In 1966, a twenty-four-year-old sailor named Richard Speck committed one of the most shocking crimes in American history. Intruding into a dormitory of female student nurses, he tied up nine women, and then systematically murdered eight of them. The one survivor hid under a bed, and Speck missed her during his homicidal rampage. She described his appearance to police, including the eerily prescient tattoo on his arm that read “Born To Raise Hell.”
In the aftermath of the slayings, a widely publicized “fact” about Richard Speck was believed to explain, at least partially, his extraordinary aggressiveness. It was said that he was a “supermale,” that is, a man with an extra Y-chromosome.
A cursory look at Speck’s history seemed to support the conclusion that too much masculinity was his flaw. He was a tall, lanky, heavily tattooed man given to drinking, fighting, and whoring. He had always worked at traditional men’s jobs like construction and seafaring — when he wasn’t getting his money through theft.
“Supermale’s” crimes were trumpeted as evidence for biological determinism. As Stephen Jay Gould writes, “The naïvely determinist argument had little going for it beyond the following: Males tend to be more aggressive than females; this may be genetic. If genetic, it must reside on the Y chromosome; anyone possessing two Y chromosomes has a double dose of aggressiveness and might incline to violence and criminality.”
Thus, his slayings of eight women were man’s “normal” or “natural” dominance over females carried to a destructive extreme. Or so it appeared.
As it turned out, the original finding of the murderer as a “supermale” was in error. Speck was a genetically normal XY male.
Richard Speck shocked the public yet again — three years after his own death in prison of a heart attack — when a videotape made by the imprisoned Speck and fellow inmates surfaced.
The video alternates between talk show and hard-core pornography—Speck being the receptive partner in anal intercourse). During the talk show segments, a cellmate plays interviewer to Speck’s celebrity guest. The general atmosphere is one of conviviality and camaraderie.
“Have you got the blue panties on?” his buddy asks.
Then, the ugly, pockmarked Speck unzips his paint-splattered uniform — his prison job had been painting walls — to display fully developed breasts along with the aforementioned women’s underpants.
The man who murdered women had turned himself into a fun-house mirror image of the sex he slaughtered. Speck’s appearance on film was so gender-ambiguous that TV stations seemed unsure of whether he was a man or a woman. In part of the tape, his breasts are shown, as the chest of a male normally would be on American television; in another, the camera distorts the chest area as it would for a topless female.
In my opinion, Speck’s feminization, together with a more nuanced examination of his life history, gives us new insight into the motives behind his gender-biased atrocities. This insight was unconscious since sociopaths are not a group given to introspection.
To a man like Speck, women may appear to be the powerful sex. After all, in the usual heterosexual procedure, the man approaches the woman rather than the other way around and, quite often, his overtures are rebuffed. If the man has been courteous, the woman is somewhat embarrassed — and flattered; the rejected man is left with entirely negative feelings. The special vulnerability of the person who initiates sexual relationships is obscured by our custom of referring to the initiator as the “aggressor” with the word’s connotations of power and conquest. However, the position of the person who makes the overtures could also be seen as, and more importantly, felt as, that of “supplicant.”
A man may pay for women’s company — as Speck often did — but especially if his income is low and uncertain — as Speck’s was — he resents having to do so.
What’s more, he may feel disadvantaged in the sex act itself. Speck often gave up “his turn” during “gang-bangs” of prostitutes because he was impotent. He probably felt incontrovertibly exposed by his limp penis and, in his humiliation, envied the ability of the female to feign sexual interest.
I must add that I do not share Camille Paglia’s belief that women are in fact the more powerful sex. Rather, I think it may seem that way “from the outside looking in.” Men who are both unimaginative and insensitive, and, as a result, oblivious to the realities that warp women’s lives — i. e., unwanted pregnancy, the Double Standard, rape, discrimination — sometimes envy their position as the courted sex.
This envy of women’s supposed power may turn to hatred and that hatred to macho violence. In the case of Richard Speck, I believe that envy deepened into a hatred, which became, quite literally, murderous.
Men’s envy of women’s beauty does not always turn into machismo. It may find an outlet in the benign, even constructive, form of imitation through cross-dressing.
The reasons people who are genetically members of one sex seek to take on the apparel or physical characteristics of the other are, of course, many, and varying. In view of the lamentable tendency of parts of the media to sensationalize transgenderism and play up cases of transgendered criminals, it must be emphasized that Speck had almost nothing in common with the vast majority of cross-dressers and differently gendered people.
Furthermore, it was only after Speck was effectively cut off from macho violence against women that he chose the innocuous path of imitating them.
Envy of women, combined with his inability as a prisoner to harm them, might explain Speck’s assumption of female characteristics but not his decision to display them in front of a camera.
Why was this very strange video made?
According to Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune,
A transcript of the tape reveals that it seems to have been made as a sort of payment from Speck to the prisoners behind the video camera, men he refers to as “my two rides.” The vague idea that filters through the two-hour disjointed conversation interrupted by bouts of sex is that, somehow, the men will sell the tape or write a book from it so that, in Speck’s words, “they don’t ever have to come back again.”
That last statement deserves examination. It is inconsistent with the general tenor of the tape that depicts prison life as one big party. As Speck comments, “If they knew how much fun I was having in here, they’d have to turn me loose.” But the hope that his brother prisoners cherish, that of getting out and staying out, gives the lie to Speck’s boast of satisfaction.
Undoubtedly, the happy-go-lucky video reflects little of what prison life is really like. Which brings us to the following question: why did Speck wish to appear satisfied with his lot? As a sociopath, Speck found joy in other people’s misery—and he knew that nothing would gall the public more than convincing them that he was happy. Concomitantly with this desire was one of besting the female sex at what he believed was their own game.
“Do you like getting fucked by men, Richard?” Speck is asked.
“Absolutely,” he replies.
“Have you always liked it?”
If Speck had lived as a gay man in the outside world, his unprepossessing looks and repulsive character would have made him a loser with other men — as he had been with women. In the odd environment of prison, Speck, in effect, told the world, a grotesque man who agreeably played the woman was the belle of the ball. For Richard Speck, murdering females was not enough. By making this video, he finally and decisively upstaged — and, at least in his own mind, out-womaned — women.