Two Different Forensic Psychiatry Books

Is It a Polemic or a Legitimate Read in Its Field?

The first book that I wish to review, Alone With The Devil: Famous Cases of A Courtroom Psychiatrist, is an earlier book somewhat dated now, published in 1979 by a then fairly well-known West Coast American forensic psychiatrist Ronald Markham MD. First off if one accepts the premise that we are all product of at least her experiences and the times in which we have lived, then it is easy to place this book in an era earlier in Western and American psychiatry specifically in forensic psychiatry. This book may amuse some of the psychiatric readers and it may confuse a non-mental health professional through the use of its somewhat dated concepts and terms.

But it is nonetheless a fascinating read and I was very pleasantly surprised by the writing style, the slight flair for the dramatic in the detailed and insightful portrayals and analyses of the cases that this psychiatrist selected in this book. I was initially drawn to this book as I had read online reviews that it was somewhat of a misplaced, angry and doctrinaire polemic. Also, some reviews accused the author, who if he is still with us today must be in his 80s, of being somewhat of a show-off, and given to tooting his own horn in such a way that it detracted from this book. I did not really find this to be the case.

The cases that the author presented as a forensic psychiatric writer were not very well known for the most part. In the few cases that were somewhat well-known, the author gave details that I was largely not familiar with, though much of my own acquaintance with these few celebrity cases. Instead, he revealed background detail regarding their crimes and legal information that I found extremely interesting. I can safely say that the author did not trade on sensationalism or the common media stories that have long been associated with these few famous cases.

The vast majority of cases that he selected were not very well known if one had not lived primarily in Southern California during the 1970s and 1980s. Each case was selected for features that were quite different each from the next. The author focused just as much on the legal proceedings and upon the very great difficulties that the organs of the legal systems experienced during the prosecution and defense of these heinous murderers. Dr. Markham spared no criticism of figures involved including famous prosecuting and defense attorneys as well as a few judges who did not comport themselves as professionally as they should. The dated nature of this kind of information was part of its charm. The author gave fascinating accounts of courtroom behavior and maneuverings that likely would not be permitted in this day and time and would be regarded as unprofessional behavior at least. He bolstered his criticisms by quoting extensively from actual court transcripts that illustrated his shortcomings that he saw in his work as a forensic psychiatrist both inside and outside the courtroom proceedings.

This kind of detail is quite singular and have not read it in other historical forensic psychiatry textbooks. Likely his repetitive criticisms of the shortcomings of the legal process that occurred in many of these cases during their investigations and prosecutions form the basis for other online reviewers to call this book a bit of a polemic. I have no idea how this book was received in the first just several years after its publication, but I can imagine it was probably roundly vilified and criticized in its day in certain quarters that received acidic and telling critical observations from the author.

Further, the other value that I have referred to above, the selection of lesser-known cases of serial murderers, form the other pillar of value to this book. Each of the cases differed in major respects from the others in this book. Each of the murderers discussed were revealed to largely be very different each from the others. Some of the cases actually served out their sentences and lived to be released which I found somewhat shocking but which I realized, was part of the value of the reporting of these cases has at least one of the figures who was released from an all too short sentence for murder in the presence of a very atypical psychotic process.

Another telling thread that ran through many of these cases was the fact that the investigative law enforcement powers of identifying these killers were very primitive by today’s standards. Law enforcement agencies whose jurisdictions bounded up against each other very often did not coordinate information in an organized manner and in several of these cases, it was by sheer luck that the killers were identified and arrested. Of course, there was no DNA testing in those days, and profiles of types of crimes that could be checked online very quickly also were not yet on the scene. Information was not categorized, digitized or stored in relational databases at all. Comparable to the field of medicine that is only in the last decade or so graduated into the digitized medical record, law enforcement murder files and casebooks were paper-based, sitting in stacks on a detective’s desk. Anna detective investigating a murder committed in his jurisdiction had no idea that only one county and one major city away another homicide detective was struggling to generate leads on the very same murderer who simply drove across the county line to commit yet another murder undetected.

A Compelling Tale of the Actual Development of the Decision to Kill So Many

The second book is much more modern. It is the book written by William H Reid MD, a currently moderately well-known forensic psychiatrist. This is the book: A Dark Night in Aurora, Inside James Holmes in the Colorado Mass Shootings. This book was published in 2018 and concerns only one case that of James Holmes who shot up the cinema 16 theater in Aurora Colorado on July 20, 2012. Holmes was a graduate student at the University of Colorado Denver, in neurosciences on the on shoots medical campus in neurosciences. He had dropped out at the beginning of that current winter semester before the shooting in July 2012.

