For fans of John Douglas’ Mindhunter (1995) and Robert Ressler’s Whoever Fights Monsters (1992), foundational true crime texts on the history and genesis of FBI criminal profiling, Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess’s new book A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and my Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind (Hachette Books 2021) is the culmination of an essential trio of writing related to the “first generation of FBI profilers.”
With the success of the Netflix fictional series Mindhunter (2017-2019) and the continual popularity of true crime in the public imagination, it is fascinating to read books by the FBI experts who helped to formulate a set of investigative techniques and strategies to cope with the rise in serial murder in the 1970s and 80s. Books by Douglas and Ressler have taken up indelible spaces in the mind of any true crime reader, but in comparison, Burgess has remained silent in the popular context. A researcher and academic, Burgess’s career has had many twists and turns, from her work in psychiatric nursing in the 1970s to her work with the FBI Behavioural Sciences Unit throughout the 1980s and 90s. This book focuses on Burgess’s perspective on those years, her work alongside Ressler, Douglas, and other prominent profilers.
Dr. Burgess’s perspective is an important one. As one of the only women involved with the profiling project in the 1980s, her work on rape victims and the causes of rape as related to power and control put her on the radar of the FBI, who was searching for answers to similar questions and felt that her perspective would be beneficial to them. Indeed, Dr. Burgess’s perspective proved crucial to identifying productive strategies for thinking through methods of crime and violence. Burgess takes the reader on a memoir-style tour through her career and her primary focus throughout those critical years: the victims.
One of the best parts of A Killer by Design is Dr. Burgess’s very human focus on her work and its effect on her. Despite its enormous import, Burgess’s research is harrowing at times. She encounters the worst of humanity on a regular basis during her time with the FBI and that has an effect on her that she does not shy away from sharing. Because she has a foot in both worlds—as a researcher for the FBI and a female academic whose intellection focus coincides with the Bureau’s ambitions—she does not have any desire to reflect the image of the hardboiled detective chasing the elusive killer. Rather, she considers the murderers she encounters as products of a very human set of circumstances that result in behaviours that endanger others. Furthermore, Dr. Burgess brings a logical and very careful analytical perspective to her writing. While she explains some of the most famous serial killer cases, such as those of Edmund Kemper or Dennis Rader, her perspective is a fresh one that does not just focus on the masculinized mental struggle of a murderous mind, but instead examines the killer’s logic and framing that within a very specific set of psychological methods.
Furthermore, Burgess offers an insiders view of the famous profilers whose names are synonymous with the profession—Ressler and Douglas especially. Burgess considers these agents—also her friends—in relation to her work and theirs. She thinks about the ways in which they coped with the things they saw, how they attempted to help victims and families in whatever way possible, and their devotion to their work overall. In her important chapter, “Profiling the Profilers,” Burgess thinks through each expert’s skill set and interests and elaborates on what they brought to the team as a whole. This was a section I deeply appreciated because it both turned the focus onto some very interesting men and also applied some of the psychological concepts Burgess identifies as functional tools to the ‘normal’ men she interacted with daily.
Finally, Burgess is careful to train her focus on the victims throughout this text. In many respects, Burgess’s attention on the victims is what has allowed her to maintain her position in this field. By cutting away the horrible details of killers who popular culture have constructed as larger than life and simply turning toward the death and destruction they left in their wake, Burgess’s sympathy is her primary emotion throughout the text. She works hard in this book to not let us forget the victims at the center of these narratives.
A Killer by Design is a fascinating look at Dr. Burgess’s perspective during her years at the FBI and makes for thoughtful reading.
Please add A Killer by Design to your Goodreads shelf.
About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads.
A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.