Mark Kalish looks straight into the face of evil, and what he often sees is - nothing.
Looking back at him is the blank face of a man as prepared to discuss thermodynamics as why he kills people.
Mark A. Kalish, M.D., 64, is a forensic psychiatrist living in Poway. He is a specialist at looking into the heads of people you read about and shudder. He sometimes looks for a soul in criminals and only sees a barren space. Kalish has worked for both prosecutors and defense attorneys. Sometimes they like his conclusions, sometimes not.
He recalls interviewing a particularly savage serial killer in Texas, Ricky Lee Green, during one of the early years of the 35-plus he's been doing this.
"I said to him, ‘Ricky Lee, you killed six people that we know about. Did it ever occur to you after the first or second that there was something wrong, that maybe you needed to talk to a psychiatrist or a priest?' He looked at me, smiled and said, ‘No. Why?' "
Green was executed in 1997. Texas is not a good place to be a serial killer if you're going to get caught.
Kalish recalls trying to get through to David Allen Lucas, who had little interest in talking to him. Lucas was a Spring Valley carpet cleaner who a quarter-century ago developed a liking for slashing the throats of women and children. He now spends year after year on California's death row.
I ask how it felt to sit across from such a monster and try to engage him.
"Scared, but not for me. I'm scared about the other guys that we haven't caught yet. I'm scared for my family, my kids, my grandkids."
Jonathan Sampson George was a particularly nasty piece of work who in 1992 shed his shackles and brutally beat a female sheriff's deputy during his escape in San Diego. He then shot and killed a motorist in a carjacking. He's now serving a life sentence.
Kalish remembers him well from his psychiatric interview.
"Jonathan George is the only person I have ever examined that I insisted he be placed in shackles. Looking at him, he was very large and imposing. He was the cat that swallowed the canary. He was unconcerned about what might happen to him. If you or I were placed in that situation, looking at life in prison, maybe even death, we would be very scared. For him, it was of no consequence."
Why would that be?
"Ask yourself what would you miss most if you were sent to prison?
"You'd miss your family. You wouldn't be able to hug them anymore. But to these guys, that's of no value. You can't understand them by framing it in your own experience. It's impossible to do that. I've been doing this for 35 years, and it's hard for me to understand it."
Do you ever ask serial killers what they think or feel as they are killing?
"I asked Jonathan George, ‘What were you feeling when you pulled this guy out of the car and shot him?' He said, ‘Nothing. I mean, I just needed to get away.'
"They don't have an answer because they don't feel. Let me put it this way: When you step on an ant, does it bother you? What do you feel? You tell me, ‘Nothing. Why would I feel anything?' "
They have no remorse at all?
"No. No. No they don't. It's just not there."
Though a serial killer would laugh at the idea of being remorseful, some crime-committers truly are, Kalish says.
"The ones I see that are most remorseful are people that have clearly committed a crime, but not for personal gain. Either out of passion, the heat of the moment or they're drunk and they kill somebody and they feel horrible about it."
Kalish knows crime, but not the way criminals know it.
Criminals know the mechanics of their trade, but he seeks to know the whys of what they do, a more difficult job. Plenty of times, he just shakes his head at the mystery of what society's outliers do.
He says the mentally ill commit no more crimes than the general public. Probably less.
Serial killers or mass murderers may have personality disorders, but what you can expect to see in them is just plain evil. They are the only criminals who commit violent acts and are not motivated by reasons any normal person would understand. Strictly for their own pleasure.
When confronted by depravity that seems medieval in its creepiness, we are inclined to call it crazy and expect a psychiatrist to add an "ology" to a name for it. Not Kalish.
He believes, "Our compulsion to attach sickness to violent crime is a defense mechanism. What I think we try to do is ‘medicalize' behaviors that are frightening to us. The fantasy is, if we do that, if we diagnose it and give it a label, then we understand why it happened and then perhaps we can do some intervention to prevent it. But if there is evil, if there's a devil, we're less able to cope with it."
He says that on the other end of the behavioral continuum, we don't require an explanation for heroic behavior. We accept that as an act of goodness. So why not also accept the opposite for what it is?
