When Chicago forensic psychiatrist Carl Wahlstrom was asked by defense attorneys to evaluate a sex offender pleading “guilty but insane” to a multiple murder charge, the request should not have been an unusual one. An instructor at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, Wahlstrom is an authority on mentally disordered criminals, and regularly evaluates alleged offenders at the Psychiatric Institute attached to the Circuit Court of Cook County. But this particular defendant was no garden-variety criminal–he had already earned an undisputed slot in the forensic hall of fame, his crimes the stuff of grisly legend.
The surface facts of Jeffrey Dahmer’s life were remarkably ordinary. The 31-year-old former chocolate-factory worker lived alone in Milwaukee. A stint at Ohio State University had bottomed out after a few semesters. He was discharged early from the Army because of his drinking. All in all, it was an obscure existence, until one night in July 1991 when Tracy Edwards ran into the streets and with cuffed hands flagged a patrol car. He frantically spoke of an apartment filled with human body parts, and the strange and dangerous young man who lived there. The lurid revelations that followed included drugging and murder, cannibalism, dismemberment, and necrophilia. Neighbors recalled hearing the rev of a chain saw, and foul odors had been dismissed as meat gone bad. Police worked double time at the crime scene, packing up bones and skulls. The media double-timed also, recording the flesh, knives, and heads in the refrigerator of the Dahmer charnel house. A ghastly circus had come to town, inflicting a psychic damage that threatened to tear the city apart.
During the trial that would determine his sanity seven psychiatrists and psychologists, testifying for the defense, prosecution, and court, attempted to unravel the dark mesh of Dahmer’s inner life. Psychiatrist Carl Wahlstrom was among them. Four interviews with the defendant convinced Wahlstrom that Dahmer did indeed suffer from diagnosable mental illness. But in the end a jury decided otherwise: Jeffrey Dahmer was judged to be sane and accountable on all fifteen counts of murder.
Ironically it was the trial of another serial killer, Chicago’s own John Wayne Gacy, that first piqued Wahlstrom’s interest in mentally disordered offenders. In the following interview, Wahlstrom recalls the trial, his testimony, and Jeffrey Dahmer himself, who is now serving life without the possibility of parole at the Columbia Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Wisconsin.
Chris Dickinson: At what point did you develop this interest in the criminally mentally disordered?
Carl Wahlstrom: I think there were two things. One was an interest in the John Wayne Gacy case, and some of the things that had been reported in the newspapers during the testimony as to what different experts were saying about him. There’s something called the “policeman at the elbow test.” One psychiatrist was saying that even if a policeman had been right there with him, he would have been unable to refrain from doing what he did. And I thought that was a pretty wild statement to make at the time, and it got me interested in what would make someone so out of control that someone would think that was true. Secondly, during medical school, a patient was brought in who was part of the Isaac Ray Center here, which is a center that deals with mentally disordered offenders. This particular patient was a pedophile. He had been arrested for making sexual advances or assaulting or abusing a child. He was under treatment with Depo Provera, a medication that lowers the sex hormone testosterone. It’s used experimentally to lower the male sex drive. This was a man who was so unable to control his impulses towards abusing children that at times he would actually have to leave work. He would have been fantasizing excessively for hours and hours and hours, and that would build to the point where he had to relieve those fantasies with actual molesting. Depo Provera really allowed him to return to a normal life. He was no longer preoccupied with sexual fantasies all day long. He was able to work, he was able to relate to other adults, he was able to participate in group therapy related to better dealing with impulses and dealing with problems in relating to adults in an intimate way. Another individual was exposing himself more than a hundred times a day, and he also was treated, and the behavior stopped.
CD: To see that type of progress must be a powerful experience.
CW: In both those cases the people were able to function in a meaningful way, continue to participate in society, work, pay taxes, and not be a burden on the system. That was very interesting to me.
CD: The public generally feels a need for retribution, a certain amount of vengeance, when sentencing people for heinous crimes. Which brings up the debate about whether to incarcerate or supply therapy for the mentally ill offender. Does a sensational case like Jeffrey Dahmer’s only serve to complicate the issue?
CW: The public, and I’ll include myself in that, is very frightened about someone like Jeffrey Dahmer being out on the street. Really, the trial was about what building does he go to. Should he be treated in a mental hospital, or should he be put in a prison and attempted to be treated there? Because certainly there is psychiatric treatment that goes on in prison. It’s of variable quality; sometimes it’s quite good and sometimes it’s not. Usually more intense psychiatric treatment is going on in a mental hospital. Just because someone is mentally ill certainly doesn’t qualify him for the insanity defense. Illinois has something called “guilty but mentally ill,” so they recognize someone has a mental illness. They want to bring that to the attention of prison officials so they will get treatment in prison, but it’s not been seen in the trial itself that there is a connection between that mental illness and the crime itself.
