Jewish Journal

A Matter of Crime

by Teresa Strasser

Posted on May. 30, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Crime does pay. Wait, no. I pay for crime. That is to say, I pay for books about crime because I can't get enough of serial killers, crime profiling, unsolved murders, exonerating DNA evidence, assassins, date stalkers, maximum-security prisons and forensics.

You know that obsequious guy on Bravo's "Inside the Actor's Studio" who asks that series of questions designed to probe the celebrity mind? When he asks, "What profession other than yours would you like to attempt?" I always answer to myself, as if syrupy James Lipton would care, "FBI profiler."

Secretly, I feel I'm already something of a profiler, making my own predictions about cases from Chandra Levy to the anthrax mailer.

This grim obsession began last year, when I stumbled across "Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit," a book co-written by John Douglas, who pioneered and perfected the art of psychological profiling to catch serial killers. I read it in one day, then went back for his other books, like a killer returning to the scene of the crime. I consumed everything in the Douglas canon.

I branched out into DNA evidence with "Actual Innocence," by several authors including famed Simpson attorney Barry Scheck. Here is a partial reading list for the months that followed: "Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist," by Richard Rhodes; "Newjack: Guarding Sing-Sing," by Jack Conover; "No Mercy" and "Tears of Rage," both by John Walsh; "The Gift of Fear," by Gavin de Becker; and "Justice: Crimes, Trials and Punishments," by Dominick Dunne.

I have to give special mention to "Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective's Scrapbook," a book of crime photos from 1921 to the early '50s. This book is so gruesome, when a friend gave it to me at a party, several of the grown men in the vicinity winced, turned away, left the room or said they felt queasy. I read it before bed several nights in a row and never once had a nightmare.

Nor was my sleep disturbed by all the documentaries I rented on serial killers from Ted Bundy to John Wayne Gacy. I watched "Mr. Death" -- about a modern day executioner -- like it was Mr. Rogers.

Looking back at my reading and video rental list, I ask myself, is there something wrong with me? I mean, more than the usual? One story comes to mind.

I was arriving home late one night. It was dark and quiet. I parked and took the key out of the ignition. At that moment, I saw two men walking toward my car, with intention. I'm a sitting duck, I thought, stuck in my seat, keys in hand. I remembered what de Becker wrote: criminals go "victim shopping." Don't make yourself seem like an appealing victim. Exactly as he suggested, I got out of the car as fast as I could and stuck my hands out in front of me saying, "Get away from me" in the loudest, lowest voice I could muster.

Like scared kittens, they scampered off down the street.

This isn't to say my fascination with crime is purely out of a desire to increase my safety, although that's not a bad idea when you consider that three of four women will be the victim of a violent crime. Maybe there's some other insight I'm looking for, some way of understanding what it's like on the extreme outskirts of human experience

In "The Gift of Fear," de Becker asserts that people have more in common than in contrast, that we all seek understanding and praise, that we avoid humiliation. He's adamant that we can't understand criminals until we understand that the same things that drive all of us, drive them.

This would be a nice way of explaining my new hobby. That it's some expedition of understanding. That I'm so deep, I'm really just taking a dip in Lake Teresa. That I'm looking for some sort of "Tuesdays With Mortuary" to further enhance my understanding of life.

Really, I don't know. I must not be that unusual, or fewer people would be watching "CSI" and all 31 flavors of "Law & Order" that are currently on the air, in reruns or in development.

My girlfriend Lisa is afraid to fly, so much so that she has panic attacks for days before a flight. Personally, I loved the book and movie "Alive," about a plane crash in the Andes and the subsequent cannibalism among the survivors. Lisa jokes about the fact that I have no fear of plane crashes, photos of decapitated bodies or serial killers, but I lose feeling in my legs when I have to make a phone call I'm nervous about or read an e-mail from an ex-boyfriend.

"I know this sounds grandiose," I tell her. "I'm not the least bit afraid of death. Life, on the other hand, really freaks me out."

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