A Moment with David Van Nuys

Van NuysAbout a year ago I had the opportunity to ask my co-author, David Van Nuys, a few questions about This is the Zodiac Speaking. Here is a transcript of that brief exchange. Obviously, these are not facts but simply points of view shared between us, between friends. It represents how David approached the Zodiac killer case and what role it’s played in his life. (Michael D. Kelleher)

Our book has been on the market for nearly a decade now and went to paperback a few years ago. Are you still generally happy with our effort? Anything we should have done differently?

Ten years already! People still contact me fairly regularly with theories about the case and new ways of arranging the details, and they look to me for some level of expertise to confirm or deny their constructions. I was actively involved in my part of the book for only about three months, as I recall. My memory has never been that great and with advancing age that’s even more the case. I’m amazed that there are these passionate amateurs out there who seemingly have all those facts, details, dates and so on at their command. I just don’t. Especially after ten years.

The only thing I wish we had done differently would have been to get on the case a lot earlier. The case was already 30 years old. It was new to me when we were working on it, so I really experienced the thrill of the chase. I had the sense that if we had written the book closer to the time of the events that our speculations might have helped to unearth him. Against the odds, I still have that hope.

The Zodiac case still haunts me after all these years. How about you?

I can’t say that it does. Rather, it’s the emails I get from people who think they know who the Zodiac is (or was) that keeps it going for me. These folks expect me to get very involved but I have to tell them I’ve moved on. As you know, I put up a series on YouTube a few years ago in which I walked viewers through the Zodiac letters and our conclusions. I stalled out when I got to the Zodiac’s elaboration/distortion of a rather long passage by the Lord High Executioner from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. At that time, YouTube imposed a limit of 10 minutes and I was stumped as to how I’d cover that portion of the material in 10 minutes, and so I just stopped there, despite getting many requests from viewers to keep going. My real motivation for going to YouTube, however, was to drive people to my Shrink Rap Radio podcast, which I promoted in each of my video segments. I don’t think that effort was at all successful, though. I’ve concluded that they are two very different audiences, for the most part. But, it’s because people are still discovering those videos on YouTube that they end up contacting me. I think I’ve heard from more people responding to the videos than to the book itself.

If this case is ever solved, how to you think that will happen? Or, maybe it will be forever a cold case. What do you think?

Well, I’ve certainly been very hopeful that the case would be solved. My reasons are selfish. I’d like to know the degree to which my speculations and conclusions were accurate. At this point, I think the only way it will be solved is if some relative of the Zodiac finds some physical evidence or a confession stashed away in an attic trunk, or some variation on that scenario.

We were very careful about never naming a suspect in the case. In the past several years, many suspects have been named openly on the Internet. What do you think about this tactic?

I am of two minds about that tactic. On the one hand, I imagine it could be very upsetting and potentially damaging if a living, but innocent, person is named. I also imagine it might be upsetting to the survivors and relatives of the victims, making it harder to put the whole tragedy behind them. On the other hand, maybe it would give them a sense that they have not been forgotten. I really don’t know which is the case since I’ve never communicated with any of them. The best potential of that tactic, as I see it though, is that it might tap into what’s been called “the wisdom of the crowd.” Getting a lot of bright and highly motivated people working on the problem may potentially lead to a solution.

The real problem, however, is that physical evidence is needed. If I have learned anything from this experience, it’s the danger of relying on circumstantial evidence. The Zodiac case is so rich with details and clues and mysteries begging to be solved that it seems to submit to any number of compelling narratives! Some of the people who have contacted me have woven very convincing stories based on their decoding of the ciphers, maps, and other clues that build a strong case against one individual or another. But they can’t all be right and none have produced a shred of physical evidence.

I think, together, we succeeded in painting a very good picture of the criminal psychopathic personality. Evidently, there are a lot of those types out there in the world because I hear from people who contact me saying, “Oh, my God! You have totally described my Uncle Bob!” Or, it’s their father, or their neighbor, or someone who picked them up once when they were hitchhiking, and so on. There are a lot more people out there than we’d like to believe who have had terribly destructive childhoods and gone on to become cruel, devious, manipulative, sadistic, secretive or boastful, violent, and so on. The prisons are filled with them. Those that got caught. And, then there are those that didn’t get caught. But they all have relatives and other people whose lives they’ve impacted. So in some ways, the psychological analysis we presented makes a convenient Rorschach in which any number of real or imagined bogeymen might be discovered.

What is it about this case that so captivates us?

For me, and I think for many others, it’s the thrill of the hunt and the challenge of solving a puzzle that is both difficult and yet seemingly within one’s grasp.

I’ve often been told that we had a very unique way of presenting the case in that it became an exchange of ideas about Zodiac’s own words. I’ve also been told that this way of going about the case was “fluffy” and speculative. I see both sides of that argument. How about you?

My part of the assignment was definitely speculative. You stuck more to the forensic facts. I was working blind from the letters he wrote, with you filling me in on the factual details only after I had gone out on a limb with the very fragmentary bits of writing that he provided us with. I relied on both my training as a psychologist and my intuition to guide me in constructing what I hoped would be a reasonably compelling narrative. I was willing to go way out on a limb at times. I worried a bit that I might be risking whatever positive professional reputation I have and that I might be pilloried by my colleagues. In fact, I’ve never received any negative feedback from any quarter. I’d love to see the case solved, once and for all, so I could chalk up my hits and misses.

Something personal here. I’ve really enjoyed getting older and, hopefully, a bit wiser. Our book helped me along that fascinating path. Did our book find a comfortable place in your life?

I loved working on this project. It certainly added some spice to my life. I had long carried the burden of not having written a book. Lots of my students had published books. Just about all of my friends had published books. I had been approached by publishers, who had been impressed by shorter pieces I had written, asking me to submit a book. One said he’d publish a book on any topic I wanted to write about. So I had been dragging this cross behind me for most of my life and then you came along and offered me this opportunity, for which I’ll always be grateful because I finally at least got to co-author a book, in what, for me, was the easiest way possible. All I had to do was respond to those letters that the Zodiac had written, as well as whatever questions you put to me. And, you were very good at keeping me motivated by constantly encouraging me. So, now, I’ve pretty much been able to put down that cross of not having written a book. Of course, I had not ever envisioned associating my name with a notorious serial killer. But, still, a book is a book! And, it’s looking like my magnum opus will not be a book but rather my two subsequent podcast series (Shrink Rap Radio and Wise Counsel Podcast) in which I’ve had the opportunity to interview some of the most well-known and accomplished people (almost all authors) across the very broad world of psychology and related fields. Life is full of surprises. Much like your contacting me for my reactions to some letters from a serial killer, the whole podcasting adventure was unplanned. It just sort of emerged.

So, yes, the book found a comfortable place in my life and I thank you for that!

And I certainly thank David for working on the project. We became close friends over this rather bizarre encounter, and that friendship has lasted. If you would like to contact David, email him at shrink@shrinkrapradio.com. Also, if you enjoy all things psychological, listen to his fascinating podcasts. He mentions them in the interview.

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