CD: Much of the public reaction to the Dahmer trial was that if he was declared insane, he would go to a mental hospital and eventually there’s the possibility that he might be found mentally competent once again and be released. And if it didn’t happen with Jeffrey Dahmer because of the outcry that would ensue, there are fears that other, less famous offenders could possibly be released from mental hospitals and free to commit crimes once again. Is that a valid fear?
CW: It’s valid, and it’s a concern, and I think that’s why it’s rare that a jury will find insanity. Insanity, if it’s found at all, is usually found by a judge. It’s rarely used as a defense, and it’s rarely successful.
CD: I had been under the assumption that it was a typical defense. I was surprised to find out what a small percentage of insanity cases are actually brought forward.
CW: You would think so, because it’s used in these very sensationalized, very heinous crimes: attempting to kill the president, in the Gacy case murdering many young men, Richard Speck killing a number of student nurses. Because they are so highly publicized, we get the impression that it’s happening all the time, and we’re just going to be overwhelmed with these people that are spending a few years in a mental hospital and then going right out and doing the same thing all over again. It’s not reality. I think that people who go to mental hospitals after being found not guilty by reason of insanity spend essentially the same amount of time locked up as they would be in prison. It may be slightly less, but sometimes they never get out. A lot of it’s based on the treatment response. I think that in Wisconsin, a psychiatrist would have to testify that he found that there was no longer a danger to society, and also, oddly enough, that the patient presented no danger to himself. And then a judge would have to say “Yes, I agree.” I think that combination, when someone does something like try to kill the president or commits the greatest number of murders in the history of the state, is unlikely. But we do have to remember [that] even in the prison system, frequently people are eligible to go on parole. Richard Speck was eligible but he was never granted parole. Charles Manson has been eligible for parole many times; he’s never been granted it. If it’s a certain type of crime that is very heinous and very politically sensitive, it’s unlikely that anyone will take a casual approach to releasing this kind of person. It wouldn’t make sense for them in terms of their own careers and their standing in the profession.
CD: Concerning the interface between psychiatry and the law, in the Jeffrey Dahmer trial, prosecutor E. Michael McCann read an early statement by Dahmer that sounded very normal. He then asked you if that sounded like a psychotic person. How do you deal with the adversarial nature of cross-examination, having to answer yes or no to complicated questions?
CW: Naturally, vigorous cross-examination is going to make me uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, the person cross-examining me is probably not doing his job. However, an expert is not ordinarily restricted to answering just “yes or no.” So that can allow you to elaborate and say things that might be objected to, but nonetheless to elaborate. So when someone reads a short statement and says “Does this sound psychotic?” that statement taken out of context may sound very rational. The public view of someone who is psychotic may be a disheveled person screaming on the street, they don’t stop for 24 hours a day, they’re completely dysfunctional. That’s more in a textbook, or an extremely rare, case. Most people that have even severe mental illnesses are not dysfunctional in every aspect of their lives. Many work, get up in the morning, they dress, they shower, they watch TV, they read the newspaper. They may become psychotic only during periods of severe stress. I think Jeffrey Dahmer had both borderline personality and schizotypal personality disorder. Part of the characteristics of those disorders is that under severe stress someone can become psychotic, and that could be an internal or an external stress.
The other thing is that some people are psychotic and very functional except for the areas of very delusional beliefs. So if I believe that in one of your bags you’ve got something that’s been beaming something at my brain into these crystals that they implanted last week while I was asleep, and that’s causing me to get all mixed up while I’m talking, I might jump up at you and strike at you for doing it. Well, you’re going to wonder what the hell is going on. But this kind of thing can actually happen, and this is a paranoid schizophrenic acting on a delusional belief. It’s totally in their mind, but they could act and plan to do something to get even with you, and in a very rational and calculating manner because of the delusional belief.
CD: If someone hasn’t been around a person who has had psychotic episodes, it’s very difficult to understand that a psychotic person can often seem very lucid and rational. In that sense it must be difficult to help a jury make that leap.
CW: Yes, and I don’t know that Dahmer’s jury really understood that very well. It’s complicated, and there have to be examples given. Actually, Dr. Friedman, the court-appointed psychologist, did talk about that kind of transitory psychosis, when someone appears completely normal then suddenly they are stressed or you get into an area where their delusions or their psychotic “trigger” is. And they go through a dramatic change and you can see the psychosis.
CD: Before you first met with Jeffrey Dahmer, when you looked through all the paperwork, did you form any opinion or were you keeping it as open as possible?
