the black box

The mind is a black box with known input and output—its inner workings shrouded in mystery—its motives difficult to judge.

In my work as a forensic psychiatrist, I’m often called upon to pierce that darkness and assess an individual’s competency to stand trial or his mental state at the time of an offence.

Lately, I’ve extended my practice to include offender profiling because, contrary to popular lore, few profilers have any background in psychiatry, let alone psychological sciences.

Admittedly, it’s sometimes more an art than a science, but mostly, it’s a horrifying glimpse into the depravity of the human soul.

Outside the shelter of human society, nature is unprincipled, and the fugitives who travel the periphery are the ones most to be feared.


“There was another murder and mutilation last night.”

Tom Hendry looked exhausted. He was the supervising agent for the FBI’s Violent Crimes unit and was chasing after a serial killer, but always several steps behind.

“I take it there was no forensic evidence.”

Tom’s jaw clenched. “There never is, Martin—that’s why it’s so hard to get a handle, let alone get ahead of this.”

I shook my head. Four deaths—all victims dying in the apparent safety of their homes—all crime scenes with no evidence of forced entry.

I stared out the window at the New York skyline as if seeking an answer. Every murder was a mutilation—Mastectomy, in females and castration or removal of the penis in males—and in both sexes, the bloodless, laser-like removal of the tongues and eyes of the deceased.

“It’s like those cattle mutilations they talk about on those UFO shows,” Tom concluded. “Do you think we’re dealing with a cult?”

“It’s possible, but we’d just be guessing—we’ve got nothing to go on.”

He slammed the heel of his fist on the table. “Damn it, Martin—I feel like we’re dealing with a demon rather than a person.”

“Look Tom, I understand your frustration, but we need to check the background of our victims—look for common acquaintances, clubs and organizations—that kind of thing.”

“You’re right,” he relented. “Lacking forensics, we have to look for other links.”

I tried to sound the voice of reason.

“I admit he’s been clever and careful so far, but there’s no perfect crime—only imperfect methods of detecting. We’ve got to get outside the lines on this one. Hell, even his choice of victims seems random.”

I was speaking more to assuage my own fears—I knew profiling was based on the assumption that there was a predictive pattern to criminal behavior. In this instance, I wasn’t so sure.


Two more murder/mutilations occurred before we got our first break. A concealed Nanny Cam captured the grisly details of the slaying of a single mother in Queens. I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the first grainy images of the killer.

At least I now knew we were dealing with a flesh and blood human being.

The killer was fastidious—clad head to toe in protective gear like a surgeon, or a lab technician in a clean room. He worked with antiseptic proficiency, even harvesting the blood.

“Great,” Tom grumbled, “We’ve got an anonymous human and a partial M.O. of his crime. How he gets in and leaves undetected, we have no idea.”

“Why not run the parking tags for all the crime scenes?” I suggested “—That’s how we caught Son of Sam.”

“Already on it,” Tom smiled.

The next day, they had a match and within minutes arrested a young male university student, living at home with his parents in Yonkers.


My first glimpse of the killer was disappointing in a way. I’m not sure what I expected. I supposed his physical appearance would be deformed in proportion to his crimes—it wasn’t.

He looked non-descript, even banal. His name was Henry Jenkins—it might as well have been John Smith. There was nothing remarkable in him that we should fear him—and that, for me, was reason enough to be astonished.

He was polite and cooperative—soft-spoken and even reserved in his manner. He was dressed impeccably and well groomed. Even his fingernails were manicured.

There was nothing at all in him that we should take note of him and that caused me great alarm. Already the police guards seemed bored and unimpressed.

He admitted to all the crimes. The Prosecutor seemed underwhelmed.

At the bail hearing, only a handful of reporters were present and no throngs of curious on-lookers—just the usual tired, bored courtroom crowd.

Jenkins was remanded without bail and passed off to the jails with about as much thought as one gives to the ticket taker in the subway or the bus driver on the way to work.

When I interviewed him, I found myself stifling a yawn.

“Why did you murder these six people, Henry?”

He paused and gave the question some thought.

“I guess I did it because I could. I saw a TV show on cattle mutilations and wondered what would happen if someone tried it with humans–so I did.”

It was as if a little voice inside my head said, Next.

Apart from the chilling proficiency with which the victims had been murdered and then mutilated, there was nothing extraordinary about the crimes. Jenkins didn’t so something spectacular like mail the victims’ genitalia to their family or the press—he was just a bland, average fellow.

He killed perfect strangers, simply because he wanted to.

He wasn’t a loner or motivated by sex. He wasn’t abused as a child or driven by a compulsion to kill or a need to get caught. Most significantly, he wasn’t an evil genius or brilliant or even insane.

Henry Jenkins was just an ordinary man who did one extraordinary thing—and then repeated it seven times.

He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Even the description of his crime—aggravated murder—seemed a bit extreme, seeing as there was nothing extreme about Henry Jenkins at all.

That Christmas, he sent me a card. I almost felt I should include him on my list, poor fellow, wasting his life walled up forever.

Immuring people seemed so primitive, I thought.


Yesterday, I was on my way to work when I passed a truckload of pigs bound for the slaughterhouse. I began to cry—in fact, I had to pull off the road and throw up.

It was the first time it hit me—this normalization of unthinkable acts—made to appear acceptable because it’s part of our routine.

I imagined trainloads of Jews bound for Auschwitz, herded like cattle and transported to be gassed. The men driving the train, or processing the prisoners, or turning on the gas jets were acting according to routine.

Even the men operating the earthmovers and digging mass graves were not necessarily conscious of doing terrible things—as long as those things were done in an orderly and systematic way.

Even living in the twenty-first century with our nuclear weaponry and chemical and biological weapons feels normal. Watching on TV mainly defenseless Iraqis being killed during the siege of Baghdad and generals joking about the ease of their slaughter, now seems offensive to me.

Henry Jenkins is living out his life without possibility of parole. It seems cruel and unusual punishment to me.

He’s a nice fellow. I’ll send him a Christmas card next year.

© 2012 – 2013, John J Geddes. All rights reserved.

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