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‘When they became explainable’: U of C prof talks serial killers

By Gayathri Peringod, June 6 2019 —

Sasha Reid has become something of a celebrity.

A sociology professor at the University of Calgary, Reid has recently been in the news for her work developing a database of infamous serial killers from around the world. Her lesser-known database of missing and murdered persons led her to accurately predict that a serial killer was operating in a gay community in Toronto in the past decade, an action that garnered her even more media attention in 2018.

Reid seems bewildered by it all.

“People make my life sound a lot more interesting than it is. I stare at a computer for 12 hours a day,” she said.

When asked about how she got into her line of work, Reid recalls a moment well into her master’s degree when she realized she couldn’t study developmental psychology anymore — “I just don’t like children,” she explains. She went to her thesis supervisor and told her that she didn’t want to work with children anymore because she was deeply interested in violent criminals and serial killers, a startling admission that Reid laughs about now. Her supervisor, knowing her well, told Reid that she’d be making a mistake if she thought that the development of serial killers was unimportant.

Reid now holds two master’s degrees in applied psychology and child development and another in criminology and socio-legal studies. She is currently pursuing a PhD in developmental psychology at the University of Toronto.

The database for which she became known to the likes of CBC, VICE and Maclean’s started as a nerdy hobby she worked on after her classes and quickly gained momentum, becoming part of her research at the U of C. Reid describes her database as a collection of information from journals and transcripts of serial killers, focusing specifically on developing the profiles of the criminals’ childhoods. Her hope is to find a commonality among the profiles that may help explain their later behaviour.

So far, she has one idea about what is common among them.

“One commonality is psychopathy,” she says. “There’s no causal link, but it does appear to be a common feature in the profiles we’ve built.”

Reid admits the database is a strange hobby to pursue, but reasons that it likely stems from her own childhood.

“I’ve always been fascinated with dark things,” she said. “I grew up living across from a forest with a best friend whose mother was a Wiccan. In many ways, horror has always been associated with safety for me.”

She hesitates to say more, and moves on. Only later does she divulge that her step-parents were psychopaths.

“For a long time, I believed in monsters,” she said. “My step-parents were monstrous, and I always thought they were monsters. Later, when I became interested in psychopathy, I started noticing its characteristics — guilt, remorse, lack of empathy.”

It suddenly dawned on her that her step-parents were not monsters, rather, they were psychopaths. It was an oddly comforting realization — “when they became explainable, they became understandable.”

She takes this attitude towards those she studies as well.

“These people are not monsters,” she said. “They are deeply troubled — they need help.”

This empathy she has for the killers she scrutinizes does not lessen the empathy she has for their victims. When I point out that the number of articles devoted to the killers in her database, rather than the victims, are far more numerous, she chimes in, her eyes flashing with indignance.

“It’s remarkable,” she says. “I don’t mean to disparage the media because they only cater to their audience, but it is surprising.”

Reid believes this has much to do with the identities of the victims.

“The missing and murdered victims in my database are often Indigenous,” Reid says. “They are also often deemed not as noteworthy.”

When I am skeptical that the news channels of this country can be so overtly racist, her eyes flash once again, as she tells me I should tune in to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.

Once again, it is only later that I discover Reid herself is Métis. After pressing her about it, she looks away for a beat.

“In the era of everyone being defined by who they were when they were born, I think it’s easy for me to identify as Métis, even as the white blonde lady,” she said. “But I am above all a human being, and that is how I see myself.”

Her identity has always been a complex road. Reid describes how she learned that she was Métis, finding it out much later in life than most.

“I grew up as the definition of privilege. I lived in a beautiful home on the lake and didn’t take notice, really, of what was happening around me,” she said. “In high school, the racial tensions escalated. I remember Indigenous kids being escorted around by police. Again, nothing struck a chord.

“It was only when I was applying to university that my stepfather mentioned that I should apply as Indigenous because I was Métis. It came as a shock. I realized that I was basically complicit to the racism my entire life.” Soon thereafter, she decided to quietly devote herself to the Indigenous cause, becoming a sworn ally since.

Reid tells me all this as we sit in The Den on a sunny Thursday afternoon as Calgary defrosts and slips into spring. Sipping a beer and chatting to me as though we were old friends, Reid carries an air of humility and self-awareness that makes her professorship at the university and her career success all the more impressive.

When asked about what awaits her in the future, Reid shrugs.

“I have no idea how I got here,” she says, and then chuckles. “That’ll be a fun revelation for your article — ‘Professor has no idea what she’s doing with her life.’ Welcome to adulthood, we’re all still trying to figure it out.”

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