Pumpkin Person rating: 7.5 out of 10

Over the weekend I watched this HBO documentary written and directed by Alex Gibney. The film documents the career of Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis who studied murderers. Lewis is one of those older female professionals who comes across as a bit ditzy despite being objectively very intelligent (Yale psychiatrist). One thing I love about older versions of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale IQ tests is that no matter how ditzy an older woman seems, if they say intelligent things (as she does), they’ll do well on the WAIS, because unlike the verbal SAT, the Wechsler verbal subtests give you all the time in the World to express your thoughts. They’ll even do okay on the subtests measuring brute speed like Digit Symbol, because as slow as they move, they are compared to their own age group who is even slower.

Like David Wechsler himself, Lewis was part of the great wave of 20th century New York Jews who revolutionized the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Her mother was obsessed with anti-Semites and understanding how anyone could be as evil as Hitler helped inspire Lewis’s work with serial killers. Like Wechsler, she worked at the legendary Bellevue Hospital.

Lewis became controversial for two reasons: 1) she didn’t believe in the concept of “evil” (which made her hated by the less educated part of society like commenter “Mug of Pee” who believes in the concept). Instead she found that the most bizarre grotesque murderers had brain lesions and endured unspeakable sexual abuse as kids, and 2) she believed in multiple personality disorders (which made her hated by many academic elites). During the documentary, Lewis at times would show inappropriate affect, like giggling when describing a serial killer who would fall asleep after killing women, only to wake up and think “oops I did it again”.

One problem with Lewis’s work is that like so many, she seems to assume being abused in childhood is the cause of later violence, when in reality both the early abuse and later violence could both be the products of violent genes inherited from parents. Perhaps she’s considered this possibility and rebutted it, but it would have been nice to see more clips of Lewis responding to critiques of her ideas.

Lewis notes a contradiction in the legal system which asks jurors to punish criminals more harshly if their crimes are depraved, yet show mercy if the criminal himself has been a victim. It is precisely the most depraved criminals, who according to Lewis, who were the most abused and the most neurologically impaired!