The William Cook Interview:
The Traumatized Child: A Mind of Malice
The William Cook Interview:
The Traumatized Child: A Mind of Malice
Young Jeffrey Dahmer with Kitten
William Cook Biography
William Cook was born and raised in New Zealand and is the author of the novel ‘Blood Related.’ He has written many short stories that have appeared in anthologies and is the author of two short-story collections (‘Dreams of Thanatos’ & ‘Dark Deaths’) and two collections of poetry (‘Journey: the search for something’ & ‘Corpus Delicti’). His non-fiction work includes, Gaze Into the Abyss: The Poetry of Jim Morrison and Secrets of Best-Selling Self-Published Authors.
His work has been praised by Graham Masterton, Joe McKinney, Billie Sue Mosiman, Anna Taborska, Rocky Wood and many other notable writers and editors. William is also the editor of the anthology ‘Fresh Fear: Contemporary Horror,’ published by King Billy Publications.
You can find him online at http://williamcookwriter.com
Addendum (by Anthony Servante):
Originally, this interview was to follow "The Traumatized Child: A Malleable Mind", An Essay by Dr. Marcy Davidson in Update 6, as an antithesis to the positive goals of therapy or more as a cynical perspective, not unlike barriers to living with or overcoming trauma. But there were delays. This note accompanied the completed interview, and I realized that my exchange with William Cook had opened a personal abyss for both myself as well as William; for me, it was the nightmares that led to my questions, and for Cook, the introspection that writers of dark worlds often seek to avoid when they are not putting ink to paper. In William Cook's words: "Sincere apologies for the delay - to tell you the truth i found it very heavy-going as many of the questions forced me to dive deep into areas that I have tried to abstain from for a while now. Nevertheless it is now completed." And underneath all the words of this magnificent and magnanimous interview are glimpses of a different kind of trauma that I can only call "the erudition of madness".
The William Cook Interview
Servante: Can you tell us about your studies in serial killer history and literature?
Cook: Sure. I recently completed my Masters in English Literature via Victoria University, here in Wellington, New Zealand. It was the culmination of about twenty years’ worth of reading and research into a subject that had fascinated me since I watched Hitchcock’s movie, ‘Psycho,’ when I was a boy. The title of my thesis is Literary Serial Killer Fiction: The Evolution of a Genre and the abstract perhaps explains the focus of my interest best: this study examines the dynamics of post-war American serial killer fiction as it relates to social and literary contexts. In the context of history and development, this study considers the impact and origins of particular works and how they have influenced the stylistic and thematic evolution of a particular subgenre I have called literary serial killer fiction. Emphasis is placed on select narratives that directly (or indirectly) transform, challenge and critique the genre conventions in which they are written. Of interest is the evolution of general serial killer fiction as a postmodern phenomenon, in terms of its popularity with the reading public, and in line with the growth of media interest in representations of serial killers. I draw on literary theory (in particular, ‘new historicism’) to demonstrate that the appeal and tropes of serial killer fiction reflect socio-political interests indicative of the era from where they were produced, and to show how the subgenre of literary serial killer fiction can be categorized using its own particular set of defining features.
I examine these aspects in detail in relation to the following selection of fictional serial-killer narratives: Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, James Ellroy’s Killer on the Road, and Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. For brevity’s sake, I have selected American narrative works that employ first-person narration and are transgressive in the way they focus on characters who defy convention and push boundaries, as do the narratives within larger genre traditions and protocols. In my view, these works are the purest examples of literary serial killer fiction in that they are characteristically unlike other examples that can easily be categorised under other literary genres. The appeal and popularity of the genre, alongside the functional aspects of the trope, leads me to conclude that it is an ideal form to interact with popular cultural narratives, while also allowing subversive interplay between both real and fictional concerns. The appeal of the genre to those authors who usually write outside of it, particularly in regard to its transgressive and allegorical qualities, is also of particular interest to this study. Because of the hybrid nature of the genre and the ease with which the central trope of the fictional serial killer transcends genres, the resulting possibilities provide a transgressive outlet for authors who wish to test boundaries, in both a literary and an ontological sense, in regard to the commentary serial killer fiction allows on the state of contemporary American literature and society.
