The curious case of gazing into the abyss a second too long

“…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” (Friedrich W. Nietzsche) | Photo: Pinterest

So I had to do some reading for my (hopefully soon-to-be) forthcoming exam in judicial psychology (I was definitely not in my right mind when I decided to be a student again, lol) and, obviously, I also had to do some extensive reading about serials.

Fish, Gacy, Kroll, Gein, Crutchley, Ridgway, Berkowitz, Kaczynski, Rader, Chikatilo, Chase, Keyes, Corll, Henley, Williams, Olson, Cullen, Alcala, DeAngelo, Kuklinski, Bundy, Zodiac… let’s just say I had to pause at times while I was reading about them because some of the stories were so brutal that I literally felt sick in my stomach. I found myself throwing up after reading about the Dnepropetrovk maniacs’ spree, Bittaker & Norris, Homolka & Bernardo, Richard Ramirez. And that, my friend, is not a way of saying. I literally went into the bathroom and threw my guts out. It had that impact on me.

These cases alone are what evil might look like. The purest form of evil. There is a wall between personality disorders and serial murder, and to cross that line is to cross into evil. Evil — whatever it is — can’t be directly understood, it can only be contained. These cases alone are the stuff the nightmares are made of, so I strongly recommend not to google any of them. Sometimes it’s better to be unaware of what people are capable of.

Anyway. This is what I was really getting at: there was a pretty strange exception to my revulsion: Ed Kemper.

I was equally disgusted with his deeds, but after watching some of his prison interviews I was baffled to find myself feeling sorry (?) for this guy. The videos show a guy that seems genuinely authentic. He seems your regular guy next door: friendly, ordinary, able to show consideration and gratitude. Nothing seems off about him. And that’s where the real horror comes from: from this ability to come across as “the guy next door”, whom you’d probably invite over to have a beer or two. From time to time, you literally have to pause the videos, sit back & actively make the effort to remember that this guy who seems so genuinely nice is notorious for decapitating his victims and then having sex with their heads, among other grisly stuff.

That’s the strange thing about Kemper: whenever he’s talking, you have to make the conscious effort to keep in mind that he is a very sick puppy. But he is also a pretty unique sick puppy. And not only for being the only serial with an IQ of about 145 (that is genius level, for the people who aren’t familiar with the IQ scale range).

So why is he so unique among serials? Here’s another few reasons:

1) First of all, he turned himself in. No other serial has done that. They were all caught. They didn’t surrender. As for Kemper, he told the cops all about it and called it a day. And nobody knows why he did it. Psychologists assume that it must have had to do with his genius level IQ: his superior intelligence could have helped him override his impulses just long enough for him to be able to turn himself in.

2) Not only did he turn himself in, but he also refused all of his parole hearings. He notoriously said that he is just where he is supposed to be, where he belongs and that he shouldn’t be allowed to get back into the real world. Now let’s think Bundy & others like him: they did everything in their power to manipulate their way back into freedom.

3) Kemper displayed what psychologists define as “cognitive remorse”. Meaning that, just like Bundy, he was never able to feel remorse for his heinous crimes, but — unlike Bundy — he somehow managed to rationalize them as “wrong”. What does this mean? Well, it means that Kemper, despite not being able to feel any real remorse (because of his brain being wired differently than a neurotypical’s), was able to understand, nonetheless, that what he did was terribly wrong, thus allowing him to WANT and actively TRY to feel remorse. Of course, he couldn’t, but the fact that he managed to rationalize his own deeds as “wrong” falls under the concept of “cognitive remorse”. And that alone makes him a very interesting freak.

4) He is very self-aware. Psychologists haven’t encountered (so far) this kind of self-awarness & ability to self-introspection in other serials. Plus, he was always opened and honest about what he had done, not even once did he try to deny or hide what he had done… unlike, for example, Bundy, who always tried to lie and manipulate everybody into thinking he was not guilty. Kemper is one of the very few serials who have spoken openly and honestly about their crimes and motivations, and he always had a lot of good insight into his own psychopathology, which has helped the FBI to understand serials more.