James Holmes dressed up in bazaar black tactical clothing and carried multiple weapons including a Glock pistol and an AR 15 type assault rifle. He mounted the stage in front of the screen at the midnight showing of the then-new Batman a dark night rising movie. He selected the time because he thought there would be fewer children at the time of the midnight showing. Nevertheless aside from this one feature of perhaps misplaced compassion, he still killed a dozen people and wounded over 50 others. He then went outside lay down his weapons and patiently waited to be apprehended. He is one of the few mass murderers who is not killed by law enforcement or as is still more common committed suicide at the scene such as the Columbine high school shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold who both killed themselves inside the school.

Consequently, James Holmes could be extensively interviewed and evaluated both by law enforcement and by Dr. Reid and another forensic psychiatric examiner. Furthermore, the development of James Reed’s illness psychiatrically, and his thinking patterns both rational and psychotic could be witnessed, examined, and analyzed at great length because his written material in the form of emails and diary materials existed, and were preserved.

Dr. Reid was able to bring this disturbed young man’s development into a mass murderer into stark and very clear relief by quoting extensively from these materials in the book. This is one of the major features and values of this book as the written record left by this young man was invaluable and has come to be an incredible source of information regarding the mysteries of the development of the mass murder. This material alone makes this book more than worth its purchase and will help any reader to gain greater understanding of at least some of our current modern mass murderers and how they come to be who they are and why they commit their crimes. Many of them unfortunately for the purpose of education and understanding these individuals, defeat the possibility of retrospective, after the effects of their crimes, from being subjects of legitimate psychiatric and legal investigations by killing themselves. They remove themselves from our abilities to understand them and the motivations for their crimes forever. I need only remind the reader of the Las Vegas country music concert, Mr. Stephen Paddock who murdered over 50 individuals and wounded upwards of 500 more when he opened fire from his hotel room through its broken window with multiple automatic assault rifles committing the worst mass shooting known in American history to date.

For any reader, this book painstakingly documents this young man’s development beginning with a seemingly intact family and childhood developmental course in life through the beginnings of the earliest self-perceived seeds of intrusive and disturbed thinking patterns that began in middle school years and percolated through his high school years. On the surface and the likely truly internally, this young man had an ordinary happy childhood. He then experienced difficult events in his life that many youngsters in modern American life experience as well. For instance, his family moved at the beginning of adolescence and he took this initially fairly hard, but it was not causative in the development of his future psychotic mental illness. He maintained a fairly happy adjustment through high school and gave little sign during those years that an ominous internal corrupting psychotic process was beginning. And like so many individuals beginning to experience the ravages of adolescent era psychosis, he largely kept it a secret only occasionally leading a very few oddball and slightly bizarre ideas to emerge to those surrounding him in his life circles at that time. The author skillfully traces the development of this ominous process through the college years and into the first year of this young man’s graduate studies. And like any good story, part of the compelling plotline is the slow literary unfolding of the internal events and changes in thinking that led to the commission of this heinous crime in the dark theater during the midnight hour. This grips the reader in a most compelling manner. Dr. Reid never really speculates or theatrically takes literary license in the telling of the psychiatric story. He did not need to. He had over 20 hours of clinical interviews with this young man who was extremely and surprisingly I suppose, open and forthcoming with Dr. Reid. Dr. Reed also had access to voluminous documentation furnished by the young man himself. The author also interviewed many individuals including the family, consisting of the mother father and sister. He also interviewed teachers, high school classmates and college classmates as well. All these people who were also struggling to grasp, comprehend and explain this horrendous event to themselves, poured out their observations, memories and experiences with this young man adding to the detail and progression of the movement from a quiet preteen, teenager, college student, and young adult, to a cold-blooded mass murderer who killed four very bizarre, idiosyncratic reasons.

There are many other notable and worthwhile features of this singular book that I will leave to the future reader of this compelling book. But it also illustrates the maturation of the field of forensic psychiatry in the last quarter-century or so. The practitioners of forensic psychiatry nowadays are far better trained and skillful than at least some of the practitioners in the past. Most forensic psychiatrists have been trained in specialty post-adult psychiatry residency training programs in the subspecialty of forensic psychiatry. And Dr. Reid’s straightforward and dispassionate account of his work in this case ably illustrates the professionalism and skills of the modern-day forensic psychiatrist. This book will give the lay reader an excellent inside, fly on the wall vantage point to observe and begin to understand the complexities of the practice of forensically oriented psychiatry and hopefully a better appreciation for the vital role they play in growing the science and understanding regarding this frightening present day reality and the mentally disturbed violent and murdering offender.

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