Lewis, a renowned psychiatrist and author, spent decades of her career analyzing some of the most notorious and violent serial murderers of our times, and serving as an expert witness in many high-profile cases including Mark David Chapman, Joel Rifkin, and Arthur Shawcross. Her life and work is now the subject of a new HBO Documentary, Crazy Not Insane, which is directed by Alex Gibney and premieres on HBO on November 18. Her focus, and the focus of the documentary, is studying and understanding why people come to kill—their family history, brain functioning, and mental illness. She specializes in the study of individuals with dissociative identity disorder (DID), formerly known as multiple personality disorder, which is still today not recognized by many others in her field. Crazy Not Insane follows the career of the dedicated and quirky Dr. Lewis as she trailblazes and breaks new psychiatric ground with empathy and intelligence.
Crazy Not Insane features footage of Dr. Lewis’ interviews with infamous murderers such as Shawcross and Bundy, and reveals her own personal findings and conclusions about how the traumas these killers and others like them suffered in their youth impacted them later in life.
Esquire: How widely is Dissociative Identity Disorder recognized in court today?
Dr. Lewis: I think it’s a diagnosis that, unless you have seen it, you’re likely not to recognize it. When I look back at certain very puzzling patients, I think I probably missed the diagnosis. But my point is that if this is a very controversial disorder for psychiatrists, it is even more controversial for the legal system and for the public at large. So you have to have very good evidence that it exists, and even then it’s called into question. Some of the best evidence of its existence would be writing or drawing or artwork done by the person that you’re examining long before you ever set eyes on them. For example, with children, we have gotten hold of their schoolwork, and any letters, any drawings, anything they have done. And very often what you will find in someone who really dissociates significantly, you’ll find is that the handwriting is different. Very often, the names are different. I’ve seen work pages from kids where they’ve signed a different name.
There’s no such thing yet as an MRI or functional imaging that will make this diagnosis. So it isn’t like a brain tumor that you can use some kind of technology to prove. But you know, you can’t kind of create something retrospectively. So that if you find something that the individual has done years or weeks or months before, where there was no intention that anyone else would ever see it, that is far more convincing. You know, once you have seen the individual, you’re often accused of suggesting something. And so that’s your best evidence, because there are no technologies yet for documenting it.
And there are still psychiatrists who don’t believe in it?
Oh yes, absolutely. Alex [Gibney] interviewed one of the psychiatrists who is well known, a forensic psychiatrist named Park Dietz, who thinks that dissociation is a figment of the doctors’ imagination. He has accused me and my team of using some kind of tricky interviewing style to make people think that they have alternate personality states. And you know, that’s simply not true. More often than not, I’ll look back and I’ll see that I’ve missed the diagnosis. But again, I can’t manufacture things that the individual wrote or said or did years and years ago.
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Have you ever been in an interview and feared for your own safety?
Yes. Not often, though, because violent people are not violent all the time. They’re violent under certain circumstances, under certain stressors. And I’ve learned, for example, sometimes, let’s say a defendant who dissociates, will deny what he or she has done when there may be very good evidence that he did do it. And then in another part of the interview, or at a different time, he or she will tell you about the incident and about the crime. And what I’ve learned is, I never interrupt them and say, “But you said.” You just don’t confront when that happens. What you do is you wait and you talk it out and maybe later on you can explore why at a different time the person said he or she didn’t do it. But you don’t confront. Maybe that’s why I’m considered sympathetic to the defendants whom I evaluate, but it’s stupid to be confrontational.
Over time I realized that individuals who dissociate, and particularly who have a history of violence, can turn on a dime. And that anger or that persona can be leveled at you. So I try to interview with somebody else. When I’m working with lawyers, I like one of the legal team to be in the interview with me. And if not, I will work with my colleague, Catherine Yeager, and the two of us will interview. And even then, we have had the experience of having an incredibly abused and episodically violent person suddenly switch while we were there. And it was nip and tuck whether we would get out of the situation safely. But I remember, after we did leave the interview room safely, my colleague said to me, “Dorothy, I’m never doing this with you again.” But of course she has.
Shawcross in particular struck me as so gentle and friendly in the footage of him. How do you reconcile the people that you come to know through your interviews with the crimes you know they committed?
Well, this is particularly true with dissociative individuals. Since I first evaluated Mr. Bundy, and long since he died, since I saw his letters to his wife, I’ve been able to read some of the books that were written about him. And at least two women who were involved with him, one is Ann Rule and another was his lady love, I forget her name. But both of them said he was the most empathic person that they had ever met. And indeed, he was not a stupid man. And when he was not in a dissociative state, and when he had not been drinking bourbon, he was empathic and he was intelligent. And much of the time, that is the persona with whom you’re talking.
Why do you think Bundy was so secretive about his family life throughout his trial?
I think he didn’t remember it. By the way, I was not involved with him at his trial. I didn’t become involved until, I think, 1986. And his trials were in the seventies. So I did testify in a hearing that had to do with his competence at different times, but, yes, I don’t think that he remembered his abuse. At least in my clinical experience, individuals who have been really horribly mistreated early on, and I’m not talking about once or twice, I’m talking about chronic, ongoing, horrific sexual and physical abuse, part of dissociation is blotting that out. And it’s as if it didn’t happen, or it happened to somebody else, but not to them.
