Mindhunter premiered on Netflix to both audience and critical acclaim. It’s become something of the darling of the early Fall season, soaking up the accolades before Stranger Things came along and offering a more grounded nightmare-fuel alternative to the surrealism of American Horror Story. In theory, it’s a television show I’ve been waiting for almost half my life; yet, when my coworkers asked if I’d seen it yet, I had to honestly answer “no.” And when I promised that I’d dive into it, I made it through the first episode before putting down the Roku remote with a dejected sigh. While the rest of the world is just now delving into the fascinating world of the FBI’s profiling program, it lost its luster for me a long time ago—but not before it inalterably affected the trajectory of my life.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Or, rather, I’ve wanted to be a writer since the first grade, when I realized that I was capable of putting down on paper stories that other people not only wanted to read but which they enjoyed. That passion has always been tempered by a sense of practicality, though. I understood from a young age that not everyone who wanted to write got that opportunity, and that even if I were fortunate or blessed enough to have the chance to write, it might be years before it was something that could financially support me, if ever. So while I continued to hone my creative abilities, I was also always on the lookout for a potential vocation. Moving into middle school several adults remarked on my oratory abilities and stubbornness when I thought I was right and recommended that I become a lawyer. The more I heard it the more I saw the logic in it, and by the time high school came around I was set on the law as my future day job. I took all the law classes that were offered; I participated in the mock trial program, where our defense team made it to state quarter-finals and I won an award from the Oklahoma Bar Association. By the time I got to junior year, though, I’d begun to sour on it. I hardly got to display any of the conviction that so many adults had told me would make me a great attorney. My teachers and mock trial coaches wanted quiet, dispassionate arguments. They wanted questions asked in monotone and closing arguments delivered as mundane, just-the-facts rundowns of the case that were all ethos and logos with zero pathos. The legal world, I learned, was much less exciting than so many TV series and non-law teachers had made it seem.
Still, all those law classes and mock trial arguments did have a positive impact: they showed me that my true calling lay in law enforcement. Specifically, criminal profiling.
Concurrent with my last mock trial case—which involved an alleged mercy killing by a hiker who was either the best friend ever or a cold-blooded psychopath—I also enrolled in my first psychology class, which were offered to juniors and seniors. The worlds of criminality and psychology combined and I saw my future unfold. And then I discovered John Douglas and I knew.
Though I’ve always been reticent to have heroes—I saw how much my classmates were let down by O.J. and Magic Johnson and vowed I’d never put that much faith in someone—Douglas was, for a while, the closest thing I had to a hero. I found Journey into Darkness at the used bookstore in Broken Arrow one day while browsing for books on psychology and the law, and I was instantly hooked. If there were ever any doubts about what I wanted to do, they were abated the second I delved into Douglas’ work. Here was someone who had faced off with evil and not just lived to tell the tale, he’d come back with intimate knowledge of evil’s strengths and weaknesses. He’d crippled some of the most wicked men to have ever walked the planet not with a gun or his fists but the awesome powers of his mind, and he got to wear a suit while doing it.
For the next several years I became as ardent a student of Douglas’ as possible. I found all of his books, from Mindhunter to Obsession; I even tracked down copies of the Crime Classification Manual and Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, which made for some awkward conversations with people not aware of my career aspirations. When I got out of high school, my first job was interning for the police department in Broken Arrow, where I was gleefully hand-picked to work in the evidence room. I spent the next 14 months neck-deep in the underbelly of small-town life—which, in a repeat of my earlier experience with the law, more often involved returning stolen property than it did anything superficially exciting. This time around, though, I loved every day—finally, at last, I’d discovered where I belonged. Occasionally I’d bring my John Douglas books to work and my boss and I would discuss them, giving me the benefit of his 20-plus years insight into criminality and law enforcement, and providing his own perspective on Douglas’ thoughts and methods.
I enrolled in college with every intent of pursuing a degree in abnormal psychology. If I weren’t already perceived of as the weird guy, I cemented that reputation when I waxed poetic at parties about disorganized vs. organized serial killers, or offered my theories on who the Zodiac Killer really was. For a while, if you were my friend, you were getting a neatly wrapped copy of The Cases that Haunt Us for your birthday or Christmas. Academically, I excelled. One of my government professors, who’d formerly worked in the intelligence field and had befriended several FBI agents, invited two of them to speak to our class and then asked me to stay after to introduce me to them. It seemed, for a while, that my future was taking shape.
