By Dale Keiger
Serial killers, sexual sadists, celebrity stalkers, family annihilators--you name the perversion and forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz has probably explored it, asking questions and taking notes.
Park Elliot Dietz owns a complete set of serial killer trading cards. He keeps them--the Jeffrey Dahmer card on top--in a wall-length display case in the study of his house. There's other stuff here. Antiquarian texts on criminology and psychiatry, among them a goatskin-bound first edition of the earliest published work on forensic medicine, written in the early 1600s by the papal physician Paolo Zacchia. Trophies from shooting matches. Insignia from law enforcement agencies. Miniatures from Paris, including one of French serial killer Henri Landru, "the Bluebeard of Paris," who stands, dressed in a black frock coat and holding a handsaw, beside a little washtub filled with the blood and severed limbs of his latest victim. Atop a book rests a human skull, named Arbutus, which has been in the Dietz family for three generations; family lore identifies it as the skull of an executed criminal, but its present owner is skeptical.
These objects are tokens of Dietz's extraordinary interests and uncommon professional life. Dietz (MD and MPH '75, PhD '84) is one of the country's most prominent and accomplished forensic psychiatrists. As a researcher, consultant, and expert witness, he applies psychiatric knowledge to legal problems and issues of crime and public safety. He has testified as an expert witness at the murder trials of John Hinckley Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, Betty Broderick, Arthur Shawcross, and Joel Rifkin. He has consulted for the FBI, the CIA, U.S. attorneys general offices from Miami to Honolulu, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, the U.S. military services, the Department of Justice, and more than 120 corporations. He has investigated the behavior of serial killers, family annihilators, sexual sadists, celebrity stalkers, product tamperers, cannibals, necro-philiacs, and the sort of folks who show up at a workplace one day and gun down five people with an assault rifle. The human soul has a lot of dark, infested alleyways, and Park Dietz has walked down most of them, asking questions and taking notes.
People who have worked with him in the courtroom reach for absolutes to praise him. When Houston attorney Roy W. Moore's partner was falsely accused of sexual harassment, Moore retained Dietz. Says Moore, "He was as fabulous in his presentation as any expert I've ever seen in my life. His memory must be unbelievable. The guy cross-examining him was good, and Park just ate him alive."
Dietz almost always appears in court as a witness for the prosecution. Defense attorneys have sniped at him in the press for being a hired gun, who for $300 an hour will walk into a courtroom and convince a jury of whatever the prosecution wants him to say. Roy Moore counters, "I think our insurance company paid him $50,000. But for $500,000 I don't think we could have gotten him to say anything he didn't believe." Some forensic psychiatrists question the way he presents information to a jury; they say he portrays mere informed opinion as solid fact, and that his standard of criminal responsibility is harsh and unforgiving of mentally ill defendants. But even Jeffrey Dahmer's attorney, after watching Dietz shred Dahmer's insanity defense, was quoted as saying, "Dr. Dietz, in my opinion, is extraordinarily first rate. I have the utmost respect for him."
Dietz is part medical examiner, part private detective, part scholar of the bizarre. In interviewing Jeffrey Dahmer, he discussed dismemberment techniques and the right temperature for preserving body parts. To collect information for litigation against Soldier of Fortune magazine, he attended a weapons demonstration in the desert with some of its heavily armed readers, who despite his name tag didn't realize who he was when they expressed their desire to kill "those sons of bitches who are suing the magazine." To gather data about sexual bondage practices, he interviewed New York prostitutes and inventoried sex shops in Times Square. In one porn parlor he had to memorize a tabulation of the magazines for sale, then duck into a peep show booth to write down the data; he'd already seen the shop owner cane one customer who had annoyed him. Among the scholarly articles listed on his curriculum vitae are "Compliant Victims of the Sexual Sadist," "Mass, Serial, and Sensational Homicides," and "Murder at Work."
