August 8, 2000


I should have gone to college and gone into real estate and got myself an aquarium, that’s what I should have done.
– Jeffrey Dahmer

As part of my research for a novel-in-progress, I recently spoke with a friend, a forensic psychologist, about sexual deviancy. In the course of our conversation she said something that amazed me, which is that most serial killers are sane. As an example she cited Jeffrey Dahmer, the guy who killed and dismembered several dozen young men. (Did he also eat them? I think he may have eaten some, or parts of some.) According to my friend, Dahmer was sane, and her reasoning, the reasoning of her profession, hinged on whether Dahmer could distinguish between right and wrong. About this there can be no doubt: Dahmer went to great lengths to conceal his actions, a sure sign of a person who knows he’s done something wrong, something for which he would be punished if caught.

At first I thought my friend was talking about criminal responsibility – a more narrow concept than sanity, one that applies only within a legal context. But it soon became clear that her definition applied more generally. The key issue, she said, is whether the person possesses an accurate picture of reality. I asked her whose picture of reality can be said to be inaccurate.

“People who suffer from extreme paranoia, hallucinations, delusions,” she said. “People who believe the KGB is after them. People who think they’re god, or that god is instructing them to do things.” (Nearly every Christian saint was insane by this definition, but that’s another matter.)

Her rationale reminded me of arguments I’ve had with computer tech support people about whether a particular problem is hardware- or software-related. Tech support people invariably claim that one’s problems are software-related, which means that they aren’t responsible for fixing anything, and that in fact they can’t fix anything because nothing is broken.

My friend was saying that Dahmer’s problem was software-related. Something bad had gotten into the machinery, but the machinery itself was in good working condition: Dahmer could hear what we hear and see what we see, and that’s what matters.

For what it’s worth, my friend did say that when interviewing people who’ve committed sexual crimes, she has difficulty interviewing the so-called sane ones, that it sickens her to be in the same room as them. So it’s not as though she equates sanity with morality. In fact, in her view, insanity and immorality are completely unrelated. It’s not insane to be immoral, nor is it sane to be moral.

Perhaps this is how it should be, but the fact is, Dahmer is insane. It’s insane to murder innocent people and cut them up and possibly eat them. It’s not just that these things are immoral (plenty of things are immoral without being insane; say, cheating on your taxes or your lover). It’s that it takes a truly crazy person to be that immoral.

Psychology passes the buck and in so doing becomes a tech support function for humans, one that applies only in cases in which people come to believe grossly false information about themselves or their environment.

I had so much trouble accepting this that I approached my friend again to confirm I’d gotten it right. She assured me that I had. Dahmer is sane, she said – or was sane, having long since been murdered by a fellow inmate, a convicted killer who claimed to be Christ because he was a carpenter and his mother’s name was Mary.

You know: a crazy person.