Friday June 09, 2017

View into minds of killers? Look at their writing, say professors

Elizabeth Wettlaufer, an ex-nurse who pled guilty to murdering eight elderly patients, wrote poetry about her desire to kill.

Elizabeth Wettlaufer, an ex-nurse who pled guilty to murdering eight elderly patients, wrote poetry about her desire to kill. (Canadian Press)

Listen 23:46

Read Story Transcript

Jack the Ripper, David Berkowitz, Anders Breivik and now Elizabeth Wettlaufer — there's a long list of killers who put their ideas about murder into letters, manifestos and poetry.

In early June, former Ontario nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer pleaded guilty to murdering eight elderly people who were under her care. She had written poetry that reflected her desire to kill:

"She watches some life drain from the notch in his neck vein
As it soothingly pools it smothers her pain
Sweet stiletto so sharp craves another cut
Obeying a call she moves to his gut."

"Inevitable," a poem written about five years ago, talks about taking a life.

Wettlaufer joins a long list of killers who put their ideas about murder into the written word.  And those writings form the basis of a new book called Murder in Plain English: From Manifestos to Memes — Looking at Murder Through the Words of Killers.

Michael Arntfield, a former police officer in London, Ont., and an associate professor of literary criminology and forensic writing at Western University, co-wrote the book along with Marcel Danesi, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto.

Danesi says humans are unique in their ability to murder, "as opposed to killing for survival, which every species does." 

CONNECTICUT-SHOOTING/

Michael Arntfield says that writing played roles in shootings like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. (Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

"One of the most interesting things for me in approaching the topic of murder ... is that it is part of human performance," Danesi tells The Current's guest host Jan Wong.

"A murder, unless it's, of course, provoked emotionally on the spot ... It is planned, it has a script to it ... and often the script is written out in advance."

He says there are instances in "literary criminology" where killers "actually write a script and then act upon it and carry out murders."

Danesi is also fascinated by what the handwriting of killers looks like — and he says sometimes, their writing looks scary, as was the case with serial killer David Berkowitz, who also became known as Son of Sam.

"It's actually scary writing," says Danesi.

'We are affected by writing. We are affected by narrative. And it is so powerful that it motivates us to do that.' - Marcel Danesi, anthropology professor

"It looks to me almost like the kind of writing that you would use in a trailer for some horror movie or in the titles for some lurid pulp fiction novel. What strikes me about is two things: it is neat, but it is scary ... It's screaming at us."

Arntfield says that writing also played roles in shootings like the ones that took place at Columbine and Virginia Tech, and especially during the Newtown, Conn., massacre, and the movie theatre shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

"Both these crimes were prefaced by significant writing online and private writing that we can really use as a decoder ring," he explains.

Danesi says the power of writing and storytelling can be dangerously influential in inspiring murders.

The television show Dexter is about a "good" psychopath who "murders for good." It prompted a lot of copycat crimes, he said.

'Both these crimes were prefaced by significant writing online and private writing that we can really use as a decoder ring.' - Michael Arntfield, associate professor of literary criminology and forensic writing 

Even books can have that same impact.

"We are affected by writing. We are affected by narrative. And it is so powerful that it motivates us to do that," says Danesi.

"There are some canonical texts. One of them is The Catcher in the Rye which motivates people to go out there and make things right by murder. That's absolutely, for me, something horrific to contemplate." 

Arntfield says there could be important clues to spotting signs of trouble in someone's writing. He says that educators and family members should "say something" if they come across writing that comes across as threatening or dangerous.

"If you see this, especially if you know the person and your instincts tell you that this is scary and that it's actually perhaps a harbinger of things to come," he says.

"You're probably right."

Listen to this segment at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.