Some magazine and newspaper articles about Dietz have drawn a portrait of a stern, clinical, law-and-order man who is also something of a spook. In person, once he relaxes, Dietz turns out to be funny and possessed of a mischievous streak, a man who loves the music of Carlos Santana and drives around town with rock-and-roll pounding from his car radio. He evinces more of a physician's compassion for the mentally disordered than one might expect after reading some of the news accounts of his trial appearances. What is most striking about him is his deep intellectual fascination with the perverse. "What I don't understand is why everybody doesn't want to do what I do," he says. "I spend my time with sex and violence. What could be better than trying to understand such interesting things?"
The door to the suite of offices in Newport Beach, California, occupied by Dietz and his associates is unmarked and locked. The address on his stationery is not the address of this office, but of a mail drop. Dietz's occupation involves him with dangerous people. Certain precautions come with the territory.
Dietz strides into the suite's conference room dressed for a day at the office in khaki shorts, boat shoes, and a navy blue Ralph Lauren polo shirt. He's 46 years old, broad-chested and vigorous looking, with only a few extra middle-age pounds around the waist; later, for lunch at the Hard Rock Caf‚, he will order fajitas and decline the sour cream and guacamole. He quit smoking four years ago, and now reaches for nicotine gum instead of a cigarette; he's a chain chewer. His hair has receded a little and has strands of gray, and there are pouches under his blue wide-set eyes, especially when he's tired. But when he's excited or amused, his face seems to lose 10 years. Whenever he concentrates to explain something in his precise, measured manner, his eyebrows arch into little tents. In his office, among the books and papers, are several pictures of his son and his wife, Laura, who in photos bears a passing resemblance to Tipper Gore.
That Dietz is a forensic psychiatrist is one part obedience to his father and one part rebellion. He grew up in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, and evidence of his drive surfaced at an early age. In the fourth grade, a teacher sent home a note that said he was so poorly coordinated his parents should have him checked by a neurologist. Furious, Dietz learned to play the drums just to prove the teacher wrong, and by age 12 he was performing professionally in local rock-and-roll and soul bands.
He was intrigued by the many different cliques in town and at school. "I always felt that I had access to each social group--the jocks, the preppies (which I was perceived as being), the nerds, and the delinquents, who accepted me because of my drumming and because I started smoking fairly early," he says. "I would drift from group to group throughout the day. I felt like an anthropologist, though I didn't know what an anthropologist was yet."
He describes his late mother, Marjorie Betty Dietz, a nurse by training, as "a lovely, generous, loving woman." He remembers that when he was in the sixth or seventh grade she would organize parties for the patients at a mental institution in nearby Harrisburg, where she volunteered. He would come along and dance with the mentally ill women. He states plainly that his father, who resides near him now in California, was not easy to live with--"a man who was impossible to please, and still is." A physician and the son of a physician (it was Grandfather Dietz who acquired Arbutus the skull), Raymond Dietz made it clear he expected Park, his only offspring, to practice medicine. He would pass photographs of surgical procedures across the dinner table when Park was a boy. All of Raymond's heroes were physicians at Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, or Johns Hopkins. "It looked like the way to earn my father's respect," says the younger Dietz, "was to be a physician at one of those places."
He entered Cornell in 1966 as a dual major in psychology and biology. He says he would call home from Ithaca and his father would ask, "What were your achievements this week?" Dietz would dutifully recite them, and then his father would say, "Is that all?" It wasn't until many years later that Dietz learned this question was not an expression of disappointment. Raymond was secretly writing down each item so he could brag about his son to colleagues. "Is that all?" was his way of making sure he'd noted everything for that week.
Park Dietz's fascination with deviant behavior as an academic subject began in his sophomore year, with a course listed in the Cornell catalog as Sociology of Deviance but known around campus as "Nuts & Sluts," and it was confirmed in 1969, when he came across a book in the Cornell bookstore titled Forensic Medicine. The book was by Keith Simpson, professor of forensic medicine at Guy's Hospital in London, and it captivated Dietz: "The paper smelled weird, the pictures were bizarre, and I read everything but the toxicology reports." He began to wonder why people would do the things recounted in the book, things like drowning a baby in a toilet, or keeping a corpse in a closet for years. Criminology beckoned.
