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Skirting the Psycho Abyss

Micki Pistorius, author and serial-killer profiler, talks about hunting human predators. ‘I have held the mothers of murdered boys in my arms. I’ve been showered by maggots, and I’ve delved into the darkest side of the psyche.’

Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.

psycho kiler

WORLD ONLINE: Micki, with the publication of your book Catch me a Killerand the media publicity surrounding it, you've been proclaimed ‘South Africa's serial-killer profiler’. Most people are familiar with the term ‘profiler’ from the US TV show of that name, but what (if any) are the key differences between the way you operate and the m.o. of your televisual counterpart?

MICKI PISTORIUS: Not many differences. There were many similarities between Samantha Walter's private life and my own. My work left no time for any form of private life. Sam gets flashbacks where she sees what happened. I get flashes of the serial killer's emotions and thoughts. I can't see it. Sam was stalked by Jack and this never happens in the real world. I have never heard of a true case where a detective or a profiler was stalked by the serial killer. It is not in the nature of a true serial killer to do this. It is amateurish and a typical media myth based upon sensationalism. Of course, the South African Police Service does not have the same super-sophisticated technological support as is portrayed in the series.

WORLD ONLINE: You're at a cocktail party and, in answer to a question, you mention that you happen to hunt serial killers for a living. People are likely to react with a mixture of fascination and wariness: ‘Oh,’ they'll say, ‘doesn't it take a pretty morbid or macabre person to do that?’ Assuming they're wrong, what are the most popular misconceptions people tend to have about you as a person? And to put the question differently, what kind of character does one need to meet the challenges (and evidently, the many personal sacrifices) of your occupation?

MICKI PISTORIUS: I did not attend cocktail parties and I preferred not to tell people what I did for a living, but given the scenario, what irritates me the most is people's preoccupation with my small physique. It was my brain that did the work, not my face. It takes a strong mind, a strong will and dedication. Although it might not always be necessary you must be prepared to sacrifice your whole life for it. A young naive, protected person who has not experienced life will not make it. It takes patience, introspection, guts, intuition and tolerance. I have always been an optimist and I am very spiritual, which got me through it and it takes a sense of humour, too. It is not a glamorous job at all.

WORLD ONLINE: Another cocktail-party assumption, I suppose, is that your profiling work is dangerous – but this assumption appears to be warranted. When your book was published, for instance, I read in interviews with you that you that you did not want to be photographed, lest you be identified to killers out there. How real are the dangers that confront you? Are they physical, and/or psychological and moral in nature? Your book's quotation from Nietzsche in this respect is especially fascinating: ‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’

MICKI PISTORIUS: I do not want to be photographed because I am an introvert and a very private person. The part of being identified by the serial killers is a bit of media sensationalism. Most of the serial killers knew my name, just like any criminal would know the name of the detective investigating him. It was a risk many of us have to take. I am and was well protected, due to the good nature of my past and current colleagues. The physical dangers lay in entering hostile townships late at night, etc. just as any other policeman would face. The mental and psychological danger is enormous.

One can become blunt. Robert Ressler wrote that quote in his book. I made the mistake of not talking about it to my family and close friends for I did not want to tarnish them. I should have trusted them more. Luckily near the end I had four months of intensive therapy with a wonderful woman who sorted out the spooks.

WORLD ONLINE: While we're on the subject of myths and partial truths, I wanted to ask you how you feel about media portrayals of ‘the serial killer’. Either he (there are few she's in this game, not so?) is represented as a mindless robot, or he's glamorised a la Hannibal Lecter as a Nietzschean outlaw who scorns the rules and illusions that govern ordinary folk – he's erudite, cultured, fifteen steps ahead of everybody else, and can unseam you chops to navel without missing a beat on the grand piano. I suspect that he's mostly an arsehole who could do with a bit of the traditional ‘shot while fleeing a crime-scene investigation’ treatment. So who's right in these three scenarios?

MICKI PISTORIUS: None of the above is right. Serial killers are normal people. They go to church, mow the lawn, take their children to school. It can be your neighbour, your husband, your father, your brother. Unfortunately the public thinks that normal people cannot commit horrible deeds and that one has to be mentally ill to do it. This is very, very wrong. They are not mentally ill. They are not super-human beings either. Most have an average to above-average intelligence. They are really just the guy next door, and if you met one of them and did not know he was a serial killer, you would probably like him.

WORLD ONLINE: Let's take a closer look at your work as a forensic psychologist. Much of your time while you were in the police service was given to training detectives, but you have also been actively involved in a large number of field investigations into serial killings, among them the case of Norman Simons, the so-called Station Strangler. How many cases has it been – and, if I may ask, how many have successfully led to the arrest of the culprits?

