Jun 19, 2012

Edmund Kemper

April 12
8 minutes to midnight

Some things have started coming together for me about Edmund Kemper. I still don't know why I spend so much of my free time engrossed in the life histories of serial killers, but I think I know why I keep coming back to his story. Unlike a high percentage of serial killers, Edmund Kemper is completely honest and completely aware of the horrific things he did in his life. His life was almost impossibly sad, lonely, too much to bear, and caused so much psychic anguish; he had a high IQ and marked sensitivity, so it must have hit him especially hard. Despite being isolated and/or abused for most of his life, his desire for human love never abated and became in adulthood what he called "this awful, raging eating feeling inside... this fantastic passion." Learning about him has been like discovering the Elephant Man under a Halloween mask -- someone with a terrifying exterior whose inner self is much more hideous but also much more heartwrenching.

Basic facts: in 1970's Santa Cruz, there was someone picking up hitchhiking college girls and murdering them -- the media dubbed this person The Co-ed Killer. Only pieces of their bodies were found, scattered in bags in the brush along secluded roads. The killer was Edmund Kemper, 23 years old. He had been institutionalized at 15 for killing his grandparents, and was now living with his verbally abusive mother, whom he has hated his whole life. After murdering six co-ed girls, and getting away with it, he decided that he didn't want any more innocent people to die in place of the one person he really wanted to kill -- so he decided to murder his mother. Early in the morning, while she was still sleeping, he went into her room and bludgeoned her skull with a mallet. He then cut off her head, had oral sex with her severed head, set it on the mantlepiece to throw darts at and scream at... he cut out her tongue and vocal cords and tried to stuff them down the garbage disposal. After this was all over, he called his mother's friend and asked her to come over. He killed her as well, and raped her corpse. Kemper then loaded his car up with guns and drove for three days without sleeping, with no idea where he was going. He reached Tucson, Arizona and stopped at a phone booth to call the Santa Cruz Police Department and turn himself in as the Co-ed Killer. He confessed to everything, and remains in jail -- he's now 67 years old, with the unlikely possibility of parole this year.

Here is a clip from an interview where Ed talks about his mother, and how his murder spree stopped:

What Kemper did was fueled by so much sexual frustration, and such a painful lack of love from anyone in his family. Nobody trusted him, his mother belittled and abused him, his father didn't want him, his sisters were taught to fear him... being an outsider, he gained a lot of perspective and insight into human behavior but no vantage point where he felt like he could connect with them. This insight ultimately enabled him to gain the trust of hitchhiking girls, chat them up, act in a way that would make them think he was safe to be around. But he never felt he was able to really communicate with them unless they were dead, inert, completely under his control and unable to talk back. He said once, "With a girl, there's a lot left in the girl's body without the head. Of course the personality is gone."

It's the sexual frustration of Ed Kemper that clicked in my head tonight...

His mother and grandmother were matriarchal, domineering, and expressed a lot of hatred for men. Therefore, Kemper was ashamed of being a man almost automatically from birth, and never able to express himself as one.

He was locked up in a mental correctional facility from age 15-20; the most hormonal years of his life. He missed the hippie revolution, and subsequently was completely cut off from his generation and from basic human society.

He wanted a loving experience with a girl more than anything. He wanted to go out on dates. He only went on one in his life, and belittled himself so much for his ineptitude in talking about it in interviews later that he scared himself off at the time. He talks about being "such a dork", taking her out to Denny's and a John Wayne movie. The girl likely didn't have a clue what her presence was doing to him.

Another lonely loner killer, Jeffrey Dahmer, shares Kemper's behavior of eating parts of their victims to keep them inside of them, to be close to them. Both have admitted that it was a sexual thrill to consume human flesh. Both were also weirdly loving towards the memory of their victims... even reverent. Kemper would save personal effects from the girls he killed, as well as keep their severed heads around to talk to or sleep next to. He buried one girl's head in his backyard, facing towards his bedroom window so he could talk to it before he fell asleep.

Kemper is hesitant to simplify possible causes or explanations for what he did, but basically revealed that he felt like he was killing his mother all along through these college girls. It was an indirect, surrogate way of acting out his rage against his mother and to inflict harm on women at large. He loved and hated his mother. In an interview, he admits that it's hard to see how he loved his mother, and that it was "not a rational process, a very painful process". Even after he killed her, he still loved her.