CW: I said when I met with the defense attorney I thought Jeffrey Dahmer needed a good, general evaluation without any preconceived notions. Certainly it’s hard not to have some, based on things I’d read. I thought that necrophilia was a possibility, which is a sexual attraction to corpses. But I didn’t know what else, what the driving force was. Was this a sexual disorder in and of itself, were there severe personality disorders, was there actually a psychosis there that was driving some of the behaviors? I try to go into these things with as open a mind as I can, because I find out a lot more. I think that’s what I do well. If there’s a mental illness there, I like to think that I can find it, and then looking at it to see if there is a connection between it and the crimes with which someone has been charged.
Now, at least half to two-thirds of my time is spent in general psychiatry, and so I do see patients with a broad range of general psychiatric problems. I think that’s really important too, because that’s where the roots of all this are, in seeing and treating patients. That’s something that I enjoy doing and would never give up. I’d feel that I was missing something, because most of these court evaluations are for assessment in a report or maybe testimony. I enjoy treating people and seeing them get better and back to functioning.
CD: When you started to interview Jeffrey Dahmer, how quickly did you feel that you were getting to that core problem, getting to the diagnosis that there was psychosis?
CW: I interviewed him four times. I think it was in the third interview. The first interview I didn’t talk about the crimes at all. I talked only about developmental history. The second time I asked questions that came up when I was reviewing my notes on the developmental history and then talked about his mental state as it was occurring right then. Also, we began to talk about some of the crimes with which he was charged, then continued that. Then in the last interview still continuing it, because there were so many crimes to talk about.
CD: Do you think that if Jeffrey Dahmer had been examined a few years earlier, when he was given the option of psychiatric treatment after his arrest for child molestation, would someone have recognized how serious his problem was?
CW: Had he been able to cooperate, they certainly would have realized there was a very severe problem. He was very ill from childhood on. There was a question in one of the cases I read. One probation officer had referred him to some treatment, and he had been treated by a psychologist. He wasn’t really cooperating, he was just going through the motions. Had that psychologist said “Just showing up is not enough. I’m going to say that by not participating in treatment I think that you’re violating the conditions of probation. I’m going to recommend that your probation be violated unless you start talking to me.” That’s Monday-morning quarterbacking a bit, but I think that had his problem been recognized in early childhood, it’s possible that someone with such a profound self-esteem problem could have been helped, so it didn’t get to where it did. He really didn’t feel that he could talk to anybody about what was going on in his mind after a point, and he began to lead an increasingly private existence filled with fantasies and delusions.
CD: I’ve seen Jeffrey Dahmer described as both a racist and a homophobe. Do you think either of those terms is appropriate, or is that just a really simplistic reading?
CW: That’s a very important question. I felt some of the media was portraying that. I don’t know if that was to sell the news shows, or attract people’s attention, or basic ignorance, but it upset me that they were portraying him as a racist. None of the seven experts found that that was the case.
It wasn’t that you worried about him hating you. He probably would have ignored someone that he hated or wasn’t interested in. It was more that you didn’t want him to like you. It’s very true. That was key. You didn’t want him to like you, because if he liked you, he might imagine the extent to which he felt he could form a relationship with you. Which was to try to keep you in some way, make you a permanent part of him. At the end [when Dahmer tried to create “zombies” out of some of his victims, he would] try to keep [them] in sort of a living state, that [they would] basically forget [they] had to leave him.
The racist issue–I was sensitive to it, I was looking for it pretty carefully to see if it was there, and it just wasn’t. I think that a lot of the feelings, though, got stirred up with the handling of Konerak Sinthasomphone. [Responding to a concerned neighbor’s 911 call, police found a nude and incoherent Konerak Sinthasomphone wandering in the street. Dahmer convinced the officers Konerak was a drunken houseguest. He then killed the boy when the two returned to his apartment.] That indicated a callousness by the police department towards dealing with other races and their complaints about crime. And I think it was that, as much as the substantial number of black victims, that led people to think Dahmer was a racist. But they weren’t selected because he didn’t like blacks or didn’t like homosexuals. Quite the opposite. He liked them.
CD: Ted Bundy’s victims were a certain type of young, collegiate woman. John Wayne Gacy’s victims were all young men. Is that a good comparison, that these killers are going to choose as victims the types of people they are fundamentally attracted to? Or is it too difficult to compare these three cases?
CW: I think that in the cases you’ve described these individuals are attracted or stimulated by a certain type of person, and that’s the kind of person they might look for. Either that person stimulated them or there was some other internal or external stimulation that triggered a need to satisfy it, whether psychotic or nonpsychotic. I think you’d have to evaluate the individual case to look at the mental state. That’s a thing you can’t really generalize.
But just to get back to the homophobe issue, what came out in the record essentially was that Jeffrey Dahmer was a homosexual his whole life. He never talked about hating his homosexuality. He did feel that he couldn’t talk about it, and that was certainly an issue for him. He never really talked to anyone about it.
