Women and The FBI

While Scully was delving into the unknown of extraterrestrial life, Patricia Kirby was delving into another terrifying unknown: the minds of serial killers.

Kirby was the tough-as-nails investigator that Jodie Foster’s character was mirrored after in the blockbuster film The Silence of the Lambs. Kirby told UK newspaper The Sun that she was both honored and embarrassed that author Thomas Harris based the character of Clarice Sterling on her in the 1988 novel that would eventually spawn its popular movie counterpart.

Image of Jodi Foster in Silence of the Lambs from Orion Pictures

Despite her embarrassment, Kirby now 60 and working as a crime consultant in Baltimore, sees the positive side of being the basis for such a recognizable character. "After The Silence of the Lambs became a hit there was a huge rise in the number of women applying to the FBI. I hope I helped break down some barriers,” she told the UK Sun.  

One look at Kirby’s resume reveals why Harris chose her as the model for such a strong female character. Kirby was a pioneer in the Federal Bureau of Investigations, one of the first female agents to come up through the FBI after President Hoover’s unofficial embargo on female agents ended with his death. Coming from a background in corrections in Baltimore and with a master’s degree in criminology, Kirby thought she would be a shoo-in for a job in the bureau.

Unfortunately, while acting director L. Patrick Gray had allowed the first women to become agents, the FBI wasn’t hiring at the time she was looking, despite the fact that in 1975 of the more than 8,000 agents working for the bureau, only 37 were female. Instead of giving up, Kirby took a job as a Baltimore City police officer and was soon promoted to homicide detective. Despite attaining this position in law enforcement, she hadn't given up on her dream of making it into the FBI. While working as a detective Kirby took courses in psychological profiling at the Quantico headquarters in Virginia. This background in psychology would eventually lead her to become the first female agent to interview serial killers.

Even with her wealth of experience Kirby still pushed up against the glass ceiling on her way into the ranks of the FBI. "I remember hearing one of them say, 'Well, if we have to take women, at least we ought to take this type'", Kirby recalled in the book The FBI by Ronald Kessler. 

Then in 1984 Kirby's boss noticed something interesting. While interviewing a murderer, the man's eyes remained locked on Kirby the whole time. This grew into the idea for an experiment: having a woman interview dozens of incarcerated serial killers in order to build better psychological profiles. The FBI wanted to see if serial killers would open up better to a woman than a man. Kirby noted that women can often be seen as better listeners and this different way of relating to others became a unique advantage in interviews.

Thereafter Kirby was sent to the Behavioral Science Unit and began a three year process of traveling from prison to prison interviewing the most troubled minds in our country. It was around that time when she was introduced to author Harris, who wanted to know about her experiences quizzing killers.  He was especially interested in her experience sitting down with Randy Woodfield, known at the I-5 killer, who was convicted of four murders but suspected of at least 44 more. Woodfield was quick to play mind games, much like cannibalistic killer Hannibal Lector in the film.

According to Kirby the scene of Clarice Sterling speaking with Lector was eerily similar to her own experience with the chilling I-5 killer. "The only difference in real life was that Woodfield was sitting across a table from me. There was no glass separating me from him," Kirby said to The Sun.

Interviewing such a wide spectrum of frightening killers, Kirby began to develop a sense of who would provide useful information within the first few minutes of the interview. Although Harris apparently modeled Lector closely after serial murderer Ted Bundy, he was one killer Kirby never interviewed.

In total Kirby performed 35 interviews with serial killers throughout the country. The work she did helped to build the first database of serial killer profiles. These profiles are still used today to help get into the minds of serial killers and catch them before they can kill again.


Image of Patricia Kirby from thesun.co.uk