"It was a shameful idea, that I might become a criminologist," he says. "My God, how would I ever tell my father?" He secretly wrote to the University of California at Berkeley for information on its criminology program. Asked if part of the appeal was rebellion against Raymond, Dietz thinks for a moment, then says, "Hard to assess. Probably." Before he could enroll, however, Cal Berkeley's board of regents abolished the program under pressure from then-governor Ronald Reagan. Stymied, Dietz headed to medical school.
After two years on a senatorial scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he transferred to Hopkins in 1972 for its MD-PhD program in behavioral sciences. There was no forensic psychiatry curriculum as such--the American Psychiatric Association didn't recognize forensic psychiatry as a formal subspecialty until 1992--so Dietz improvised. Faced with a public health requirement in maternal-child health, he wrote a paper on the Caesarean delivery of infants from mothers who had been injured by gunshot, electrocution, or other trauma. He exploited what he calls the "miraculous" flexibility accorded him by Hopkins registrar Mary Foy and took every forensic medicine elective he could: forensic pathology, toxicology, forensic neuropathology. He spent spare time in the autopsy labs of the Baltimore medical examiner. Daryl Matthews, who was a Hopkins medical student one year ahead of Dietz and is now professor of psychiatry at the University of Arkansas, says, "He read and saved everything. He subscribed to journals nobody else subscribed to. He was a different breed of cat."
When Dietz found a topic that interested him, he'd ignore the survey chapters in his textbook, going instead to the Welch Library to read every journal article ever written about it. He says, "With a library, I could become extremely knowledgeable about a given condition in 24 hours." One of his mentors, Jonas Rappeport, now the chief medical officer for the circuit court of Baltimore city and a Hopkins associate professor of psychiatry, recalls, "Park consumed books, consumed information. I recognized immediately that this was a very bright man with an encyclopedic mind and the capacity to do a great deal. He was indefatigable."
Dietz did a residency in psychiatry at Hopkins and in 1978, at age 29, became the youngest assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School. He also accepted an appointment as director of forensic psychiatry at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in the mistaken belief that he'd be able to conduct significant research.
When he got there, however, he found that research had to be a low priority. Dietz says he was responsible for the psychiatric evaluations of 1,000 patients per year, and that the staff at Bridgewater, over whom he had no authority, routinely beat the patients. Any time he spent doing research, or even basic administrative tasks, meant someone could not be evaluated in time to make a court deadline and would have to remain in Bridgewater, with its brutal staff, until rescheduled to appear. Dietz says, "The time it took to find a patient's records, one-half hour, kept someone else in hell for 20 days."
When staff members badly beat the son of a state representative's campaign director, Dietz thought he finally had a chance to bring political pressure to bear on the hospital's superintendent. He assembled a group of like-minded colleagues for the campaign director's first visit, sure that when she saw what had happened to her son, she'd listen to their reports and use her clout to force reform. To his astonishment and disgust, when the woman saw her son's battered face, Dietz says her first words were, "It's about time somebody gave that son of a bitch what he deserves." Dietz quit Bridgewater in 1980.
In 1982 he left Harvard to become an associate professor at the University of Virginia, in both the schools of law and of medicine. The year before, he had testified for the prosecution at the trial of John Hinckley Jr., Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin. The prosecution lost--the jury found Hinckley not guilty by reason of insanity--but Dietz's work attracted attention within the legal community. He began to get more requests for his services as a consultant and expert witness, and the FBI started to turn to him for the expertise he'd been developing for more than a decade. "My days as a full-time faculty member were numbered," he says. In 1988, he headed west on sabbatical with Virginia's agreement that he would not return. He's lived in Southern California ever since.
