When it comes to serial killers, nurture counts as much, or more, than nature

I’ve admired Pete Earley’s writing for years. From this Edgar Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist I’ve learned about such things as the history of Las Vegas, the clash of law and mental health, and the inner workings of a high-security penitentiary. His most recent book, The Serial Killer Whisperer, is quite unique, because its central figure is an adolescent boy with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that makes him remarkably resonant with some of the meanest men alive. Thus, this compelling narrative revolves around the most salient issue in criminology today: the criminal brain. Given my own interest in this subject, I jumped at the chance to talk with Earley about his book.

In The Mind of a Murderer, I tracked cases from the past century of mental health experts who cozied up to killers to woo them into frank revelations. Some succeeded, but not without considerable effort. Today we know more about the brain’s role in the warped perspective of a serial killer, and while Earley’s book supports what neuroscientists have discovered, it also adds a key point: brain studies alone will not explain what motivates extreme violence.

Tony Ciaglia was fifteen when he was injured in an accident and pronounced dead three times before he reached the hospital. He survived, but his frontal lobe injury dramatically altered his personality. He felt depressed, angry, and confused, and he often hated people he once had loved. Constantly medicated to control his moods, Tony could not filter or inhibit socially inappropriate acts. As he lost friends and community, his life became a living hell. Only his loving family cushioned the blow.

When Tony read some Internet accounts of serial killers, their attitudes seemed so much like his that he became obsessed. He wanted to know them personally. With his father’s careful monitoring, he took up dozens of correspondences with the likes of such killers as Tommy Lynn Sells, David Gore, Arthur Shawcross, Ken Bianchi, and Joe Metheny. He told them about his accident and they freely described their experience of targeting and killing their victims. Their letters were vulgar and brutal, but due to his TBI, Tony could listen without judgment. He understood their hatred and rage because he felt it too. He even began to use their language.

However, at times Tony found his new friends disturbing, especially after he traveled to the prisons to meet them. When he visited crime scenes, he finally experienced the victims as people, not just names. Then he realized that he was different. Just because he had a similar brain dysfunction did not make him a potential serial killer. Then, with his father’s help, Tony turned his TBI into a gift. Because the killers talked about as-yet unsolved murders, they’d provided clues that could help close some cold cases. Tony now had a sense of purpose.

The book’s focus is not the killers. Their cold-blooded letters, while sickening, soon begin to sound pretty much alike: “I did this to her and then I did that…” The real story centers on what happens to Tony and his family as they move into this dark realm. I have read Earley’s remarkable book, Crazy, about his heartbreaking encounter with our convoluted mental health system when his son became ill and I could see his common ground with Tony’s family. As with Crazy, Earley brings you intimately into a family’s struggles. His typical MO is to fully immerse, so I asked him to tell me what it was like to develop a narrative that involved so much graphic violence.

“The editor and I had several long conversations about how much to include,” he told me. “How do you convey the casualness of these guys and the horror of their acts without turning readers off? You want readers to see just how depraved they are. So we decided to err on the side of putting it all in. Some is just extremely difficult to read, like Joe Metheny giving a recipe for how to carve up a body and serve it to unsuspecting people at a barbeque stand, or Gore talking about how he raped and tortured people before shooting them in the head. I just hope that when people read this they see how insignificant these people were to these killers.”

Earley had discovered Tony’s story while researching TBIs.

“What got me interested,” he said, “came from a point in my own career when my son got a mental illness. That changed me from a journalist into an advocate. I’d heard about TBIs, especially in returning war veterans, and I was looking for a book I could do on TBIs, mental health, and recovery, but I couldn’t get a publisher interested. Then I heard about Tony Ciaglia, and what interested me was the way that his brain injury mimicked the serial killers, and then he got this obsession and started toying with the idea, could he be one? So, my interest in the brain drew me to the story.”

Earley quickly bonded with Tony’s father, Al, “because he wanted his son to have some purpose in his life. It was difficult for Tony to find an acceptable hobby. Everyone collects stamps or coins. When he’d discovered other people like him, he had no filter, so he wasn’t shocked. He wasn’t excited by it, but he could read this stuff without judgment. I think that Tony’s parents were just thrilled that he had found something to do. They’d watched him get interested in Elvis for a while, and then he moved on to serial killers. They thought it would keep him busy, but they never anticipated that he would get the amount of response that he did, or that the killers would react the way they did. But they were each getting what they needed from the other. Tony was naïve, but his childlike wonder was a draw. His TBI really did mimic their traits and he believed he understood them and was their friend. They accepted him.”

Although Earley was initially disturbed by certain details in the killers’ letters, he was fascinated with how they tried to explain or rationalize their actions.

“When you have people like this sending you accounts of cannibalism, it was shocking to me at first. I had to get used to it. There are a couple of insights in the letters, such as when Gore talks about it not being as glamorous when he was doing it, or Metheny talking about how he preferred people being dead. Shawcross described this power he got from choking people and bringing them back. The problem, of course, is that you don’t know how much is true.”

The bottom line is what would make a person like Tony, who shared a similar neurological profile, different from his incarcerated pals.

“What’s fascinating,” says Earley, “is what causes a person to cross the line. Just because you have a similar brain injury, will you be like them? Or does a loving family and a relationship make a difference? What makes someone become a serial killer?”

Although Tony’s story doesn’t fully answer this question, it does suggest that nurture has as much—if not more—force than nature. The Serial Killer Whisperer is not for the squeamish, but it raises important issues about the development of individuals into offenders that we often dismiss as lost causes. Tony’s story gives us reason to re-examine our assumptions.