‘Prison groupie’ syndrome
Here’s a word from the field of crime I’m betting you’ve never heard before: hybristophilia. It’s pronounced HIGH-briss-toe-feel-ee-uh, and it’s such an obscure word some dictionaries don’t even include it — yet.
Expert criminologists and mental health professionals define hybristophilia in a scientific way: a syndrome in which sexual arousal and attraction to another depends on having a partner known to have committed an outrage such as armed robbery, rape or murder. In layman’s terms, hybristophilia is most often a female’s being attracted to bad boys — or more simply put, Bonnie and Clyde syndrome.
I was recently asked to opine about this phenomenon by a student documentarian who became fascinated by the Watts triple murder case out of Colorado. Christopher Watts is what’s known as a “family annihilator,” which is exactly what it sounds like. One early August morning in 2018, he systematically murdered his entire family. The details are so gruesome I won’t repeat them here, but Watts killed his pregnant wife, Shannan, and two beautiful little girls, Bella and Celeste. Watts ultimately confessed to the unspeakable crimes and was sent to a maximum-security prison for the rest of his life. There he continues to receive love letters from women across the country, women who likely fall into the hybristophilic category.
This syndrome isn’t new or unusual, but it is certainly curious. Serial murderers like killer cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez (the so-called Night Stalker) and the infamous Ted Bundy received a constant stream of letters from amorous female fans. Bundy married his most staunch admirer during his capital murder trial and conceived a child with her. Ramirez married one of his pen pals in San Quentin State Prison in 1996. Both Lyle and Eric Menendez, brothers convicted of brutally killing their parents in 1989, were married in prison. Lyle divorced but was married behind bars for a second time.
Army Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald (the Green Beret Killer) and Scott Peterson — both convicted of killing their pregnant wives — are known to have attracted seriously hybristophilic women. Even notorious terrorists like Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his older brother murdered and maimed nearly 300 people, gets love letters as he continues to appeal his death sentence.
In other words, there seems to be no crime horrific enough to repulse those who are obsessed with the need to feel close to heinous criminals.
But why? What drives a person to want to cozy up to someone who has done such horrible things? What woman would agree to visit with or actually marry a man who can never come home with her?
Theories vary depending on which researcher or mental health experts you speak to. Some view these women as living in a fantasy land in which they can engage in a mental love affair while knowing that prison bars keep them safe from actual consummation of the relationship.
R.J. Parker, an award-winning and bestselling true crime writer on the subject has said that even in the face of a confession, many of these so-called prison groupies remain oblivious to the facts.
“Some of the women know that their incarcerated love interest is guilty of heinous crimes, but others are blinded, openly believing that the person they are in love with is innocent, even though there is clear evidence to state otherwise.”
Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University, has written extensively about hybristophilia and has some fascinating conclusions about women who seek men who are incarcerated for life. She believes some may see the convict as the little boy he once was and seek to mother him. Other prison groupies may think they can actually change the man, convert him into a better person.
And then there’s Ramsland’s hypothesis that the man is seen as “the perfect boyfriend.” Imagine: The woman always knows where he will be, she doesn’t have to account for her whereabouts, make his meals, wash his clothes or put up with any of the other issues that crop up in a traditional relationship.
And then there Ramsland’s most cynical theory: that the woman wants to profit from being the girlfriend of a notorious prisoner by selling her story for a book or movie deal.
I have conducted face-to-face prison interviews with some truly despicable criminals, a serial killer (the Hillside Strangler, Kenneth Bianchi), a family annihilator (Jeffrey MacDonald) and cold-blooded murderers (assassin James Earl Ray and child-killer Richard Allen Davis). Many of them were surprisingly personable and thereby able to be shrewdly manipulative.
I can understand how a vulnerable woman might start to write to and then become caught up in such a convict’s well-spun backstory. What I’m not sure I will ever be able to grasp is how such a relationship can be romantically satisfying.
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