The windows of Dietz's office look out over palm trees and some very expensive cars in the parking lot. Seated beside his computer with a stack of phone messages on the desk before him, he leans back in his chair to discuss one of his favorite topics: serial killers. His expertise covers a wide range of criminal behavior and deviance, but if the public knows him for anything, it's as the man who convinces juries that serial killers should be held accountable for their crimes, not acquitted on grounds of insanity.
The earliest documented acquittal for insanity occurred in 1505, and the concept was around at least as early as the 13th century, when the jurist Bracton wrote, "For a crime is not committed unless the will to harm be present." People look at someone like Joel Rifkin, who killed 16 women in New York and sometimes drove around in his truck with the naked corpse of one of his victims straddling him, and they want to believe only a psychopath could do such a thing.
Dietz offers the parallel of villagers centuries ago who find a horribly mutilated corpse, with human tracks in the snow around it. "Do they conclude a man did this?" Dietz asks. "No. It had to be a man-beast. Hence the vampire. Hence the werewolf. Other times and places: Would a man do this? No. Only a witch. Only Satan. In our time: Would a man do this? No. Only an insane person would do this." He recalls successive classes at Virginia in which his students observed interviews with two killers. One, who had murdered his mother with a hatchet, laughed throughout the interview; he kept staring at the ceiling and rubbing his crotch. He was clearly crazy and the students seemed jovial and unconcerned after the interview. The second session, though, was with a man who had raped, sodomized, and strangled a 12-year-old girl, leaving her body with a stick jammed into the vagina. This killer seemed rational and composed. He was the students' age, and he dressed like them and looked like them. The students emerged from that interview, Dietz says, badly shaken: "If it looks too much like us, it's intolerable."
Dietz, however, believes that many serial killers, though genuinely disordered, are in control of themselves when they kill and are thus legally responsible. They are not psychotic: they know what they're doing, they know it's wrong, and they could stop themselves if they wanted. They are like other criminals, he says: "What makes people willing to commit offenses for sexual arousal is exactly the same thing that makes people who want more money willing to commit robbery." They rationalize their crimes, he says, or feel entitled to trample others for their personal gain.
Jeffrey Dahmer offers a classic example. Dahmer was a one-man shop of horrors. He had killed 17 young men in Wisconsin. He'd eaten some of his victims' muscle tissue. He had once tried to dig up a corpse to have sex with it. Attempting to create zombies for his sexual gratification, he'd drilled holes in the heads of some of his victims, while they were unconscious but still alive, and tried to inject mild acid or boiling water into their skulls with a turkey baster.
All of which, according to Dietz, indicates that Dahmer is a paraphilic, what used to be called a sexual deviant or a pervert. It does not indicate he is a psychotic. Dietz says, "All that the paraphilia, a sexual perversion, does is describe what gives the person an erection. [Perversion is] about what he desires, not about how strongly he desires it or whether he can control himself. Paraphilics can't help what gives them erections. What they can help is what they do about it. Paraphilics can all masturbate to fantasy." Dietz reaches for another piece of his nicotine gum. "If I can chew this shit to satisfy the physical response [to nicotine], a paraphilic can go into the bathroom and masturbate."
How Dietz made this case before the Dahmer jury is a good example of his method. He is renowned for his preparation. Says Roger M. Adelman, who was a prosecutor on the Hinckley case and is now in private practice with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart in Washington, "Thorough is not the word for him. He knows a case." Dietz interviewed Dahmer for a total of 18 hours. He says he found the killer personable, pleasant to talk to, and thoroughly cooperative; some of their conversations were a sort of expert-to-expert exchange about things like strangulation. Dietz read hundreds of pages of police reports; transcripts of interviews with Dahmer's family, friends, and co-workers; and medical reports. He went to the apartment building where Dahmer committed his last string of murders. He observed the places where Dahmer had cruised for victims. Then, his homework done, Dietz took the stand in a Milwaukee courtroom.