Servante: What drew you to pursue such a subject?
Cook: The subject has been of interest to me since I was a boy. A love of horror and thriller movies combined with similar genre interests in fiction seems to be the root cause of my interest in the subject matter. I have always been fascinated with the way the human mind acts (and interacts), especially in in abnormal sense. Early on, I had a rather villainous preoccupation with the outlaws and evil antiheroes that crossed over from popular culture into real life. I first became aware of the scope of human depravity after reading most of the books in my local library related to the World Wars. The material was abhorrent but none of the questions that were raised as to how and why humans would commit such atrocities were answered by these books. The next section of the library I discovered was the ‘True Crime’ section, which I was led to directly after looking for more material to explain the brutality of the war and the criminal trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg. I quickly moved on from war history to the fascinating world of Organized Crime and the charismatic psychopaths who ruled their illegal empires with ultra-violence. Crooks like Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, Lucky Luciano, John Dillinger and, of course, Bonnie and Clyde. One book in particular was a huge influence on my reading and steered me towards more literature on the subject of serial homicide and mass murder (yes, there is a difference). The book was Colin Wilson and Pat Pitman’s mammoth Encyclopaedia of Murder. I admit, as a precocious adolescent I was titillated by the gruesome descriptions and case studies. These factual accounts seemed more bizarre and fascinating than anything I had read in fictional stories. From there on, I devoured any book I could read on the subject and spent countless hours poring over the cases, especially ‘cold case’ serial murder investigations like the infamous ‘Jack the Ripper’ series of murders. As I read more, I realized that the thing which compelled me the most about these cases was the psychology of the offender and how they came to be the way they ended up. My own experiences in life began to confirm some of the things I was learning about human behavior and it was perhaps because of this understanding, the reason why I was able to avoid developing into a criminal type myself. The upbringings of many of these killers was quite similar to my own and I guess that is partly why they fascinated me and repelled me at the same time. I realized that if I did not willfully work on my character and my responses to the world around me, that I too could be languishing in some jail for a similar crime. The fine line between those who commit these acts, and those who don’t – is very fine indeed. As I grew older and began to develop my writing as a means to vent and express myself, I began to write about these characters in a fictional sense. As such, my interest in the subject matter has continued as a research tool for my own fiction in order to develop realistic characters and as fodder for story ideas.
Servante: Can you share with us your own works on serial killers?
Cook: I have written numerous short stories about serial killers and one full-length novel titled Blood Related. As mentioned above, Blood Related combined a lifelong interest in the macabre with a lot of research into true crime and serial killers. I was a bit of a weird kid admittedly and I was fascinated with death due to some early experiences where friends and family died. When I say ‘fascinated’ I don’t mean in a gleeful or deviant fashion – it was more of a curious interest borne out of fear and my sudden awareness of the fragile nature of human mortality. My interest in this morbid subject escalated after an event in my life when I was younger, whereby my best friend shot another friend of mine (his ex-girlfriend) and then killed himself. Obviously, this left a significant imprint on my mind and emotions. As a result, I began to wonder why a large percentage of humans use violence as a way of dealing with things and have a tendency towards self-destruction and nihilistic behavior. This aspect of humanity is constantly reinforced by the media and politicians, who perpetually sensationalize ‘news’ and use fear to drive political agendas. The politics of fear are very much a staple diet of news-hungry consumers who seem to relish lurid accounts of human cruelty and abuse, and (so it seems) probably the same reasons fiction is full of similar horrors.
The biggest influences on my writing of Blood Related were Colin Wilson’s ‘The Killer,’ James Ellroy’s brutal ‘Killer on the Road’ and Ann Rule’s true-crime account of Ted Bundy’s crimes in The Stranger Beside Me. I has always wanted to write a first-person novel and after six years of research and writing I finally completed Blood Related. I’m not sure that I would write another first-person fictional serial killer novel as it (the subject matter and the book) consumed my thoughts for a long time. I found it a lot more disturbing to write about psychopathic humans than I do writing tales of horror that deal with more supernatural and fantastical elements. The most frightening aspect of the whole process was how easy it was to contemplate and describe such characters and their sordid crimes. Essentially, my belief is that the human potential for violence and the subsequent interest and relativity of the topic, is what ensures that this type of literature endures as both subject material for author’s and reading material for a mass audience.
