You may not recognize his name right away, but one FBI agent has been an integral part of pop culture since the days of Silence of the Lambs. So what is John E. Douglas doing now? Mindhunter on Netflix was inspired by this agent's groundbreaking work in the realm of behavior science and psychological profiling. He probably knows more about serial killers than anyone else in the world, and everything you know about serial killers is thanks to his research along with FBI agent Robert R. Ressler. In fact, this is the duo who came up with the term "serial killers" in the first place.
The Netflix series Mindhunter is based on the book by Douglas himself called Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Serial Crime Unit about his days at the FBI early in his career. The show changes Douglas' name to Holden Ford, and follows the young agent as he decides to start interviewing serial killers without the permission of the bureau at first. With serial killers on the rise, Holden figures that the best way to catch them is to figure out how they think — by going right to the source. This is considered very out of the box thinking, not to mention unseemly, by his bosses. Eventually he does prove himself to the FBI higher ups and we're all better off for it. But at what cost to himself?
The real life Douglas spent his career combatting serial killers, but that kind of work takes a psychological toll after a while. The famous agent got started at the FBI when he was just 25 on a suggestion from a man he met in the gym. When Holden tells Debbie that he was stationed in Detroit for a while, that was true of the real Douglas, who spent a few years there working violent crimes before being sent back to be an instructor on hostage negotiation and behavior. The show covers a few years of Holden's life, but doesn't cover what happens after Douglas became established and respected in the bureau.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Douglas was taking on hundreds of cases. And even though he complained to the director, he still did not have enough personnel to adequately cover all of the cases. Douglas almost literally worked himself to death. Overwork and stress brought on (or worsened) viral encephalitis, which caused him to go into a coma. Doctors told his family that he wouldn't survive, or at least, that he'd be left in a vegetative state. Luckily, that was not the case. While some people might take this as a sign to slow down, Douglas was back at work less than a year later.
He did eventually retire from the FBI in 1995 after he found the psychological effects to be too much. However, it hasn't stopped him from working altogether. He still consults on cases and has published a few books. One of the cases he consulted on was the famous JonBenet Ramsey case in 1997. It wasn't a popular opinion at the time, but Douglas didn't think the parents were responsible in any way for the little girl's death.
Douglas has been immortalized in popular culture by several different characters. In addition to being the inspiration behind Holden Ford, he also inspired Jack Crawford from Silence of the Lambs, and Jason Gideon on Criminal Minds. In his book, Douglas has said that his all-consuming work on serial killers impacted how he thought in everyday life. Coming home to find his wife had cut herself, he looked first to the pattern of blood splatters to see how it had happened. After 20 years of retirement, I can only hope that he's eventually found some peace.
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Editor's note: an earlier version of this story said John E. Douglas invented the term "serial killer." He and a colleague, Robert. R. Ressler, came up with the term together. The error has been corrected.