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Falling in Love With Prison Inmates

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Loving the Bad Boy

There's a psychological condition that sees people (almost always women) becoming sexually attracted to men who commit violent crimes. The technical term for this is hybristophilia.

Public Appetite for Crime Stories

For most people, consuming narratives about crime is a secret pleasure, but for a few the attraction goes further and becomes a psychological problem.

Most of us are fascinated by crime stories. Serial killer movies pull in huge audiences. True crime documentaries fill endless hours of cable TV programming; two channels, Investigation Discovery and Oxygen, have nothing but true crimes in their programming. The crime fiction genre keeps many publishing houses out of bankruptcy courts. Successful books get dramatized and are broadcast alongside series such as Law and Order, NCIS, and Peaky Blinders.

Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, says, “The public loves crime because of how exciting it is to get close to the raw human energy of extreme acts, of what they considered evil. They enjoy the mystery that drives an investigation and they like the feeling of justice being done.”

We are tantalized by grisly murders in the same way train wrecks and car crashes grab our attention to witness the thrill of the spectacle coupled with the relief that we are not personally involved.

Criminology professor Scott Bonn writes that “The public is drawn to serial killers because they trigger the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us—fear . . . serial killers allow us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment, where the threat is exciting, but not real.”

So we indulge our guilty pleasure, sometimes from behind the couch, and maybe have a disturbing dream afterwards. But that's it for most of us. Some people, however, go several steps further into the world of hybristophilia and actually become involved with the criminals.

The Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome

Popularly, hybristophilia is called the Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome after the gangster couple of the 1930s. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were thieves and murderers, yet the entertainment industry has turned them into folk heroes. Bonnie Parker was an example of an aggressive hybristophiliac, a woman who takes part in her male partner's crimes.

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

Paul Bernardo is a Canadian serial killer active in the early 1990s with a particular taste for teenage girls. His young wife, Karla Homolka, helped Bernardo commit his crimes, including raping her own teenage sister Tammy. Tammy died from the narcotic Karla had knocked her out with.

In his 2014 book about the case, Invisible Darkness, Stephen Williams seeks the opinion of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Graham Glancy, who states in the book: “She appears to be a classic example of hybristophilia, an individual who is sexually aroused by a partner's violent sexual behaviour.” Others are not so sure and suggest Homolka is simply a stone-cold killer.

Homolka was released from prison in 2005 and, so far as we know, has not reoffended. Bernardo will likely never be released.

More recently, prison guard Vicky White helped convicted felon Casey White (no relation) escape from an Alabama prison. The couple went on an 11-day run that ended in Indiana in May 2022. Casey White was recaptured and Vicky White took her own life.

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Dr. Casey Jordan is a criminologist and professor of justice and law administration at Western Connecticut State University. He told CNN hybristophilia may be involved: “Vicky White surely believes she's in love with Casey White, because he gives her a feeling of being alive after decades of feeling staid, safe and 'reliable.' ”

Cara Bruce wrote in her 2002 book The Thrill of the Killer, that “Women, teens especially, have the unfortunate reputation for wanting to find a partner who fits the ‘bad boy image.’ ” (Surely, that should be “some” women).

But, most hybristophiliacs don't become partners in crime; they have a more passive version of the condition.

Serial Killer Groupies

Even the worst serial killers can expect to receive fan mail when they are in prison. Usually the letters come from women, but some men also correspond. These prison groupies are called passive hybristophiliacs.

According to FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood: “Some women even fall in love with these men, believing them to be misunderstood. Such people, in my opinion, generally have low self-esteem. By interacting with serial killers, they fulfill their own need for attention.”

The object of their attention is usually a psychopath and a master manipulator and, if the groupie has low self-esteem, she is highly vulnerable to prisoner's conniving. At the other end of the relationship, the groupie seeks intimate details of the murderer's crimes, which makes them feel special and can even deliver a vicarious thrill.

Here's Dr. Ramsland again: “Primarily, the idea is that they (groupies) want to get close to a violent person so that they can either participate in a fantasy life that involves them or actually become partners with them.” Sometimes, they marry.

Richard Ramirez, known as The Night Stalker, had 14 murders to his name and numerous other assaults and rape. But Doreen Lioy started writing to him during his trial in 1985. They were married in San Quentin Prison in 1996.

Doreen told CNN “He's kind, he's funny, he's charming. I think he's really a great person. He's my best friend; he's my buddy.” The marriage broke up in 2009, but Ramirez was already engaged to another woman when he died in prison of blood cancer in 2013.

Many of the hybristophiliacs studied have been the victims of abuse. It's theorized that the attraction to a violent man behind bars puts the women in charge of a relationship that cannot harm them.

The reality is that it's the serial killer who has control; he has endless time to study his prey's weaknesses in order to manipulate them. He does this mercilessly.

Charles Manson who led a murderous California cult attracted many female admirers. One of them, Afton Elaine Burton, 26, wrote to him, visited him, and falsely claimed she was married to 80-year-old Manson in 2014.

Charles Manson who led a murderous California cult attracted many female admirers. One of them, Afton Elaine Burton, 26, wrote to him, visited him, and falsely claimed she was married to 80-year-old Manson in 2014.

Bonus Factoids

  • Paraphilia describes a cluster of mental illnesses that trigger sexual arousal involving socially unacceptable behaviours. Hybristophilia is just one of these conditions.
  • Kenneth Bianchi and his cousin Angelo Buono, Jr. raped and killed 10 young women and left their bodies in hills around Los Angeles in 1977-78. They became known as The Hillside Strangler when it was thought there was only one perpetrator. They attracted groupies and Bianchi was able to persuade one of his female followers, Veronica Compton, to perjure herself by giving false testimony about him. Compton went further; she tried to strangle another woman while Bianchi was in custody in a failed attempt to prove the Hillside Strangler was still active and, therefore, not Bianchi.

Sources

  • “3 Experts Explain Why Some People Are Attracted to Serial Killers.” Eliza Thompson, Cosmopolitan, February 14, 2018.
  • “The Night Stalker's Wife.” CNN, July 28, 1997.
  • “The 10 Most Infamous Murderers Who Married in Prison.” Dan Epstein, Rolling Stone, November 24, 2015.
  • “What Drives Serial Killer Groupies and Collectors?” Scott A. Bonn Ph.D., Psychology Today, November 27, 2016.
  • “Why Are We Obsessed With Crime?” Maggie Maloney, editorsvision.com, undated.
  • “The Delightful, Guilty Pleasure of Watching True Crime TV.” Scott A. Bonn, Ph.D., Psychology Today, May 30, 2016
  • “Karla the Victim?” National Post, May 30, 2005.
  • “Vicky White Had a ‘Special Relationship’ With Inmate Casey White. Here Are Some Other People Who Fell in Love With Inmates Behind Bars.” Mallika Kallingal, CNN, May 9, 2022.
  • “Passion Victim.” Mark D. Griffiths, Ph.D., Psychology Today, October 18, 2013.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor

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