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College of Medicine Alumni Magazine: Fall 2023 Life Among the Serial Killers: Helen Morrison, MD, MCP ’73

By Kate McCorkle

Helen Morrison, MD, MCP ’73

When Helen Morrison, MD, MCP ’73, says she’s “always maintained a separation between my normal life and my serial murder life,” it’s with the assurance of a criminal forensic psychiatrist drawing on 50 years of experience. Over her prolific career, Morrison has written books and numerous articles, and profiled serial killers across the world. Despite this expert insight into a notorious and frightening population, she continues to test herself and her theories.

Morrison knew she wanted to practice medicine from a young age. As a child, her sister contracted scarlet fever, and the house visits made by the doctor greatly impressed the young girl. His care and demeanor were wonderful, Morrison recalls, inspiring her own vocation. “I was very lucky,” she says, “because I was relatively young when I became determined to find my way in medicine. I didn’t have to go through the angst of ‘What am I going to do?’”

Even though she was sure of her career path, that certitude didn’t mean the journey was straight. Morrison worked for a few years after high school. When she enrolled at Temple University, it was to both day and night schools simultaneously, resulting in a very heavy course load. An undergrad course, though, kicked off her interest in psychiatry: An assignment to profile a character in one of Aristotle’s allegories was fascinating.

Morrison was accepted into the Medical College of Pennsylvania, applying only after first being rejected by Hahnemann University (“On the grounds I was too old,” she laughs). Fortunately, MCP proved to be an excellent fit. “I went to medical school and found, at MCP, that I belonged,” she says. “It was the first time in my life I felt I belonged to a group, to a commonality that made so much sense.” Morrison is proud that this feeling of camaraderie and belonging remained palpable at her class’s recent 50-year reunion.

After fellowships in research and child psychiatry, Morrison became a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago and worked as a child psychiatrist. She’d later go on to found the Evaluation Center, a multidisciplinary clinic for child and adult psychiatry and neurology still in operation today. Yet Morrison’s introduction to forensic psychology occurred early in her career.


Soon after she had started her residency in psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Morrison was involved in her first forensic case. A college student in his 20s was found, almost nude, walking along the interstate. Morrison was tasked with his commitment hearing. It was her first experience with the legal system, and she was “utterly fascinated by the whole process.” Her career in criminal forensic psychiatry began with a connection to the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Morrison had participated in a hypnosis demonstration that a DOJ official was attending. At its conclusion, he approached Morrison and told her a woman had been found murdered at the Abbey, a resort on Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. He asked Morrison what type of person could commit a murder like that. “I don’t know,” she replied. “If you find him, I’d love to talk with him.”

Six months later the criminal was apprehended, and he was a serial killer. The law enforcement official from the demonstration reached out to Morrison so she could interview him. “That was the beginning,” she says.

He was just amazingly caring. It’s jarring when you realize he committed this horrible crime.


Since then, Morrison has interviewed almost 90 serial murderers. Her 2004 book, My Life Among the Serial Killers, details her theories and observations gleaned from decades of profiling murderers across the world.

Interestingly, Morrison says that regardless of time or place, serial killers “are all alike... If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” One trait they share is that, initially, they present as very kind and solicitous. This was true, she says, of that first murderer she profiled in Wisconsin. “He was so friendly and so caring,” she recalls. “Was I comfortable? Did I need anything? He was just amazingly caring. It’s jarring when you realize he committed this horrible crime.”

She continues, “Every serial murderer I’ve ever met, I’ve wondered when I first met them if they really could be a serial murderer, because they were so nice and so considerate — so ‘normal.’” Morrison explains that this superficial kindness actually taught her how to interview this particular type of killer. It takes several hours, she says, to break down that external persona. “Most interviewers think an hour or two is enough. It never would be with one of these people.” She elaborates, stating, “You have to spend four to six hours at a time with them to break them down. They break down only because you’re in their space, and they can’t hold it together that long.”

Morrison also chillingly concludes, based on her extensive experience, that serial killers “are not human... They have no empathy, no real emotion, no capacity to care for someone. [There is] nothing redeeming about them... If they had a serial murderer in prison, and they let him out for any reason, he will kill again.”


Along with assessing serial murderers after they’ve been caught, Morrison has also aided law enforcement by profiling at-large killers based on their crimes. She recalls a case in Texas where she was approached when a pediatrician was killed.

Officials wanted to know “what kind of person” could do something like this. Morrison “sketched out” a profile based on the evidence. “When they found him six months later,” she says, “he fit the profile. Believe me, I didn’t have any sense of ‘I was right.’ It just happened that I could explain who this person was without seeing him.”

This type of profiling also led to Morrison’s involvement with the John Wayne Gacy trial in Chicago. After reading an article about Morrison’s forensic work in the Chicago Tribune, Gacy’s defense attorney reached out to the psychiatrist. He wanted to know if she’d already met the serial killer because she “explained him very well.” Morrison hadn’t met Gacy, but her profiling generated valuable insight for people trying to understand the murders.

The defense team ended up hiring Morrison to meet with Gacy. “I spent a lot of hours with this man,” she says. During the trial, Morrison eventually testified for the defense from a psychiatric standpoint.

A theory that seemed relevant to Gacy connects to another trait Morrison identified in serial killers: They never seem to develop into an individual or complete person. If one thinks of a baby, she says, a normal developmental phase is for that child to experience separation anxiety when away from their primary caregiver, usually around 6 to 9 months old. Yet, a serial murderer doesn’t seem to experience that development. “He never becomes a separate person,” Morrison states. “He never goes through the phase of separation and individuation. He never becomes a complete person in his life. It’s utterly fascinating to see that happen.”

Although Morrison recognizes common traits in every serial killer (even saying they’re “cookie cutter”), the experience of profiling them has remained interesting and engaging for her. Rather than being frightened, which she says doesn’t happen easily, she views each case “as a challenge.” Throughout her career, every time she encounters a new criminal, she still wonders why and how.

And criminal forensic psychiatry — for all its interest — is a challenge. “You never know when you’re going in to meet with one of these people whether you’ll be able to reach them at all. If you’re going to be able to show that your theories are solid,” she says. “That’s probably the biggest thing that happens. We always test ourselves, test our theories.”

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