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By 40 years of age Jack Unterweger was a man of many talents and skills. He was an actor, an author, a batterer, a burglar, a car thief, a celebrity convict, a children’s storybook teller, a crime scene analyst, a director, a fraudster, a humorist, a journalist, a lawyer, a liar, a ligaturist, a malignant narcissist, a novelist, a pimp, a playwright, a poet, a rehabilitated poster-boy, a reporter, a robber, a screenwriter, a serial sexual killer, a signaturist, a thief, a torturer, and a womanizer. As a way of telling you more about the “real” and “fantasy” life of Jack Unterweger, let me provide a brief overview and theoretical context of the two key criminological-psychological concepts that are relevant to The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. First, I need to address a subset of serial murder. I am referring to serial murder that is sexual in nature. Second, I need to address a subset of narcissistic personality disorder called malignant narcissism.
In serial sexual murder the goal is to kill the victim as part of a ritualized attack. For this type of offender the primary motivation is to act out the sexual fantasy that preoccupies him. These homicides involve cases where victims are sexually assaulted, tortured, mutilated, and their bodies may or may not be displayed, depending on the personality constellation of the killer. Also referred to as “lust murderers” or “lust homicides,” these killers’ ritualistic assault, sadistic torturing, and lewd posing of victims represents the ultimate control of persons by degrading and humiliating them both before and after death. Finally, these sexually motivated killings are guided by the expression of primal emotions such as love, joy, anger, fear, and sadness.
In the psychological territory of degrading victims there are other accoutrements or paraphernalia, such as using restraints, the insertion of foreign objects into body orifices, and using various cutting instruments. The point is that lust homicides of the serial type combine physical assault with sexual elements that are unlike other forms of murder, with the one exception of genocidal rape. As for serial sexual killers who work alone, they have been divided into those offenders that are organized and those offenders that are disorganized.
Organized offenders are paragons of rationality and calculation in that they assume an orderly approach to their selection of victims, method of torture, kill, and disposal of the body. These killers, rather than attack a stranger with brute force, will employ sophisticated verbal ploys or cunning ruses to gain trust from their victims. Typically, these offenders are highly mobile individuals who are less likely to leave physical evidence at the scene of a crime than the disorganized offenders. The latter killers leave trails of evidence since their assaults and kills are marked by impulsivity, spontaneity, and immaturity rather than by rational calculation.
In addition, sexually motivated serial killers leave their “signatures” at the scene of the crime or the place where the victim’s body is discovered. Signatures refer to the enduring aspects of a murderer’s crimes. Those elements that are present across crimes and that are necessary for the killer’s sexual gratification. Unlike modus operandi, or MOs, that change overtime because of learning experiences and/or environmental adaptations, signatures once established remain constant and have special meaning for the killer.
According to Robert Keppel’s signature theory of sexual homicides, these killers are not born as much as they evolve into existence, shaped by a constellation of unique socio-historical factors, as well as the trial and error method of self-instruction. His theory articulates two distinct types of signatures—one based on anger-excitation and the other on anger-retaliation. Each of these signatures reflect the divergent objectives of the two types of killers and the ways in which their primal emotions are translated, embodied, and satisfied at the crime scenes.
Anger-excitation serial killers transform their anger into sexually titillating experiences. That is to say, they use their anger as impetus for sexual thrills and gratification that they derive from the sadistic pain that they inflict on their victims by way of binding, biting, burning, cutting, stabbing, strangling, and so forth. The key sign of an excitation killer, however, lies in the way he disposes of his victims, in plain view, without concealment. By contrast, anger-retaliation serial killers seek out symbolic victims or “stand-ins” for people they regard as responsible for their misfortunes in life, such as the proverbial abandoning or domineering mother. After the attack, the retaliation killer experiences shame and takes the time to cover the bodies and faces of the corpses.
Jack Unterweger, as you might know, was an organized serial sexual killer. He was also an anger-excitation killer. However, Jack’s narratives of his life story and of the “one and only” killing that occurred in 1974 for which he took credit and served 15 years in an Austrian prison, carefully omitted both the context and all of the details of that killing. Unterweger also framed his killing of the teenage girl in his narratives as a case of anger-retaliation against his prostitute mother that he deeply regretted from the moment that he struck her in the head with his fist and she died, all of which was a total fabrication and manipulation on his part to conceal the actual truth of the killing from getting out to the public.