One of the court-appointed psychiatrists, Dr. Palermo, speculated in the total absence of any data that he thought Jeffrey Dahmer was trying to kill his homosexuality. Then Milwaukee County circuit judge Laurence C. Gram Jr. joined him in that speculation. I guess you can think up a lot of theories, but in something like this you want them to find at least something that supports what they’re talking about. Or else people do get the feeling, and this is what I think we fight against, that “psychiatrists are all a little weird themselves, they’ve got these kooky ideas, and they’re all kind of wacky.” I think more contemporary psychiatrists fight against that, and we try to look at some developmental or biological series of events or personality structure. Something that we can more point to, instead of just a speculation. So I didn’t think that was supported at all.
The Milwaukee Journal, the first Sunday that it came out [after the arrest], the title was “Jeffrey Dahmer–The Man Who Hated Other Men.” I looked at that numerous times in this whole process, thinking how much it was just the opposite. He liked other men, and he was completely ineffectual and could not even conceptualize what a relationship would be with someone. And so he attempted, in whatever way he could, to form something.
CD: I read that a gay/lesbian group had wanted hate crimes added to the list of charges against Dahmer, which seemed to be confusing the issue.
CW: Certainly something like this, on the surface, could be seen as a hate crime until you find out more about it. And then it seems very much the opposite.
CD: In regard to the actual trial, there seemed to be a lot of disagreement among the psychiatrists as to Jeffrey Dahmer’s diagnosis. Is this an accurate perception, or were the disagreements actually a lot more subtle?
CW: I think the disagreements were significant in some senses, although there was a lot of overlap. The three defense experts all did diagnose necrophilia. I additionally diagnosed four other diagnoses besides that. That was the schizotypal, the borderline, the alcohol dependence mild, and the psychotic disorder not otherwise specified.
The court-ordered experts, the psychiatrist George B. Palermo and the psychologist Samuel H. Friedman, they only, I believe, diagnosed mixed-personality disorder. Now, mixed-personality disorder is . . . I’m trying to think of a nice way of saying it. It’s very imprecise, and in some cases it could be used as a way of dismissing the mental condition. In other words if you’ve got a mixed-personality disorder, you’ve got a little of this, a little of that, but it’s all personality disorder, so who needs to worry about it anyway?
CD: How do you account for that kind of disparity in diagnoses? Do you think that adds to the public feeling that psychiatric evaluations are going to be imprecise?
CW: Well, it certainly could. One could draw that conclusion, and perhaps the jury did to an extent in that they might have thought “We really can’t understand what the psychiatrists and psychologists are saying. Most of them seem to be saying Jeffrey Dahmer’s a necrophiliac. We don’t really understand these subtle differences, one to the next, so we’ll just make up our own mind what we think about him.”
I think that very clearly he met criteria for borderline-personality disorder. I don’t think there were any criteria that he didn’t meet, and it was very prominent. All the defense experts said mental disease. Samuel H. Friedman, the court psychologist, in the course of testimony diagnosed necrophilia and mental disease. Dr. Palermo said “he has a disease worse than schizophrenia,” but he said he didn’t have a mental disease. That was another original notion I thought that Dr. Palermo had.
The prosecution psychiatrist, Frederick Fosdal, said he had a mental disease, and the other prosecution psychiatrist Park Dietz refused to answer that question, saying that he felt that was a question for the jury. [Park Dietz also testified for the prosecution in the John Hinckley trial.] There was a lot of similarity in the reports done by Park Dietz and myself that were pointed out actually by a number of people. He diagnosed necrophilia, alcohol dependence mild or moderate; he ignored the psychotic disorder. I thought he explained it away. Both of the prosecution psychiatrists said the making of the zombies, they thought Jeffrey Dahmer really could have done it.
CD: That it was a realistic thing to attempt?
CW: Yes. It seemed completely incredible that a doctor would be saying that. In addition to being completely inaccurate, Jeffrey Dahmer couldn’t have done it. The thing he was going to do was cause severe brain damage, infection, and death. That’s what he was going to do by what he was doing. He wasn’t going to create zombies. But he was trying to. Some of the psychiatrists kind of dismissed it. They took the tack, particularly Park Dietz, of looking into history. He said if something occurred historically then it really wasn’t that original, and therefore maybe not all that crazy. Someone in the 16th century kept skulls. They used to do frontal lobotomies. This all served to kind of dilute what it actually was that Jeffrey Dahmer was doing.
What worried me there a little is that if people really believed what these psychiatrists said, and I don’t mean the jury but some unstable people, they might think “Well, it could have worked.” Would you get people, God forbid, experimenting in that same way? Would you get unstable people saying to themselves “Well, here are some guys that said it could work”? That made me very uncomfortable that the prosecution psychiatrists said that. I think when you come out that strong, saying this is really normal in some ways, and just based on a preference, I think you do people a disservice.