5) He is considered to this day a “model prisoner”, everybody who ever had contact with him in prison (inmates, guards etc.) have said that they found him to be a very bright, well spoken, polite & nice individual (well, they would probably feel different if they were to meet him in the streets, at night… just saying).

6) Even the FBI agents from the Behavioral Analysis Unit liked him: the legendary Robert Ressler and John Douglas have notoriously said that they thought Kemper was an exceptionally intelligent and pleasant individual, they really liked talking to him. Ressler has even stated that Kemper could have done their job like any day — because yeah, he was actually THAT smart. I guess this huge waste of potential is another key factor that can cause normal people to feel sorry for him. But I’m just guessing here.

7) Kemper isn’t the classical textbook freak. He’s an extremely strange cat, he lives on his own island, not quite fitting the profile. Not quite fitting any profile, for that matter. Some psychologists even suggest that if his life unfolded under different circumstances, with no childhood abuse involved and no trauma attached… most likely the dude could have managed to keep his shit together and override his impulses. I personally doubt it, I just can’t envision a world where Ed Kemper could have been a functional individual, but who knows, really? Maybe they’re right. Maybe under the right circumstances he could have become a “functional” member of our society. A ruthless CEO. Or a skilled politician, maybe? We’ll never know.

Some believe this could have been the case with Jeffrey Dahmer, too. Jeff was also unique in his own right and in 1991 he even made it in People Magazine’s top 25 most intriguing people. Crazy, right? But, indeed, Dahmer was somewhat of an unique freak himself because, according to psychologists, he wasn’t a sadist, to him his actions were just a mean to an end — and that right there was an anomaly within an anomaly. Dahmer is also notorious for feeling shame in court, the dude was short-sighted, but refused to wear his glasses in court because he couldn’t bring himself to actually look his victims’ relatives in their eyes. And, just like Kemper, he asked to be executed because he knew that he deserved just that. And, indeed, he probably deserved just that.

There is a sense of entropy about Kemper (and maybe even Dahmer). Just like the others, they couldn’t reverse the escalation of their impulses and dark fantasies. But they tried to fight them. And that makes them stand out. Dahmer is notorious for actually seeking help at some point. He even tried to commit suicide when he realized he can’t oppose anymore his dark fantasies. He deliberately courted death even while he was put behind bars: according to his mother & lawyer, the news that he was killed in prison by a fellow inmate was no surprise to them. Apparently, he had asked to be taken out of his isolated cell and join the general prison population exactly because of that: he wanted to get killed. On the other hand, Kemper put an end to his ghastly crimes by himself, he turned himself in and successively asked to be executed. More precisely, Kemper’s request was to receive death by torture. Within his mind, he had rationalized that the right punishment for him was just that. And he was right, he probably deserved just that. However, California had a moratorium on the death penalty during that time, so the capital punishment was never an option for the jury.

So this is why Kemper and Dahmer are strange cats. Because they tried to fight their impulses. They just didn’t surrender, like the others. And there are moments in their interviews where they still seem to fight against them, or at least to be frightened of them, which makes you wonder: sure, they lack empathy, they lack the kind of “brain wiring” that prevents normal people from hurting other people, but maybe there is still a range of “something” in there, something disturbingly relatable, similar to our own experiences in the world. That is the real disturbing part about them: the troubling familiarity. Up until a certain point, those guys are putting up a fight, then a switch is pressed and they slowly drift off into a nightmare. This is some unnerving shit, to say the least.