Watching a videotape of the Dahmer trial, one can glimpse what makes Dietz an effective witness. Other experts addressed their answers to the attorney who had asked the question; Dietz was careful to turn in his seat and address the jury. He spoke in great detail, entirely from memory. "When I'm in the witness box," he says, "I'm in a state of extreme focus." Says Adelman, "It's very impressive to the jury to have mastery of the case."
In his testimony, Dietz avoided jargon, framing his explanations in everyday terms. At one point, to explain the difference between a compulsion and a desire, he smiled and used a homey example of his son's behavior. The boy constantly bugs his parents to take him to baseball card shows. Said Dietz in testimony, "Some people might describe that as a compulsion. Psychologically, it's not. It's just something he would like to do."
Then Dietz carefully took the jury through the medical definition of psychosis, detailing the symptoms and noting that Dahmer did not exhibit any of them. He explained that the defendant, though mentally disordered due to paraphilias, alcoholism, and personality disorders, was not legally insane under the strict terms of Wisconsin's statutes. Dahmer had known his actions were wrong, known he had to conceal them, and committed the crimes anyway, Dietz testified. As evidence, the psychiatrist recounted his interview with Dahmer, in which Dahmer said of killing, "Yeah, I always had that sense it was wrong. I don't think anybody can kill somebody and think that it's right." When Dietz had asked him if he had to drink before he could kill, Dahmer had replied, "Mmm-hmm. And it always worked."
The jury bought it and convicted Dahmer on all counts. One of the defense's psychiatric experts was Fred S. Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at Hopkins. He says, "As a physician I have a difficult time with the idea that Mr. Dahmer is not a disordered individual." Dietz responds that he too considers Dahmer disordered, but that there's no clinical evidence to support the idea that Dahmer's paraphilias caused him to kill.
Says Berlin of Dietz, "He has a high threshold for evidence that tends to suggest impairment. A narrow range for what he defines as psychiatric disorder." Dietz replies, "My threshold for finding impairment is the threshold taught to me by Paul McHugh at Hopkins. I draw a crisp line between psychotic mental illness and other disorders such as pedophilia or anti-social personality disorder." Berlin likes to tell the story of a friend, a prosecutor, who after hearing the Dahmer verdict said, "How many people do you have to eat in Milwaukee before they conclude you're mentally ill?" Dietz smiles at the joke, but doesn't budge from his position that paraphilics, pedophiles, and other disordered people are neither intrinsically psychotic nor compelled by their conditions to murder people.
Dietz is known for stringent analysis of the facts of a case and an avoidance of opinion when on the witness stand. Says Roger Adelman, "One of the things he has brought to forensic psychiatry is a focus on the facts. He's as much an investigator of the facts as an investigator of the mind." In the 1993 case of Kenneth Seguin, who had killed his wife and children, the defendant tried to plead that he had committed the murders under the psychotic delusion that they were in great danger and would be safe only in heaven. Dietz took the jury through the evidence, pointing out Seguin's careful preparation: how Seguin had been careful to transfer the murder weapon, a razor, to the pants he would be wearing on the night he committed the crime, and how he had waited for his wife to leave the house before taking the kids away to cut their throats. Dietz recounted a damning sequence of actions that suggested not someone in the grip of psychotic delusion, but a murderer carefully planning his crime. The jury convicted Seguin.
Though Dietz still testifies at criminal trials, other things crowd his schedule these days. In 1987, he formed the Threat Assessment Group (TAG), a company that helps corporations, organizations, and individuals deal with stalkers, violent employees, product tamperers, and other menaces. TAG filled a psychological need for Dietz. Several years ago he realized that much of his work in civil and criminal cases was, as he put it, "after the injury." Something bad had already happened by the time he was called in. He says, "The social utility of it all started to concern me. Through TAG I've been able to reverse that, to take the same skills and knowledge and apply them before the crime."
