Dr. Jeffrey L. Smalldon


Dr. Jeffrey L. Smalldon

 When did you first settle on the idea of writing a memoir?

Actually, I began thinking about it a long time ago, probably a decade or so into my career as a forensic psychologist. In other words, almost twenty-five years after I exchanged my first letters with Charles Manson, Squeaky Fromme, and other members of the Manson Family. The problem, or at least one of them, was that I couldn’t figure out what a memoir by me would or should look like. In moments of self-doubt, and there were plenty of those, the whole idea seemed presumptuous, maybe even a bit ridiculous. Who would care about a memoir written by Jeff Smalldon? On the other hand, I knew that I’d managed to accumulate an unusual number of uncommon experiences, so it wasn’t all that hard for me to imagine an audience comprised of people who would find them interesting, maybe even edifying in some way. After years of dithering, I finally decided to act on the idea of attempting a project that I thought of—still think of—as “memoir-ish.” The onset of the pandemic probably had something to do with the timing.

 Was your book always going to focus on your five decades of encounters with killers?

No. That’s a subject I take up, although briefly, in the book’s Afterword. Originally, when I first began thinking about the writing project that would become That Beast Was Not Me, I wasn’t focused solely on killers. My first batch of working titles—Boundary Rider, We’ll Meet on Edges, Odd Man In, Plucking the Wild Goat’s Beard—hints at the broader focus I had in mind back then. All those titles suggest my original interest in writing about a variety of different subjects, for example my experiences with sideshow freaks, literary iconoclasts, Appalachian snake handlers, and the criminally insane. As I saw it, those were all “boundary experiences”—that is, experiences that found me operating somewhere near, or beyond, the boundaries of the world my conservative parents had in mind for me during my years growing up.

 But at some point you did opt for the narrower focus. Why?

For one thing, I concluded that I had too much material to cram into a single book. For another, I decided that my readers would be better served if I focused my attention on one big subject instead of a lot of smaller ones.

 Your dad was an FBI agent. What impact do you think that had on you personally, and on the kinds of experiences you tended to pursue throughout your life? 

One thing it meant was that my family moved a lot when I was a kid. Back then, agents tended to get transferred every year or two. I used to tell people that some of my most vivid early childhood memories were of waving goodbye to my friends. Of course there’s a certain poignancy about that. But at the same time, all those early moves taught me the importance of resilience. I acquired an ability to adapt to changing circumstances. I also acquired an interest in the outsider’s point of view. In addition, the nature of my dad’s work meant that all throughout my childhood, I was exposed at home to a low background hum of talk about crime and criminality. As the saying goes, little pitchers have big ears. My dad seldom talked to me about what he did at work—but I became accustomed to the sight of his pistol and shoulder holster, and I often overheard him and my mom whispering about the cases he was working on. When we moved to western New York, just before the start of my fourth-grade year, a lot of the whispering had to do with Stefano Magaddino and all the mob-related activity in and around Niagara Falls. Often, I accompanied my dad to his office on Saturday mornings. I was especially interested in the FBI Most Wanted posters that were tacked up to the bulletin board in the lobby. For about as far back as I can remember, I was fascinated by crime and criminals—so I’d always want to spend time looking at and reading those posters.

 What did your dad think when you began exchanging letters with Charles Manson and other members of the Manson Family during your senior year in college? 

I’m pretty sure he thought I was nuts. But he never told me I had to stop. He understood the basis for my interest in the Manson case. We talked about it more than once. It’s not like he thought I was going to drop out of school and make a beeline for the west coast. I should add, though, that both my parents became a little alarmed during the summer of 1975. I’d graduated from college, and I was residing at home with them before the start of my first year of graduate school in the fall. Manson, as well as Squeaky Fromme and her roommate Sandy Good, were sending me letters using my parents’ home address in North Tonawanda, New York. Things got weirder still when Squeaky Fromme attempted to assassinate President Ford in September of that same year — and the authorities in Sacramento discovered a bunch of my letters in her apartment, with the return address on the envelopes corresponding to the address my dad listed as his own. When his boss summoned him in for a meeting, my dad had some explaining to do.

 You chose a quote from one of Manson’s letters as the title of your book. Why?

In the first proper letter Manson ever wrote me, back in the spring of 1975, he protested, “That beast was not me—but it’s what everyone wants me to be so they make me up to be a reflection of their fear, lies, and bullshit.” I chose That Beast Was Not Me as my title for two reasons. First, it speaks to the fact that most serial and mass killers are very reluctant to submit to other people’s definitions of who they are. They’re too arrogant to want to be confined inside a box of anyone else’s creation. Second, the words of the title hint at all the problems and complications that arise whenever people try to precisely locate the boundary that separates the worst of us—the murderers I write about—from everyone else. That theme runs like a leitmotif throughout my entire book. Who are these people? And who are we?

