Ed Kemper. Monte Rissell. BTK.
Ann Wolbert Burgess explores these notorious serial killers, various other cases, and her career as a forensic psychiatric nurse with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) in her new book, A Killer By Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind.
“What I tried to do in the book is to combine a little bit about my early career and getting into this field and then of course [include] more of the cases,” Burgess, a nursing professor at Boston College, said.
Burgess’ journey into the criminal justice field began while she was teaching at BC.
“My basic training was as a psychiatric nurse, and my work, which started with rape victims over at Boston City Hospital, really put me into the more forensic area,” she said.
Burgess was then invited to lecture on her work at the BSU and eventually met Robert Ressler and John Douglas, who were conducting an off-the-record study interviewing serial killers. The two did not have any specific goals, Burgess said, so she brought a more focused methodology to the group.
The three went on to write Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, a book published in the 90s detailing their interviews with 36 serial killers. Burgess said they had done profiling for unsolved cases as well, but never wrote on this work. Putting this profiling work into writing became one of her objectives for A Killer By Design, which was published on Dec. 7.
“I wanted to write it because I had all the information,” she said. “It’s just that I had never figured out a way to present it.”
Burgess also wanted to share the true nature of her role with the BSU after the release of the Netflix series Mindhunter, in which there is a character loosely based on Burgess.
“My character was being played by Dr. Wendy Carr … and I thought, well maybe I should add what my role had actually been,” she said. “And that’s how it got started.”
Since Burgess’ writing experience was mostly academic, she met with Steven Constantine, the associate director of communications and marketing for the Connell School of Nursing, to put her work into a “readable format.”
Constantine earned his MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. With no previous experience in law enforcement or true crime, Constantine helped Burgess translate her academic writing into a more narrative style.
“It was very good working with him because I could be sure of the content—make sure that it was accurate—and he was able to then make it … into a different style of writing,” Burgess said.
Burgess said that Constantine was a helpful push in the creation of A Killer By Design. After he heard more about Burgess’ story at the BSU, Constantine encouraged Burgess to consider the different vehicles she could use to share her experiences.
“She was more interested in doing academic programs and maybe teaching more courses about it, but I told her she should write a book,” Constantine said. “People would really be interested in hearing her story because there’s so much that is so different from the other agents because she was the only woman in the group, which was really groundbreaking at the time.”
According to Constantine, Burgess made it clear that she wanted the book to keep victims in mind, as opposed to solely highlighting the serial killers.
“A lot of times in pop culture when these cases have been sensationalized in the past, they make [serial killers] seem charming and make them really appealing,” Constantine said. “But she wanted to just stick to the reality of it.”
In the book, Constantine said Burgess focused on methodology and highlighting lesser-known cases she worked on with the BSU.
“It uses the cases as examples for profiling as opposed to a lot of previous books which talk about the cases but don’t talk about the methodology,” Constantine said. “This book focuses on some of those big name cases like Unabomber, but mainly on lesser-known cases that really were influential in developing the profiling process.”
Burgess said she will use A Killer By Design in her Forensic Mental Health class at BC in addition to the lectures she hosts with former profilers and members from the local FBI office.
The book made it onto one of Amazon’s best sellers lists in December, according to Burgess.
“I was really surprised and rather pleased that they saw it as a historical review of profiling,” she said.
Featured Image by Gary Wayne Gilbert / For Boston College.