The manner in which he explains the atmosphere in his car, riding with the hitchhiking co-eds he picked up, is very telling. He had a weapon concealed in the car; in the trunk, under his seat, or under his leg. He says that once the gun came out, something would have to happen. He was always intrigued by his victims, liked talking to them -- they felt utterly untouchable to Ed (who loathed himself for what he was, what his mother and family had said he was), and that overwhelmed him with even more intense desire. But he knew that if the gun came out, something would have to happen. He would have exposed himself for what he was: a murderer. If he had pulled his penis out, intending to rape the girls, something would have to happen. He would be exposing himself as a man, which to him was a more daunting admission than that of his murderous side. Violence and murder was Ed Kemper's way of expressing himself sexually... he was so ashamed about it that he could not leave any evidence of the act behind, not allow the possibility of the other person reacting to his sexuality. In an interview, Kemper said that he would have loved to rape these girls, but he didn't think he would be successful at it. But when they were dead, there was no judgment; they couldn't react to what he was doing. This was the only way that Ed could feel like he was having sex.

In his lifetime, Ed Kemper never had real sex (i.e. non-necrophiliac sex) and probably was never kissed by a girl. He said, "I wasn't impotent. But emotionally I was impotent. I was scared to death of failing in male-female relationships."

When he finally killed his mother, it was a very messy, violent, over-the-top murder. He unleashed absolute rage, all of the frustration he associated with her from the time he was very small. It was as if this was his way to finally make her pay attention to him, finally listen to him instead of just berating him, and finally show her what he was. Not only what -- a murderer -- but WHO he was. He was a man.

Edmund Kemper stashed her body in the closet, cleaned up the apartment and left. He willingly went to jail three days later, back out of the world. In jail, he said that he wanted to study science, math, French. He ended up reading audio-books for the blind. Ed Kemper seems to think of correctional institutions -- asylums or jails -- as his only home. Looking at the rest of his life, it makes sense; it was only in these settings that he received any kind of care or attention.

In the documentary Murder: No Apparent Motive (which discusses serial killers as if they're a new brand of computer technology), the ending clip is of a very sincere, arresting statement by Ed Kemper. He looks into the camera and says that if there's anyone watching who thinks they might be having thoughts like the ones he had, to tell somebody. Trust somebody enough to tell them. It's not a crime to have violent, murderous, raging thoughts; but it is to act on them. And it's a hard thing to stop, once you start giving in to them.

He actually said all of this! At least at the time of the interview, 1984, he seemed really tortured by what he had done, and how his life had turned out. The only other full-length video interview I've ever tracked down of him is from 1991, and he is a very different person... much heavier, greasy, nervous, agitated, even a little sarcastic, looked very unhappy. Prison obviously changes a person, but he must have also started to realize that he would never have the opportunity to have a normal life -- ever. He was not an engaged, honest, remotely friendly person to listen to in this video. He talked like a crazy person, a deeply frustrated and bitterly aging man with no respect for his own personhood or that of others. None of this is surprising, but it was still sad to see.

In fact, I find Edmund Kemper's whole story horrifyingly sad. I wish that somebody had been there for him growing up, some kind teacher or social worker, who would have been able to do something... but of course it's far, far too late now.

Why do I take it upon myself to feel sorry for these serial killers, to feel the full tragedy of their lives? Why do I want the emotional burden? Is it simply more gravitation toward what is dark, twisted, forbidden, perverse... but still can only harm or touch me in my imagination? They're all just stories after all, histories and stories. And these stories have very real consequences, the victims and all those related to them don't give a fuck if the killer had a bad childhood -- and I agree, that doesn't excuse anything. But it is worth acknowledging and exploring. I think my connection with them, though, might be about wanting to feel the full import of the human condition. What can happen, what needs can go awry, what our capacities for evil are and what is the story-arc of the unraveling of a human mind.

Jun 17, 2012

Murderabilia & Serial Killer Groupies

There is a lot of noise made about the phenomenon of "murderabilia" trade on the Internet. Murderabilia is exactly what its gimmicky name is supposed to sound like, memorabilia of murders -- artifacts or products connected with serial killers. You can buy letters from David Berkowitz, clown paintings by John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein's mother's crucifix (a pretty high-end item). Not to mention the trading cards and action figures. I agree, it's grisly and sick and should not be allowed, but the element of deviance and perversity is probably what fuels it in the first place, and so making a show of being offended will not stop it. But anyway. I discovered something far more interesting and sick than murderabilia: there are people who become penpals with serial killers. I just spend the last hour reading a lot of threads and blogs from teenage girls who write letters to serial killers in jail -- keeping up multiple correspondences at once, complaining about how their parents freaked so they had to get their own P.O. box, delighted in the anecdotes of the whole thing. Here are a few samples: 

