“How come I don’t kill?” she asks. “Don’t you ever wonder why you don’t murder?”
I don’t know a single person who hasn’t pondered that question. But the subject and star of the new documentary, CRAZY, NOT INSANE, Dorothy Otnow Lewis, has made it her mission to try to find an answer.
Originally intending to be a Freudian psychoanalyst, Lewis found her true calling in the juvenile psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital, where she discovered a pattern: the children who had engaged in homicidal behavior had a combination of a history of abuse and brain abnormalities. After publishing a study on her findings, she made her debut on television with an interview conducted by Diane Sawyer. Since then, Lewis has interviewed, by her count, 22 serial killers and scores of “plain old killers”. She’s established rapports with inconceivably violent offenders and served as an expert witness in trials and death sentence hearings in high profile cases, including those of Arthur Shawcross, Ted Bundy, and Joel Rifkin.
CRAZY, NOT INSANE takes the viewer on the wild and disturbing ride that is Lewis’ career as a forensic psychiatrist and specialist in the subject of Dissociative Identity Disorder. The director of the documentary, Alex Gibney, intersperses interviews with the trailblazing (and controversial) Dorothy Otnow Lewis, her research partner Catherine Yeager, and other experts in the fields of psychiatry and criminology, with archived footage of some of the interview sessions that Lewis had conducted with murderers. There are also chilling animation sequences and excerpts of interviews and reports narrated by actor Laura Dern (Big Little Lies, Jurassic Park).
CRAZY, NOT INSANE is a true crime documentary on the surface. But it goes far beyond the scope of just true crime. The film isn’t so much focused on the grisly, gory details of the crimes committed as it is focused on trying to figure out why these crimes were committed. What were the factors that led people like Shawcross and Bundy to inflict horrifying violence on their fellow human beings? What combination of childhood abuse, mental illness, and neurological injury created the perfect storm that created a killer?
Throughout the documentary, Lewis, now in her 80s, recounts some of her most memorable experiences of her career while providing insight into the nature of criminality and criticism of how the legal and criminal justice systems handle mentally ill and violent offenders—the plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity” for example. She talks about the death penalty and the moral and ethical implications of it.
In one scene, archived footage shows an interview with Sam Jones…a notorious “traveling executioner” who, by his own admission, felt no qualms about taking part in state-sanctioned murder. Lewis, who interviewed and assessed some of the people that Jones had executed, pointed out that he had no insight into himself. Yeager even says that Jones was the only interview subject who genuinely scared her.
Admittedly, this interview was the one that truly rattled me.
CRAZY, NOT INSANE is a must-see for any fan of true crime documentaries. It doesn’t only inform the viewer about crimes, criminals, and theories about murderers; it invites us to ask our own questions, do our own research, and form our own opinions about one of the most controversial topics in the field of criminal justice. Alex Gibney directed this film with the utmost care, respect, and empathy for everyone involved. As the subject of the documentary, Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a pioneer and certified badass, was incredible to watch. Now in her 80s, it’s clear that she is still enthusiastic about her life’s work—I found myself hanging onto her every word.
CRAZY, NOT INSANE premieres on HBO November 18th.