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Doctor explores world of serial killers
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 the killer was dead.
About 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 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.
Morrison had made arrangements to have the brain examined in the name of science to see if there was anything -- tumors, scars, disease -- that made it abnormal.
When the autopsy was over, 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 express-mail envelope arrived at her office. She had eagerly awaited the findings, but was not surprised by the summary:
"Just one simple line," she says. "Normal brain."
'They just do it'
For nearly 30 years, Helen Morrison has probed the brains of serial killers -- though, until Gacy, she'd never held one in her hands.
From the sweaty walls of a Brazilian jail to a bleak, fortress-like, century-old prison near the Mississippi River, 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 in a cool, soothing voice. "We try to give them motives, but they don't have any. They just do it."
Morrison, who tells her story in her new memoirs -- "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, chatty, remorseless men who are addicted to the most brutal acts -- stabbings, strangulation, rape -- and 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. To them, it's like pulling the wings off a fly or the legs off a daddy long legs. .... You just want to see what happens. It's the most base experiment."
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 yoke that's already broken. There's no white and yellow. It's all the same."
'The Mad Biter'
Morrison believes serial killers can't be rehabilitated and if set free, they'd surely commit more murders. She supports the death penalty.
She also doesn't see a sexual motivation in their crimes, believing they stop developing psychologically as infants. Some other experts disagree with her theories, saying serial killers aren't all alike, have motives and their sexuality is closely intertwined with their violence.
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" for bite marks left on victims. In a bizarre twist, he had his teeth pulled before being arrested.
Entering the prison, 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.
And 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."
Living in separate worlds
"They all seem to have the capacity to find out information," 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.
Morrison lives in separate worlds and is intent on keeping it that way; she says she never talks with her sons about her interviews with serial killers.
With her conservative navy suit, brooch, pearls and blond hair tucked neatly in a bun at the nape of her neck, Morrison, who declines to reveal her age, has the genteel look of someone heading out to an afternoon tea. She is a devotee of the opera and symphony who likes to vacation in Brazil.
Serial killers are just part of her work. She also has a psychiatric practice treating addicts, autistic children, HIV patients and the mentally retarded, among others.
Morrison says she has never become friends with or been fond of killers she has interviewed. Nor has she become jaded when hearing of their terrible crimes.
And for those who think that a serial killer is someone like the fictional Hannibal Lecter, the erudite, Chianti-drinking, fava-bean-eating cannibal, she 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."
The question of why people do such terrible, inhuman things is as intriguing to her as it was when she first 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."