“Don’t you ever wonder why you don’t murder?” Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis asks in the trailer for HBO’s new documentary Crazy, Not Insane.
Lewis has spent her career trying to answer that question. The clinical psychiatrist has interviewed more than 20 serial killers, including Arthur Shawcross and Ted Bundy, and believes many serial killers have dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder). In Crazy, Not Insane, Alex Gibney (known for The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley) traces Lewis’ lifelong attempt to understand why some people kill — and unraveling that question can be more difficult than meets the eye.
“I think that I made the wrong diagnosis,” Lewis, now in her 80s, tells Refinery29 of Bundy. She interviewed Bundy four times in 1986 at the defense’s request, and concluded that he likely developed psychological problems as a baby, the Associated Press reported in 1989. Bundy exhibited unusual behavior when living with his grandparents, such as placing butcher knives beside his aunt when he was three, and meaning he could have had a genetic predisposition to mental illness. Bundy only had fond memories of his grandfather, whom Lewis described to Refinery29 as “allegedly an extraordinarily brutal man,” and apparently blocked out other known incidents.
“When I looked through them, I saw that, although some of them were signed ‘Ted,’ that quite a few of them were signed with other names,” Lewis explained to Refinery29. Some of them were variations of his grandfather’s name.
After giving two books about Bundy a closer read, Lewis noticed that “he did have different signatures and personas. If you look at photographs of him, you will see a very, very different expression on his face,” she said.
“I don’t think that I ever met the ‘Ted’ who murdered.”
Lewis, who grew up in New York City during World War II, became interested in figuring out what makes certain types of people tick at a young age. According to Yale, her curiosity to understand how a person could be cruel led to trying to understand Hitler.
She moved into studying violence and death row inmates “by chance,” she told Refinery29. Lewis had done a study at NYU of homicidal young children and discovered that not only did many of them have brain dysfunction, but that they came from “very abusive households.” A public defender in Florida contacted Lewis, asking her to evaluate his client on death row who sounded like the children she described. “I thought, sure, you know, I’ve always wondered what this situation was like, what death row was like,” Lewis said.
While Lewis’ work influenced the Supreme Court’s rulings on capital punishment in 1988 and 2005, her work wasn’t always so highly regarded — as Crazy, Not Insane points out, it was actually initially seen as questionable and dismissed. Lewis didn’t let that hold her back, however. “My colleagues thought I was absolutely crazy,” she said. She eventually encouraged neurologist Jonathan Pincus to work with her, even though he was initially skeptical. “We were kind of two skeptics working with a new group of people,” she said.
While Lewis doesn’t see herself as a “true crime aficionado,” she does see benefits to the growing genre. “Writers and reporters get much better data than psychiatrists and psychologists,” she said, because “families, I think, are far more willing to talk to reporters.” She’s made use of the genre in her own work, using books about Bundy to clarify his condition.
There is one moment with Bundy that stands out to Lewis, however. “Mr. Bundy had asked whether I would come and see him before he was executed,” she said. After the weekend she was able to see him. “Before I walked out of the room,” she said, “he bent down and kissed me on the cheek. And so I kissed him on the cheek, and walked out. And when I got home, I was trying to make light of it, you know, there's nothing like, really. And so I walked in the kitchen, and my husband and my daughter were there. And I said, ‘You are looking at the last woman to kiss Ted Bundy.’”