Thursday, May 7, 2009

Craigslist Killer

I’ve been thinking about the “Craigslist Killer,” that once-promising young medical student in Boston who stands accused of killing one woman and robbing others he met on areas of Craigslist reserved for seeking sexual favors.

The story is fascinating because it runs counter to all our expectations. Here’s a good-looking guy with an attractive fiancee and a bright future, and what appears to be a typically middle-class American background. He didn’t seem to lack anything. And yet ultimately, if the charges are true, he lacked something very basic at his core.

There have been continuing revelations about his online sexcapades. The primary motive in the crimes may have been robbery, but certainly there was some sexual activity, given his alleged proclivity for keeping the victims’ underwear. To me, the episode is a lesson in how supremely creepy things can get when desire becomes detached from humanity -- when the desirer entirely objectifies others and ceases to think of them as individuals, as humans.

A couple of years ago Greg Kinnear starred in a screen biopic of Bob Crane, the actor best known as Hogan in “Hogan’s Heroes.” In the movie, Crane started out in the early 1960s as a family man with a mischievous interest in sexual adventure -- light pornography and that sort of thing. By the end of the film, the guy was utterly consumed by porn and swinging, to the point that he couldn’t behave properly in public. His sensibilities had become so skewed that he was incapable of everyday interaction. And indeed, he was killed by someone he met through these dark sexual adventures.

I am no puritan when it comes to porn. It’s a fact of daily life, and certainly online life, and I would not want to see it censored or subjected to some ninny’s idea of what’s acceptable. Free speech reigns supreme.

The danger -- ironically similar to the dangers posed by religion as I expressed them recently -- is in the extremes. When people can’t guide their desires, and allow themselves to be swept away, they become detached from themselves and from others. They lose all sense of humanity. Our culture fosters this kind of thing through not only porn but oversexualized images in advertising and the easy sex available through sites like Craigslist.

I think that’s what happened to the Craigslist guy. He lost his moorings. Why it happens to some people and not others, I can only guess -- I suspect it has something to do with lacking a strong sense of identity. If indeed he is guilty, perhaps that's what’s missing at his core.

(Photo: Ghosts and monsters in the Financial District, April 2009)


  1. This is frightening because the guy seems like just a normal guy on the road to a bright future -- working toward a promising career with a wife in the making.

    I keep thinking about this from the standpoint of his fiance -- how she must feel as she recreates the history of their relationship in her mind and then throws in his likely additional activities. She may need some serious counseling to get beyond this period of her life.

    For him I have very little sympathy. But you are right, it is a most unusual case because he simply does not fit our profile of a sex killer.

  2. P.S. Maybe this is why we are all being asked to have a background check done in the program for which I volunteer! :)

  3. Maybe because of movies, we tend to think in terms of weird-looking or otherwise 'identifiable' types when these stories come up.

    Yet, from my own experience with a heavy-duty harasser and stalker many years ago, there's no outward signal flashing a warning. In this instance, the man was my boss, apparently very together, personable and smart. The only problem at first was his unwillingness (or incapacity?) to see any issue whatsoever from another perspective than his own. As if others didn't truly exist, in the same sense as he did - which ties into your ' self-identity' issue, maybe?

    So sad for the Craiglist fellow's victims - and, as Barbara writes, for his fiancée too.

    Wishing you a pleasant day, with brighter thoughts along the way, Steve.

  4. You are so smart! I love this analysis and concur absolutely. Everyone has their quirks - but go too far into your quirks and you "lose your moorings."

    Thanks for this bit of wisdom. Wow.

  5. R.L. - Narcissism is another form of what Steve is talking about. The inability to draw a boundary between your own world view and the views of others actually detaches you from others. I've known plenty of abusive narcissists. They're scary!

  6. (excuse the boarding house reach, Steve): Thanks, Reya, that's probably the best way to describe it - as if others simply didn't exist as separate entities. Describes my former boss to a T.

  7. What you say is absolutely true ... but I think it's important to remember that it happens in both directions. When one falls out of the mainstream, he can become a dissolute libertine, or he can bury himself in repression and inhibition. And frankly, I think the latter is more dangerous.

  8. Very true, Mark -- extremes are dangerous in either direction.

  9. I love this post.

    My gut feeling is that this guy was never allowed to grow through the typical deviant teenager stage when he was young, and his actions recently are a manifestation of that. No understanding of how to dissect reality from fantasy, or where he personally belongs in either. The whole thing reminds me of the Christian Bale movie, American Psycho. Bleah!

    I remember growing up, when other members of the family would get in trouble for having porn magazines all over the place, Mom would reinforce to me that she didn't really give a hoot if I had magazines like that. I distinctly remember being told, "As long as you understand that real women aren't like that." As a result, I never had any real urge to hoard the stuff and slink around with it. What was the point if it’s not how people really are? Why would I want to see pictures the “Hot Dog Vender and the Total Stranger” get freaky on the street corner, if the reality is that generally the Hot Dog Vender really just wants to sell a hot dog, and the Stranger just wants something to eat, and “freaky” is something that’s not usually on the menu? That lesson really stuck.

    It’s an important lesson…and one I bet the Craigslist dude didn’t quite grasp…and it’s a lesson that isn’t just about nudie magazines. I'm not advocating censorship either, but information alone with no context can be a scary thing. People begin to only think that their definition of normal is everyone’s definition of normal.

    Barbara hit the nail on the head…I really feel for the fiancé.

  10. I think people have a sense of powerlessness and they are looking for something they can control.

  11. The "Craiglist killer" is a sad testament to the dangers of excess and the internet. And a reminder that the greatest danger may be in a benign package, not the creepy looking guy lurking in the corner.

    I thought the Bob Crain/Greg Kinear film "Hard Focus" was one of the best and saddest portraits of how a decent, likable person can go on such a wrong path. It doesn't happen overnight, and the warning signs often don't come forward until it's too late to turn back.