Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Monstrous Mothers

"We're still blaming mothers." - Joyce Flint, Dahmer's mother

It all seems to begin or end with Mother. Henry Lee Lucas launched his murderous career by killing his mom; Ed Kemper ended his by killing his mom. Even the Shakespearian multiple murderer Hamlet had an unnatural obsession with his mother's sexuality. "Serial murderers are frequently found to have unusual or unnatural relationships with their mothers," notes Steven Egger in his book The Killers Among Us. In our culture, the imposing image of "Mother" looms large in our collective psyches, and some writers easily accept that these killers are lashing out at maternal tyranny. If these murderers are still dominated by Mother (Hitchcock's Norman Bates is the archetype), then it is easy to dismiss them as "mama's boys" who never fully matured. Perhaps we find comfort in this cliché — the mother is a readymade excuse, particularly in our contemporary era of obsessive parenting. Yet, as we look at some of the techniques of the serial killers' mothers, we are inclined to see a deadly link between the womb and the tomb.

Uptight Moms

In an effort to keep their children chaste, some mothers have linked sexuality with death. Ed Gein's religiously fanatical, notorious mother convinced her son that women were vessels of sin and caused disease. In some sort of twisted misinterpretation, Gein made literal vessels out of women, using their skulls for bowls, and other domestic objects. Ed's body may have escaped from sexual disease, but his mind was clearly contaminated.

Joseph Kallinger was adopted by sadistic, Catholic parents, and after a hernia operation at age 6, his mother told him that the surgery was to keep his penis from growing. Kallinger never questioned her, and as an adult believed it had been stunted. A strict disciplinarian, Kallinger's mother forced him to hold his open hand over a flame, beating him if he cried. Kallinger later grew up taking extreme pleasure in torturing others, and became a sadistic parent himself. After taking an insurance policy out on his 13-year-old son Joey, he slowly drowned him, deaf to his own son's pleas for mercy.

"I certainly wanted for my mother a nice, quiet easy death like everyone else wants," said Ed Kemper. His idea of an easy death is markedly unusual — after beheading his mom, he shoved her vocal cords down the garbage disposal, raped her headless body, and, by some accounts, placed her head on the living room mantel and used it as a dartboard. Admittedly, Kemper's mom was a shrill, tyrannical nag who locked her young son in the basement when he grew too large and frightened his sisters. As an adult, Kemper and his mother fought constantly, yet he chose to live with her. Why not just move away and don't take her calls?

"Hillside Strangler" Kenneth Bianchi's adoptive mother was pathologically over-protective. When Ken wet his pants, she took him to the doctor to have his genitals examined. One protective agency wrote that Bianchi's mother was "deeply disturbed, socially ambitious, dissatisfied, unsure, opinionated and overly protective ... had smothered this adopted son in medical attention and maternal concern from the moment of adoption." As a child Bianchi was very dependent on his mother, yet harbored a deadly hostility beneath the surface.

Loose Moms

Some serial killers had their sexually uninhibited mothers to blame. These mothers overstepped the boundaries, exposing their children to inappropriate sexual behavior. Bobby Jo Long killed women he characterized as whores and sluts, who he said reminded him of his own mom. She had frequent sex (according to him) with men in the same room where Bobby slept. According to Long, he shared his bed with his mother until he was 13 years old.

Charles Manson's prostitute mother Kathy Maddox, indifferently declared his name as "No Name Maddox" for his birth certificate. She hoisted him off on relatives, and in one story, famous but probably untrue, she traded the infant Charlie for a pitcher of beer. When he was sent to live with his aunt, his uncle told him he was a sissy, and punished him by sending him to school dressed as a girl.

Henry Lee Lucas also suffered gender confusion as a child, courtesy of his mother's sadism. She was a heavy drinker and bootlegger. For unknown reasons she dressed him as a girl until he was 7. "I lived as a girl. I was dressed as a girl. I had long hair as a girl. I wore girl's clothes." She senselessly beat him after he had his hair cut because his teacher complained. At one point, his mom struck him on back of head with a wooden beam, fracturing his skull. Lucas was also apparently exposed to his mother's sexual activities. He killed his mother in 1951.

Deadly Dads

Albert DeSalvo
Albert DeSalvo

It is usually the sadistically disciplinarian father that pops up in the serial killer's family tree. John Gacy's dad berated his son, calling him a sissy, queer, and a failure. A violent alcoholic, Gacy's father beat his mother, and shot his son's beloved dog to punish young John. When Gacy later strangled his young victims, he encouraged them to stay brave while facing death. "Through this ritual, Gacy sought to reassert his own vision of a masculine identity that had been squashed down by his father," wrote Joel Norris.

Albert DeSalvo's father would bring home prostitutes and brutally beat his mother, breaking her fingers one by one as young Albert helplessly watched. The elder DeSalvo sold his children off as slaves to a farmer in Maine, while his mother went frantically searching for them for six months, as story that has been confirmed by family friends and social workers. "Pa was a plumber," said DeSalvo. "he smashed me once across the back with a pipe. I didn't move fast enough."


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