Business has been good lately. He has lectured at Dow Chemical, IBM, Kraft Foods, 3M, General Electric, Motorola, and Paramount Studios. He recently came to CIA headquarters in Virginia to conduct a seminar on workplace violence for several federal agencies. He was bemused to learn that only one organization had not responded to an invitation to take part: the Post Office, which has had several highly publicized incidents of workplace violence in recent years.
He is also bemused by his new role of successful entrepreneur. The man who used to spend his time studying and interviewing sexual sadists, serial killers, and bondage prostitutes now flies around the country to speak to the people who direct Fortune 500 companies. "I'm having dinner with CEOs," he says, his voice tinged with surprise. "I used to dance with mental patients."
One aspect of TAG's business is advising celebrities on how to cope with stalkers, an almost inevitable problem for any public figure. In his office, Dietz reaches for the telephone to work on a new case. Before lunch he had received a call from the manager of a young entertainer in a touring theatrical show. The manager was worried about a fan, call him John, who had taken what seemed to be an abnormal interest in his client. John had started with fan mail. Then he had sent money, once somehow depositing it directly into the performer's bank account. Alarmed, the manager had contacted John (a mistake according to Dietz) and learned that he had begun to travel from his home in a mid-Atlantic state to some of the entertainer's performances. He had shown up in four cities around the country so far. Now John was coming all the way to Los Angeles for the weekend shows.
From his research into stalkers, Dietz knows that a fan graduates from nuisance to threat once he or she goes beyond simple correspondence to attempts at personal contact. To deal with John, Dietz calls a Hollywood security consultant he knows and refers the case to him. He tells the consultant that he believes John has formed a romantic attachment to the star and needs to be watched. Dietz and the consultant discuss strategy, deciding the best thing is to keep John under surveillance while he's in Los Angeles and at the show. The manager had already arranged to take him to dinner and sit next to him at the performance. Dietz suggests that the manager prevent any effort to get backstage by giving John a note from the star apologizing for not being able to meet him, but asking him to describe the show in a letter. What Dietz hopes to do is to wean John from traveling and get him back to simply sending fan mail. If it works, Dietz says, John may eventually lose interest, probably because he'll find a new target for his attentions.
The security measures at Dietz's office stem, in part, from threats he has had from his own stalkers. His problems all derive from his own celebrity status; no one he has helped convict of crimes has ever bothered him. He says, "When I deal with dangerous people [in psychiatric interviews], I'll tell them to their face what I think. It's respectful, and they know I'm doing my job, and if they want to take a swing at me they can do it. They don't have to wait until later."
Promotional material for an audiotape Dietz produced to counsel psychiatrists on how to deal with dangerous patients summarizes his advice: "For forensic psychiatrists, keep name out of newspapers, never appear on television, and avoid dealing with survivalists, neo-Nazis, motorcycle gangs, and child custody cases." He has violated much of his own advice, and his press and television appearances have attracted the wrong sort of attention. There is a man who has threatened Dietz's family because he's convinced Dietz once used him as a research subject (not so, says Dietz). There's another man who, after the Dahmer trial, claimed he was doing the same things Dahmer had done and dared Dietz to catch him. There's a woman who says that only Dietz can prevent her from killing a child; she recently sent him a nude photograph of herself.
Because of these and other threatening people, Dietz does not allow journalists to reveal the location of his house, or to describe or name his son. He says, "One makes oneself hard to find, and makes oneself less vulnerable if found." He carries a gun, at least part of the time, and is an accomplished competitive shooter. When he comes and goes from his office, he is alert. He does not park next to vans, especially utility vans that have no side windows, because they are a vehicle of choice for abductors.
None of this stops Dietz from sticking his neck out now and then, sometimes just for fun. Within the cool, clinical scholar and expert witness there beats a rock-and-roll heart. The boy who liked hanging out with the juvenile delinquents in a Pennsylvania schoolyard has become the man who gets a kick out of pushing his luck if there's a chance for some real fun.
