Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility

Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility

Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility

Serial Killers: Psychiatry, Criminology, Responsibility


Francesca Biagi-Chai's book - a translation from the French of Le Cas Landru - tackles the issue of criminal responsibility in the case of serial killers, and other 'mad' people who are nonetheless deemed to be answerable before the law. The author, a Lacanian psychoanalyst and senior psychiatrist in France, with extensive experience working in institutional settings, analyses the logic informing the crimes of famous serial killers. Addressing the Landru case (which was the inspiration for Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux), as well as those of Pierre Rivière and Donato Bilancia, Biagi-Chai casts light on the confusion that pervades forensic psychiatry and criminal law as to the distinction between mental illness and 'madness'. She then elaborates the consequences of her argument in a sustained critique of the insanity defence. The book includes a Foreword by the renowned psychoanalyst, Jacques-Alain Miller, and an introduction by the translators on the question of insanity before the law in the US and in the UK, which considers the pertinence of Biagi-Chai's argument for forensic psychiatry, for criminal law, and for the increasing contemporary focus on the assessment of dangerousness and risk-management strategies in crime control practices.


Serial killer: this term is new. It dates from the end of the 1970s, and is American, which stands to reason given that the United States has proven to be, by far, the country where serial killers are most prolific. Its origin is contested (between two Roberts: Ressler, an FBI agent, and Keppel, a medical doctor). It was introduced into language in the context of the considerable media attention and popular interest provoked by the crimes of Ted Bundy.

He was a smooth talker with charming manners and it is said that he was capable of changing physiognomy like a chameleon. He held degrees in psychology and law, probably started killing at 14 and was arrested at 29. He confessed to 30 victims: all were women, all were white, all middle class, most between 15 and 20 years old, high-school girls in many cases, with long dark hair. He lay for hours beside their corpses, applied makeup to their faces when he had not chopped off their heads and engaged in sexual intercourse with them until they decomposed.

An immense literature has since been devoted to serial killers, in which morbid interest has its share, but also the public interest: what relevant traits should be considered when trying to hone in on the identity of an UNSUB (unknown subject of an investigation)? What indicators show that isolated crimes belong to an ongoing series? How do we detect a serial killer before he commits the act? Can one predict that a child will be a serial killer? These are a few of the questions that scientific research has been led to ask over the past decade or so. The experts attempting to answer these questions are law enforcement officers and mental health professionals. More recently, biochemistry, neuroscience and magnetic resonance imaging have also been drawn in.

The field of investigation is in rapid development. Without being conclusive, the results are far from being negligible and criminologists are attempting syntheses.

Law enforcement officers contribute their knowledge about crime scenes: a serial killer has a modus operandi, an MO which is proper to him, but which evolves over time, and a ‘signature’, a ‘visiting card’, which is fixed.

The theories constructed by mental health professionals on the basis of their interviews with criminals expose the contradictions between the different agendas and multiple trends in the field. Their findings are often controversial: thus the work of Helen Morrison, forensic expert and psychiatrist, My Life Among the . . .

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