freedomlovinggypsy: "I actually wrote to a few. I wrote to Charlie Manson, and trust me...You don't really want to write to him. His letters are all jibberish and sloppy and almost impossible to read!! Then I wrote to David Berkowitz, and he kept sending me pamphlets about getting saved and preaching to me! And I wrote Richard Ramirez, and he was so obsessed with the damn devil it was unreal..He asked me if I was willing to sell my soul to get anything I wanted..Yeah, ok..Like, it really worked for him...lol! And I wrote to one, I can't remember what his name was. But he sent me a letter telling me what to do! Like, he told me to come to California, and bring money, and rent a hotel, and come and see him, and marry him!! Insane in the brain....that one was...I know alot of serial killes are psychopath but I really think some of them are just insane."

Lysosome: "I used to write to Richard Ramirez when I was 16-20, he was nice, told me to get an education and that Im sweet and should sort my life out and not end up in prison lol. I really liked him I told him I wanted to chop his wifes feet off and he was cool about it. he's a nice guy :-). Obsessed with the Devil, wanted rude pix of me, blah blah blah. Asked me if I was mad? haha."

ursulabear: "kemper is my favorite! pleasepleaseplease adress please!"

Serialthriller187 (one of the few boys on the forum): "My current pen pals are: Roy Norris, Phillip Jablonski, and Jack Owen Spillman III. I am waiting letters from 5-10 others. I have thousands of addresses. It's not 'risky' writing to any of these people at all, People are paranoid. If one is on death row, or life without parole, or life without change of parole. They rarely get released, If so, The feds watch their every move. Kemper won't write. You won't get a reply." 

And my absolute favorite, from dogbeith: "i am fascinating by serial killers becuse thay are so deffrent then other human beings but i do not want to talk to them or write letters to them cus thay murder human beings"

I've been mired in serial killer research for at least a year now... and a few of my friends have said that they've had episodes of this same intellectual compulsion (often coinciding with a bout of depression). So I understand the fascination, and I certainly understand trying to see inside the minds of these psychopathic people. Edmund Kemper is possibly the most flagrantly, fantastically fucked-up individual I have ever heard of, and the serial killer case that I have been most engrossed by. Apparently, he has this hard-to-get reputation among serial killer groupies/penpals. He's selective, choosy. 

Celebrity serial killer culture really makes me cringe internally, but I come into contact with it a lot as I'm researching this stuff. The fans, the people who absolutely relish it... for instance, someone made a MySpace page for Kemper: 

There are YouTube accounts that are much worse... people who make tribute videos to Ted Bundy, or write comments gushing over the minutiae of serial killers' lives. There are also streams of Tumblr pages to wade through... Kemper is being used for memes and banners, just like every other famous face known to American culture (for notoriousness and notoriety alike). 

(By the way, these pictures might not make complete sense if you don't know the story of his case, but you still get some idea of the horror in the facts behind it. Here's my favorite documentary about him, from the TV series Born to Kill?, if you're curious [and I love it when you're curious]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoqJXLaLq-M&feature=plcp). 

It's really good to be able to joke about this kind of thing, actually -- cannibalism, murder, necrophilia, psychopathy, mutilation. If it retains the untouchability of a taboo, it just gives the crisis more power and, by extension, the killer a more powerful status. They are sad, fucked-up individuals with sad, fucked-up lives. For a country galvanized by reality TV train-wrecks, exposes about hoarders and beauty competition mothers, this is exactly the brand of entertainment and intellectual manna that we're accustomed to. It seems natural that serial killers are a widespread obsession, a national mascot (what a revolting-idea-ringing-true THAT is!). 

I've thought about Edmund Kemper quite a lot -- far more than is healthy. I came up with some psychological insights into his case about a month ago, after watching every single shred of video about him on YouTube and reading everything I could find in the weirdest, darkest corners of the Internet. I want to post it sometime soon, but it's not ready yet. It sleeps inside my journal, fruits of a very late night on YouTube and the slow, gestating, timed release of a really well-structured revelation.

By the way, I found it:

Edmund Emil Kemper III, #B52453
P.O.B. 2000
Vacaville, CA 95696

I'm just not sure what I'm going to do with it.

Jun 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury, R.I.G. (Rest In Gusto)

I'm sure Ray Bradbury would want me writing this in a summer field soaked with restless stormy electricity, with pencil nub and dime-store pad of paper balanced on my virginal knees, in the gurgling, bewitching twilight. While I've got the small-town part covered, I am in fact writing from a laptop hissing and whirring on my not-quite-virginal lap, with ambient electronica being funneled through my brain from those same evil seashell earbuds that make Mildred an ignorant zombie slave in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury's world, full of fantasies spun not only about space exploration and supernatural carnivals but also the wholesome milk-fed purity of America, is long gone. Not from the consciousness of readers or devotees of escapism, but from the material and undeniable world of today. He only just recently died, but has really been consigned to the past for a long time.

