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Author Tue Nov 26 2013
A Review of Survived by One: The Life and Mind of a Family Mass Murderer and Interview with Author Dr. Robert Hanlon
Just in time for Thanksgiving, I'd like to point out my new favorite true crime book: Survived By One: The Life and Mind of a Family Mass Murderer by Robert E. Hanlon with Thomas V. Odle. It's much more than a true crime book. After my thoughts, please read on for an interview with Dr. Hanlon.
In 1985, Thomas Odle killed his parents and three siblings at the age of 18 in southern Illinois and is now serving life in prison. This book is from the perspective of both Dr. Hanlon, a neurologist, and Tom Odle, the murderer himself. Tom reflects on his childhood in a first person point-of-view, while Dr. Hanlon assesses Tom's life experiences and how they led him to murder.
This book is haunting. Tom Odle's childhood was hell. His mother abused him, chained him to his bed, made him raise his three younger siblings, and constantly told him how much she hated him and how she wished he'd never been born. He wasn't allowed to go anywhere other than school and wasn't allowed to have anybody over, so his social skills lacked heavily. In kindergarten, Odle went to school with a shirt soaked in blood from the whip marks on his back. It wasn't until he was strong enough to fight back that she stopped the physical abuse, but the emotional and verbal abuse never ceased. Tom never had confidence or self-worth. His dad stood by and did nothing, as if he too feared Tom's mother.
Once Tom finally settles down in a separate town, his mother guilts him into moving back and then kicks him out. Tom snaps. Have you ever read about a murder from the murderer's perspective? It's not for everybody, and it still gives me goosebumps when I think about it. The murders didn't happen all at once, but throughout an entire day.
I couldn't put this book down, and I can't stop thinking about it long after I've finished reading it. It's unsettling — this feeling sorry for or sympathetic toward a murderer — but Odle's story is told very well, and makes you think, "Well, I can see why he would do what he did." It's terrifying.
This happened to me once before — this feeling sorry for a criminal — when I read the graphic novel, My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. It covers Dahmer's teenage years, up to the first time he committed murder. His mother was also absolutely insane and he was alone. Of course, when I then think about all of the horrifying and unforgivable things they did, I can't feel bad, can I?
The writer in me can't stop thinking, "What if?" What if these men had been raised with love like every kid deserves? They would have turned out so much differently and that may be what saddens me the most about these stories.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Robert Hanlon by email about the book and his experiences writing it with Odle.
Survived by One is the most unique true crime book I've ever read. I think this is because of two things: 1) Your knowledge of the human mind, as opposed to a detective writing the book and 2) Tom's first-person perspective.
What made you write this book about Tom Odle versus other criminals you have met?
The story of Tom Odle and the mass murder of the Odle family in 1985 is the story of one of the most horrific family mass murders in US history and one of the most appalling cases of parricidal familicide in the last century. Among convicted murderers, Tom Odle is very unusual, because he is highly intelligent, articulate, and insightful. And, he has never denied his guilt with respect to the mass murder of his family. He confessed to the murders of all five members of his family within 24 hours of committing the killings and has never denied that he was singularly responsible for their deaths. Additionally, he was motivated to try to understand why he had committed such a horrific crime, which is extremely unusual among murderers. Finally, he was genuinely interested in sharing his story in order to increase public awareness regarding the factors that may result in domestic homicides, including child abuse, drug abuse, destructive family dynamics and revenge.
Was Tom always willing to talk to you?
Yes. I met Tom Odle while he was on death row, awaiting his final execution date. His attorneys asked me to conduct a neuropsychological evaluation of him at that time. During the course of the evaluation, he was cooperative, compliant and motivated to perform to the best of his ability. The evaluation revealed that his IQ was in the superior range of intelligence and his cognitive functions were uniformly intact. The evaluation also revealed that he manifested personality traits typical of antisocial personality disorder.
Shortly thereafter, his death sentence was commuted to natural life without parole. Following the commutation of his death sentence, he had an epiphany when he realized that he faced a future and was not going to die by lethal injection. As a result, he contacted me and asked if I would help him understand the factors that led him to murder his entire family, including his abusive development, his personality, his brain, and his relationship with his parents.
Have you met other inmates whose stories stayed with you? That were willing to talk? I would imagine that a lot of prisoners don't want to talk about the crimes they committed.
Most murder defendants and many convicted murderers are unwilling to discuss their crimes. However, I have met and evaluated other murderers who were plagued with guilt and, as a result, were willing to discuss their crimes in detail.
I couldn't believe how sympathetic I felt toward Tom. I always thought, "Once a murderer, always a murderer," yet I honestly I think I could sit in a room and have a conversation with him without being afraid. You did a phenomenal job of making Tom seem human, rather than a complete monster. How would you describe Tom as a person?
As previously described, Tom Odle is a highly intelligent, articulate and insightful individual. He is a voracious reader and enjoys reading books on various topics, including politics, history, psychology and sociology. He is polite, patient, and respectful. He is also opinionated and enjoys discussing and debating his opinions and those of others.
Do you think you will write another "true crime" book? (I used quotes, because I think this book is much more than that.)
Yes, I will.
What made you decide to become a clinical neuropsychologist?
I pursued education and training in the field of clinical neuropsychology because I was interested in cognition and thought, and particularly the brain structures and neurodynamic processes that underlie cognition. As a result, I pursued clinical neuropsychology, because it focuses on the psychological effects of brain disorders and brain damage.
You are a practicing neuropsychologist who also teaches, testifies in court, and are on many boards, among other things. How did you find time to write a book? How do you juggle all of your responsibilities?
Like many people, I establish priorities regarding what I want to accomplish and execute the strategies I have developed in order to try to achieve my goals.