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A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind

Review

A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind

If you’ve watched “Mindhunter” on Netflix, you know the basic outline of how the FBI came to create their Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), which, among other things, profiles serial killers in order to assist in their capture and understand their crimes. The series, which fictionalizes the work of three of the unit leads, is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by one of those subjects, FBI agent John Douglas. Another seminal figure of the FBI’s work on serial killers was Ann Wolbert Burgess, and now she shares her own account of the BSU work, the science of profiling, and how she helped examine and try to explain this type of terrifying crime.

It probably goes without saying that A KILLER BY DESIGN is not for the faint of heart: it is grisly and graphic. However, it is also a totally compelling look at crime investigation, extreme psychological disorders, and the contributions of some top-notch scientists and law enforcement specialists. Burgess’ professional life is equally as fascinating, if not more so, than the “Mindhunter” character on which she is loosely based. Burgess holds a doctorate in psychiatric nursing, a field that emerged in the mid-1950s. She became especially interested in victimology and the psychology of violent crimes when she began to recognize the abuse --- often sexual --- suffered by many women in mental institutions, including those convicted of violent crimes themselves.

"...an absorbing and disturbing read, a thoughtful and honest counterbalance to the pop culture fixation on these brutal and complex crimes. And, perhaps above all, it is a testament to the genius of the BSU and Burgess’ focus on the victims and survivors."

The goal of Burgess' early research was to “better understand the emotional and traumatic effects of sexual violence, which often far outlasted the physical effects of the act itself.” This groundbreaking work caught the attention of the agents working at the nascent BSU, and they invited her to join them. However, she was never an FBI agent, and shared her experience and expertise as a contractor. Add to that the fact that Burgess was the only woman on the team --- and, at the time, one of the only women working for the FBI in an expert capacity --- and her story gets even more interesting.

In its basement offices in Quantico starting in the late 1970s, the BSU began interviewing serial killers in prison to create criminal profiles that could be of use in identifying and apprehending others like them as quickly as possible. Their work was at once urgent and slow going. It was urgent when they were called into cases where a serial killer was suspected, and they raced to save lives. It also was slow going as, over the years, they refined their techniques, clarified their concepts and articulated their ideas. They always reviewed and examined evidence, interviewed the country’s most terrifying murderers, and shared what they learned with FBI agents and others in law enforcement.

The BSU developed some of the fundamental methods and concepts of criminal profiling. Even as America’s interest in and romanticizing of serial killers grew, Burgess and the others worked to fully understand the mental health of the perpetrators and analyzed their pathological issues of control and fantasy. Chapter by chapter, she introduces cases that were fundamental to the work of the BSU --- not to sensationalize, but to illuminate where psychiatry and law enforcement came together to create new methodologies for profiling and categorizing serial murders in the hopes of saving lives.

A KILLER BY DESIGN is unflinching and horrifying, a clinical yet humane intersection of true crime, science writing and memoir, and the reflections on a career of a woman doing innovative and unprecedented work. Much of what the layperson has in mind when they think of profiling or the investigations of murders is based on the work of Burgess and her amazing BSU colleagues. This is an absorbing and disturbing read, a thoughtful and honest counterbalance to the pop culture fixation on these brutal and complex crimes. And, perhaps above all, it is a testament to the genius of the BSU and Burgess’ focus on the victims and survivors.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 17, 2021

A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind
by Ann Wolbert Burgess and Steven Matthew Constantine

  • Publication Date: December 7, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hachette Books
  • ISBN-10: 0306924862
  • ISBN-13: 9780306924866