I have a guilty pleasure. My guilty pleasure is reading and watching any sort of story about serial killers. Criminal Minds is one of my all time favorite shows. I absolutely love the psychological analysis involved in these shows and books that speak of serial killers. Serial killers are a terrible phenomenon within our society, and I think that understanding how these people come to be is essential to understanding human nature. According to one of the books I have been working on (sometimes some books just take years to finish…), humans were not designed to kill each other. This book, “On Killing”, speaks specifically of the psychology of killing within the context of the military. However, regardless of the context, the ideas in “On Killing” can be applied generally. We are not designed to kill each other, and in order to be able commit great violence against another human, we must find someway to detach ourselves for them. Or you have to have psychopathic/sociopathic tendencies like serial killers, which the condition within itself detaches you from the normal human condition; no empathy.
“The Road Out of Hell” is written from the perspective of Sanford Clark who was the nephew of Gordon Stewart NorthCott, the serial killer. The author, who recounts this story from information from Sanford’s son Jerry, does an excellent job of placing you there with Sanford in this hell. In this chicken farm hell, in the middle of nowhere, you begin to understand, how anyone, particularly a child, could be susceptible to the manipulations of a master manipulator like Gordon.
What was most striking, at least for me, was the author’s recounting of how Sanford attempted to learn the many facets of his uncle’s personality in order to better protect himself. It is amazing that at such a young age, Sanford realized that the best way to survive was to respond appropriately to his uncle’s terrifying mood changes and give him what he wanted. I do not think many children would have had the tenacity and intelligence necessary to make it through being assaulted and raped by Gordon, as Sanford did. It is true that Sanford was primed by his mother, who had a comparatively less volatile personality than her brother Gordon. So Sanford was used to reading people’s moods and behaviors for day-to-day survival.
I also appreciated the story’s focus on exploring and sharing the guilt that Sanford felt throughout his life. It truly shows that these sort of atrocities cannot be committed without consequence by a normal human. Furthermore, the mere fact that Sanford believed that he was equally responsible for the murders of all those boys, gives insight on the differences in psychology between Sanford and his murderous uncle.
There were two things about this story that took me most aback, of course apart from the sheer number of boys who were murdered by Gordon. Firstly, the part that Sanford’s mother played in all this. She is not mentioned often in the story but she was the catalyst to Sanford being sent away with his uncle in California. She must have known about her brother’s illicit activities, but that did not seem to phase her. Even I would argue she was complicit in providing her brother with a new play toy. The other part of this story that left me aghast was the condoning by Gordon’s mother (Sanford’s grandmother) of her son’s violent and illicit behavior.
For those of you who are die hard fans of exposés on serial killers and learning new insights about their behavior and psychology, I would highly recommend this book. It is not for the faint of hearts, not because there is any gore, but mainly because it is hard to imagine a child having to experience any of this.