For example, he enjoys a sort of recreational antagonism with the founder and publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine, Colonel Robert Brown. Soldier of Fortune publishes articles about weapons, military affairs, and mercenary soldiers. In its earlier years it had also published classified ads in which "adventurers" advertised their availability for "special assignments." One such adventurer committed a murder-for-hire, and the victim's family sued the magazine because the killer had been hired through one of its ads. When the suit came to trial, Dietz, who had been retained by the plaintiffs, presented to the jury the results of a study he'd done. He had examined every classified ad ever published by the magazine, 18,000 of them, and searched a database for criminal cases involving people who had placed or responded to those ads. He turned up five murders for hire, a dozen attempted murders and conspiracies to commit murder, three prison breakouts, a kidnapping, a bombing, and a poisoning. Dietz's testimony helped convince a jury to award $9.4 million to the plaintiffs (an appeals court later overturned the judgment on a technicality). It also incurred the wrath of Colonel Brown.
It so happens that Soldier of Fortune sponsors one of the world's most prestigious combat shooting competitions, and last year Dietz decided it would be fun to enter. He did so, pre-registering under his real name, and when he arrived at the registration desk for the competition, the man taking the forms said, "Oh, Dr. Dietz. The Colonel is expecting you."
Brown confronted him and launched into a withering tirade as a group of men in camouflage clothing surrounded Dietz. "I felt like I was back in Bridgewater," he recalls, chuckling. He says he let Brown have his say, then calmly told him he'd be honored if the Colonel would let him take part in his shooting competition. Brown wouldn't stand for that, but according to Dietz he did calm down and they ended up having a civil conversation. Brown said he'd consider letting Dietz shoot in next year's event, provided he was there just to shoot, not to gather more data for another lawsuit.
As he tells this story, Dietz is obviously delighted. "I'm risk averse," he insists. "I don't race motorcycles and I fasten my seatbelt." Then he grins. "But it would be so fucking cool to have Bob Brown give me a trophy."
At his house after work, Dietz turns on the television for the local news. What appears on the screen is a report from Northridge, California, of body parts found in a box stashed in a self-service storage facility. "Here we go," Dietz says, watching the screen. When the report is over, he turns and says, "I guarantee you that when they catch the guy and interview him, they'll find out he's watched The Silence of the Lambs." (The popular movie about a serial killer includes a scene in which body parts turn up in a rented locker.)
Dietz takes the popular media and their effects on behavior seriously. He believes that slasher movies, violent television programs, and news reports--especially television news reports--contribute to American society's problems with serial killers, sexual sadists, stalkers, and product tamperers.
When he studied material collected by the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography, of which he was a member in 1985-86, Dietz became concerned not about the sexual content of pornography but about its violent imagery. The public should stop worrying about nudity, he believes, and concentrate on how often movies, television programs, and magazines combine images of violence with images of sex. He acknowledges that some people turn to sadism after suffering sadistic abuse as children. But for others, he says, a deadly seed is planted by violent imagery, seen at a formative age, most often on television and in movies. Dietz is convinced that a vulnerable youngster may watch a sexy slasher movie and become conditioned to sexual arousal through such images. When that boy becomes a man in his 20s or 30s, society runs the risk that he will seek sexual gratification through actual, not fantasized, brutality.
"The system could not be better designed to create a nation with so many sexual homicides," Dietz says. "We pay for tickets to have this done to our children, and that amazes me." He says he wouldn't mind if every teenaged boy in America received a subscription to Playboy, and he's only partly kidding: "While they masturbated, they would be looking at attractive naked female bodies, instead of eviscerated female bodies."