CD: I know that you saw a lot of importance in the “temple” of bones and body parts Jeffrey Dahmer wanted to build. Why was that?
CW: The importance was that he had beliefs that by accumulating a certain number of body parts and skeletons and skulls, that he could create a temple or power center, that he could derive powers that were completely unrelated to keeping the victims or wanting to have sex with a corpse. He gave me the example that I talked about during my testimony, that these could give him, for example, success in the real-estate market. This stuff to me was so incredibly bizarre.
CD: Have you heard similar stories like this from people with disorders, or did this strike you as something new and strange?
CW: It struck me as very strange. With delusions, they can really take any form, and while they can be very colorful and interesting in terms of content, the main fact is that they are delusions: fixed false beliefs that don’t correspond with our views of reality. This struck me as an example of that. The other thing was that he would have interpersonal success, [but] he couldn’t really extend himself any further than what he knew how to do. And that was to control people better. It wasn’t to have an adult, ongoing, intimate, give-and-take relationship. And there was some substantiation that he had been really focused on some get-rich-quick materials, so this was really taking it a significant step further. There is a lot of wishful thinking in most get-rich-quick schemes, so setting up something that would assist him in that was, I thought, a delusion.
CD: When he tried to lobotomize some of his victims, and those crude lobotomies failed, did he feel a sense of loss or sadness that the person didn’t live, because this was a person he had intended on keeping?
CW: He was . . . disappointed. I don’t know that I can say more than that, because I know that it was disappointing that it didn’t work, and he kept trying to do it. He tried it on four people. I guess he finally gave up at the end, and realized that it just couldn’t work.
CD: In his prepared statement at the end of the trial he said, “I hated no one. I knew I was sick or evil or both. Now I believe I was sick.” Do you think that there is really a true understanding on his part of the deep impact of his crimes?
CW: Well, he is so different from the average person, it’s tough to get in his shoes. It really is. I think anybody that says that they’re really in his shoes is not being completely honest. It’s hard to know. I think getting arrested stopped the behavior, and that there was some relief in that, because increasing the frequency of the behavior was an indication it was no longer serving its original purposes. He was trying to get that same old feeling, or whatever, and it wasn’t happening anymore. I think it allowed him to regain his moral appreciation to whatever extent it was there. And I think it was there at one point in his life. When he was young, I think it’s very clear there was a moral appreciation of wrongful behavior. Not that it’s just illegal, but that it’s not right. Something we shouldn’t do, especially when it would come to hurting something or someone. I think he had that, and I think he lost it in the process. I think his statement was as far as he has gotten in regaining it. I thought he was sincere. I didn’t think that meant that he should be out and that we should trust him again, because I don’t think he’s cured. But I think that he was being sincere.
CD: When he fooled the two policemen who were called to the scene when Konerak was outside on the street, how was Dahmer able to remain so calm? Was it because he was so removed from any emotional sense concerning his crimes?
CW: There certainly was that, the blandness that everybody pretty much saw in the courtroom while he was sitting. During the mental status exam, I talked to him about horrifying things that would ordinarily wake up anyone from a nightmare. He was just talking about it. He was very bland. You should feel something and if you don’t, there’s something wrong. So that affect . . . there was a disturbance there. There was some lack of ability or capacity to feel at those points. There were two notions I found delusional about Dahmer. One is with the cannibalism. Now, just because some tribe in New Guinea may practice cannibalism, that’s not our culture. We don’t. It seems that what he thought was that people would literally go on in him and he in they, and that there was going to be some kind of merger. I think that was also delusional. In regard to the police, he thought for the longest time that there were forces that were protecting and guiding. He was never terribly clear about exactly what he meant, but he did believe that something had to be protecting him, because how else would he not have gotten caught? He didn’t have to identify Konerak in the street. He went out to get a beer somewhere, maybe he thought he had zombie-ized Konerak. He went out, he left Konerak, and then he comes back and Konerak is wandering nude in the street. Dahmer could have just gone back home. That struck me. I don’t know what the answer to why he didn’t is. If he’s thinking he’s being protected, maybe he’s going to step forward. It seems just as likely if Dahmer approaches the police Konerak is going to tell them what happened, Konerak could point his finger and say, “That’s the guy.” I think to say that Dahmer deceived the police is almost a little too simple, in putting himself at that kind of tremendous risk, when I don’t think, based on what I’ve read, that he had to do that.
CD: Tracy Edwards, Dahmer’s last intended victim, who managed to escape, testified for the defense. He seems the one source who saw Jeffrey Dahmer in action, and is probably the one person alive who can tell that story.
CW: A very critical person to interview. That and, in terms of looking at what he was like in his life, the parents. I did interview all of them. I thought Tracy Edwards was really very important and I thought it would have been an oversight for me not to interview him. I pushed to do it, along with both parents.