 You didn’t set out to become a forensic psychologist. In fact, after your graduation from college you were on track toward becoming an English professor. What changed?

After completing my master’s degree in English, I taught for a year at my alma mater and then continued my study of literature at Trinity College in Dublin. Gradually, it dawned on me that I probably wouldn’t find contentment in academia, where, back then anyway, “publish or perish” seemed to be the prevailing mantra. I just didn’t feel temperamentally suited to an environment where I’d be required to prove my intellectual mettle over and over again.

 But why forensic psychology?

The answer to that question is contained in the first chapter of my book. After my return from Ireland, I attended George Washington University and began work toward my master’s degree in health services administration—for no good reason except that I didn’t know what else to do. For the residency portion of that degree, I was assigned to Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus. I stayed on there after the completion of my residency—and on December 30, 1983, two female employees in a department I had administrative responsibility for were brutally murdered just around the corner from the hospital’s main corridor between 4:30 and 5:05 in the afternoon. In the aftermath of that tragedy—and especially because the police still hadn’t arrested anyone a year later—I decided to leave my job, begin work toward my PhD in psychology at Ohio State, and allow myself to start imagining a career where I’d have the opportunity to delve deeply into the minds and motivations of violent criminals.

 In your book, you provide a lot of detail about your interactions with serial killer John Wayne Gacy. You write of having spent close to twenty hours alone with Gacy in a death row visiting room. Not long before, he’d been found guilty of killing thirty-three boys and young men. Were you ever frightened during the time you spent with him?

Not really—but I should have been. I know that now. I was wary—but never actually frightened. Repeat killers like Gacy are often as efficient and lethal as they are because they’re so adept at convincing other people there’s no need to be afraid. I should have been smarter than I was during the time I spent with Gacy—more alert to the danger. In my defense, I was still an inexperienced graduate student. I’d never before been in the same room with a person known to have committed murder, let alone someone who’d killed as many people as Gacy killed. Looking back, I can see how naïve I was.

 In your book’s final chapter, which you call “The Worst of the Worst,” you provide brief snapshots of your work on four death penalty cases. Since you provided consultation on close to 300 death penalty cases altogether, it must have been difficult to settle on just four. How did you choose which ones to write about?

Well, earlier in the book I devoted an entire chapter to one of the most highly publicized death penalty cases I worked on, the case of serial sniper Thomas Lee Dillon. But for the final chapter, the one I called “The Worst of the Worst,” I wanted to provide readers with a limited window on four other cases that I found particularly memorable. The first one, the case involving Eddie Vaughn, served as my introduction to death penalty work. The second case, the one involving spree killer Jerry Hessler, taught me the importance of not projecting my own thoughts and feelings on to the people I was hired to evaluate. The third case, the one where I focus on a meeting I had with the wife of convicted mass murderer Jeffrey Lundgren, taught me that I shouldn’t necessarily expect killers and their enablers to view their crimes through the same prism that other people use. The final capital case I write about, the one involving Alva Campbell, served for me as an object lesson about the need to keep my personal safety foremost in mind whenever my work brought me into contact with violent offenders.

 You write in the “Author’s Note” section of your book that you never had much interest in donning the mantle of expert and offering readers one more journey inside the mind of the serial killer. What sort of relationship did you hope to be able to cultivate with your readers?

I wanted readers of my book to view me as someone they could relate to—as opposed to someone who was talking down to them from a position of authority. When I was at work on the book, I kept hoping that after experiencing—through me—some of the unusual things I’d experienced, readers would come away with a sense of what it’s like to engage with people who have proven themselves capable of committing acts of extreme violence. I figured that if my readers perceived me as an authentic, unpretentious guide on a journey through a set of experiences most people never have, I’d have accomplished the single most important goal I set out to accomplish.

You interviewed medical serial killer Donald Harvey years after he pled guilty to committing thirty-seven murders and told authorities he’d committed many more than that. Did he ever express even an ounce of remorse for any of the things he did?

No. But did he have any regrets? Yes, he did. He said that he regretted getting caught.

How can people who are interested in your book obtain a copy?

The book will be published on August 6, 2024 by Black Lyon Publishing, which is based in Oregon. A little later in the summer, interested readers will be able to pre-order copies on Amazon. Here on my website, I’ll provide additional information about how to obtain a copy as that information becomes available.

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