And I really think that Bundy tried very hard to remember his past, but he couldn’t. However, I interviewed his relatives, and people who knew him, and people who knew his family in order to find out about his childhood. And to my amazement, actually, just before I was going to testify in a hearing that had to do with his competency to have gone to trial and to have been his own lawyer, I called one of his aunts. And we talked for a while and I asked what he was like. And she said, “Oh, he was adorable with his little red wagon.” And then she said, “But there was the time when he put knives in my bed. He came in the morning with this kind of funny look in his eye, and he placed these knives.” I don’t know if it was under the covers or under the mattress, but right around her. Anyway, I was staggered, because that was the first time, I think, that anyone had ever heard that as a child he acted in this peculiar and violent way.
And that’s about when I learned about his grandfather and how violent he had been. But all that Bundy remembered was he really loved his grandfather. But he did remember his grandfather strangling chickens, pulling off their heads. That, he remembered.
What do you think his competency was like at the time of his trial?
Bundy was given to these kind of mood swings, and so I can’t be certain whether it was only during a high mood swing or whether it had to do with a switch to his attorney persona. But I’ve seen tapes of his trial and read transcripts of it, and he was very, very different in his trials. He was obviously in a different persona state when he was representing himself. I believe that somebody who is either in a manic state or in a dissociated state when he or she goes to trial is not competent either to be tried or certainly to represent himself, and yet within that state, he was intelligent. I think most of the public and perhaps the justice system confuses intelligence with sanity, and they shouldn’t.
You can be really very smart, and yet you can be paranoid and you can be plotting and planning something because you have a delusional belief. Anyway, I testified to the best of my memory. I testified that he had not been competent either to go to trial or certainly to represent himself, because he had been, during his first trial in Florida, in an altered state, but apparently the judge didn’t buy it.
I was going to ask what you think about the dramatization of Bundy in the Netflix movie on him, for example, or any of these serial murders’ lives and crimes.
I’ve never seen any of the movies on Bundy. I was invited to participate in, I think there were three of them, but I had refused to participate in them. Because everybody who spoke to Bundy, people in the press or people in entertainment, everyone was trying to make money on Bundy. They were using their interviews. In fact, some really impeded his trial. I learned from his lawyers that if one of these authors who was writing the book about him called, Bundy would leave his attorneys late at night and go talk with this writer. Anyway, I did not do that. And I tried not to see any of the films about him, because I don’t want to confuse my memory of him. I have my own notes of all of our meetings together, so I really don’t want to be confused with a different depiction of him.
How do you think that all of these movies impact the way that we, as a society, view serial murderers?
I haven’t seen them, so it would be hard for me to say how. But it does seem to be part of human nature that people like to see other people tortured or killed, and I think that maybe it’s human instinct or something of that nature that people are entertained by this. It might be part of being a human being, and not our best part.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about people who commit violent crimes?
That they’re born evil. I think that there are many people, including forensic psychiatrists, who will actually testify and use the term evil. I think of a time I had been involved in a different murder case, and I was being interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, and toward the end of the interview, he said, “But Dr. Lewis, what about evil?” And I said to him, “Well, Mr. O’Reilly, evil isn’t a scientific or a medical term. It’s a religious concept,” and I think he was taken back a little bit. I think that may have been the end of the interview.
But it’s a common misconception. To produce the repeatedly aggressive individual, usually there’s a history of early, ongoing, intolerable abuse of one sort or another, and also some quirkiness about his or her brain. It could be a susceptibility to schizophrenia or to bipolar disorder, any number of things. It could be some of the body building chemicals that people take. But there’s some combination of early ongoing abuse and a central nervous system vulnerability either to the serious mental illness or brain damage. And the combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors seem, to my mind, to create very violent people.
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What do you think justice should look like for the victim of a murderer’s family?
Oh, what a question. I haven’t really thought about that a whole lot, but I’m quite interested when there’s a family that really has experienced terrible, terrible violence and where they do not want the person who did it to be executed, because they know executing them is just for revenge. It’s pretty well known that the death penalty does not deter anybody. And, in fact, some research has shown that states that have the death penalty also have a greater number of homicides every year. I think execution just tickles people’s limbic system, the part of the brain that is involved in aggression and sex and appetite. Execution is something that titillates many people.
Do you believe that preventing child abuse is the best way for society to prevent murders, then?
Yes, I do. What I had wanted to do, but in my field it was very hard to get support for anything, I wanted to do a study of young kids where we could study what kinds of behavioral and academic characteristics they had that indicated they were being abused, and then to see what could be done to prevent that abuse. But I was never able to get funding to do that. We did try. We were able to start a study like that in a school in New York. But the very first day that we evaluated kids, we found one kid who had scars all over his back from beatings, and when the school discovered what we discovered, because of course we had to tell the powers that be, we were run out of the school. They told us we couldn’t come back.
The school would rather not know, I guess. I’m not sure. But it seemed as if at last I would have a chance to study what kind of early signs you get that the household the child is coming from is incredibly abusive or dangerous. And then what can you do about it? We’re not thinking of taking the child away from parents. We’re thinking more of, why is his parents so distraught or so out of control that this happens? And then rendering some sort of support to the family so that you can end the abuse and the parent is not under such stress. But we were never able to do that study.
Lauren Kranc is an editorial assistant at Esquire, where she covers pop culture and television, with entirely too narrow of an expertise on Netflix dating shows.
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