John Espy uncovers the psychological ‘signature’ of the serial killer

Going beneath the skin of the contemporary fascination with serial killers: the Allure of Power, Control, Dominance


‘I hadn’t started out per se to ‘study’ serial murderers, now many years ago.  I was doing neurological research on the NASA Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.  Increasingly I was becoming interested in neuropathology of primitive personalities.  In biochemistry we go to the molecular structure of a compound to see what its chemical signature is composed of.  What then was the signature of what may be the most primitive form of man; who represented man at his serially worst: A murderer who killed for seemingly pleasurable gain and who used power, control and dominance, as a way of torturing his victims before he murdered them.  In those days the term ‘serial killer’ was not yet in the public sector as it resides today nor did the idea of a serial killer carry the current voyeuristic allure.

The question became what neuropsychological structures made up the characteriological signatures of one who seeks out his victims in order to not only murder them but to use them before he snuffs the life out of them.  And, the only way other than armchair theorizing to discover any lineage was to interview convicted serial murderers.  The first murderer I interviewed was Eddie Gein, on whom the movie Texas Chain Saw Massacre was loosely based.  It became readily apparent that Gein was not someone who is typically understood to be a serial killer, mostly being floridly psychotic.  But, that being said, he also was attempting to reassemble his dead mother from “parts” of corpses that he exhumed and the two women he murdered.  When Gein discussed this he spoke as though the “parts” were alive.  In many respects they were, for him, in that he breathed life into them through projective-identification.  Each “part” had to have a life-force in order to be fused with another “part,” as he began the Frankensteinian resurrection of his mother, raising her from the dead.  However, his representational mother was as vicious and castrating as she had been when she sat on a hay bale reading Bible verses while his father plunged a shepherd’s crook into Gein’s rectum to purge him of the Devil.  Gein’s conflict was whether to move the stone and let her out of the cave or to keep her entombed.

I went on to interview more than twenty-five serial murderers, including formally evaluating Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Andre Chikatilo at the Serbsky Institute in Moscow, Otis Toole, Charles Pierce and Nathaneal Benjamin Levi Bar Jonah.  I also interviewed Richard Ramirez and was in the courtroom observing his behaviour toward the female juror who would ultimately ‘fall in love’ with him and petition the court to overturn the guilty verdict.  In her letters to the court she said she had “Never felt so loved,” as she did with “Richard.”  She never met Ramirez and her only experience of ‘being loved’ by him was the reptilian gaze that he fixed on her during her time in the jury box.  Andre Chikatilo murdered more than fifty-two women.  Likely there were vastly more, but this is all that the Soviet police were able to definitively say he had killed and only the number that he would admit to killing.  He is known to have committed his first murder on December 22nd 1978 in Shakhty, a coal mining town, near Rostov, Russia.  Yelena Zakotnova, nine years old, was taken by Chikatilo and stabbed multiple times.  He attempted to rape her but was unable to achieve an erection.  However, he ejaculated while he was stabbing her to death.  This became a consistent pattern with Chikatilo.  He also said that he chose the least “трудно” (“difficult”) girl or woman he could find.  “Pickings were slim in the camps,” he would say.  “But they had to be just right.”  “They had to be ready to receive me.”  “They could not be filled up already, there had to be room inside of them for me, otherwise what would have been the point.”  “You do understand don’t you,” he would say repeatedly.  Jeffrey Dahmer said that he decapitated his victims and kept them in his refrigerator so he could use them longer, wanting them to be as “fresh as possible.”  “Being able to take them out and say what I wanted to say to them was what was important.”  “I could also, which may be the most important of all, once I said what I wanted to say, slice off a hunk of the head, fry it up and eat it and then shit it out.”  “It was my way of finally getting rid of so goddam much stuff that just was like a plague inside of me.”  “At least for a while it made me very happy.”


Anthony Perkins in Hitchcock's classic film 'Psycho'     powercontroldomination

In Eat The Evidence, Parts One and Two I show serial paedophile Nathaneal Bar Jonah‘s ongoing honing of his ability to gain mastery of his victims whose characters are in some way fractured and projections of their vulnerabilities are psychically exsanguinating.  Those vulnerabilities however, to someone who is not of Bar Jonah’s characteriological ilk, will be seen through a nonmalignant empathic lens.  But, to one of Bar Jonah’s maliciousness and whose each breath is taken in with the anticipation, intent and desire to consume another, the manifestation of empathy is malignant.