He says murder is usually a one-and-done crime with a low recidivism rate (if the criminal ever gets out of prison). The reason is that it's typically a crime fueled by love gone wrong in some way, or by drunkenness.
"If you take all crimes, the causes are really very straightforward: sex, avarice, alcohol and drugs. Those four things are really the major causes of most crimes. Get rid of those and people are pretty good."
I once heard a police officer say if we got rid of alcohol, we could cut the police force in half.
"At least. Easily. Ain't happenin'."
Do humans have a natural susceptibility to an altered state of mind, either by alcohol or drugs?
Kalish says, "The reason somebody gives you a paycheck is because they're asking you to do stressful things. Alcohol, marijuana and other drugs are easy, convenient and often cheap ways to reduce stress. Yoga, exercise, meditation take time, take effort and make you sweat. It also takes effort to reduce your anxiety in social situations. If you drink, it's much easier."
Easier to be a pain in the butt, too.
Do you think there is an alcoholic gene?
"The evidence is that there is a strong genetic component to alcoholism. If you have a parent that's an alcoholic, you're at a significantly increased risk."
Kalish says heroin does not incline the user to commit crimes, except stealing to support an addiction. However, "Crystal meth is pure evil. If you take enough amphetamine long enough and enough of it, it will make you psychotic and violent.
"In a case I was involved in where the fellow was doing crystal meth, he came to believe that his daughter was being used in child pornography and prostitution. He believed his wife had taken their daughter to some local hotel, and he got in the car with his gun to go rescue her.
"On the way there, he sees some men unloading carpet from a van. He somehow believed they were involved. He took out the gun and shot and killed one of the men. In his psychotic delusion, he wasn't being evil, he was being heroic."
Occasionally in court, when lawyers don't like what Kalish is saying, they'll go after him on the stand. Once, an attorney went after the fact that Kalish was a paid witness.
" ‘Now, Dr. Kalish,' a lawyer said to me. ‘You're getting paid for being here and giving your testimony today, aren't you?' My response was, ‘I certainly hope so.' Then I followed up by asking, ‘You don't think there's a problem getting paid here, do you? (The lawyer is) good for it, isn't she?' Juries know that witnesses get paid. They know that. It's not a shock."
Kalish did a sentencing report on Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the former jet fighter ace and North County congressman who was convicted of corruption. Kalish took issue with the theory that Cunningham's wartime derring-do heroics led to his illegal activities.
"I consider that a bunch of psychobabble. That's a disservice to all of the men and women that served honorably and also faced risk.
"If there was a connection, we'd expect to see boatloads of fighter pilots being arrested for various larcenies. What you see with a just a very few of these people is that they are given tremendous accolades for risking themselves, and then they forget their human limitations. But despite the good things that they've done, they're still cut from the same cloth as every other person."
The mention of Cunningham's monetary crimes causes Kalish to draw a distinction between greed and avarice.
"We all know what greed is. But if you go to the Old Testament, they talk about avarice. Avarice is something more than greed. Greed is wanting somebody else's dollar. Avarice is wanting their last dollar."
I tell him I'm philosophically mystified when I see victims standing up in court and saying they forgive their assailants, especially when it's not sought by the offenders. For whose actual benefit is that?
"There is certainly a philosophical and a religious basis to forgiveness, but there's also a psychological aspect to it.
"If somebody does you harm, you retain negative emotions about that person. Understandable, but it wears away at you personally over time, because a lot of emotional energy is spent hating."
What I hear you saying is that forgiveness is not for the supposed recipient, but for the one offering it.
"Yes. You have no power to forgive. God does that. What you're saying is, I'm not going to spend any more emotional or psychic energy on hating you."
Mark Kalish is a Chicago native, but now he lives high above Poway and looks down on a large lot with a swimming pool and fruit trees that he fondly points out and identifies. Life is good up there. Thirty-five years ago, he married Elizabeth, a widow with four daughters whom he recently adopted, formalizing their years-long Jewish-Catholic bond.
Years ago when he became a physician, Kalish chose to forgo removing appendixes. Instead, he's spent much of his career stepping down into that spooky human cellar where criminality grows like mold, and which he often has to examine in poor light.
Given a comparable challenge, an appendectomy would often be fatal.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.