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.


  1. Great essay, and I agree and empathize with so much of what you've said. One thing I must add, though: did you see the uncut footage of the 1991 interview, or just the snippets Stephane Bourgoin allowed you to see, the ones he used in his film about serial killers?

    He ONLY used the sensationalistic portions--where, after repeated prodding on his part, Kemper finally described the murders in depth. If you watch the raw footage all the way through, though, you see that those portions are a small part of the whole. You also see that Kemper kept trying to lead the interview elsewhere, and every time, Bourgoin would literally ignore him and keep right to his question list. Moreover, it's obvious that having to go there frustrated and upset Kemper, hence the rough, bitter tone you noted.

    Watching the full footage I saw, Kemper actually spoke at great length (and with a very different demeanor) about his therapy in prison, and about how when he was young there was nothing but a void where his soul should have been, and how he spent years in prison building a soul, a self, from scratch--learning how to have real relationships with people, to the point where he could genuinely cry at the death of a friend and write the friend's wife letters of consolation and support. He was so proud of having made progress, of having--in a sense--found a way to become human and try to atone for his terrible deeds, and Bourgoin just shut him down and kept asking about blood and gore.

    Bourgoin is a terrible interviewer, anyway, awkward and clueless, and frankly, I see him as a bit of a jerk. I sympathize, or try to, because I've heard he lost his wife to a serial killer. But he really had an axe to grind here; he did NOT want to hear Kemper say anything but "yup, I'm a monster, you're right, and here's some more gruesome descriptions of severed heads."

    I agree that Kemper looked pallid, puffy and sickly, and that's sad--but nobody ever said prison life is healthy, and it looks like he always had a tendency to put on weight. Greasy, yes, but I've noticed that in old pics and interviews as well; I'd attribute that to a combination of prison life and simply that he is and always will be a mental patient; they are not noted for good hygiene, and now that I think about it, neither are men who have spent their lives without the love and attention of women. Honestly, I spent that whole interview wanting to rip those horrible glasses off his face and give him a jacket that fit.

    I know, I'm a nut like that. lol...But in any case, it seems that Kemper hasn't done an interview since that one, and after watching it I think I can guess why.

    Sadly, the DVD I bought was a bootleg and the site I bought it from doesn't carry it anymore. No doubt because Bourgoin sues at the drop of a hat. But if you ask around maybe someone knows where to get it?

  2. Thank you so much! I had a hard time even tracking the Bourgoin documentary itself (you're right, he sues at the drop of a hat and fiercely protects his own material... unfortunately for people who actually want to see it). I'd love to see the full interview though, and to believe that Kemper is doing better than Bourgoin portrays him as.

  3. Interesting thoughts, I also thinks this is a sad gloomystory: A bright man, fully aware of his own evil and who can't help it.. it's sad...
    Well it's worth reading, bye!