The media attention accorded to acts of infamy may or may not figure in the motivations of mass killers, but it must certainly count among the compensations of homicide as a moral career. In the wake of his conviction for murdering and dismembering six lonely young men at that dreaded address, Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill, Dennis Nilsen must have basked in the thought that, even behind bars, he was still free to roam through the darker corners of the minds of all those people who had scorned or ignored him when he was a Job Centre counsellor and a pub bore.
The man has embraced infamy like a bride. At least Peter Sutcliffe kept his mouth shut. After his arrest, Nilsen never stopped talking: letters to the Guardian, pages and pages on his state of mind for the police. Indeed, in retrospect, it is this aspect of Nilsen – his unrelenting fascination with words – which is striking. His obscenity has come to consist not merely in what he did to his victims, but in what he said about them afterwards: ‘The victim is the dirty platter after the feast, and the washing up is a clinically ordinary task.’ When he asserted that he murdered out of pity for the ‘rent boys’, the waifs and strays he invited home from the pub, it was the condescending narcissism which was remarkable: ‘It may be the perverted overkill of my need to help people – victims who I decide to release quickly from the slings and arrows of their outrageous fortune, pain and suffering.’ ‘Slings and arrows’, ‘the dirty platter’: there is pleasure in all this phrase-mongering. He liked doing it, and he likes talking about it. He will like talking about it for the rest of his days. He particularly enjoys talking about remorse: ‘My remorse is of the deep and personal kind which will eat away inside me for the rest of my life. I am, tragically, a private person, not given to public tears.’ He reportedly told detectives that society could never punish him more severely than he had already punished himself. One struggles to imagine what kind of punishment could ever penetrate the screen of his complacent and high-minded loquacity. He is deeply in love with what he did. His sexual bond with death, with the memory of those moments of power when he could give death to others, is armour plate against punishment. For a talker like this one, there is perhaps only one penalty which counts: the silence of time, the gradual effacement of his image from the collective memory.
Joe Kallinger, the subject of Flora Schreiber’s book, was a talker too. Professor Schreiber, who teaches criminology at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, had to listen to him for six unbroken years before she could begin to write his terrible story. When the 38-year-old shoemaker from Philadelphia was finally arrested in 1975, he and his 14-year-old son Michael had murdered and then castrated a little Puerto Rican boy, José Collazo, whom they happened to meet on the street; they had tied another of Joe’s sons, Joey, to a ladder and watched him drown in a pool of water on an abandoned building site; they had broken into five suburban homes in Maryland and Pennsylvania, stealing cash, attempting to rape and humiliate the occupants. In the final break-in, father and son took eight people hostage and proceeded to torment them to the limits of abjection. When Joe Kallinger ordered a nurse, Maria Fasching, to bite off the penis of one of the hostages in the house, she refused. She said: ‘Kill me. I don’t care to live.’ Joe Kallinger sliced her up with a hunting knife and ran from the house, leaving her spinning and turning in her death throes in a suburban basement in New Jersey.
In the torrent of talk which began to flow out of him once he was caught, Joe Kallinger told the author that Maria Fasching had commanded her own death:
She had problems – some deep disturbance. Her life was not a complete one, Flora. She didn’t want to live. If you look into it, you will find out that I am right ... If she had said anything else, pleaded, it wouldn’t have happened that way. It wouldn’t have happened then. As it was, her command turned on the switch.
So this is how a crime is explained; this is how talk shifts the great weight of murder. God commanded Joe Kallinger to massacre the entire human race, and to begin with Maria Fasching, with this stranger who so mysteriously refused abjection. Joe talked and talked about it afterwards: he saw visions of blood, he heard mighty commands echoing inside his skull. He heard his own voice rising in the mad chant ‘Kristorah, kyriastorah, kyrieh, maria’. The magic words of a religious childhood commanded him to begin the slaughter of all mankind. Joe could do no other. Maria Fasching turned on the switch and he went to work with his knife.
The trail which leads to Maria’s death, Flora Schreiber argues, began the evening when Joe, then six, returned home after a hernia operation to the house of his adoptive parents, Anna and Steve Kallinger, a Philadelphia shoemaker. Anna and Steve told the little boy that Dr Daly had driven the evil out of Joe’s penis. He had fixed it so that Joe would never do bad things with it. On his way upstairs afterwards, little Joe looked in the mirror and saw a huge lip knife, of the kind his adoptive father used for slicing the soles off shoes, floating in mid-air, with his penis hanging on the blade. Dr Daly, of course, had done nothing to Joe’s penis. From this symbolic castration, so Flora Schreiber argues, was formed a rage-filled association between sexuality and violence which eventually issued in murder.
Between the castration and the murder there was Anna, Joe’s adoptive mother. She is the monster who made the monster. For a theft he was made to kneel with bare knees on a strip of coarse sandpaper. Not once, but for an hour every night for a week. For another theft, Joe’s hands were held over the flame of the kitchen stove. All of this torment, Joe Kallinger faithfully visited on his children when he married and inherited the shoemaking business. The boys were flogged, the daughter was burned on the thighs with a red-hot spatula because the jealous father suspected she was sleeping with a neighbour’s son. Astonishingly, these children remained loyal to the sadistic father, and one of them, Michael, collaborated in the orgy of murder.
Kallinger brutalised his sons and in turn was awed by the cold sadism which he had engendered in them. He insisted afterwards that without the encouragement of his 14-year-old accomplice he would never have had the stomach for his own barbarities. The son egged the father on to tie up the other son and watch him drown; he taunted the father when his sexual powers failed him with one of his female victims. Schreiber was unable to interview the accomplice son Michael: the perverse knot which bound father and son together escapes our understanding.
Schreiber wants us to believe that she has told a narrative of murder as a story of nurture gone horribly wrong: ‘I do not believe in a killer instinct, nor that there are people born with this instinct as they are born with blue eyes. I do not believe that destructive aggression is a deeply seated universal drive. In Joe’s case, certainly, it was created not by nature, but by nurture.’ Yet there is simply too much horror in this story for it to depend on a parent’s wicked fairy-tale about a little boy’s penis. The author has succeeded brilliantly in showing what murder and horror mean to the murderer. She has re-created the satanic delusions, the hallucinations, the structure of meaning in which horror was enacted. But a narrative of meaning is not the same as a narrative of causation. What an act means to the satanic actor does not explain why he behaves satanically. Why is Schreiber so sure that nature played no part in Joe’s story? Her chapters on his life in prison and mental institutions show that drug treatments have done him good: his chemistry – his nature – has been altered, and the hallucinations have lost some of their terror. Why the drugs do this is a mystery, but it is a mystery she should have pondered before laying all the blame on those benighted emigrants from Austria and Hungary, Anna and Steve Kallinger, who thought their little orphan would grow up and realise their American dreams, if only they could drive the demon out of his penis.
Reading about Joe Kallinger and thinking about Dennis Nilsen made me recall something which an old White Russian relative of mine told me recently. Her indomitable life has included being a lady-in-waiting to a grand duchess, working as a reporter for the BBC and finally running a hostel for former mental patients. ‘I loved my lunatics,’ she said once, and then added: ‘It is love they need.’ She is 86 and she should know. When all the paraphernalia of psychotherapy is pared away from Schreiber’s account, she, too, ends up talking about love. It is a tribute to her that the wretched shoemaker now calls her mother and anxiously awaits her weekly visits. If it is the strength of their murderous hatred which teaches us the depth of their need for love, what a ruthless, all-consuming need it is. How can we ever be equal to it? The test of love is in life’s hard cases, and there aren’t many harder cases than Dennis Nilsen or Joe Kallinger.