Servante: Can you distinguish antisocial behavior from sociopathic behavior for the layman?
Cook: Antisocial behavior is essentially any type of behavior that is deemed unacceptable by society. Public drunkenness, lewdness, graffiti, brawling, theft etc. are some examples. These behaviors can be associated with mitigating factors such as environment (poverty, peer pressure, addiction, learning and developmental disabilities, etc.) or nurture. However, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) is much more complex than the behaviors that these people exhibit as antisocial behavior. A basic definition of a person with ASPD is that they have a personality disorder characterized by distinctive patterns of disregard for others. They exhibit poor moral judgement and lack the ability to empathize with others and be responsible for their own behavior. A person with ASPD usually has a lengthy criminal history as a result of their impulsive and aggressive behavior.
The distinction between ASPD and sociopathic disorder is not as clear-cut, as characteristics of both disorders overlap. Much in the same way that the terms ‘sociopathic’ and ‘psychopathic’ are linked by commonalities and are often used concurrently, so too is ASPD in terms of the diagnostic criteria that make up the defining characteristics of each disorder. In this regard these disorders are synonyms of each other, in that they are used descriptively to diagnose and describe similar afflictions. When each disorder is analyzed they do indeed share common traits and diagnostic criteria, but not necessarily all of the same features. These diagnoses do not seem to address any other contributing factors which may induce symptoms and behaviors distinct and of their own origin outside of the parameters of the criteria. That is, just because someone shows a lack of remorse or exhibits antisocial behavior, does not necessarily make them a psychopath or an antisocial person. Nor does it mean that psychopaths and people with ASPD exhibit behavior in a vacuum without the influence of other contributing disorders or maladies. In my opinion, the terms are used depending on the subject’s suitability as a candidate for the diagnosis and this is inevitably dependent on the person making the diagnosis. For example, a psychologist might refer to a person as a sociopath with antisocial tendencies, whereas a journalist might refer to that same individual as a psychopath.
The generally accepted definition of a psychopath is as follows: “an individual who suffers from a chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behavior.” There are also further stages of psychopathy, including ‘criminal psychopathology’ which usually refers to people who exhibit psychopathic traits when committing criminal acts. Most serial killers, for example, are considered criminal psychopaths (especially by the FBI) who display all the hallmark traits of a sociopath, or psychopath, during and leading up to the criminal act of murder.
These definitions can best be considered as part of a venn diagram, where each criterion falls under the different definition/diagnosis, yet the shared criteria form the basis for all three disorders. The grey areas, or the criterion that don’t match indicate the influence of things which fall outside the diagnosis. A person diagnosed with ASPD or sociopathy may also have other conditions such as attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and bi-polar, to name a few, which all share traits such as impulsivity, selfishness, aggressive/destructive and antisocial behavior. As can be imagined, the line between one disorder and another can be blurred and the diagnosis of a disorder easily manipulated or misdiagnosed, hence the confusion and interchange between these terms and definitions.
With the research I have completed, my own understanding of these terms is derivative of the oft-times conflicting definitions and diagnostic criteria available. From what I have gleaned, it seems to be that ‘sociopathic behavior’ is much more subtle and usually more menacing in its deliberateness than antisocial behavior. ASPD seems to be largely a socially influenced disorder, in that the individual is responding or reacting to their environment or as a direct result of their upbringing or some developmental handicap. Unlike the majority of ‘normal’ folk, people with ASPD lack the ability to control their behavior and impulses as a result. On the other hand, people who have psychopathic tendencies are usually calculating and manipulative and covet their behavior with ease. That is, most people who have psychopathic tendencies are adept at hiding their true nature from those around them. They lie profusely and are usually intelligent enough to keep their antisocial activities under-wraps or manipulate those around them into believing they are not responsible. While most sociopathic personalities who commit violent crimes, especially murder (commonly referred to as ‘Psychopaths’), are antisocial personality types as well, not all sociopathic personalities display antisocial or violent psychopathic behavior. For example, Donald Trump displays all the hallmark traits of a sociopathic personality type – his traits include a lack of empathy or compassion, narcissistic, grandiose, untruthful, ruthless and selfish – yet he lacks the cold, calculating nature of a psychopath who is far less impulsive and more skilled at keeping his true nature hidden.