The question has arisen many times as to what the serial murderer paedophile is seeking.  The most cogent answer is that he is seeking projections.  Projections of another’s harsh and critical introjects, which allows him an aperture into the inner world of his potential victims, well before he threads his psychic barbs into his prey through projective-identification.  Once the psychic nematocyst hooks his barb into his prey he is free to groom them to cooperate with his wishes and become what I would consider a preconsciously unbeknownst participant in their own annihilation.  He is also now free to insert his curdled psychic waste into those who have now fallen under his enrapture.  In those rare instances where a victim survives, they end up paying with the residue left behind by the perpetrator that can never adequately be scraped out of their conscience.  The serial murderer paedophile creates a constellation of illusions that he is benign and even helpful.  One who not only just wants to “help” others but also seeks other to assist him in his pursuits.  Of all of the murderers that I spent many hours evaluating and interviewing, Bar Jonah in many ways was the most dangerous.  Not from a physical stand point but rather from the fluency of his glibness which allowed him to so adroitly identify and then penetrate deeply into the psyche of others.


Part Three of Eat The Evidence, There is no Body, takes the reader further inside Bar Jonah’s psychopathic void of any compassion for his victims, as it intertwines between the prosecution’s quest to get Bar Jonah permanently off the streets and his defense team’s attempt, albeit with questionable resolve, to put him back onto the street.  In a chapter of a book being prepared for publication, there is a postscript that discusses the research of neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti.  “Recently there have been developments in the area of neurobiology related to understanding disgust.  In a series of experiments it has discovered that the insula of Reil plays a key role in one’s ability to experience disgust.”  Interestingly, if one thinks about the heinous acts that serial killers perpetrate on their victims, it would be impossible for them to be able to experience disgust.  It is doubtful if readers of this article can imagine cutting off a corpse’s labias in an attempt to reconstruct their mother, cannibalizing a young boy or ‘frying up’ part of a decapitated head.  However in the examples of Eddie Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer and Nathan Bar Jonah, they could not have engaged in these behaviours were they able to experience disgust.  I am now working on a series of standardized questions to begin to ascertain an individual’s range of responses to disgust and to formulate baselines.  Standardized questions that would examine for disgust may be predictive with regard to the heinousness of a crime an individual might be prone to commit.  In certain cases, there will be a correlation to imaging studies relating to the perfusion status of the Isle of Reil, as well as examining for hypofrontality through neuroSPECT studies.  I hope this ‘blog’ has peeked the interest of readers to delve into the Eat The Evidence series and to ponder the issues that have been raised.’

John Espy

John C. Espy, PhD, LCSW, has been practicing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for the past thirty-five years. He was supervised by R.D. Laing for many years and conducted a weekly supervision group with Sheldon Kopp. He has worked extensively in the area of primitive and psychotic personalities and has interviewed more than twenty serial murderers and paedophiles in the United States and Europe as part of his research on the manifestation of malignant projective-identification. His current practice primarily focuses on clinical and forensic consultation and long term treatment. He was previously a neurotoxicologist with NASA and has taught at numerous universities throughout the United States. Dr Espy is also a long standing member of the American Academy of Psychotherapists, the American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work and northwestern United States group moderator for the International Neuropsychoanalysis Society.

The third and final volume of his acclaimed trilogy Eat The Evidence will be published in July by Karnac Books and is available to pre-order here.

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2 thoughts on “John Espy uncovers the psychological ‘signature’ of the serial killer

  1. I was NOT expecting to read what I read when I saw this piece on Karnacology. However, Dr. Espy has for lack of a better way of expressing it, ‘blown me away.’ His insights are revelatory and as a forensic neuropsychiatrist, groundbreaking. Dr. Espy’s insights into how a serial perpetrator uses projective-identification are astonishing, as is his realizations about disgust and the Insula of Reil. If Dr. Espy never publishes another thing his esteemed place in conceptualizing and understanding the interior of serial perpetrators is assured. He does not if you will, ‘pull any punches’. Clearly he sees through the veneer and takes the reader in this brief piece right to the core of the issue. He also alludes to projective-identification being raised up from the unconscious to the conscious, whereby the serial perpetrator would have access. Again this is also revelatory in how projective-identification is typically conceptualized psychostructurally. I certainly hope that this is but a ‘teaser’ for more of his work to be published.


  2. I agree with Dr. Genet. This brief writing on Karnacology has opened up an entire new way on conceptualizing the intra-interpsychic process that individuals with this level of primitiveness go through in identifying their victims. But I can easily see the process as Dr. Espy describes being expanded to include other forms of primitive interactions. Clearly projective-identification has been extensively explored, most notably by Bion. But, Espy has opened up a completely new window of exploration and I certainly look forward to read more of his work. I had an opportunity to hear Dr. Espy speak at Fordham many years ago now when he was beginning to develop these concepts as they related to the character-disordered family. That talk and following discussion dramatically altered the way I saw CD families and how I subsequently treated them. This is a very stimulating development in clinical theory. Plus his insight about disgust is like identifying the elephant in the room. How could ‘we’ have not seen this. Incredible insight.


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