Writing in Vanity Fair in 1925, Aldous Huxley mused on our collective obsession with high-profile killers:
“We are interested in [murderers] for precisely the same reasons as those for which we are interested in great actors, virtuosos and all exceptionally gifted or fortunate beings—because they actualize and carry to perfection in a startling and dramatic way certain tendencies which we feel to be latent in ourselves.”
The grim preoccupation with those who kill seems to be true nearly a hundred years later. When I began reporting my book Love Lockdown, the archetype of the prison groupie was the first thing that came to mind. She is a familiar stock character—we picture her as desperate, devoted, defending his innocence, sending dreamy letters, and, of course, a little off her rocker.
But my book ended up focusing on couples who met while incarcerated and found real love (or something like it) in the most hopeless of places.
Murder Groupie Meets Serial Killer
We know too well Huxley’s fascination with murderers (and those who love them). Which is how one afternoon I found myself sifting through epistolary ephemera from one of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th century: Richard Ramirez.
The recipient was Samantha Spiegel, once deemed “the most successful murder groupie,” though she has since retired. At one time, she was writing with a bunch of odious men, many of whom were on death row.
She was only 19 years old when, in 2010, she found an eager correspondent in Ramirez, who was 50 at the time and had served 21 years for 13 murders, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries.
Ramirez had famously married Doreen Lioy, a former magazine editor who struck up a pen-pal correspondence with the serial killer, in 1996. Being legally married didn’t dampen the passions of Ramirez’s interlocutors. In fact, he received so much mail that he responded with a form questionnaire.
Writing in all caps on the left margin of the page, he asked Spiegel: “LIKES/DISLIKES/WHAT GETS YOU EXCITED/DESCRIBE UPBRINGING/AVERAGE DAY LIKE/BEST MEMORIES/FAVORITE BAND/WHAT WAS HIGH SCHOOL LIKE.”
Samantha Spiegel was only 19 when she found an eager correspondent in Richard Ramirez, who had served 21 years for 13 murders, five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries.
These are not the queries of scintillating conversation one might expect from a satanic murderer. They are more like a matchmaking survey you might fill out on eHarmony.
Ramirez also shared original art with Spiegel. One drawing featured a T. rex and a stegosaurus fighting in front of an erupting volcano. The lines were clean, but the subject matter was a bit lacking, more juvenilia than beautiful mind.
While it was chilling to hold Ramirez’s get-to-know-you form letter in my hands, what struck me most was how mundane his questions were. Here was not one of the “exceptionally gifted or fortunate beings” of Huxley’s fantasies. And the only part “latent in ourselves,” as Huxley mused, is that most of us can be tediously average.
As we’ve come to see, evil is banal, more often than not. You can dress a killer up with black clothes and aviator shades and surround him with attendant groupies, but underneath all the accoutrement, he is painfully dull.
Elizabeth Greenwood’s Love Lockdown: Dating, Sex, and Marriage in America’s Prisons is out this week from Gallery