Servante: In which behavior do we find the killer instinct? Can you elaborate?
Cook: I do not actually believe that humans have an instinct for homicide, in particular. I do however believe that we are all capable of it given the right set of circumstance and that our species has an innate capability for violence. For example, someone threatens the life of your child or partner or the destruction of a group of people and you act to protect them by whatever means necessary. Given no other option (after exhausting all other options), when it comes down to ‘kill or be killed’ there are those of us who will submit to whatever fate befalls us or their kin, and then there are those of us who will fight tooth and nail to protect family and self with violence. I would suggest that those in the military services who progress beyond theory to full combat situations are of the latter ilk – that is, they have developed the ability to kill and are not afraid to do so in certain situations. First responders such as police and armed tactical response units, also face these life threatening situations all the time and (usually) act accordingly; that is, an extreme response is carried out for the greater good of the public. In this regard, humans have the ability to learn to kill effectively, especially when sanctioned by their peers and governmental agencies. In these instance, these individuals have been nurtured or trained to use aggression and violence to dominate in order to achieve a set goal. If they had not been trained and then thrust into a situation or set of circumstances such as combat or scenario-based events that they have been specifically trained how to respond to, it is unlikely that these people would have ever taken another person’s life in a civilian role.
In the case of people who commit multiple acts of homicide, we might think that they possess a ‘killer instinct’ because they have murdered more than once and seem to have no qualms about it. One characteristic of many serial killers is that their first murder is usually not premeditated – it is either a crime of passion or rage, or a crime of opportunity that presents itself at a particular moment when the killer’s actions and impulses are seemingly beyond their control; e.g. they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or they over-react (violently) to a situation without thought of the consequences etc. Many serial killers (indeed, the majority of) have first experienced the act of killing in scenario-based situations via military training. Many serial killers that have seen combat have had their first kills on the battle-field, or have witnessed extreme violence in these circumstance.
The old adage, ‘the first cut is the deepest’ seems an apt description of the initial kill that paves the way for repeat offences committed by serial killers. In other words, once a murderer, always a murderer – it cannot be undone. The serial killer realizes that all hope is lost with the first kill and that whatever moral basis for their own lives might have been before the act, is now gone. The first murder seems to be the most difficult for serial killers in that the ‘cooling down’ period is usually longest between the first and second murders. For some, the first murder satiates their fantasies to the point where they feed off the memory of the act until it no longer satisfies their deviance and they feel they have to kill again to feed their fantasies (The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, apparently waited eight years in between murders before starting to kill again). Others seem to merely wait until they feel that the ‘coast is clear’ and that their crime has either gone undetected, or that suspicion has been averted, allowing them to commit another murder for whatever reason (e.g. sexual homicide, murder for financial gain, murder for notoriety, etc.). For serial killers, the murders that follow are typically variations on a theme. They perfect the experience dependent on the influence of their selfish desires, impulses and fantasies and the responses to their crimes. In this respect they get better or more proficient at killing and concealing the crimes as the experience becomes a bigger part of their daily lives. Often their control is reduced as their violence escalates in line with the increase in their thoughts and behaviors, exhibited in more bizarre deviant practices with their victims and the crime scenes. Most serial killers seem to be unable to control the impulse (rather than instinct) to murder, once they have welded their fantasy lives to the act of killing. Similar in some respects to adrenaline junkies who chase excitement in the act of sky-diving or extreme sports, the adrenal drive becomes synonymous with pleasure and escalating behavior patterns.
