Elizabeth Untama / Gavel Media

Ann Wolbert Burgess: CSON's Own Living Legend

When the elevator doors part on the third floor of Maloney Hall, multiple stained glass panels lining an office wall just beyond a pair of translucent double doors are revealed. The office doors open with little resistance, exposing depictions of saints whose lives and works are directly connected to the practice of nursing, and serve as a vital link to a cherished past as the Connell School of Nursing continues to progress in research and academia.

Elizabeth Untama / Gavel Media

Down a long corridor lies the office of Professor Ann Wolbert Burgess, DNSc, APRN, FAAN. Stepping through its threshold, the back wall seems to be held up by a series of bookshelves packed with assorted texts, data, and ongoing research. The opposite wall is bare of any furniture, but is neatly adorned with a myriad of hung plaques. The plaques serve as well-deserved praise for an internationally recognized pioneer in the assessment and treatment of victims of trauma and abuse. Professor Burgess has received numerous honors including the Sigma Theta Tau International Audrey Hepburn Award, the American Nurses Association Hildegard Peplau Award, and the Sigma Theta Tau International Episteme Laureate Award. Most recently, she was named a Living Legend in 2016 by the American Academy of Nursing.

Professor Burgess is an extraordinary role model to nurses and their profession because of her groundbreaking work in creating an area of scholarly inquiry and clinical practice related to survivors of sexual abuse. She also practiced interprofessionally, setting an example for an entire generation of nurses to study clinical phenomena in a way that is meaningful to patients. Burgess has sustained incredible contributions to the field for over decades.

One would expect to be intimidated when speaking to someone so accomplished like Professor Burgess;  however, her humility and modesty permeates the room. It is clear that her caring nature has been a driving factor for the majority of her work.  

Prior to the meeting, Burgess was supervising a workout program with veterans in the Flynn Recreation Complex. The Collegiate Warrior Athlete Initiative is a collaborative program that brings post-9/11 veterans into contact with the health, athletic, and educational resources of a college campus in order to improve their fitness and wellness. Veterans are enrolled in a 12-week program that involves bi-weekly workouts followed by a class led by graduate student volunteers. “I had taken a sabbatical down at Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland,” Burgess explains, “This was where veteran spinal cord patients are treated, and in seeing that, I questioned, ‘What could we do in the field of academia to try to help?’”

The program is in its fourth year at Boston College and has been incredibly beneficial, not only to the veterans’ physical health, but to their mental wellbeing. As noted previously, Professor Burgess is not a stranger to the field of psychology and behavioral science. At the masters level, she specialized in psychiatric nursing, with the intention of becoming a nurse psychotherapist. Her research with rape trauma victims began when she co-founded, with Boston College sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom, one of the first hospital-based crisis counseling programs at Boston City Hospital. “[Lynda] was instrumental in this development. She wanted to study rape trauma as well, and she knew it was a problem with women, but she was having trouble finding victims,” Burgess says, “This was not unusual because many women would not come forward. But I knew they came in at the hospital emergency wards, so that’s how we were able to get our project started.”

“What is interesting is that, about the same time that Lynda and I were doing our study, the FBI was being called upon because women were reporting to the rape crisis center,” she continues, “Thus, congress was getting a lot of pressure from women’s groups to do something about the problem upright.” The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time, William Webster, appointed training for agents in lieu of the crisis, but many had little knowledge in treating rape trauma. “One of the detectives in the training center there also happened to be a nurse. She worked weekends in the ER and had just read our first article on rape victims in emergency rooms,” Burgess says, “She spoke about my research to one of the agents, Roy Hazelwood, who was tasked with having to develop the curriculum. He called me up and invited me down to train the FBI agents.”

Much of Burgess’ work in the FBI Academy was with special agents to study serial offenders, and the links between child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and subsequent perpetration. She consulted John E. Douglas, Robert Ressler, and other FBI agents in the Behavioral Science Unit to develop modern psychological profiling for serial killers. Amidst her description of forensic procedures, Professor Burgess points to a thick bound book resting on the surface of her desk. “That is the official data on the initial 36 serial killers,” she explains, “They had such incredible data when I began the serial killer study. When John Douglas retired, he took several of those cases for his book Mindhunter.”

In his book, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, Douglas uses details from interviews he conducted with incarcerated criminals to sketch the personality of a serial killer. Many of the murderers he interviewed had similar backstories and cited similar motivations. He describes how his team, including Professor Burgess, used these similarities to determine possible perpetrators. “The victim was all you had at a crime scene,” Burgess says, “so my work with the FBI Academy took the minimal evidence and worked to profile who the suspect might be.”

Last fall, Douglas’ written work was adopted into a ten-episode Netflix Original Series Mindhunter. The show, produced and partially directed by David Fincher, follows FBI agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) as they travel around the country interviewing serial killers and recording their responses. Eventually they’re joined by Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), a psychology professor in Boston, who helps them develop a system to categorize the killers and possibly predict future behaviors. The show follows their intense endeavors, leaving viewers excitedly anticipating a second season.

