by Ellery Kane
Author and Forensic Psychologist
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What exactly does a forensic psychologist do? I know precisely what you are thinking right now. You are picturing Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins—Clarice and Hannibal. You’re seeing a beleaguered Morgan Freeman as Alex Cross, hunkered over a desk, analyzing crimes scenes, profiling serial killers, and putting together a puzzle no one else can solve. But, for most forensic psychologists, a day in the life is far from Hollywood.
Forensic psychology begins at the intersection of psychology and the law, and its practitioners are involved in a variety of diverse issues ranging from criminal insanity to child custody to violence risk assessment. My primary job responsibility is evaluating prison inmates, most of whom have committed murder or another serious crime, have been incarcerated for a very long time, and are coming up for parole. I am tasked with assessing inmates’ risk for future violence, using an interview and standardized tools, to inform the parole board’s decision about release.
I am often asked what it is like to sit across the table from someone who has taken a life. In fact, this very question has inspired my “night job” as an author of psychological thrillers. But, I get the feeling no one believes my answer. It still surprises me how normal criminals are, even murderers. Sitting across from them is not that different than sitting across the table from anyone else. A friend, a neighbor, the cashier at the grocery store. Through my work, I have become more and more certain that we all have the capacity for good and evil, that it is a peculiar blend of choice and circumstance that puts me on one side of the table, him on the other. Most of all, I have realized that we should not define a life by a single moment—no matter how awful—but by its totality. As difficult as it may be, people can and do change.
You may not believe this either, but being a forensic psychologist is a lot like being an author. My job is to tell a story. I start by getting to know the main character, gathering information from as many sources as possible (the inmate, his prison file, criminal history, etc.), and a picture begins to develop. The plot, already written and sometimes inexplicable, becomes clearer. I learn how the main character has developed, how he came to be who he was, and why he acted a certain way in the world. Then, I communicate the story to others, in a way they can understand, trying to make data-driven predictions about how the rest of the tale might unfold. As an author, I relish the idea of my stories having impact, my words resonating with a reader. As a forensic psychologist, the stories (reports) I write carry great weight and with them great responsibility.
Writing fiction has made me a better forensic psychologist because it offers me a catharsis, allows me to make meaning of the unfathomable, and enables me to approach each inmate I evaluate with fresh and curious eyes. At the end of a day in the life, I hang up my forensic psychologist hat, my brain still buzzing with dark deeds. Then, I sit down and start to tell a story.
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