In this regard, the serial killer differs from others who commit single murders because they accept their fate and hold on to the act of murder as the most significant event in their otherwise meaningless lives and go on to repeat it over and over again. Rather than be disgusted and repelled by their behavior, they seem to acknowledge the act of murder as a defining moment in their existence. Almost as if the act of murder is a pinnacle of all their conflicted emotions and past experiences, culminating in a release of rage, anger, fantasy, drive and, ultimately, self-expression and power. The committal of what is considered by most societies as the ‘ultimate sin,’ becomes an act of rebellion against that society and, essentially, a defiant expression of power that the killer has not been able to exhibit up until that moment. Many serial killers covet these initial crimes due to conflicting emotions and societal expectations of ‘right and wrong’ – even for psychopaths who have no discernible conscience, they understand that what they have done is morally wrong (to ‘normal’ members of society) and that they need to distance themselves from their crimes in order to escape legal and social justice.
As far as the ‘survival of the fittest’ and the instinct for violence that the concept suggests, humans are at the top of the food chain in terms of their ability to dominate other species with violence. Yet this ability to commit atrocities against fellow humans and other species seems to present itself in the majority of people, only when the right circumstances are present. The question of ‘nature versus nurture’ is often referred to in discussions concerning motivation for violent crime, in particular homicide. In my opinion, it is rather a moot point in that it has no bearing on why the person actually commits murder, rather it posits a theory of culpability that offers no firm conclusions as to whether or not humans are hard-wired for murder. Murder, especially serial homicide is far more complex and complicated than an A/B quotient that does not allow for ‘grey areas’ or combinations of reason and circumstance. For example, the influence of free will on human action, or the degree to which the mind can manipulate reality with fantasy and obsessive thought patterns. The ability of humans to determine their own behaviors is what separates us from any instinct to kill that we may have buried deep inside us. Whether due to social conditioning or biological predisposition, human willpower far outweighs and indeed governs our violent impulses within our modern society. However, as outlined above, given the right circumstances (and in most cases with the right training – learned behavior included) we all have the ability to react violently, even murderously. Serial killers almost seem to possess a greater ‘will to power’ than the rest of us who use our will power to keep our behavior (and, perhaps, instincts) in check. What appears to be an instinct in these multiple-murderers, is more likely an ability to willfully determine their behavior without moral code, in order to satisfy selfish fantasies and express their outrage at society with acts of murder that are as perhaps nothing more than abhorrent displays of power the human capacity for violence.
Servante: A writer who tells stories of mass murderers--how does he differ from the real killer?
Cook: Um, they write, they don’t kill. The difference should be obvious, really. Although the moral imperative behind both acts is uncannily similar in most regards. The writer, much like the killer, plans ahead and seeks to produce an aesthetic act or piece of work that will cause public reaction. The moral aspect of writing about violence and horrific and inhumane acts is worth considering too. I am sure that the majority of authors who pen ultra-violent stories involving homicidal killers, question the morality of creating these types of portrayals, especially in a market-place already saturated with graphic depictions of serial homicide usually involving mainly violence against women and children. Perhaps authors are guilty of perpetuating mental or emotional damage on unsuspecting readers and impressionable people who are already vulnerable to the influence of such material? The telling of a story and the acting out of a homicidal fantasy are two different realities – perhaps they inform each other in rare cases, yet aside from subject material this is the only point of similarity in the character of the principle actors.
Servante: Is childhood trauma or any trauma a catalyst in the killer's/writer's motivations?
Cook: I am sure it is. Childhood experience shapes all humans into the adults they become. My own fascination with horror and dark psychological subjects is because of the things I experienced as a child and an adolescent. I believe that most fictional work has some element of truth in it that stems from the author’s own experiences. In my own case, writing about dark subjects is a form of expressing things that bother me internally. Rather than acting out by doing these horrible things in real life, I write about them and that seems to satisfy the demons that lurk in the dark realms of my brain. The same, of course, applies to the heroic actions of my ‘good’ characters. In this respect, as an author, I live vicariously through my stories and characters.
Servante: Based on your studies on serial killers, do you believe the symptoms were there in the childhood to see a future killer/writer?
