Meet the Female Forensic Researcher Behind Netflix's 'Mindhunter'

The real-life Wendy Carr helped the FBI formulate criminal profiling in the 1970s—and her work with victims isn't over.
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The real-life Wendy Carr helped the FBI formulate criminal profiling in the 1970s—and her work with victims isn't over.
Wendy Carr in Netflix's Mindhunter.

Wendy Carr in Netflix's Mindhunter.

There's a moment in Mindhunter, a new Netflix drama about Federal Bureau of Investigation profilers, when Special Agent Holden Ford and academic consultant Dr. Wendy Carr walk into a district attorney's office to discuss a serial killer's sentencing. Ford, played by a talented yet smug Jonathan Groff, tells Anna Torv's Wendy: "Follow my lead. I'm used to talking to law enforcement." Carr says nothing as she breezes past him, pointedly opening the door first.

Carr, like the Boston College professor she is based on, opens plenty of doors for the show's male protagonists—pushing them to publish their research, compelling them to adhere to scientific standards—but her character is often sidelined by the main attraction: two trailblazing male FBI agents, Ford and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany). These men's work on criminal profiling is based on that of real researchers, John Douglas and Robert Ressler, and, of course, the unsettling killers they interview.

Mindhunter's creators intended the show to debunk the myth of the organized, high-IQ serial killer by showing the messy, mundane reality behind the work of profiling criminals and understanding their motivations. It draws parallels between researcher and subject, and has earned praise for its timely look at misogyny. But while deflating the mystique of sleek crime dramas, the show enshrines another mythology: that criminal profiling, which has spawned so many beloved shows and films, has a white, male origin story.

In reality, the research process was more collaborative. The FBI's behavioral science unit consisted of at least 10 people—not simply two men against the establishment—including forensic nurse Ann Wolbert Burgess, the inspiration for Carr.

Burgess' groundbreaking work with victims of rape and sexual abuse inspired, in part, the FBI's foray into criminal profiling. Like her character, Burgess worked with Douglas and Ressler at the FBI Academy to develop their research for publication in the late 1970s. Though Carr's struggle in the show to maintain her personal life as a closeted lesbian is fictional, Burgess did also combat institutional apathy working as a female nurse in male-dominated field. Her research with sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom brought rape trauma syndrome into the academic sphere, highlighting symptoms that her male peers overlooked for decades.

Now teaching forensic science at Boston College, Burgess has continued to study the treatment of victims of sexual assault. Pacific Standard talked to Burgess about her own experiences in the field and how she hopes to see her character develop further.

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What were your initial reactions to Mindhunter?

I was curious. I wanted to see how they were going to present me, and to see how closely it followed what really happened. I'm always interested in that. And second, I tried to watch it, not knowing anything about it, to see if it was basically a good show. I know my students will be watching it and I'll be interested in their reactions.

Aside from personal storylines, was anything glaringly wrong?

First of all, the Ed Kemper case was very accurate. Of course, we all had tapes of actual interviews. Some of the others are what I call "blended cases," like in Silence of the Lambs. With Jerry Brudos, they certainly had the shoes down. Monte Rissell they will develop more—that case I wrote a whole article on.

Ann Burgess.

Ann Burgess.

What about the portrayal of your character, Dr. Wendy Carr?

It's not quite exactly the way it happened, which is fun. I always have been an academic, but they take her down to [the FBI headquarters at] Quantico. I never moved down there like she did. I have children, and they've been a little bit nervous about the fact that they have me as a lesbian. That's been interesting. That's their right to portray it however they want.

How did you first get involved with the FBI's behavioral science unit?

It [was] actually because of my research. Lynda Holmstrom, a sociologist, and I had done one of the first studies on rape here in Boston. A mandate came down because of the women's movement, making that an issue—thank heavens they made that an issue. William Webster, the director of the FBI at the time, said he better get his FBI agents trained in that. They invited me down to talk about it because I had published on rape victims by then. It was in the course of going down there and spending some time that we would sit around the table in the evenings and chat. The agents began to talk about the kinds of cases they were seeing. I said, "You should really think about doing some research with it, because this is important information to get out to the field." So that's really how it started. It's not too far off from the way they have it.

