The Psychopaths Among Us
The Misbegotten Son: A Serial Killer and His Victims
reviewed by Andrew Vachss
In this age of Serial Killer Chic, a sufficiently prolific murderer is likely to find a good agent more valuable than a good lawyer. The marquee value of serial killers rises considerably when their victims are young women—the public displays far less interest in victims not as susceptible to slasher-porn erotica. Ghoulish killers like John Wayne Gacy and Randy Kraft have been the subject of superior books by distinguished journalists—"Buried Dreams," by Tim Cahill, and "Angel of Darkness," by Dennis McDougal, respectively. Both books sold only moderately, while numerous inferior books about Ted Bundy hit the best-seller lists. John Wayne Gacy and Randy Kraft never killed women.
However, "The Misbegotten Son," by Jack Olsen, a veteran true-crime writer whose previous books include "Son: A Psychopath and His Victims" and "Doc: The Rape of the Town of Lovell," does not rely on titillation for its impact. Indeed, this book deliberately renounces salaciousness for factually dense, objective reporting. Anyone whose prurient interest is aroused by this exhaustively documental, deeply analytical work should seek professional help.
Arthur J. Shawcross was the most dangerous type of predatory pedophile, an unrepentant sex murderer of children. Finally captured in upstate New York, he plea-bargained to a single count of manslaughter and was sent to prison. Paroled after serving nine years, he then turned to stalking prostitutes, and killed 11 more times before finally stumbling into penal custody once again. He is currently serving a sentence of 250 years.
"The Misbegotten Son" is a compelling account of a monster in metastasis. Mr. Shawcross was a ticking bomb, a fact obvious to even the most casual observer from an early age when he displayed what criminologists call the classic homicide triad—fire-setting, torturing small animals and bed-wetting. Despite the clear misgivings of every therapist who came in contact with him, he was released from prison—not so much to society as upon it.
Mr. Olsen wastes little time with body counts; his mission is to find the root cause of a life devoted to torture, mutilation and homicide. With access to a remarkable variety of materials, he carefully documents the multiplicity of (inaccurate) diagnoses, a complex web of destructive and dysfunctional relationships, and the ineffectiveness of the rehabilitation and parole system. The special strength of "The Misbegotten Son" is the author's uncanny ability to obtain first-person accounts from virtually every major player in the killer's blood-splattered script; wives (including one Mr. Shawcross met as a prison pen pal), girlfriends, co-workers, police officers, therapists and even the only prostitute known to have survived an encounter with the killer—by playing dead to help him achieve a necrophilic orgasm.
Mr. Olsen's special gift for res ipsa loquitur irony is best illustrated by the following excerpts from psychiatric reports. This is Mr. Olsen's summary of a description of Mr. Shawcross when he was first incarcerated in 1972 in the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, N.Y.: "A dangerous schizophrenic pedophile, suffering from 'intermittent explosive personality.'...He heard voices when he was depressed, engaged in fantasy as a source of satisfaction, and had an 'oral-erotic fixation with need for maternal protection.'"
And this is the same individual, described by a psychiatrist, just before parole in 1981: "Neat, clean, quiet, cooperative, attentive, pleasant. No bizarre mannerisms. Normal facial appearance and posture. Self-esteem/self-image good. Tolerance for frustration within limits. Abstract thinking intact. No hallucinations/delusions. Though processes logical, rational....Does not manifest any psychotic/neurotic symptoms."
Thoroughly non-judgmental in his approach, Mr. Olsen has a gift for incisive commentary that often illuminates his narrative. Mr. Shawcross was an inveterate fisherman and hunter, always returning to his love of sport. Mr. Olsen shines the light on the truth: "Out of trouble for the moment, the parolee purchased fishing tackle and trudged down the grassy riverbank....It had been a long time since he killed a fish."
Often the unvarnished words of other players in the scenario of escalating homicide are as chilling as the acts themselves. Listen to the killer's girlfriend, reeking of sympathy as she helps him get a sock over a swollen foot: "You poor guy, what do you do when I'm not around?" This deeply damaged woman remained loyal to Mr. Shawcross even when the answer was made horribly clear. And as for the wedding ring he gave her: "They can tell me a thousand times, but I'll never believe it belonged to no dead whore."
Mr. Shawcross was no criminal mastermind. His transition from child victims to adult prostitutes is psychopathological when viewed in context—his driving force was sexual sadism, not pedophilia. He attributed his "sickness" to abuse by his mother, incest with his sister and the trauma of combat in Vietnam. None of these claims were ever documented—indeed, they were thoroughly discredited.
Interviewed by psychiatric experts before his last trial, Mr. Shawcross induced a "Rashomon" effect: one postulated that his condition resulted form post-traumatic stress disorder, another attributed his behavior to the infamous XYY chromosome (an extra Y, or male, chromosome that some scientists believe induces a proclivity to aggressive behavior), still another proclaimed him a classic sociopath. The author himself takes no position, standing back from the disagreements, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
Mr. Olsen has the master interrogator's gift—he persuades people to open up to him. The reader's one wish is that he had got Mr. Shawcross to do so. "The Misbegotten Son" is a fascinating and forceful book that makes a genuine contribution to criminology and journalism alike.
© 2000 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
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