Cook: There are a set of adolescent behaviors that supposedly point to the development of a violent socio/psychopathic personality. Criminologists commonly refer to these as the Macdonald triad: a history (adolescent) of arson, bed-wetting and cruelty (sadism) towards animals. According to psychiatrist J.M. Macdonald, he suggested that, ‘if all three or any combination of two, are present together, [then these are] to be predictive of or associated with later violent tendencies, particularly with relation to serial offenses.’ ‘(Macdonald 1963). Subsequent research has indicated that while these behaviors are evident in many case studies of serial killers, they are not prevalent in ALL cases and are also evident in non-serial-killer character assessments. The more likely explanation is that these types of behaviors are symptomatic responses to childhood abuse, neglect and emotional/psychological issues stemming from environmental influences. Therefore, while the symptoms may have been present in the childhoods of murderers, they are not present in ALL cases and hence not reliable as future indicators of a criminal type. Most events and character behaviors can be illuminated retrospectively – hindsight is a great way to ‘join the dots’ and see the evidence and origins of cause and effect. However, based on the unreliability of this way of analyzing character behaviors, I would have to say that this type of deduction is redundant as it reveals no definitive causal relationship between the behavior of murderers and their upbringings, when analyzed alongside those who have the same upbringings yet who do not go on to become killers.
Servante: Could the proper therapy (such as dream, painting, role-play, etc.) have prevented these children from developing into killers?
Cook: I don’t think so as these types of therapies are usually always applied after the fact. That is, unless these therapies are applied as mandatory activities in primary school settings from a very early age to ALL students, I feel their effectiveness is almost always null and void as the damage has already been done to the subject as treatment is always applied ex post facto (after the event). To be able to identify early behaviors for ‘at risk’ subjects and then apply therapies, this in itself is a massive task and one that must account for the ability of the subject to respond ideally to the therapies administered. For a psychopath, ‘therapy’ is pointless as their psychological state is largely defended from any response-type stimuli by their lack of conscience, emotion and propensity for egotistical self-determination. For the psychopath, any form of therapy is nothing more than a game-type situation where they can manipulate and fool the therapist into believing the normalcy of their (psychopathic) behavior. In saying that, if therapeutic activities were introduced early enough before the subject began to exhibit homicidal tendencies, it may influence the way they respond to situations and give them a method of controlling their own behavior to the extent that it could possibly prevent someone from letting tendencies escalate and ‘snow-ball’ into homicidal behavior later on in life.
Servante: Do you feel any therapy reveals anything helpful for the therapist of potential serial killers?
Cook: I don’t honestly know. I’m sure that in the field of criminological and psychiatric research, the accumulated data-sets gathered from these therapeutic experiments are likely to yield results that can be used to determine what is the most effective type of therapy for certain types of individuals. The problematic aspect of this questions lies in the word ‘potential.’ For what is potential, other than what might be? My own view on what type of therapy or thing could be done to prevent people from becoming serial killers, is that there is not enough people in authority with the right mind-set and knowledge to identify who these people may or may not be. The FBI have done huge amounts of research into who and what a serial killer is – yet their research and systems are such that (as far as I know) they still cannot identify and change the character of someone who will go on to commit serial murder. Someone who is within the system – an inmate, patient, employee etc. – may throw up behavior that red-flags their potential for serial murder because it conforms to already-established patterns of behavior that are used to diagnose psychiatric disorders or criminal behaviors. But the subject has to be within the system for that identification to take place, and then it can only be surmised. The debris and behavior of the serial murderer and their crimes, if accurately recorded and interpreted, is obviously of interest and help to investigators whose job it is to apprehend these people but as far as therapy goes, most if not all serial killers are psychopathic personality types who are resistant to most forms of therapy. In other words, the evidence to date points to this fact and suggests that any therapy provided to serial murderers would best be provided to their victims, who may actually benefit from it.
Thank you to William Cook for the interview and thank you to you readers for your time today. Always a pleasure to have you join us here in the Servante of Darkness blog. See you at Update 8.
For more on William Cook,
where I compare writers of serial killers to actual killers. It's intriguing how the minds of fiction authors and actual murderers think alike in the execution of their gruesome deeds in ink and in blood.