Imagine facing the most challenging client on earth. It could be a rapist, murderer, or both in one. What about a serial killer? Do you think you could still uphold the humanistic-existential values, knowing the serial killer is a pathological liar, manipulative, and a sociopath who cruelly inflicted torture on his victims as subjects for psychological study? Now apply a medical model—clinical austerity—to the view the killer had for his victims, seeing them as laboratory specimens for harvesting organs while brutally terrorizing them for the pleasure of the kill. Still think you could embrace humanistic values with your client?
I thought I could. To test this, I picked up the book Bloodstains by Jeff Mudgett (Old Stump Productions, 2011) not only to see whether I could embrace humanistic values with such an extreme personality, but to understand the lived experience of the descendant of the first serial killer in America. While it is an eclectic blend of non-fiction and paranormal experience, it intriguingly recounts of the author’s experience as he learns his ancestor was H. H. Holmes (Herman Webster Mudgett) and his quest for the truth. The story becomes a thriller about the psychological wrestling Mudgett does with his own sanity as he struggles with a mysterious brain tumor that causes seizures involving auditory and visual hallucinations of Holmes.
The setting of the story begins with the author’s strained paternal relationships, both with his father and grandfather. He discovers H. H. Holmes was his direct ancestor accidentally through his grandmother’s genealogy search and two mysterious diaries bequeathed to him when his grandfather dies. The diaries are real and they belonged to Holmes. The discovery of the journals not only challenges history’s account of Holmes, as one volume was written after the date of Holmes hanging, but also forces Mudgett to confront his own dark archetype. The story would impress any Jungian scholar.
Holmes’ was a particularly brutal and sadistic serial killer, supposedly hung in 1896 after being convicted of the vicious murders of an assistant and his children. Holmes later confessed to 27 murders for profit (insurance, organ harvesting and skeleton sales) after his conviction but it is believed he is responsible for well over 100 murders and possibly as many as 200 in Chicago, Illinois. To discover this grim spot in one’s own ancestry invites a plethora of potential story lines to explore. Mudgett does what he knows best, by applying his legal training, attempting to prove Holmes’ journals were a fraud. He not only discovers the journals are, indeed Holmes’, but uncovers details and facts that link Holmes to the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of 1888.
Mudgett does an excellent job filling in the missing facts with logical possibilities, using his experience in criminal law to expound the H. H. Holmes narrative. While doing so, he examines the depth of emotion and the archetypal dark side of his own thoughts. Mudgett also discloses his own borderline personality disorder. Seeking answers to questions about himself, Mudgett explores his dark side in a similar fashion to Carl Jung. In doing so, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between Mudgett and Holmes. The story is full of Jungian archetypes, Freudian psychological observations, and existential themes surrounding death and courage. It was a masterful story, made even more real by the locations and literary elements that connected the story to plausible possibilities. The ending does not disappoint.
When I began the novel, I expected (and hoped) to find a chink in the psychological armor of H. H. Holmes. I wanted to find the innocent child that was so brutally disciplined, or traumatized by the ravages of the civil war, that his mind shifted to survival mode and subconsciously craved to make sense of visual trauma. My sympathies never materialized for the antagonist of the story, Holmes, but I discovered great empathy for the protagonist, Mudgett. Although Mudgett does not offer any excuses for his ancestor’s behavior, choosing to paint him as the Devil incarnate, I did discover in Mudgett a man deeply shamed from the discovery of this horrible family secret.
The story also could be a metaphor about the dangers surrounding the application of the medical model in psychology and the awesome responsibility humanistic values hold. We can observe people and view them as merely specimens of humanity, seeking to find common links and theorize human behavior, or we can choose to recognize the humanity in each one, with the story each person creates. When the journey is too overwhelming to face, it can lead to darkness in the human soul so black, it becomes impossible to recognize our own humanity.
Being only capable of superficial relationships, Holmes became the only person in his universe, with all others as prey to exploit. This is the true tragedy in people like H. H. Holmes. In an effort to survive, he somehow abandoned his dignity as a human being and became a predator. He was utterly alone, forever condemned to a solitary existence, merely responding to ambition and primal urges and never really loving (or trusting) another human being. He was never truly himself, and never truly fulfilled, always seeking his next fix like a heroin addict. His only drug of choice was blood and the use of all forms of torture, physical, psychological, and spiritual. Consistent with a true addict, his craving drove him to more bizarre and hideous forms of torture, while pretending to be the good doctor on the surface.
Holmes’ story is relevant to so many others in power and has one, overarching, existential theme that dominates. In seeking power, he finds he is never content because he must deny the reality of his mortal existence and pretend to be God in order to feel safe. He is completely at the mercy of his own cravings, while insisting he is in complete control of everyone and everything around him. Ultimately, death has complete power over him, even when it does not have to hold this position, because Holmes chooses not to confront his own darkness. He lacks the courage to face his own vulnerability. In doing this, he concedes power to death. This is the ultimate despair of Holmes’ human soul: to never have hope in humanity.
Quite by accident, I discovered the one area I could empathize with Holmes. He was so fearful of his own vulnerability his only solution was to hold the power of death over others to negate his fear. Being deemed irrelevant was a fate worse than death for him. It was, possibly, the only true fear he had aside from being out of control.
Embracing humanistic-existential values demands we seek out the human aspect of the client, wherever it is within the client, and work with it. Sadly, one like Holmes was far too manipulative to ever successfully counsel without being in a very contained environment, such as incarceration. Holmes would have needed a skilled clinician who recognized manipulation quickly. I doubt, at this stage in my own career, I would have that level of skill, (or the stomach for it.) It may have demanded the abilities of Rogers or Frankl to achieve the necessary level of empathy, and Perls to provide sufficient challenge to the intellect of Holmes, while Jung would be required to make sense of Holmes’ dark side. If Holmes’ soul is in Purgatory, it is doubtful Rogers, Frankl, Perls or Jung can do house calls. However, Holmes’ redemption may come through his own descendant, Mudgett.
In writing the story of the victims, and actively seeking to act as trans-personal witness to their horror, Mudgett offers a glimmer of hope for Holmes, his victims and his descendants: Redemption through reconciliation. Mudgett hopes to identify every victim of Holmes, beginning with Chicago and London. He has requested the grave of Holmes exhumed in order to compare DNA for confirmation that Holmes was, indeed, hanged in 1886 and, if not, Mudgett will investigate the diary notations of Holmes’ crimes in California after 1886. Mudgett has already linked Holmes’ handwriting with the Ripper letters through handwriting analysis. He seeks to do reparation by telling the narrative of the victims and fully disclose all of Holmes’ crimes. In making amends, he also learns to accept and forgive Holmes’ weak soul. Consequently, his own spiritual battle pits his honesty and goodness above Holmes’ evil actions and demonstrates that genetics do not define a man. The man defines the man. In doing so, Mudgett finds a way to be at peace while repairing the caustic relationship with the ghost of his grandfather.
— Maria Taheny