At his criminal trial for the lust homicides of eleven women in 1994, Austria’s most renowned court psychiatrist at the time diagnosed Unterweger as a “malignant narcissist,” which means that Jack was mentally abnormal, but legally sane. Regarded as an extreme form of antisocial personality disorder, the malignant narcissist is also represented as a less extreme form of pathological narcissism than psychopathy. Described as a syndrome, the malignant narcissist has a strong need for psychological power and is presented as pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and in behavioral regulation with demonstrations of joyful cruelty and sadism. The crucial characteristic of the malignant narcissist, according to psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg, is that unlike the psychopath, the former has the capacity to internalize “aggressive and idealized superego precursors, leading to the idealization of the aggressive features of the pathological grandiose self of these patients.” In other words, malignant narcissists have the capacity to admire powerful people and to want to be like them, rather than condemning everybody, powerless and powerful people alike, as in the psychopathic or sociopathic archetypes.
Finally, as the editors of Serial Killers: Understanding Lust Murder (2006), Phillip Shon and Dragan Milovanovic have written, “lust murders function as adaptive mechanisms, a creative force, be it destructive, in the human subject’s or offender’s mode of being.” As the psychiatrist Seymour Halleck argued some 45 years ago, one of the most effective ways to reduce tension and stress in one’s condition is through motor activity. In the case of serial sexual killers, the time, energy, and resources invested in fantasizing, stalking, conjuring up ruses, abducting, torturing, and killing of a victim involves a considerable amount of mental and physical action prior to, during, and after the killing. Throughout the whole process, these killers become actively engrossed in the task at hand whose meaning only exists in their fantasizing minds. Most significantly, these actions “provide creative outlets for killers to transform their impotent and frustrated existential situation into an autonomous mode of being in the planning, preparing, and execution of their criminal acts.”
The five-foot six and boyish looking Jack Unterweger was born August 16, 1950 and he committed suicide by hanging himself on June 30, 1994 in his jail cell, less than six hours after he was found guilty of the killings of nine women in his native country, Austria. Within less than one year’s time since his prison release in 1990, Unterweger had killed at least these nine women as well as three other women in Los Angeles. Jack the person was an incredibly driven, energetic, and an obsessive-compulsive malignant narcissist.
During his brief period of freedom, a little more than a year and half, he published two novels, produced two plays, and was interviewed several times on radio and television about his own rehabilitation. In addition, he produced a show for a crime scene investigation series as well as conducting interviews of police and prostitutes for specials that were aired on Austrian public radio and television with titles like, “The Dark Side of Los Angeles” or “The Fear in the Red Light Milieu.” By now, the question that you might be asking yourself is: why would Jack Unterweger risk losing his celebrity life of excitement and success for the pleasure of strangling prostitutes? To do that, he’d have to be insane, and Jack clearly wasn’t insane.
As one police chief related, the reporter who interviewed him was calm, thoughtful, and rational. When the interview was over, “he thanked me and wished me well on the unsolved cases. We then sat around, drank coffee, and chatted about various topics.” In different words, everybody knows that true crimes are not like the intriguing plots of novels and films. The notion that a writer and journalist would cruise around killing hookers and then interview the chief of police about the investigation—well maybe in Hollywood, but not in real life. Well, as the saying goes, “you don’t know Jack.”
Shortly after he was imprisoned in 1975 and began to write as a career, Jack was already keeping meticulous diaries, which literally included every move he made after his parole in 1990. Additionally, in the electronic address book that Unterweger acquired after his release and that was eventually confiscated by the police around his arrest in early 1992, there were more than eighty contacts, including the first and last names of 40 women rating their sexual performances, plus dozens of other women identified as either prostitutes or one-night bimbos. I should also mention that during the same time, Jack had two “serious” girl friends that he was living with separately and/or seeing regularly.