Let me make this clear, however: I in no way want to disparage Ray Bradbury, or undermine his value. I was so electrified by his writing that, at age 14 when I first picked up The Golden Apples of the Sun in a bookshop and read its opening paragraph, I seized five more of his paperbacks and carried them resolutely up to the register. I think he is priceless, his energy is commendable and beautifully irrepressible, he writes with abandon and passion but also finesse. He is also completely accessible -- an excellent thing, paving the way for future popular fantasists like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. But I was affected by his death, as were a lot of people, and started thinking about what his identity was... who he is, who he saw himself as, who America remembers him to be. Because he does seem utterly inseparable from the identity of America; no other author has written about its cultural history and traditions written about with such warm, frank sentimentality. He is also a great example of American individuality and persistence, the idea of the self-made man; he never went to college, instead locked himself in a library for a few years and emerged a writer. As magically as a butterfly from a chrysalis. Not really, but isn't it appropriately poetic to think so?

I tried to post this quote of his as a commemoratory Facebook status, but it is too large to fit in the allotted space. I'll stamp it onto this blog instead, so it can at least exist in some corner of the Internet, however obscure:

"Thomas Wolfe ate the world and vomited lava. Dickens dined at a different table every hour of his life. Moliere, tasting society, turned to pick up his scalpel, as did Pope and Shaw. Everywhere you look in the literary cosmos, the great ones are busy loving and hating. Have you given up this primary business as obsolete in your own writing? What fun you are missing, then. The fun of anger and disillusion, the fun of loving and being loved, of moving and being moved by this masked ball which dances us from cradle to churchyard. Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain. But on the way, in your work, why not carry those two inflated pig-bladders labeled Zest and Gusto?" (from Zen in the Art of Writing).

As I said, Bradbury is irrepressible. His sentences gallop and froth and are set suspended, glistening on the page, in the same defiantly sublime attitude as the sight of a baseball arcing hugely and silently over grass and upturned heads, or the sea-green swirl of a galaxy seen deep in space. As you can probably tell by that inadvisably overwrought previous sentence, I completely sympathize with this tendency to over-describe. It's the desire to craft the Perfect Sentence by piling on more and more layers of poetic imagery which so many other writers and editors try to strip away like the indulgent fat that it is. But for me, the most entertaining writers, the writers with the most heart, have always been the description-a-holics: Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Martin Amis. Bradbury's writing is particularly exploratory, messy, unafraid, striving to create pure magic.

He has a particular vision of the purity of America, American youth and particularly summertime. I've seen  certain themes and images stretch across almost everything he's written... the enchantment of summer evenings, the crispness of fall, the eerie charm of a small town, the magic atmosphere of carnivals and fairs, running-jumping-climbing trees, baseball and libraries, wandering through graveyards and wondering about life... it is an America where boys still toddle down dusty sidewalks smacking on popsicle sticks and run a mile back to the house the minute they see a shiny red bicycle in a shop window that they have to have. You can hear the sadness radiating off the page as you read Bradbury's descriptions of this slow, sepia-toned life... it is the atmosphere that his imagination fermented in, what he grew up with, and he knows that it is disappearing. I remember reading some very funny cranky-old-man comments he made a few years ago about the Internet. He was protesting adamantly, "But it's not real! It doesn't exist! Where is the Internet? Where?" Not an exact quote, but he said something to that effect and degree of force.

The stories of Ray Bradbury (who is, by the way, the most skilled craftsman of the short story who I have ever read) seemed destined to become folklore from the beginning. Their wonder, their magic, their idealism and innocence but also their dark delight, resonate with every open mind. They are atmospherically perfect, like any ghost story told with relish around a campfire on a sharp, smoky autumn night. But that earthy, intimate, enchanted, mysterious, quiet, catching-fireflies-in-a-jar type of world is as sadly dead as the man who immortalized it in his writing. And he did it with relish, joy, bombast, and pure gung-ho gusto.

As the back cover of my tattered-but-still-intact copy of The Golden Apples of the Sun proclaims, in the brassy voice of a carnie trying to draw passers-by into his tent of wonders, "Strange, haunting, bizarre, grotesque, rooted in reality, soaring with imagination, alive with people who never were and creations that one day will be... creatures and stories to set you shivering, gasping with terror, gaping with wonder..."