FALMOUTH — Anyone who has seen or read “The Silence of the Lambs” knows Clarice Starling, the FBI agent who interviews serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter.
When Starling first appeared in the 1988 novel, current Falmouth resident Patricia Kirby said she saw aspects of herself in Clarice.
And she should have, since Kirby, a former FBI agent, served as inspiration for the character.
Kirby, who is in the process of moving to Bath, last week said just like Starling, she interviewed serial killers for the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. She was actually the first woman to conduct the interviews, which were used to help build profiles of the killers.
While she was working with the unit she was introduced to Thomas Harris, author of “The Silence of the Lambs.”
Kirby, who joined the FBI in 1979 and joined the unit five years later, was introduced to Harris through her boss, Bob Ressler, who had worked with Harris on his first Lecter, novel “Red Dragon.” Kirby said neither Harris nor Ressler let on that she was going to be the inspiration for his next protagonist, at least not right away. They met a handful of times, and Harris asked “a lot of good questions,” Kirby said.
“The next thing I knew the book came out and there was Clarice,” she said.
There are differences between fact and fiction, of course. For starters, Starling was from West Virginia, while Kirby is from urban Baltimore. But Kirby said the similarities were there, in their personalities, reactions, tenacity, and in Starling’s way of approaching Lecter.
Kirby spent more than three years with the unit, in which she interviewed about 40 different serial killers in prisons across the country. Initially she would conduct the interviews with Ressler, but often he would leave the room to let Kirby go solo.
“He wanted to see how the killer would respond to a female agent,” Kirby said.
And how did they respond?
By and large, the killers would talk to her in ways they wouldn’t do with Ressler or other male agents.
“I learned from my research that male serial killers love visitors, they love if you’re with the FBI, and they love if you’re a woman,” she said.
Which is something Harris used in the novel and was used in the film adaptation. Lecter and Starling have a connection, and Lecter will only speak to Starling.
Kirby said a killer’s response to an interview depended on how the interviewer acted. If you act in a non-judgmental, non-patronizing way, the killer would become more interested in talking, she said.
And if sitting in the same room with a person who has killed several people sounds difficult, it is. But Kirby said she used her experience as a Baltimore police officer, a parole and probation agent in Baltimore, and homicide detective, to stay emotionally detached.
“When I would leave the prisons, the first thing I wanted to do was take a hot shower … to wash all the stuff you’ve heard off of you,” she said.
Kirby left the FBI in the late 1980s and pursued a doctoral degree in social justice. She then became a college professor, and continued to work on select cases. She did research on killers who use their professions to continue killing, such as nurses, and caregivers to children and the elderly.
“My theory was pedophiles choose jobs and hobbies that give them the greatest exposure to kids. … Why wouldn’t killers (do the same)?” she said.
But in 2002, Kirby suffered a heart attack. Doctors said it was probably stress induced, because Kirby was not overweight, exercised regularly, and took good care of her body. She eventually had open-heart surgery in 2006.
After all that, Kirby decided she needed to slow down, at least in the summer. She had vacationed in Maine, and when she stopped teaching she moved to the state full time. She has been in Falmouth since 2007.
But Kirby hasn’t totally stopped working, either.
“I still will do cases,” she said, and added she is working on her memoir.
Patricia Kirby, outside the Lunt Auditorium in Falmouth. The former FBI agent was the inspiration for the character Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs.”