Oh, and before I forget: time to put to bed the myths because they are quite obstructive to factual information. Contrary to popular belief, Dahmer wasn’t a psychopath. He was a very messed up guy, but certainly not a psychopath. Why is that? Well, it’s because he had several conditions that specifically rule out psychopathy — namely BPD and psychosis. Psychopaths aren’t capable of having BPD, and psychosis would have to be something like drug induced. Dahmer had several mental illnesses, he didn’t have a personality disorder. He was by no account a psychopath. And the court should have never ruled him sane and have him prosecuted as a sane person because he just wasn’t that. As for Ed Kemper, according to FBI profilers Robert Ressler and John Douglas, he is indeed a psychopath because he has all of the characteristics foisted by them. But let’s not forget the other profiler contemporary in the FBI, Roy Hazelwood, whose proof of equivalent accuracy is contained in his “there are no female serial killers” statement (invalidated by Aileen Wuornos, Doss, Dyer etc.). Plus, Kemper has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and this complicates his diagnosis. If it was psychopathy, then Kemper’s paranoid schizophrenia would cloud his logical ability to differentiate good & bad behaviour in the absence of empathy (psychopathy = lack of empathy). And that’s not his case. Some suggest he’s more of an acquired sociopath & that’s more plausible to me because acquired sociopathy leaves opened the possibility for him to be honest when he says that he understands his acts were “wrong” (and it also leaves the door opened for cognitive remorse, since sociopaths do have the ability, albeit limited, to get to that point).

And then there’s Kemper half-brother, who says the family is still very afraid of Ed and that they hope he never gets out. He also says that Ed had a very dangerous side to him since he was a kid. According to his brother, one day Ed just started stalking around the house his (then pregnant) mother, which caused their father to send him away to his grandparents. His half-brother also says that the night their father found out what Ed had done, he took his gun and went out with the declared intent of shooting Ed, but he either couldn’t find him, either couldn’t bring himself to actually do it.

However, the most interesting part of his brother’s tale is this: he says Ed has faked the whole time this whole “I’m not as callous as the rest of them” thingie and that he always had fun manipulating people into buying his “I understand that what I did was wrong” story. He says that what we see here is nothing but a huge game of manipulation, the kind of game they all play. Except Ed has taken it to a new whole level of credibility because of his superior intelligence. According to his half-brother, Kemper faked even his intelligence test: he claims that Ed doesn’t have an IQ of 145, but an IQ of a staggering 180. Now… genius IQ is generally considered to begin around 140, with the range 180–200 being considered “highest genius”. If all this is true and Ed’s brain really belongs to that range… that would make him, indeed, a very dangerous animal because, in that case, the depth of the latent deceptiveness could be, basically, unfathomable… And unparalleled.

Moral of my story? Sometime before 1900, Nietzsche said: “Beware […] for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” I never quite understood what he meant… up until this point. It was quite hard for me to snap back out of feeling sorry for this guy. It was one of the strangest things that ever happened to me: the more I listened to him speak during his prison interviews, the more I would feel sorry for him. Let’s just say that now I sort of understand why Jason Ross had killed himself after talking for a dozen of minutes to John Wayne Gacy. It was because of gazing into the abyss a second too long. If you’re not well-equipped for the kind of darkness that these guys can unleash, it can feel just like a shortcircuit, I guess.

For a split second, I fell into that exact same trap. There I was, watching this friendly, polite & really smart guy telling his story in a very compelling way… and being seduced into feeling sorry for his messed up childhood, for the way that our society had failed him, for that huge waste of potential. There I was, being seduced into feeling sorry for… him.

Oh, dang, I kind of feel sorry for this guy…

And then I try to tie this thought back into that gruesome episode where he actually fucked the severed heads of his victims and — well, I guess he’s done it to me now.

Director David Fincher highlights this exact type of thing in the final scene from season 1 of Netflix series “MINDHUNTER” — a scene that, coincidentally, depicts the actor playing Ed Kemper (the tremendously talented Cameron Britton) teaching FBI agent Holden Ford a similar lesson. Context: through the series, agent Ford does some prison interviews with Kemper and he finds himself gradually lured into the dangerous illusion Kemper has carefully constructed: that he’s somebody who has changed his ways.