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Book Review   |    
Looking Into the Eyes of a Killer: A Psychiatrist's Journey Through the Murderer's World
William J. Warnken, Psy.D.
Psychiatric Services 1999; doi:
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by Drew Ross, M.D.; New York City, Plenum Press, 1998, 270 pages, $26.95

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When I was asked to review Looking Into the Eyes of a Killer, my first reaction was to cringe and attempt to beg off. Because of the sensational and titillating title, I was concerned that this book, like others that have recently made their way to bookstores across America, would be a vehicle for the author to thump his chest with as much male bravado as he could muster to claim that he, and only he, had the clinical prowess to delve into the psyche of a murderer. I was also worried that he would describe the individuals who committed these crimes in clichés and generalizations in order to sell more books. And I feared that the author had only limited forensic experience and that the book would be a superficial and inaccurate representation of my profession, my colleagues' professionalism, and the legal system. Thankfully, all of my concerns proved unwarranted.

In Looking Into the Eyes of a Killer, Dr. Drew Ross relies on his years of experience as a forensic psychiatrist to provide readers with a thoughtful and genuine look at individuals who have committed a homicide. Dr. Ross uses case vignettes to articulate the personal struggles of the murderers he has worked with and evaluated and to illustrate the psychiatric factors that contributed to their crimes. His sensitive portrayal of their childhood abuse and neglect makes clear what those who work with this population already know: that perpetrators have also frequently been victims of violence. But while Dr. Ross is empathic to his patients' past histories of victimization, deprivation, abuse, and ongoing (and often unmet) treatment needs, he does not excuse them or attempt to exculpate them from responsibility for their violent acts.

The bleak picture he paints of these patients' backgrounds is equaled only by his portrayal of the often primitive and dreary correctional environments where these inmates, many of whom suffer from a mental illness, reside. To the layperson, Dr. Ross' depiction of correctional settings may seem to exaggerate the often austere conditions. However, as a psychologist who has worked in the correctional system as both an evaluator and a treating clinician, I was struck by the realism of his descriptions of many of these facilities. Although the newer correctional facilities may offer brighter and cleaner environments, Dr. Ross implies that the attitudes of many of the staff toward these inmates are unfortunately still antiquated and in need of repair.

Dr. Ross also offers an incisive and thought-provoking assessment of his own struggles working at the ill-defined boundaries between psychiatry and the law. He processes the lessons he learned from his academic training and his professional and personal experiences, and he integrates them with his current thoughts on the relationship between psychiatry and the law and his disillusionment with the role of psychiatry within the system. Even though at times I found his exploration of his own childhood experiences to be tedious and unnecessary, at other times it deepened the understanding of the complex issues involved in practicing forensic psychiatric. Through this processing Dr. Ross illustrates how these issues affect not only the psychiatrist as a forensic practitioner but the person who is the forensic psychiatrist.

Dr. Warnken is a forensic psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.




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