Interviews with many of these women testify to the extent to which Unterweger could be both a tender and tormenting lover who engaged in so-called straight, kinky, or killer sex, depending upon the circumstances and/or women that he was with. Similarly, in a magazine article that he wrote covering the annual Gay and Lesbian pride parade in Los Angeles in 1991, entitled “Subcultures of Sexuality,” Unterweger let it be known that he did not like the men and women pretending to masturbate with live snakes, or the masochists piercing themselves with large needles because the worldwide gay movement could “suffer a setback as a result of these negative [images and] manifestations.”
And, these concerns coming from a sexual sadist whose MO as early as 1973-74, before the alleged first killing began, was captured by the statement of one young Salzburg woman who Jack had offered to drive home from a bar one evening. Instead of taking her home, he drove off into the woods and got stuck in the mud. When the woman “got a funny feeling” and exited the car, Jack quickly jumped out too, knocked her to the ground and sexually assaulted her. From her statement to the police: “As I tried to scream, he hit me on the head with his fists, and pushed my face into the mud. Then he pulled off my shoes and ripped my stockings from my body. He then turned my wrist behind my back and wrapped the stocking around it, and then did the same with the other wrist, and then tied if off with a large knot in the middle, so that my hands were bound behind my back with a few centimeters of play room between each wrist." Jack then pushed her back into the car and raped her with a steel rod while he masturbated.
I would like to finish up this short introduction to the psyche of Jack Unterweger and to his life as a serial sexual killer with some insightful quotations garnered from John Leake’s book Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer. The first passage comes from Jack shortly after his arrest in 1975. As I intentionally failed to mention at the beginning of my talk, Jack was a gourmet cook of sorts or at least as one of his live-in girl friends recalled, Jack was most at peace when he was at home in the kitchen cooking. In any case, while in jail awaiting trial for murder, Unterweger wrote the following reflection, borrowing the first sentence from a Nietzsche aphorism: "No theme is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman. Women are like cheese soufflé; when they are fresh from the oven they are crisp and fresh outside, but the filling isn’t yet mature and hard to digest. When they become older, the crust may not be so pretty, but then the filling develops. There is an age at which a woman must be beautiful in order to be loved, and there is an age in which a woman must be loved in order to be beautiful."
The next quote comes from FBI Special Agent Gregg McCrary who testified at Unterweger’s 1994 trial. In their trial of the century, the Austrian press billed McCrary’s testimony as one of the bigger moments of the trial. After all, McCrary was the actual director from the special unit upon which the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs was based. For his part, McCrary found the experience of meeting Unterweger to be one of the most memorable of his professional career. What impressed McCrary most was when he first came upon Unterweger who, along with his two high profile criminal attorneys, was co-defending himself at the trial, which is a legal expectation in Austrian criminal courts: “Despite his small stature, this guy was larger than life. He was a presence…a malevolent thoroughbred. He clearly loved the limelight, and his abundant charm filled the room.”
I will finish with three quotations taken from Unterweger’s closing summations: First, his opening paragraph began: “I’ve been sitting here not knowing what to do. For the last thirty-one trial days, I’ve been spun through the washing machine of my past, and sometimes I’ve asked myself. Are you not the idiot who has manoeuvered yourself into this position?”
Second, from a couple of paragraphs in the middle of his closing: “It’s true what the prosecutor says about me consuming women instead of living with and enjoying them, instead of loving them. But fifteen years in Stein [prison]: How should one learn to have feelings? After my release from Stein, I was a greedy, devouring individual full of hunger for life. It gave me a feeling of happiness and triumph to have prominent people sit at my table. It gave me the impression of rising above from below."
Finally, from the very end of his closing: “I am counting on a verdict of not guilty, because I’m not the killer. Your decision doesn’t only affect me but also the murderer out there, who is laughing up his sleeve. I will not fall into a hole if you find me innocent. I have an apartment and a job. There are so many people who stand behind me, who know me from my two years of freedom. For that I am humbled, but also proud that they have not made a mistake……I am innocent. Thank you."
The text is of a lecture by Gregg Barak, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Eastern Michigan University, delivered at the University of Michigan as part of the pre-show Arts & Eats soiree for the performance of The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of A Serial Killer starring John Malkovich, 1 October 2011. Readers will also be interested in the interview with Gregg Barak about Unterweger before the Malkovich performance linked in here.
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