanity plea.Ross argues: "I would advocate a new system focusing on responsibility, choices, and restitution by the offender to the victim. Some scholars believe that the biblical phrase, 'an eye for an eye,' really meant restitution, not an equal corporal sacrifice. In feudal society, crime was punished by payment."Ross does not propose that criminals merely write off their actions with a checkbook, which clearly favors wealthier people as well as puts a monetary value on a life."This system in some ways would decrease people's freedom," Ross explains. By modern prison and mental hospital standards, a person serves time and then "boom - they're out the door," he says. But under the system Ross advocates, criminals would gradually gain their rights as a free American citizen on a very graded scale that would be closely monitored at each step. If there was any misbehavior, they would be backed up a step. They would also work to pay for the expenses they were causing the state.Payment would not necessarily mean monetary restitution, and would differ on an individual basis. A gang member might have to help rebuild his community by taking part in public works construction or a drug dealer made to give talks to schools on "just saying no."Looking Into the Eyes of a Killer is one man's personal voyage into the darkest parts of society, but it is also a brightly flashing wake-up call for all of us."I thought that the work [I did] would be separate from the rest of my life," Ross says. "I was surprised at how the work would affect how I viewed the rest of us."