Who Is Dr. Dorothy Lewis, The 'Bubbly' Psychiatrist Who Studied Serial Killers?

Dr. Dorothy Lewis testified at many high-profile murder trials, often claiming that the killers were victims of abuse and brain damage. 

Dr Dorothy Otnow Lewis

A few people were pioneers in the study of serial murder. You may know about famed former FBI profiler John Douglas, the inspiration behind Holden Ford’s character in “Mindhunter,” are you familiar with Dr. Dorothy Lewis?

Lewis became famous for her research of murderers; she spent most of her life trying to figure out why people kill. The psychiatrist, who is the main subject of HBO’s new documentary “Crazy, Not Insane,” was one of the first to really advocate the concept that murderers are created and not born.

In the documentary, Lewis herself explained she was always fascinated by murder and often pondered why she never had the urge to kill anyone. Still, she never intended for murder research to be her main career objective. Instead, she went to school to become a psychoanalyst and following graduation, kicked off her career working with children in the 1970s.

However, her fascination with the more macabre parts of the human psyche prevailed. She would often work with violent juvenile offenders, and her exposure to the physical and sexual abuse they endured inspired her to explore in depth how trauma in childhood could later lead to homicidal violence as an adult. 

“Gradually I was gathering clues,” she detailed in her notes, which are included in the documentary. “I was discovering why one person cried in pain while another lashed out in response to it.”

She received a small grant to study prisoners in the Bellevue forensic ward in New York City. She examined Mark David Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon, and a murderer who cut off his own father’s head and penis and threw both out the window. She also began studying children in Bellevue’s psychiatric ward who had tried to kill. She kept finding more and more anecdotal evidence, in her opinion, that those with homicidal tendencies were victims of both trauma and organic brain dysfunction. 

In 1984, she wrote an article in a psychiatric journal about the correlation. Diane Sawyer had her on television to interview her about it on “CBS This Morning,” and Sawyer called it a “pioneering” study.

Soon after, Lewis got a call from Richard Burr, a defense attorney who asked her to help him with a death row murder case. Lewis found the suspect had a history of abuse and brain damage. Then she began to be asked to work on more cases. She soon became a regular expert witness on a number of high-profile murder and serial murder cases, including Ted Bundy's trial

In “Crazy, Not Insane," Lewis made it clear she believes the death penalty for killers is cruel because, as she argues, many of them are sick and society shouldn’t be killing people who are mentally unwell. She put forth the concept that there is no evil and even questioned the definitions of sanity. Lewis thinks that the definition of sanity put forth by the law is too shaky, as shown in the documentary.

Lewis also studied people who she thinks have or had dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. She believed that many killers were not making up having an entity within them that instructed them to kill, including Bundy. Her theories on multiple personalities have been controversial and, as noted in the documentary, she has often been the subject of ridicule because of these beliefs. Many of her claims have been challenged in court and she has been criticized for her seeming support of some of the most vicious killers in the world.

For example, Barbara R. Kirwin, a forensic psychologist who also examined murderers, criticized Lewis' research sample size and her so-called ability to determine what is unusual brain activity, the New York Times reported in 2001. Kirwin claimed that in her own research, murderers seemed to have been abused only 10 percent of the time or, as she put it, “about what you’d find in the general population.”

Serial killer expert and author Peter Vronsky also disagrees with Lewis. He told Oxygen.com that he criticizes how she testified for the defense during serial killer Arthur Shawcross' 1990 trial in his upcoming book “American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950-2000.”

"Crazy, Not Insane" shows how Lewis believed Shawcross took on a personality named "Bessie" when he murdered. Renowned forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, who consulted for both the FBI and CIA, claimed under oath during Shawcross' trial he felt Lewis coaxed Shawcross to play various roles. Dietz told the producers of "Crazy, Not Insane" that he believes multiple personality disorder, generally speaking, is "a hoax." He claimed interviewers, like Lewis, use interview styles which allow vulnerable people to believe that they have different personalities within them.

Still, Lewis' research does hold weight. She influenced Supreme Court rulings on capital punishment in 1988 and 2005, the Yale School of Medicine reported in 2007.

“While Dr. Lewis’s conclusions were often dismissed by others, including by well-known forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, her videotapes of her death row interviews show meaningful transformations between ‘alters’ developed in childhood, often as a way to endure and sometimes avenge, the pain they suffered,” a press release from HBO stated.

The film includes snippets of some of her recorded interviews — including one between her and Shawcross — which seemingly shows killers switching back and forth from their supposed alternate personalities. In many cases, their demeanor and even their voice change. 

“Just as important to me is how the tapes reveal Dorothy’s skill as an interviewer: empathetic but always probing, curious and never shocked, playful but always serious about unearthing, methodically, vital details,” the documentary’s director, Alex Gibney, said in a director’s statement obtained by Oxygen.com. “What she discovers is never intended to excuse horrific acts of violence.  Rather, as a psychiatric detective, she seeks to explain why killers kill, so we might take steps to stop the killing.”

Gibney said he was enticed to do a film on Lewis, in part, after noticing the dichotomy between Lewis’ work and her “bubbly” demeanor, even now at age 82.

“Like emergency room doctors, her dark humor is an occupational gift that comes from her constant exposure to our deepest wounds,” he stated.

"Crazy, Not Insane" debuts on HBO on Nov. 18.

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