True crime fans know the formula when it comes to serial killers: Take one messed up childhood, add a domineering mother and shake repeatedly until something snaps. It was certainly true in the case of Michael Ross, who raped and murdered eight women before he was caught, tried and ultimately put to death. By the time journalist Martha Elliott met Ross in prison, he'd received extensive treatment and refused a new trial on the grounds that he didn't want the families of his victims to be further traumatized.
The Man in the Monster, Elliott’s account of getting to know Ross, is not an easy read on any level. The crimes that Ross committed, and the fantasies that he obsessed over, are horrifying. The anguish and rage of his victims' families is chilling. Elliott is initially terrified to even speak to Ross on the phone, but over time they develop a friendship. She questions him in depth and is quick to call him out when he becomes manipulative or defensive.
He would sometimes call her at home and, hearing her toddlers asking for her attention, bark at her to tell them to wait; she’s quick to put his arrogance in check at times like this. Seeing Ross in his entirety makes it impossible to ignore the human being standing behind the rap sheet, which may be the most disturbing thing of all.
It's never crystal clear whether Ross refused retrial to spare the victims' families or as a form of state-sanctioned suicide. He believed, and many who examined him concurred, that he was mentally ill, making institutionalization, not imprisonment, a more appropriate sentence.
True crime usually allows the reader to think of criminals as unlike the rest of us; no such luck here. Ross committed horrible acts, yes, but we can't look away from his humanity. The Man in the Monster is arresting at every turn.