Though the characters Ford, Tench, and Carr are loosely based on Douglas, Ressler, and Burgess respectively, there are inaccuracies that accompany the show. “Outside the backgrounds of the key players, most of the characters are created for Hollywood. However, the cases are pretty accurate,” Professor Burgess notes, “They changed some, for example [Jerry] Brudos fetishized specifically red high heels. But if you notice in the show they have black or brown strappy heels.” In the context of the episode, agents Ford and Tench present Brudos with a pair of black stilettos during the interview in order to elicit his subconscious, murderous motivations. “And they would not have allowed an FBI agent to bring that into a prison,” she explains, “But it made a point in the show. You’ll look at high-heeled shoes a little differently now.”

When asked about her portrayal as Dr. Wendy Carr, Professor Burgess provided insight on her cinematic representation. “From an academic standpoint, it is pretty accurate. But not from a personal standpoint,” she says, “What people don’t realize is that the FBI Academy, which is where we did most our work, and FBI Headquarters are two very different things. And actually the agents would come up here to Boston as much as, if not more than, I would go to meet them. We would often work on cases out of my house.” Although the personal lives of Burgess and Carr differ greatly, their roles as prominent female figures in the realm of investigation and research clearly align.

The events depicted in both the written and film adaptations of Mindhunter take place primarily throughout the 1980s. However, much has changed in the sphere of criminal investigation since then. “There has been progress and there hasn’t been progress,” Professor Burgess claims, “At the time, we didn’t have the means for the forensic study of DNA–that has been a real breakthrough.” She pauses and repositions her hands on the table before completing her thought. She exhales slowly and continues, “An area where there hasn’t been much progress is that many more victims don’t report than do report. It’s still hard for women to come forward, they’re not sure if they’re going to be believed. It’s still somewhat in an old way of thinking.”

Sexual harassment and assault has long plagued college campuses and workplaces, most recently spotlighted in the current government administration and in Hollywood. The “Me Too” movement spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag used on social media to help demonstrate the widespread prevalence of such sexual disturbances. The movement has built a community of survivors from all walks of life. By bringing vital conversations about sexual violence into the mainstream, it helps to de-stigmatize survivors by highlighting the impact sexual violence has on thousands of women. “What you find there is the ‘group phenomenon'–that once one comes forward, it’s going to be easier for others to come forward,” Professor Burgess explains, “Oftentimes multiple women are confronting the same perpetrator. They are confronting ‘serial offenders,’ if you will.”

If a victim does happen to come forward, Burgess recommends a particular procedural conversation: “If someone does come forward, you want to get them to somebody who can help them. It is important to be open and say ‘I’m glad you could tell me that’ and ‘Let’s talk about what to do next.’ It’s important that you are not telling them what to do, but you are going to help them come up with a decision that they can make. Because they have to be the one to make that decision.”

Professor Burgess clearly cares for the victims from which her research benefits, just as she has a deep consideration for the wellbeing of her students. She has taught courses in Victimology, Forensic Science, Forensic Mental Health, and Case Studies in Forensics. Her eyes light up when asked about the young men and women in her courses and those that accompany her in research. “The students are very hardworking and driven,” Burgess explains enthusiastically, “Our nursing students do a lot because they have the clinical as well as the academic aspect to keep up. They have a double load that the average student doesn’t necessarily have.”

“Nursing has really been a front runner on [rape trauma research] because they are the ones in the hospitals and emergency rooms doing the rape victim care. And then they are able to go into court and can testify,” she continues. Professor Burgess explains how the profession of nursing has grown in the past few decades, from what was primarily a female-dominated occupation, to a diverse, academically motivated career. Nurses being at the forefront of research and publishing journals regarding important topics has changed the healthcare system at large.

She adds a few words of guidance for nursing students to help steer them in the correct path towards future success. “Students of the Connell School should strive to remain well-connected with other non-nursing students so that they can get a nice overview of the different types of education that we have here at Boston College,” she advises, “I stress the importance of networking in different fields because once you all graduate, you’ll all be able to help each other to further your careers.”

However, the networking that brought Professor Burgess into her field of study is not limited to nursing students alone. Students of varying academic realms should explore opportunities outside their areas of expertise. “You never know not only what direction your career will go, but what people you meet along the way who can inform others about you, who then can get you into the best job situation,” she adds, “That’s really one of my jobs as a professor, to write good reference letters and help my students to their highest potential.”

Ann Wolbert Burgess is a compassionate, driven, and humble individual who truly embodies the goals Boston College sets for its students. She is incredibly intelligent and her contributions to behavioral science and nursing are unmatched. Burgess holds a high regard for the students she educates daily, and for the rape victims whose lives have been changed due to her pure dedication. Inquisitive and analytical in nature, she attributes the success of her endeavors to curiosity and determination: “Always keep your questions coming. Determine what it is you don’t understand. Ask the right questions, and see who can help you find the answers.”