As a psychologist, especially one who has spent a large portion of my career in forensics, it’s not a huge surprise to me that I enjoy memoirs, documentaries and docuseries. Real life stories give us access to the incredible diversity of the human experience, and I find the human mind–and all of the ways it manifests into behaviors–endlessly fascinating.
So when Netflix and Crime+Investigation UK released the docuseries I Am A Killer, I was intrigued, but the premise of I Am A Killer is (deceptively) simple and I admit I was initially a bit skeptical. The summary on Netflix states “Death row inmates convicted of capital murder give firsthand accounts of their crimes in this documentary series.” Because American culture, and TV/media in general, tends to sensationalize stories and depict them in largely binary terms–good versus evil–I wondered if this might be just another dehumanizing depiction of a bad guy. Or equally as bad, an overly sentimental, no-accountability view of people who commit crimes. As someone who spent much of my career evaluating and working with people who have committed crimes, I can attest to the fact that life is complex and people are as well. Unfortunately, this nuanced, complex picture of things is rarely depicted.
I decided to give it a go anyway, and I’m not at all sorry I did. The convicted murderers, most of them on death row in states with the death penalty, share their versions of the killings in question, as well as their thoughts and feelings about it today. But we also hear from prosecutors, attorneys, law enforcement officials, friends, and family who all share their versions, thoughts, and impact from the crime.
What results is surprisingly nuanced. As an audience we expect a story that’s simple–one that will evoke predictable and clear-cut feelings about everyone involved. A person killed someone else and was convicted for it. End of story. We expect to feel anger, outrage, and repulsion about the killer, and sadness, compassion, and horror about the victim.
Thankfully, the show often doesn’t give us what we expect. We do always feel sadness for the victims and grief for the loved ones left behind. But how we (and the victims’ families) feel about the perpetrators is not always so cut-and-dry. There are often many, layered factors that lead people up to the point at which they commit…