- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

CHICAGO — The television cast an eerie glow in the dingy motel room, but the doctor wasn’t watching. She was waiting impatiently for an important call — one that would tell her that the killer was deadAbout 3 a.m., word came: John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who prowled the Chicago streets preying on lonely runaways and murdered 33 young men and boys, had been executed.

Dr. Helen Morrison headed out to a nearby hospital, where she donned scrubs and latex gloves to assist in Gacy’s autopsy.

For Dr. Morrison, it was a strange final chapter to her 14-year history with the clown turned killer. The forensic psychiatrist had interviewed Gacy many times, listening to his rants, raves, lies, boasts, explanations and evasions.

Now she was back for something else: Gacy’s brain.

Dr. Morrison had made arrangements to have the brain examined in the name of science to see whether there was anything — tumors, scars, disease — that made it abnormal.

When the autopsy was finished, Dr. Morrison drove home with Gacy’s brain in a glass jar on the passenger seat of her Buick.

It took several calls to find a pathologist who would do the tests, and a few weeks later, an envelope arrived at her office. She had awaited the findings eagerly, but was not surprised by the summary:

“Just one simple line,” she says. “Normal brain.”

For nearly 30 years, Dr. Morrison has probed the brains of serial killers — although, until Gacy, she had never held one in her hands.

From the sweaty walls of a Brazilian jail to a bleak, fortresslike, century-old prison near the Mississippi River, Dr. Morrison has logged thousands of hours interviewing and studying some of the most terrifying criminals.

There is much she has learned, but much more still to explore.

“What makes a serial killer? After all these years, I still don’t know,” she says. “We try to give them motives, but they don’t have any. They just do it.”

Dr. Morrison, who tells her story in a new memoir, “My Life Among the Serial Killers,” written with Harold Goldberg, has interviewed or studied more than 80 of these murderers.

She also has spoken with their relatives, read their diaries, exchanged correspondence, consulted with their attorneys, examined photos of victims and, in Gacy’s case, collected some of his prison art.

She has found what she calls “a cookie-cutter syndrome,” a striking similarity in serial killers: They tend to be hypochondriacs and chatty, remorseless men who are addicted to the most brutal acts — stabbings, strangulation, rape — and they see their victims as inanimate objects.

“You say to yourself, ‘How could anybody do this to another human being?’” she asks. “Then you realize they don’t see them as humans.”

These killers, she says, have recounted details of horrendous crimes to her as calmly as if they were reciting grocery lists.

Among those she has interviewed: Ed Gein, the inspiration for the movie, “Psycho,” a grave robber turned killer who fashioned his Wisconsin farmhouse into a human butcher shop; Robert Berdella, a Kansas City man who tortured and drugged his captives; Bobby Joe Long, a Florida sexual predator.

She also has studied serial killers from hundreds of years ago.

On the surface, serial killers, who are almost always men, can appear normal, affable, even charming — up to a point.

“They are so garrulous,” she says. “They are so capable of going on and on until they start breaking down. … It’s like cracking open an egg and finding a yolk that’s already broken. There’s no white and yellow. It’s all the same.”

Dr. Morrison thinks serial killers can’t be rehabilitated, and if set free, they surely would commit more murders. She supports the death penalty.

She also doesn’t see a sexual motivation in their crimes, thinking they stop developing psychologically as infants. Some other analysts disagree with her theories, saying serial killers aren’t all alike, they have motives and their sexuality is closely intertwined with their violence.

Dr. Morrison’s first step into this dark world came as a young doctor in the late 1970s when she met Richard Macek, a suspect in several brutal killings of women in Illinois and Wisconsin. Newspapers dubbed him “The Mad Biter” because of the bite marks left on his victims. In a bizarre twist, he had his teeth pulled before being arrested.

Entering the prison, Dr. Morrison expected to find a menacing, wild-eyed hulk. Instead, she was greeted by a baby-faced, exceedingly polite man who acted as if she had stopped by for a friendly chat over coffee.

Yet there was something so chilling, so empty about him.

“I’d never seen a person who had absolutely no humanity,” she says.

Macek, she says, flirted with her and taunted her, once tracking her down by phone at her motel the night before a visit and telling her he was standing outside. He was not. She has no idea how he found her.

Nor does she know how Gacy got her home address and, she says, sent her a handmade, crayon-colored Christmas card before she ever met him, with a warped inscription: “Peace on earth. Good will to men … and boys.”

“They all seem to have the capacity to find out information,” Dr. Morrison says. It’s one reason she says she didn’t name her husband, a neurosurgeon, or their two sons, 10 and 17, in her book.

For those who think that a serial killer is someone like the fictional Hannibal Lecter, the erudite, Chianti-drinking, fava-bean-eating cannibal in the film “Silence of the Lambs,” Dr. Morrison says forget it.

“He may be educated, he may be suave, he may look debonair,” she says, “but he doesn’t hold it together like that.”

Dr. Morrison still has Gacy’s brain, although she won’t say exactly where she keeps it.

She stores it in a plastic bag and hopes that one day DNA or other scientific advances will lead to new tests.

The question of why people do such terrible, inhuman things is as intriguing to her as it was when she began asking it.

“Is there an answer? Not yet,” she says. “There is no answer at all. I think that’s what keeps me going. That search for anything that could make this less of a mystery.”

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