He concedes that he has no quantitative research to back his assertions about sex and violence in the media, but he dismisses studies that claim to find no link between portrayed and actual violence. Too much of this research, he claims, is funded by the companies that profit from the media in question. Besides, he says, a typical study of the effects of violent imagery uses psychology students as test subjects, screening out those with psychological abnormalities--but the responses of normal people to such stimuli are not the issue. Psychologically normal people watch enactments of sex and violence, then go about their normal lives. It's the psychologically abnormal who respond adversely. "If you want to do a scientifically meaningful study," Dietz says, "show Body Double to a group of sexual psychopaths the day before you release them."
What has convinced him he's right are the number of cases he's worked on in which sexual murder, murder with torture, product tampering, carjacking, or workplace violence was inspired, instructed, or otherwise influenced by mass media. After Jamie Wilson shot up a schoolyard in Greenville, South Carolina, Dietz says, police found in his pocket a tattered newspaper clipping about a similar crime in Winnetka, Illinois. Serial murderer Joel Rifkin explained to Dietz how he'd re-enacted-- with live victims--a strangulation scene from the Hitchcock film Frenzy. Jeffrey Dahmer had tried to recreate a sequence from a low-budget slasher movie called Hellbent Hellraisers II, in which a victim is hung and skinned.
"Every time Body Double is on TV, there are sexual psychopaths in the audience," Dietz says. "Every time the news covers a workplace mass murder, there are people who have already bought the gun and say, 'Yeah, that's the way out of my dilemma.'"
During the testimony of film industry executive Jack Valenti before the pornography commission, Dietz suggested a "detumescence period" in movies, a five- or 10-minute interval between sexy scenes and violent scenes, so that violent imagery and sexual arousal do not occur simultaneously. He does not favor government regulation of film or television content, but he does favor litigation to force studios and other purveyors of mass media to regulate themselves: "I think the entertainment industry should be liable for the harm it does, like any other industry. Hollywood gains market share and doesn't pay a penny in compensation for the harm it does." He's watching for attempted bombings in imitation of the recent movies Speed and Blown Away. When his visitor informs him that Tom Cruise will be starring in the film version of the bloody, sexy novel Interview with a Vampire, Dietz closes his eyes and says, "Oh, shit."
He also asserts that the United States is exporting sexual violence to other countries through international distribution of Hollywood films. With regard to Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union, he says he has predicted, and is beginning to see, a pattern of increased serial killing and sexual murder 15 to 20 years after those countries began importing American-made slasher films. The interval between the advent of the movies and the spurt in crime matches the period between when a vulnerable boy might view such material and when he becomes best able to commit sexual homicides.
At the end of the day, Dietz sits on the sofa in his house. He has hugged his son good-night, and now is pondering a question about the price he's paid for his work. "Youth," he says. "I didn't have a youth." He explains that from his sophomore year at Cornell on, he has done little but work obsessively. He recalls one of his teachers at Hopkins, Richard Rubin (now a psychologist on the Hopkins affiliate staff), telling him that the people who succeed are the ones who are smart, can communicate well, and work twice as hard as everybody else. Dietz took that advice to heart. When he wants to do something with his family, he says, he doesn't take time out from work, he takes time out from sleep.
Asked if he still labors this hard to gain his father's approval, he shakes his head and says, "No, I can't pin it on him anymore." Whenever he contemplates reducing his workload, he says, he gets a call from someone else who is scared and needs help. Or he finds something new that proves irresistible to study, in exhaustive detail. "This is where I see myself as disabled--in my inability to say no to sufficiently intriguing tasks," he says.
One comes away from a long conversation with Park Dietz wondering what it takes to disengage that formidable analytic intelligence and cause him to recoil in horror. One answer is audio tapes; some serial killers record the torture of their victims, and Dietz finds these tapes hard to bear. But something in him still has to know why a human being would do such an awful thing. And he knows that because of his work, some people will be prevented from doing such things to new victims.
Gazing out at the California night, he says, "I've been very lucky. I get to use everything I've got, often in events that matter, where I get to make a difference." He stretches out his legs and adds, "It doesn't get any better than that."
Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.
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