They began to be much more focused, and started with serial sexual murderers. They would sit down and put these crime scenes down on a big table and talk about what they saw at the crime scenes. It was fascinating to see them do it in progress. The show was right that I wanted them to be systematic so they wouldn't get a lot of criticism from pure methodologists—they were certainly not researchers. The best I could do was to come up with a consistent form.

In the show, the agents are portrayed as stumbling across this phenomenon. Was it more purposeful in real life?

We didn't set out to do it. It really just evolved. In watching them do it, I just said, "Let's get a form together." They worked on the form, and of course the form got bigger and bigger. That's what we based the research on.

The agents seem like renegades on the show. Was there much resistance from the FBI?

The [FBI] never said they couldn't do it. We were just doing it. I didn't have any interactions with any of the higher-ups. This was being done at the academy, not at headquarters. I don't think it was resisted so much, as it wasn't seen as important at the time.

What was your role within the Behavioral Science Unit?

My role was strictly as an academic, to see if I could capture what they were saying and put it into academic or conceptual terms. For example, [take] the patterns: Going to a crime scene, is it organized or disorganized? We looked at the forms, developed the forms. That's where the background on these 36 serial killers came from. They did the interviews when they would go out on the road schools [where FBI agents taught local law enforcement], brought [them] back, [they] would be typed up, and we'd go over [them].

There's a scene in which Agent Holden Ford, or John Douglas, comes up with the term for "sequence killer" off the top of his head. Were the agents really coming up with this in a vacuum?

They were just tossing the terms around. For some reason "serial" caught on more than "sequential." People would make fun of it, like "corn flakes." They had to have some levity in this, because this is pretty tough crime-scene stuff to work with. John came up with the "signature" term, and he would always look for that in the crime scene: What was it in the crime scene that was psychologically motivated? He would really hammer in on that. That was an important part of their learning and teaching.

While you were doing this work, was there a sense it was all new?

There had been some research done at the academy already—Howard Teton had done some early work, not really exactly what John and Bob were doing, but he had talked about the psychology of the offender. By the time Bob and John get there, they really carried it. It expanded much more because they were getting all these cases in, and they were just so intuitive. You and I would look at the crime scene and see something very different from what they would see. They were on target much of the time. It's what we would call in our field "clinical judgment"—that you can see something clinically that's never been researched in great detail.

Fans and reviewers of the show note that Dr. Wendy Carr is something of a female role model or trailblazer in this very male-dominated world. Do you view yourself that way?

Really, at the time, I was not thinking about that. I was trying to get my work done, you know, I was an academic. I was trying to write the papers. And there were several female field agents. But of course, it was mainly male at that time. They certainly had some staff that were female.

What everyone gets wrong is that I was not a psychologist, I was a nurse. Speaking of women having trouble in certain fields, the nurse is not as well-respected for her knowledge and background in health care and certainly in the forensic field. From that standpoint, as a forensic nurse, I was unique in bringing my expertise in terms of health and all of the areas of health to bear on legal issues.

What was the reaction to this research among your peers?

There was not much reaction. They didn't think much of the problem of rape. We were able to do what we wanted to do down at Boston City Hospital. It was never seen until the women's movement became involved in it, and then Boston's Rape Crisis Center popped up. I think a lot of very good work was done on issues in that time period.

How has this field evolved since you first started studying trauma in rape victims?

We've got rape trauma on the radar. I think that's something that women did, and I was happy to be a part of that. There was so much cover-up and so much silence. [Victims] were really silent—and blamed. We spent a lot of days teaching on victim myths. Today, I don't know if we've made much progress. The first question is still, "Do you believe her?" You still get that skepticism. But the two big areas we have now are the campus sexual assault issue and military sexual trauma. You have two groups that are still struggling with the silence around it, the victims not reporting, and having to really suffer [for it]. It has to be done from the male side. There is still a culture out there for that.

How do you think research and science can help combat that culture?

I think the more that is published on this, the better, to get the word out there and make it so that people can understand it—without getting one side or the other defensive. The key is to just present the cases and let people understand it from that perspective. That is what I've always tried to do with case study. There's nothing more powerful than for a victim to speak. I have that in my classes. I had one of my victims come [tell her story in class] last week, and the place was silent. It was very powerful.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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