MICKI PISTORIUS: The profiler never arrests the suspect. The dedicated detective does. I worked on more than 30 cases. The profile is a tool whereby the detective measures the suspects. Those that fit get investigated and those that do not get eliminated from the list. In the Station Strangler case there were 2000 on that list. So the profile saves time. My profiles were about 95 – 98% correct. It still remains just an investigating tool and people are making too much of fuss about it.

WORLD ONLINE: In Catch me a Killer you write that a forensic psychologist ‘tries to reconstruct the sequence of events behind a crime scene’ in order to acquire a sense of the perpetrator from the nature of the target. Using a combination of ‘educated hunches’ and ‘intuitive links between the evidence’, you infer a vast array of details about the murderer: sex, age, race, age, education, occupation, vehicle, social status ... If I may play Dr Watson to your Sherlock Holmes, could I ask you to mention one or two examples that illustrate how you manage to infer so much from what, to the uninitiated, would appear to be so little.

MICKI PISTORIUS: In my book I did not write everything that goes into a profile for I have the responsibility that the book should not be a textbook to teach serial killers how we do it. Basically human beings are creatures of habit – a neat crime scene will reflect a neat personality. Some criminals are aware of this and try to change things on a crime scene. We call this ‘staging’ and any trained detective will pick it up immediately on a crime scene. A killer might think he is very clever, but he is up against a team of trained intelligent professionals.

WORLD ONLINE: Intriguingly, you suggest in your book that an extra-sensory phenomenon called ‘cryptesthesia’ plays an all-informing role in your investigations. You explain that this refers to an ability to interpret ‘intricate hidden agendas’, as well as to a sensitivity to ‘vibes’ – and in the process you downplay this curious power, both (as you say) to avoid being caricatured as crystal-ball-gazing gypsy and (it seems to me, given your strong Christian beliefs) to allay suggestions that you are in truck with supernatural forces. Would you mind giving me, and our readers, a stronger idea of what this ability is – and what it is like to possess it?

MICKI PISTORIUS: It is explained by the quantum physics theory of energy vibrations. Even thoughts have energy which vibrates. On the crime scenes and later at any time I could tap into this vibration, which formed a pattern and them formed a picture. I do not think it is my special talent. Anyone can do it. If you visit friends and you walk into their home you will easily pick up the vibe that they just had a fight. Mine is the same ability it is just more developed.

WORLD ONLINE: Turning to your book, its chapters are thematically linked by way of epigraphs from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, which point to an identity of some kind between yourself, as speaker of the text, and the speaker of the poem. The Introduction is prefaced with the quotation: ‘Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched/ With woeful agony/ Which forced me to begin my tale ... And till my ghastly tale is told/ This heart within me burns.’ Was there an irresistible compulsion that made you tell your story, and what was it? What did the writing of this book mean to you?

MICKI PISTORIUS: The first line of my book says, ‘I have always wanted to be a writer.’ While I was working I would often write down my emotions to try and make sense of the chaos. One day someone approached me and asked me if I ever considered writing a book. I sent him the pieces I had written and he was excited. Then I filled in the details and the facts later. That is why some parts are emotional and some parts are more documentary style. I also did not want to elaborate too much on the crime scenes out of respect for the victims and their families. The book was a catharsis and at first I was uncomfortable with the idea of sharing my private thoughts with strangers, but since that part of my life is over, I do not mind. As the title suggests, the book is also a tribute to the detectives and I want to give the public an insight into the difficult circumstances they work under.

WORLD ONLINE: The Ancient Mariner tells his tale, of course, to exorcise a guilty secret: he has killed an albatross. In this regard, one of the most fascinating passages in your book appears in the opening pages. You are busy explaining how a profiler needs to understand the serial killer's mind, and how she has to have been ‘prepared by life experiences’ for this task. You mention some of your own traumas and bereavements – the death of grandparents, a school friend, several ex-boyfriends, and the suicide of your stepbrother. As I read, I was expecting you to say something to the effect of ‘it was as if death were hunting me’, in other words, that you were the passive recipient of these losses. But then, describing your fear that any man with whom you formed a relationship would die ‘simply because he was associated with me’, you observe: ‘I was attributing to myself a mysterious power which could cause the death of anyone who dared to love me.’ It's an astonishing reversal – a kind of inverted Midas touch where anything one touches is blighted rather than being turned into gold – and it leads you to say that you can therefore understand the sense of ‘omnipotence’, the ‘power of life over death’, that serial killers experience. Would you care to elaborate on this extraordinary passage? Does it imply that you feel a sense of identification in some general way with serial killers?

