Watching I Am A Killer is a weird exercise in empathy

When the second season of I Am A Killer premiered on Netflix at the end of January, I realized that I’d never finished the first season but somehow mostly completed a blog post about it that I never got around to publishing. This was back in August 2018, before true crime fanship shifted from rabid consumption to guilty hand-wringing about entertainment that outright glamorizes murderers and serial killers.

I Am A Killer doesn’t do any of that. Instead, it makes the cycle of violence personal by focusing each episode on a convicted individual and quietly exploring the multitude of ways a single murder can devastate an entire community.

From behind a glass panel on death row, each offender gets an opportunity to tell their story, explain their intentions, or give voice to their regrets. But it’s hardly a glamorous platform, and the show balances out their perspective using interviews with family members and friends, loved ones of the victim, the law enforcement and legal professionals who lived through the aftermath alongside them, and the media and support services people who intersected with their stories.

While the convicted murderer is undeniably the main subject, the show emphasizes the ripple effect of their actions by spending equal, if not more time on the perspectives of those impacted by their crime.

The interview format of this show reminded me of my first full-time job as a junior writer for a forensic psychologist, who frequently evaluated sexually violent offenders incarcerated at the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation. (It’s a charming place funded by your tax dollars, look it up sometime). My job was to read through all kinds of reports about this person – school documents, health records, prison records, social workers’ reports, community services evaluations – to summarize their background for the doctor before he interviewed them himself.

Through his analysis of the offender’s childhood, the crimes they committed, and how and why they chose their victims, the psychologist could estimate the likelihood that they would harm again. But the clinical interview was the capstone of his recommendation because it’s one thing to learn about an offender by reading their paperwork, it’s another to hear them explain themselves in their own words.

My reaction to the show, just like those forensic interviews, is caught between two conflicting values: Everyone deserves to have their story heard, but perhaps not everyone deserves a platform to do so.

Maybe it’s the former aspiring journalist in me that believes everyone involved should have a chance to comment, because that’s only fair. But is it ethical to hand that microphone to certain people? That’s pretty much how we ended up in our current Ted Bundy situation.

I mean, sometimes these bastards just lie and they don’t deserve an audience for their bullshit. What struck me the most in that old job as I transcribed clinical interviews, was that even when these men (they were always men) clearly understood they’d committed horrible acts, they still adhered to their own self-serving versions of reality. Comparing their first person accounts with documentation like police reports and court affidavits was almost comical at times, because some of these guys had really taken a red pen to their own history. The show has similar moments where the offenders share curious recollections of their actions, or blatantly cast themselves in a more favorable light.

On the other hand, I’m glad these stories are being told because they humanize the men we label as monsters. As cynical as I am about people being shitty, I also want to believe we are not the worst thing we have ever done. People are too complicated to sort into categories like good or bad, deserving and undeserving. A wasted life is a shame no matter who it belongs to.

This is the dilemma the show wants us to struggle with, because none of these cases are clear-cut and simple. To make a sweeping generalization about the merit of I Am A Killer would defeats the show’s point, because there’s always more to the story than what we assume.

P.S. One thoroughly accurate complaint about the first season, although it looks like the second season achieved better representation:

Have you watched? What do you think?