Over time, though, something began to happen—something that’d begun during my time in the evidence room and only worsened from there.
My distrust of others—already finely tuned by my experiences in Catholic school and Oklahoma’s stellar school system—began to increase. At the mall, on vacation, all I saw around me were potential predators. Who was secretly a child molester, a rapist? Were my neighbors planning to rob me? Was that guy who sold pot really just selling pot, or was he also a murderous psycho who’d slit your throat if you crossed him? The world, it seemed, was infinitely filled with infinitely dangerous people. On a surface level, I told myself that this was natural. Not just Douglas but other criminal psychologists whose books I’d read said that this was a natural reaction to immersing oneself in this world. It was maybe even good I was reacting this way—it showed that I had the right mind for my future job. On a deeper level, though—a more logical one—I had to ask: Did it show I had the right mind, or exactly the wrong one? Could I take it?
I made it to senior year when that question was answered for me.
In high school, I’d known a rogue’s gallery of petty criminals and small-town whackos. In the evidence room, I’d touched murder weapons. I’d always known on a basic level the depravity that people were capable of; I’d experienced some of it firsthand. To my knowledge, though, I had never met a true psychopath before—someone utterly incapable of remorse, and willing to do anything to satisfy their own desires, regardless of the consequences to others.
And then I met one.
My sophomore year of college, I slowly came to realize that someone I knew was a textbook psychopath. Not in the flashy, dangerous, exciting way of Hannibal Lecter, but one not far removed from the people Douglas wrote about—the people I was, ostensibly, preparing to work around. For a period of my life in the early 2010s, I had the unique and terrible privilege of studying a psychopath in their natural environment, and seeing firsthand the sort of casual cruelty, manipulation, and wonton evil that one is capable of. No one was safe from their wrath, and when I realized that included me, I knew it was time to check out—in more ways than one. In the grand scheme of things, this person had ruined lives, but they weren’t a killer or a sexual predator (at least to my knowledge). On the sliding scale of criminal depravity they were nowhere near the top—and if being around them had ruined my sleep, disturbed my every waking thought, and driven me to keeping a gun beside my bed, what would working with far more dangerous people do to me? I had the luxury of only being exposed to one run-of-the-mill psycho in small doses. What would happen when it was serious psychos, eight-plus hours a day, five-plus days of the week?
Would I be able to handle it?
I had to be honest with myself: No.
I graduated Cum Laude from Sam Houston State University with a BS in psychology. A professor advised that I look into the university’s MS program. I politely declined. I was one credit short of a minor in biology, so I figured I’d put that to use. A year later, I was working in optics.
I don’t consider my aborted career in criminal psychology a total waste. My experiences in the evidence room taught me discipline, work ethic, and numerous other life lessons I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. I met some great professors in college. If nowhere else, I’ve gotten to apply everything I’ve learned about the depraved mind to my writing. If you’re reading something I’ve written and there’s a disturbed character in there, or even just a troubled one, it’s a safe assumption that it’s a fairly accurate psychological portrayal.
I sold all of my John Douglas books after graduation and didn’t look back. I’d barely even thought of them or him until Hannibal came on the air and I pointed out to my wife that Jack Crawford was based on Douglas, but beyond that, I didn’t give him a second thought. That part of my life was over.
When I learned about the premier of Mindhunter, I reacted with equal parts excitement and melancholy. The part of me that valued the books for their stories—the battle of a brilliant mind against a warped one— was excited at the prospect of seeing them brought to life. The part of me that had looked to them for inspiration mourned the loss of something.
I watched the first episode of Mindhunter two days prior to writing this. I had to pause it at one point out of a nearly palpable discomfort before going on. I saw too much of myself in Holden Ford, the John Douglas analogue—the stubbornness, the terminal squareness, that suit. His dedication was once mine; his desire to save lives and make the world a better place the same as my own. The girl he picks up (or, rather, who picks him up) in the pilot was even startlingly similar to a woman I’d dated in college, in both looks and temperament. There was something just a little bit too real about all of it. Like an episode of Star Trek where someone gets to see an alternate possibility of their own lives from a parallel universe.
Maybe one day down the road I’ll finish the series. Maybe I’ve just been in a mood lately—Fall tends to make me wistful. From what I’ve seen, it’s everything that made me fall in love with Douglas books and the world of criminal psychology in the first place. For now, though, I’ve got to keep away. It’s a little too real; a little too close; a sad reminder of what could have been—but what I wasn’t cut out to do.