CD: What was the main thing you learned from speaking with Tracy Edwards?
CW: I thought he was lucky.
CD: Unbelievably so.
CW: Unbelievably lucky. And the rest of his life is a gift, and he should take advantage of it. I think the one key thing that was brought up in the trial was that–was Tracy Edwards credible? I think that when you would be in a situation like that, terrified and virtually certain that you’re going to be killed, things might look a little different to you and you might not remember every sequence exactly as it happened. You may almost dissociate, almost lose yourself a little bit in an unconscious, protective way. I think he pointed out some very valuable information. One is that Jeffrey Dahmer was listening to his heart. Dahmer did that with Konerak’s brother too [during an earlier molestation incident]. That was in the police report. Again, there is Dahmer’s fascination with the internal organs and the colors and the feel.
CD: Was there anything that stood out about the parents to you?
CW: There was an Inside Edition I saw where Lionel Dahmer, the father, focuses a lot on the mother, his ex-wife Joyce “Rocky” Dahmer. A little bit of blaming there in saying she was on medication when Jeffrey Dahmer was conceived, that she took medications regularly, that she was mentally ill from his early childhood on and had been hospitalized several times. What I will carefully say is that it didn’t surprise me that he said those things. Because I think he wants to come up with an explanation, and that particular explanation doesn’t include him as a central “bad guy,” as it were. I think if the mother were to speak on Inside Edition the same thing would happen and she would appear and stress that the father was always gone or busy with other things.
I think a general notion in looking back was that there were some problems, and if they had been recognized and then addressed, then possibly the course of things could have been changed.
CD: I’ve read that animal abuse and dismemberment in the teenage years is considered a strong indicator that this is a kid headed for trouble.
CW: True, although Jeffrey Dahmer didn’t actually kill and dismember. He found what he called “road kills,” which were animals that had been run over or hit by cars, and dragged them off to look at the insides, bleach, and strip the flesh. So he did not truly have torturing animals as a history that he gave or that anyone else gave about him. But he did have morbid preoccupations. I think that is definitely an unusual, morbid preoccupation for a boy.
CD: I was thinking of the famous photo of the dog’s head impaled on a stick. I had assumed this was a dog he had killed. But still, mounting a head on a stick is pretty bizarre.
CW: Apparently, from what he says anyway, it was a stupid thing that he did, and he did it to tell people what he had found in the forest, to try to shock people. Now he just thinks it was kind of stupid, but he said again that it was one of these road kills.
CD: When you talked to Jeffrey Dahmer, was he forthcoming from the start with you, did he seem eager to talk about it? Or was he hesitant about certain areas?
CW: I didn’t find that he was hesitant. He wasn’t hard to talk to. I think that he was straightforward, and this notion that he wanted to now tell all, I don’t take exception with that. Now, you base everything on what you and others have come up with, and he wasn’t someone who was constantly changing his stories and telling different things to different people. He was pretty consistent. I think that he remembered some things better as time went on, and occasionally I would ask a question where he would say, “Nobody’s asked me that before.” In fact, that triggered a particular memory. But it wasn’t a case of going back on things that he had said. It was more a matter of elaborating when he felt a little more comfortable to do so.
CD: In terms of your own work, how valuable was this as an experience in evaluating future mentally disordered criminals?
CW: I think it was very valuable. Because you have a very rare disorder that is not very well specified in the DSM-III-R [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders from the American Psychiatric Association]. It’s really a conglomeration. I found that there were really five that described him and the fact that the illness and the murders, at least at some point, were driven by delusional behaviors. So it was important. It was such an unusual case. I think defense attorney Boyle had calculated that the chance of him getting off on all counts on insanity was about a trillion to one. I don’t think he was exaggerating. Getting an opportunity to evaluate someone like this in depth, and talking with a number of collateral resources, and trying to put together what the crimes were, and what his mental state was, and how things changed as he went along from childhood up until adulthood was very interesting, and I think there are more questions to be answered.
CD: Dahmer didn’t kill all of his intended victims. Why were some men allowed to leave after spending time with him?
CW: It seemed that [with] the few people who did escape or were let go, something interrupted his very primitive fantasy or sequence. It was a very private experience for Jeffrey Dahmer. So when maybe an intended victim made too much noise, or one time the grandmother saw him, or possibly when their body type was not the type he thought he would want to keep, occasionally he would stop. They made a big issue of that, that he had a choice to either keep them or let them go.
CD: Once he began to kill someone, was the argument that he could or couldn’t stop at that point?
CW: I think usually the killing was . . . that wasn’t what he wanted to do. It was the only way to get what he felt he wanted for sick reasons. I think that once he was stimulated to do so, it was almost always something that he carried out. I would like to talk to him more about that specifically.