MICKI PISTORIUS: No, I definitely do not identify with any of them. I can understand them, because I am a psychologist, but that does not mean I condone what they do. I don't. I also wrote that I realised only God is omnipotent. A judge passing the death sentence also has power over life and death, but that does not mean that he identifies with the killer, does it?

WORLD ONLINE: Micki, I'd like you to describe the sense you've suggested in the book of having a special mission – do you, for instance, feel chosen or singled out to do the work you do? I'd also like you to confirm or refute the impression I get that the fairy-child – one of your recurrent self-descriptions in the book – is in a way exempt from the terrible violence she confronts: she may venture where few others can. Nadine Gordimer describes one of her characters as ‘happy in battle’: happiest, most adrenalised and yet safest, when she is exposed to the greatest extremes of danger. Is this true of you?

MICKI PISTORIUS: I did not see my job as a special mission to save serial killers, I saw it as a mission to serve the community. I don't think I was singled out to do it. There are many talented people who can do it, maybe not the same way I did it, maybe better. I do acknowledge that God helped me and I see it more as a love-your-neighbour principle. The fact that I love fairies and teddy bears did not exempt me from the horrors at all.

WORLD ONLINE: The central – and strongest – organising metaphor in your book is ‘the abyss’. For the benefit of those who have yet to read Catch Me a Killer, would you mind sketching out what this image entails? It's firstly a mental space into which you enter, but it also seems to be a shared, intersubjective space – and given your references to having had premonitions and the like that a particular serial killer was active at a very particular time, it also appears to be virtually a psychic space as well. Indeed, even considered as a subjective space, where you try to feel your way into a serial killer's mental processes, ‘the abyss’ sounds like a spooky zone, and remarks such as, ‘I could feel the Strangler entering my mind’ hint at something akin to a possession state.

MICKI PISTORIUS: I think you describe it very well and I describe it well enough in my book. I do not want to elaborate on it any further as I do not go there anymore. I would prefer the word ‘obsession’ to ‘possession’, but I was obsessed by my work – the service and the camaraderie – not the killers.

WORLD ONLINE: You describe yourself ‘diving into the abyss’ and at the end ‘breaking the surface’ or ‘returning to the light’ with the serial killer. What does this mean?

MICKI PISTORIUS: It means when I talk to the serial killer I share his phenomenological world and the detective trusts me enough not to interrupt the process, no matter what happens. When the serial killer talks about the crimes the detective takes over for that is his job. I am interested in the person and the detective is interested in the crime.

WORLD ONLINE: Thank you for answering these questions. A last question, Micki: What are you currently doing? Are you still hunting down serial killers?

MICKI PISTORIUS: No. I am leading a happy and joyous life. I work for a private investigating company specialising in corporate crimes. The message that I would like to get across is the following: I come from a middle-class background and I work within a team, I know I made a difference to make this world a better place. If I could do it, so can anyone else. Anyone can make a difference. Report a crime, clean a river, pick up trash, help the animals and love the children. Even just speak up when you see someone belittling someone else. Stop complaining, protect yourself, get off your backside and start doing something. I live in the most wonderful country and although it is crime-infested I still have hope for South Africa.

No one can accuse me of being naive – I have held serial killers in my arms, I have held the mothers of murdered boys in my arms, I have literally been showered by maggots when a police helicopter hovered above a decomposing body and I have delved into the darkest side of the human psyche, so I am not naive. I have been there and still I have hope. If I can have hope and fight for goodness, so can anyone else.

I also want to confirm that I have lost my passion for serial killers. I do not talk or communicate with individuals on the subject. If people are interested in it or want to become a profiler, they should contact Dr Wellman at the Psychology Department of Rhodes University who is currently training young talented people and he is setting up a date base on South African serial killers. I never chose to be a profiler – I was drawn into it and I get on swimming just because the water was there. They are closely supervised and gradually exposed to the job. I did not have this luxury.

In the beginning I was testing my own limits until I lifted my head one day and saw there is no limit. There is no limit to bad, but there is also no limit to good. It is up to you which way you choose. I choose good. In this sense I am writing a second book to record the stories of South African serial killers for the sake of documenting this particular history. Sometimes I talk to organizations as I feel a responsibility to educate the public on the subject. Most of all, I glad that I decided to stop and I am confident that the next generation will expand and do a better job.

Thank you for your time and be good.

WORLD ONLINE: Thanks. I'll give it a stab.


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