Dr. Park Dietz must have one hell of a bedside manner. A forensic psychiatrist who's interviewed, and testified at the trials of, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Hinckley, Andrea Yates, and many of the most notorious murderers of the last 30 years, Dietz is an expert at deciding whether the perpetrators of violent and unusual crimes were sane at the time they committed them, and he's known for his ability to understand the extremes of human behavior from the inside out. Last night, I caught a documentary on A & E called Conversations With Killers, in which Dietz recalls his intimate encounters with some of the most infamous criminals of our time.
The special, which will be re-aired on July 2 at 5 p.m ET, is a low-budget, bare-bones affair that looks at first like your typical basic-cable exploitation programming. (It even has that spooky America's Most Wanted-style music playing throughout, as if the horror of real-life serial murder needed to be punched up with some twangy bass chords.) But Dietz is such a fascinating interview subject that none of the trappings matter. In a TV landscape riddled with fictional serial killers, the reminder that such people really do exist, and that someone out there knows how to get inside their heads, is more chilling than any episode of Cold Case or CSI.
Park Dietz has testified in so many high-profile trials that, according to one colleague, "the buildup to him showing up in the courtroom is kind of like a rock star coming to town." But his pet case—the one he describes as the most fascinating of his career, and that takes up a good third of this hourlong doc—was that of Jeffrey Dahmer, with whom who he seems to have established a unique and grisly bond. He describes Dahmer as "extremely cooperative in talking about the most personal, sensitive kind of details" and says that their work together felt like a "joint exploration." But Dietz is no touchy-feely therapy type, eager to help a mass murderer cop an insanity plea; he almost invariably testifies on the side of the prosecution (as he did in Dahmer's trial), and he believes that, except in very rare cases, "almost everyone's responsible for everything they do almost all the time."
Dietz views paraphilias, or deviant sexual appetites, less as pathologies than variants on normal sexual desires, which, if the murderer wanted to, he could sublimate in other ways. He even has practical suggestions for how to channel your perversions so as not to become a serial killer (and he deeply believes in the connection between witnessing sexual violence on film and committing it in real life). At one point, describing the origins of Dahmer's paraphilia in an adolescence spent collecting dead animals from the woods and incorporating them into his sexual fantasies, Dietz allows himself a moment of gallows humor: "That's a mistake. A public service message would be, 'Don't think about roadkill as you masturbate.' " Public service message? Hell, I'm embroidering that on a pillow.
At times, Dietz, who is known for his uncannily accurate memory on the stand, seems to admire Dahmer's impressive recall of each of the 17 murders he committed over a period of 13 years. "We talked about every crime he committed in exquisite detail," he says, recalling questions like, "How did you make sure the knife didn't glint in the moonlight? ... What did the blood taste like when you ate that?" The two even watched some of Dahmer's favorite movies together, including gay porn, Hellraiser III, and one of the Star Wars movies. "He really loved the power that Darth Vader had to intimidate and influence those around him," muses Dietz, as we're shown a creepy drawing Dahmer made for Dietz of an altar he wanted to build from the painted skulls of his victims.
Even though his testimony that Dahmer could have chosen not to kill was key in successfully shooting down the insanity defense, Dietz obviously still feels something for the disturbed young man who opened up to him about his crimes. When Dahmer was murdered in jail after serving only two years of his life sentence, Dietz confesses, "I was sad. ... Maybe his dad and I were the only ones that were sad, but I was. I give people a lot of credit when they come forth with the whole truth."
I could listen to Park Dietz talk all day, but I'm not sure I'd want to have him over for dinner (no Dahmer pun intended). His identification with the depths of human depravity, and the level of intuition and empathy he feels for his clients, is so extreme that it feels, at times, like a kind of love. At one point, Dietz reveals that, though Dahmer was never handcuffed during their three days of interviews together, he never felt any sense of threat. Asked why, he responds with a barely perceptible smile: "Well, I'm not his type."