Female serial killings in Kerala

Thomas Sajan / Titto Idicula | Updated on October 15, 2019 Published on October 15, 2019

The make-up of Jolly Joseph, the prime suspect in the recent serial killings in Koodathayi, Kerala, fits well with one with psychopathic personality traits

Kerala is yet to recoup from the shock and outrage created by its ‘globally infamous’ female serial killer. People in general still struggle hard to digest — as BBC has reported — “a model daughter-in-law accused of killing six family members with cyanide” in a village named Koodathayi. A society that cherishes family values and nurtures the care-giver’s heart of a woman is under siege.

The Koodathayi murders, which unfolded over a period of 14 years, raise questions about how to define serial killings and Jolly Joseph herself —the prime suspect who is under police custody.

“Jolly does not fit the definition of a serial killer as such persons kill anyone they want out of their compulsive killing behaviour. In this case, the culprit had a specific motive, which is yet to be clear, and she was kind of removing the obstacles to achieve that motive. She had well-calculated plans,” said noted criminologist and author Dr James Vadackumchery. However, some recent research findings on female serial killers are not in line with such conventional perceptions.

Hunter-gatherer model

An article titled Sex Differences in Serial Killers, published by the American Psychological Association coincidently during the same week Kerala police arrested Jolly Joseph, suggests that male and female serial killers do not belong to the same category. By using data on 55 female and 55 male serial killers from the US, the researchers from Penn State University have proposed a “hunter-gatherer model” to explain the modus operandi of serial killers.

While male serial killers are likely to “hunt” their victims who are mostly unknown to them and murdered for sadistic gratification, female serial killers tend to “gather” their victims — targeting people around them, predominantly for economic benefits.

“Male serial killers stalk and hunt strangers; females trap and poison inmates — kill on their own home territory or on that which they share with their victim,” to quote from the book Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters.

The Koodathayi murders are sort of a textbook case for this model; all the victims were close relatives of the culprit and killed with clear economic intentions.

Psychopathic traits

What makes the psych of the female serial killer? An immediate and rather conspicuous answer is that the culprit is a psychopath. A psychopath by definition is someone who cannot conform to the rules of society and lacking the ability to feel empathy towards others.

However, unlike the common perceptions, all psychopaths are not serial killers. Neither the term `psychopath` is a rigid one. There are people with traits of psychopathy among the commoners, and only a few show extreme deviant characters. It is estimated that up to 1 per cent of the population has people with ‘subclinical’ psychopathy.

“Psychopaths are neighbours, co-workers, bosses and dates. Some are sadistic serial killers,” as noted by Kevin Borgeson and Kristen Keuhnle in the book Serial Offenders: Theory and Practice. What is noteworthy about psychopaths is their ability to charm almost anyone, from young children to older adults.

It is quite likely that the Koodathayi murder culprit has psychopathic traits as the preliminary investigations show a lack of guilt while known to have maintained a charming impression among neighbours and relatives.

Illusion of control

Serial killers, despite their lack of guilt or remorse, are indeed cautious beings worried about repercussions and punishments that may incur to them. Meticulous planning and careful executions, however, give them a false sense of confidence.

“With successive killings the culprits feel that their detailing makes them invincible. This is quite analogous to the ‘illusion of control’ as seen in certain kinds of gamblers,” says Dr Mathews Thomas, a Boston-based forensic psychiatrist and former faculty at Harvard.

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School and Tel Aviv University, who studied sports gamblers, concludes that an ‘illusion of control’ is what drives most of them.

Sports gamblers, according to the study, consider themselves as the cleverest of all gamblers. They assume that, along with their familiarity with the game, the command over details such as player’s statistics, manager’s habits, and weather situation could enable them to predict match results — although such assumptions are proven to be altogether erroneous.

There are enough reasons to believe that the culprit in the Koodathayi murders acted confidently and without guilt under an ‘illusion of control’ stemming from the successful execution and cover-up of the initial killings.

The make-up of the female serial killer in Kerala is a rare but not an impossible combination: a person with psychopathic personality traits and exceptional social skills, conniving and executing successive murder plots while maintaining typical everyday activities.

People with the traits of a serial killer do live in our society as “normal” social beings. In spite of the rarity and brutality of such occurrences, it is not a fundamentally un-human phenomenon.

Sajan is a social anthropologist trained in Norway. Idicula is a fellow at the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

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Published on October 15, 2019
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