CD: Do you plan on evaluating him again in the future?
CW: There are some additional questions I’d like to ask him. Whether I will or not, I don’t know.
CD: Does the FBI conduct their own evaluations of someone like this, or do they come to you and say “We’re putting a profile together, we want to see if this fits in with our work on other killers.”
CW: I don’t know. I know they conduct interviews themselves in their Behavioral Sciences Unit. One of the people that the judge didn’t allow to testify, Bob Ressler, he’s the one who really founded it. I had talked to him a little bit about it because he has the notions of “organized” and “disorganized” crime scenes and profiling the crime scene very carefully as a way to find out “who done it.” He thought this was an interesting type of case because it had elements of both. But he was not allowed to testify. But other than that, I don’t know what they would do. If they would ask to interview him, like anyone else, he could probably consent or not. But they wouldn’t approach me about my assessment, unless he had given specific permission for that to happen. Unless it was to talk about something that was part of the public record.
CD: There was a ten-year lapse between Dahmer’s first victim in Ohio and when he started up again. How was he able to refrain from killing, and was there a specific “trigger” that started it up again?
CW: He consciously tried to repress his urges. He tried to do things that would satisfy his urges without having to go to those extremes. And it all worked for a while. He had casual sex in bookstores and baths, and he got into pornography. He had mixed views about pornography. Initially he thought that had he known about it, he never would have done the first killing. But then later it was obvious that at least it was used to stimulate him as an interim kind of event. When he lived with his grandmother he also tried religion and abstinence from alcohol. But the thing was, it never lasted. All these things were like fixes, it didn’t solve the problem, which is really, in a simplified way, how he felt about himself to a very extreme sense.
Then there was an external stimulation. Someone mentioned as part of the public record that Dahmer was in a library and a man dropped a note into his lap saying “meet me in the basement for sex.” He didn’t, but it stimulated him a lot, and he started going to the bookstores, baths, etc, and getting more active. I think that’s when he started the drugging. There was apparently some kind of blackout during the first murder after the ten-year lapse occurred. At that point he essentially gave up. Now, that’s how he describes it. I think that key there was, was it a conscious giving up or a feeling that “I’m no longer able to control myself. Here I did this horrible thing ten years ago, and now look, again I wind up and I’m on top of someone who is dead.” At that point it was really all downhill.
CD: How much do you think pornography has an effect on actually inciting someone to violence?
CW: Very little. I don’t think it’s that important. I think that if someone is so inclined, they will look for something, or find something, that stimulates them. It could be a Rolling Stones song. It could be Return of the Jedi, which was something Jeffrey Dahmer was interested in, which seems like a fairly benign movie. Millions of children have seen it in addition to adults. They probably haven’t all seen Exorcist III, but probably a lot have at least seen The Exorcist. But someone could take a particular meaning from it, and it either excites them to a point or holds them over until they can get something more satisfying. As I say, he had this comment that if he had known about pornography he didn’t think the first killing would have taken place. Then later, he talked about this to several individuals, he would use it to certainly stimulate himself and maybe as some kind of a bridge to some of these other events. But Tracy Edwards said he was watching Exorcist III, which isn’t pornography.
CD: Did he talk much about the first murder, the leap he made from dismembering animals to killing a human?
CW: The leap seems to occur first in fantasy, during adolescence, with the onset of a lot of sexual urges, impulses, thoughts, feelings. It seems like that’s when he describes the fantasies about killing and having sex. Ongoing sexual thoughts and morbid or bizarre kinds of urges for at least three or four years before the first murder occurs. Although he did make an attempt to do a killing when he was fifteen, that was kind of debatable about whether he was just trying to hurt him and have sex or if he was trying to kill him and have sex. So that seems to be something. At first there was just the fascination with the insides of the body. Then with the sexual overlay, that stimulation coming out, there is this overlay of sexual excitement beginning to happen and “what would it be like with a human?” That’s as close as I have gotten to it.
CD: You had mentioned how the drug Depo Provera lowers testosterone and its use with pedophiles. Is it also used for other sex offenders?
CW: It can be. And no one has ever used it, to my knowledge, with someone with necrophilia. But they have tried it with exhibitionism. I have at least one case of treating someone that had some voyeurism and some beastophilia, sex with animals. They were sort of polysexual, kind of anything that moved and some things that didn’t, but not necrophilia. It seems to reduce the excessive fantasizing, which Jeffrey Dahmer said from adolescence on was at least half of his day. Everybody’s got fantasies, but to dismiss it like that, when he said it got to three-quarters of his day by the time after that ten-year period. He said it prevented him from living a normal life. I think he’s accurate. So there is some kind of dysfunction. We don’t exactly know why, but we know that by treating it, it reduces that excessive fantasizing and preoccupation, which does prevent you from leading a normal life and oftentimes may get you in trouble with the law.
