Getting Close to a Killer

This review of Martha Elliot's The Man in the Monster: An Intimate Portrait of a Serial Killer appeared first at The National Book Review.

My passion for grisly narratives about killers started in high school, when my journalism teacher recommended that I read In Cold Blood, Truman Capote's seminal account of the murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. I think she mainly wanted to shake me up a bit. I was a cautious, straight-laced kid growing up in a tranquil Baltimore suburb. If nothing else, Capote's 1965 book showed how lives like mine could be violently shattered by the murderous impulses of men like Dick Hickok and Perry Smith.

Beyond the story of the Clutters, Capote's approach and style felt original to me. He turned to the techniques traditionally associated with fiction and rendered dramatic scenes crammed with dialogue and detail. Other such books found their way onto my bookshelves: Joseph Wambaugh's The Onion Field, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, and Joe McGinniss's Fatal Vision. To me, these seemed a cut above the true-crime books one found in the supermarket (although I read plenty of those, too). They were products of herculean reporting efforts, but also of a new willingness of writers to involve themselves in the stories they were telling.

This new genre, of course, attracted its share of critics. In the case of McGinniss, his relationship with Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the convicted murder who was the subject of Fatal Vision, was scrutinized not only in Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, but also in Errol Morris's A Wilderness of Error. Malcolm's book begins with the now-famous maxim: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

I thought about Malcolm's assertion more than once as I read Martha Elliott's excellent new book, The Man in the Monster: An Intimate Portrait of a Serial Killer. As its title indicates, the book explores the gruesome misdeeds of a murderer (and rapist), but it is also an extended reflection on how and why one might write about, and even befriend, such people. On both counts, it is an admirable success.

Elliott's subject is Michael Ross, who raped and murdered eight young women between 1981 and 1984. The Man in the Monster isn't a whodunit or a tale of wrongful conviction. Ross definitely committed these crimes: when police caught him, he admitted his guilt. He later received six life sentences for the murders he committed in Connecticut (two others occurred in New York and were never fully prosecuted). Ross spent two decades in prison as the "machinery of death," in Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's memorable phrase, slowly ground forward. Following a predictably lengthy and tangled legal battle, the state finally executed him in 2005.

As killers go, Ross was not especially dynamic or captivating. Elliot describes an apparently unremarkable man who grew up on a chicken farm, attended Cornell, and later sold insurance. Initially, I was disappointed by Ross' relative banality; I have to confess I was hoping to find a Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy -- in short, someone spectacularly evil. Over time, however, I came to understand that this apparent blandness made Ross' crimes all the more horrifying. Here was someone who seemed like a regular guy, even after his crime spree commenced -- and yet he was capable of the most detestable acts imaginable.

Much of The Man in the Monster is devoted to determining how an apparently mild-mannered person could morph into a serial killer, and to what extent he should be held legally accountable. Elliott is unequivocal in answering the latter question: Ross was mentally ill when he killed his victims and this legally "mitigating factor," she insists, should have spared him from the death penalty. Doctors who examined Ross were unanimous in concluding that he suffered from "sexual sadism," which the American Psychiatric Association defines as the "recurrent and intense sexual arousal from the physical or psychological suffering of another person, as manifested by fantasies, urges, or behaviors."

Martha Elliott became interested in Ross's case while editing and reporting for the Connecticut Law Tribune, and in 1995 she commenced a friendship -- her term for their complex relationship -- that lasted until his execution a decade later. She is admirably candid in describing how strange and emotionally wrenching it was to get to know Ross over that period. This is really the heart of The Man in the Monster -- the story of the reporter trying to fully fathom both the humanity of her infamous subject and the intricacies of the legal system in which he is ensnared.

What confounds Elliott -- and the reader -- is that Ross usually seems so normal when he interacts with her. A drug regimen mostly quells his sexual sadism, and with a clear mind he is able to consider his crimes and their impact. He seems to be genuinely horrified that the "monster" within him wreaked such havoc -- not only on his victims, but also on their families. Indeed, he resists efforts to delay his execution ostensibly because he hopes to spare the families additional grief.

Is Elliott, in Janet Malcolm's parlance, a manipulative "confidence [wo]man" who betrays Ross's trust? It would seem not. Her account shows a reporter who is remarkably frank with both her subject and herself during the course of reporting and composing the book. She does not mince words when confronting Ross with his crimes, and she reflects meaningfully on why she might be drawn to reporting on such disturbing and macabre subject matter. One can't help but be impressed by her honesty.

This is not to say, however, that The Man in the Monster provides clear or easy answers to the thorny legal and ethical issues raised by Ross' case. Indeed, one of the book's strengths is Elliott's candor about her ongoing confusion in dealing with Ross. She hopes to humanize the killer without seeming to exonerate him or dishonor his victims, which is no small feat. And she must maintain her personal life while dealing with Ross' increasingly complex needs. (One of the most wrenching parts of Elliott's story occurs when one of her children, frustrated by the attention she has lavished on Ross, sputters, "You care more about a serial killer than your own son.")

If there is a villain in Elliott's account, it probably is not Ross but rather the imperfect criminal justice system that is unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge that he suffers from a legitimate mental illness. Although the book is not primarily a jeremiad aimed at exposing the shortcomings of the death penalty, Elliott makes it clear that she believes Ross' life, though inarguably flawed, was worth sparing. Not every reader will reach a similar conclusion, but that is no fault of this provocative and insightful book.