I have always had a fascination with depravity. When I secretly watched Primal Fear in eighth grade, I knew I should have looked away, but I was riveted: the dance with justice; the truth and the psychology behind the murder—it was mesmerizing. Later I graduated to Silence of the Lambs, where I was absorbed by the psychological waltz between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, and how she masterfully handled a man considered to be a monster. I was destined from the start, it seems, to spend my days with the evil men your mother warned you about, the bogeymen who lurked under your childhood bed.
By now I've spoken with hundreds of murderers, serial-rapists, terrorists, and kidnappers for my job as a true-crime documentary producer: Ted "The Unabomber" Kaczyinski; "The Olympic Park Bomber"; Sean Gillespie, a domestic terrorist who tried to bomb a Synagogue; a weapons dealer and terrorist supporter once on Iraq's most-wanted list for fueling the insurgency. My job is to get inside their heads so they will trust me. That's why my co-workers call me "the terrorist whisperer."
One of the first perpetrators I interviewed was convicted of murdering his mother by shooting her in the head seven times. He demanded I reveal personal information about myself in exchange for the answers to the questions I was asking. It reminded me of the cat-and-mouse game that had enticed me as a pre-teen.
It's never easy talking to someone who has planted bombs or decapitated bodies. But no matter how uncomfortable I am, I start every interview with a clean, non-judgmental slate. I don't approach them with a notion of innocence—the people I interview are convicted and their cases adjudicated—but with the idea that they are a person. What perverted cartographer mapped out this man's mind—is he really more monster than man? Can the two ever be reconciled? These are the questions I ask myself every time I reach out to an inmate.
I think that's what allows me to do this job, and also what gets prisoners to answer me in the first place. I've heard it said that every villain is the hero of his own story. So many of these men truly believe they are the hero—as well as a victim of the system.
I recently reached out to a man convicted of murder to ask if he would speak with me regarding his case. "You don't know a fucking thing about me," he said. "Why would I ever speak to you?" I couldn't disagree with him, so I asked him what he would want me to know. He went into detail about how he was raised: a childhood with an alcoholic mother, relentless beatings, and little to hope for. "When you're a kid you expect your mom to be a mom, you know?" he said before describing how, when he was eight, his mother had a headache and demanded silence; when he spoke, she threw a boot at him, "splitting open my motherfucking head." Instead of going to the bathroom to clean up the wound, he ran away to his probation officer. It gave me pause—at eight years old he had a probation officer (because, he told me, of the lifestyle his mother led). I can't excuse his behavior as an adult, but I can understand why someone with such an unstable beginning would end up in a life of crime.
With each of these interviews a unique and individualized relationship develops over time. Some men take months to open up, others are swift to respond but then drop off. Some start out reluctant, some with mind games, some see a woman they think is malleable and naïve.
I have had some of the most bizarre things said to me over the years, from a serial rapist demanding I listen to his ideas on color blindness to a murderer serving two life terms in solitary screaming at me, "You are a shark Bethany. You are a shark that smiled and showed his teeth like Finding Fucking Nemo."
One convicted rapist in a federal prison took the manipulation to a new and terrifying level by giving my number to a fellow sex offender who had been released from prison. My phone rang and a gravelly gruff voice opened the conversation with, "I'm a pedophile and an alcoholic." After hanging up, I researched the caller: a man many consider to be a likely culprit in the murder of a little girl.
All of these men share a thread of violence, savagery, and destruction. And after years on the job, one commonality always rings true: a brokenness, a loneliness, an absence of love or guidance. A lack of ever having been heard.
One time, a murderer sent me a letter after our interview concluded. He had never previously given an interview and thanked me for taking the time to interview him. He said that he had made up his mind to commit suicide, that he had made the necessary arrangements, and was going to use my piece as a last goodbye—but now that he had spoken with me about his crime, he could see the light at the end of the tunnel, he said. He had found, through talking and being listened to, some reprieve from the degradation of his childhood.
That's why I do this, why I look the monsters square in the eye—to confirm the belief that, deep down, they're men, too.
Bethany Jones is a host of the podcast The Queens of Crime, which can be found on iTunes and any android platform.