CD: Will Jeffrey Dahmer get some kind of treatment in prison, or does that remain to be seen?
CW: I think it remains to be seen. Is the kind of treatment he needs available? If it is, does he avail himself of it? That was one of prosecutor McCann’s big points, he has to avail himself of it. But is it available, and is anybody really going to be all that interested in getting to know him and treat him? I think it remains to be seen, and I think that would have been the advantage of treating him in a mental health center. Although many of them are not ideal either. But I think the chance that psychological processes will be focused on, as well as treatments, is still greater even though there are lots of imperfections in the system. And it would have been a state system, and those are the ones that tend to be affected by budget cuts. But I think it remains to be seen, and it’s not clear that any known treatment would help. So I think everybody agreed that he needed confinement, but nobody’s tried any treatment on him, in terms of intensive treatment in a hospital. He has always been able to kind of do his own thing while he’s in treatment, and that won’t work for him. He needs to have very tight reins.
CD: Although you have to approach this situation from a professional perspective, I find it hard to imagine, as you said earlier, listening to descriptions of such horrific acts in such bland terms.
CW: The acts themselves are indicative of the extent to which he has gotten in his life in terms of relationships with people. That just stuns you when you first realize that. That’s why I say that a lot in psychiatry, psychology, and social work is the concept of empathy, which is getting inside someone’s shoes. Experiencing their experience. Not being sympathetic, but more empathetic, or empathic, where you try to understand the person’s experience as much as possible. Well, that’s hard to do, that’s very hard to do with him. And then you’re not really sure if you want to.
CD: The down side of it, I suppose, is how far do you really want to look into the dark side of the human soul.
CW: You know, we like to look at that stuff, but I think most of us don’t really want to get too close to the edge where we might fall in. Those kinds of interviews, and getting to know someone like that, certainly can be disturbing. As well as listening to it. There were points during the trial when they started to go through all the details again, I think that was around the prosecution. Every detail had already been gone into many times. I shut it off. Of course I have a recording so I can go back, but as interested in it as I was I didn’t want to hear it anymore. I had had enough. I think you can get overloaded with it. So I think it would be interesting to talk to people who had been very interested in it, to hear how it affected them. As well as the kind of people that write to a Jeffrey Dahmer, or a Richard Speck, or a Ted Bundy, and want to form relationships with them. Sort of sight unseen, just deeds heard about. Why? I think that would be a fascinating group to find out more about. They get convinced of all kinds of things in their fantasies. One woman wrote to Jeffrey Dahmer, “I know you’re too handsome to be a homosexual, and you’re really looking for me” type of thing. Letters to him with people wanting to follow in his footsteps and even outdo him. It really stimulates some people.
CD: I heard a similar story about Richard Ramirez, the “Night-Stalker” in Los Angeles, who had raped and murdered thirteen women. He has women who visit him now, including one of the jurors who convicted him. She is supposedly in love with him and helping with his appeal.
CW: It’s fascinating to me, these sorts of ripple effects. That somebody would be stimulated in such a way to be romantically attracted to possibly the poorest choice of a partner that exists on the face of the earth.
CD: Is there anything positive that society can cull from this profoundly disturbing experience concerning Jeffrey Dahmer?
CW: You mean what everyone went through from listening to the trial?
CD: When you get past the morbid fascination, and the curiosity, then the real anger and pain of the victims and the families and the friends. And also the real fear it instills that this could quite literally be the man next door. Is there anything positive that can be learned from something so tragic?
CW: That’s a tough question. Possibly if disturbances are recognized earlier, and people are willing to address the issues of sexuality and what appears to be personality disturbances in childhood. I think there was ample evidence that there was profound disturbance very early on. If people can be more attuned to it and open up some dialogues. If it’s too much for them to be able to get some kind of professional assistance, I think that’s a possibility. These kinds of sexual disorders exist and may cause all kinds of problems. It’s a difficult question to answer. If it causes some people to seek out help that are on that borderline of acting on urges that will get them in trouble with the law. Both sides were saying that even if a few came forward then this whole thing was worth it. District attorney E. Michael McCann was cautioning people to watch their fantasies. Again, if they are headed in the direction of something that is going to cause harm to someone or considered illegal, then there are definitely professionals and centers that can help people with those problems.
School counselors and teachers are the ones that have to be sensitive to these early problems and I think they see them, but I’m not sure they always know what to do or whether there are always resources. I’m certain many times resources are not available, or the resources are overwhelmed. But by all accounts that’s where it started, and it only got worse. And that seems to be the pattern. These kinds of problems, that create severe personality disturbances and other types of illness, they don’t get better, they seem to cause more dysfunction with time.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Luthringer.