The serial killer has been the subject of countless novels, movies and works of nonfiction, and the names of the most infamous are well-known. Psychological and medical theories abound on what made them that way and what defines a serial killer as opposed to a mass murderer. But it is not often that we get the chance to read what they have to say about themselves. Although this insight is not exactly the point of Pete Earley's latest exploration of true crime, it is one of its most compelling features. The awkwardly titled THE SERIAL KILLER WHISPERER tells the story of Tony Ciaglia, who, after suffering from a traumatic brain injury, began to take an interest in men and women who committed the most horrific of crimes.
"THE SERIAL KILLER WHISPERER is a provocative tale and a frightening look at real-life boogeymen. Fans of true crime won't be disapointed."
At age 15, at summer camp, Ciaglia was hit by a wave runner and pronounced clinically dead before he reached the hospital. Resuscitated, he fell into a coma. When he woke up, he was partially paralyzed and had to relearn how to walk and talk. His physical and mental recovery was amazing, but the damage to his frontal lobe was permanent. It was soon apparent that his personality was different and his emotional state fragile. Returning to a normal life as a teenager proved impossible, and over time Ciaglia became more and more socially isolated and depressed. After coming across information about serial killers online, he decided to write to them in prison. The result was a unique correspondence and set of strange relationships.
Though Ciaglia wrote to many killers, he developed strong emotional ties to three in particular: Arthur Shawcross, Joe Methany and David Gore. He became especially close to Shawcross, known as the Genesee River Killer, known to have killed 12 people but suspected in even more murders. In fact, Shawcross and Ciaglia often referred to each other as “best friend.” Over the years, Ciaglia came to identify with the killers; the rage and isolation they felt was familiar to him. Some told him to stay strong and rely on his supportive family, while others encouraged him to act on his darkest urges. In the end, Ciaglia realized he would never be a killer or really understand the lack of empathy and remorse these men felt. And eventually he decided that perhaps his relationships with these men could help solve cold cases or locate the remains of others the serial killers claimed to have killed.
Ciaglia’s story is engrossing, and the letters he exchanged with the serial killers are frightening and even disgusting. The exchange of letters and the tense relationships they symbolized make up the bulk of Earley’s book. There is a compelling examination of Ciaglia’s disabilities, but Earley doesn’t soundly connect the idea of traumatic brain injury and the extreme lack of social and emotional filters exhibited by the killers. This connection would’ve taken the book from interesting to fascinating, but Earley misses that opportunity. He never really defines serial killing or the particular psychology or pathology that may help to explain the behavior recounted in the book.
Another problem is the resolution. Though it seems to be heading toward cases being solved and Ciaglia capitalizing on the information he was able to gain from his gruesome pen pals, very little actually results from the contents of the letters. However, Ciaglia’s intentions and his work in drawing out the killers and gaining their trust have allowed law enforcement to come at some cases with new and essential information. In that way, the correspondence has a wider value.
Though lacking some insight that could’ve made this book great, THE SERIAL KILLER WHISPERER is a provocative tale and a frightening look at real-life boogeymen. Fans of true crime won't be disapointed. It’s a scary book, written in a neat journalistic style, sure to keep readers up late at night with all the lights on.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 26, 2012