Elizabeth Untama / Gavel Media

The Minds Behind Mindhunter Come to Boston College

Boston College professor Ann Burgess discussed her research and the role it played in inspiring the Netflix original series Mindhunter this Monday at Robsham Theater.

Burgess, accompanied by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Unit Chief of Behavioral Science, John Douglas, gave a presentation on the criminal profiling system that they developed nearly 50 years ago. This system is still used by the FBI today.

Moderated by assistant clerk at the Plymouth County (Mass.) Superior Court, Brian Griffin, the presentation discussed the work Burgess and her team performed in the '70s, as well as how it inspired the hit 2017 television drama.  

Burgess was already well accredited in the world of behavioral science when she was approached by the FBI. She was involved in establishing one of the nation’s first hospital-based rape crisis counseling programs at Boston City Hospital. After spending a year meeting with 146 rape victims, Burgess co-published an article on rape victims in emergency wards in The American Journal of Nursing.

Soon after her article was published, William Webster, the head of the FBI at the time, invited Burgess to help construct a rape investigation course and to join the FBI’s new criminal profiling unit. In the late 1970’s, Burgess worked with investigators such as Douglas and Robert Ressler to study serial murderers in order to recognize trends and patterns linking evidence from sexual crimes to criminal intention.   

Prior to the creation of the criminal profiling unit, Douglas and Ressler travelled across the country to educate police departments on the contemporary research in the area of criminal psychology.

In their free time, Douglas and Ressler visited prisons and interviewed high profile serial rapists and murderers such as Edmund Kemper—a man known for the murder of at least eight young women as well as his mother and his grandparents.

It was not until later, with the help of professor Burgess, that the team was able to receive the funding necessary to formalize their research and treat it as an academic field of study.  

The discussion shed some light on the accuracy of the show Mindhunter, which was inspired by Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, a book was co-authored by Douglas and another member of the original FBI team, Mark Olshaker.  

Douglas applauded the show for its considerably accurate depiction of the true events it is based on. Actor Cameron Britton’s portrayal of Edmund Kemper was highly praised multiple times throughout the discussion. 

During the presentation, audience members had the opportunity to view clips from the Netflix series as well as portions of a taped interview with the real Edmund Kemper. This footage had never before been available to the public and the resemblance between the actor and his real life counterpart was haunting.

However, Douglas and Burgess both pointed out that there are some differences between the show and reality. The drama depicts Holden Roberts, the character inspired by Agent John Douglas, Wendy Carr, inspired by Professor Ann Burgess, and Jim Tench, inspired by Agent Robert Ressler, as being astounded when funding was awarded to their project. When asked if they were surprised they’d received funding, Douglas simply replied, “No, not at all.”

As the seminar came to a close, Griffin asked Burgess and Douglas how their work had changed the field of criminal investigation. Douglas stated that police have become more aware and active. Burgess added that this is particularly true in the field of rape investigation.

They also added that analysis of crime scenes and profiling has become more effective. For example, animal cruelty, an absent father, and abuse are all used as indicators of the potential for an individual to become a serial offender.  

In a brief Q&A following the discussion, an audience member and Brookline juvenile forensics case manager, commented on how much the field of forensic psychology has progressed in identifying risk factors in youth due to the work of Douglas and Burgess’ team.

However, this audience member also asked Burgess and Douglass to speak to the majority of juvenile offenders who do not become serial offenders in adulthood. Douglas responded, “You can’t believe that junk that everyone who’s abused will become a violent anything, however, of all the people we’ve interviewed, almost without exception, you see that [commonality] in their background.”

While nearly all serial criminals share common experiences, not all those who experience these risk-factors—a term used in the field of psychology meaning influences potentially leading to dangerous behavior—will become serial rapists and murderers.

The event concluded with a reception in the Heights Room where attendees had the opportunity to meet and speak with Burgess and Douglas.  Other members of the original team were also present, including Connell School of Nursing professor emeritus Carol Hartman and Douglas' co-author, Mark Olshaker.

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