Image of Shadow Lawn, the actual house, circa 1960.

Photo of author Joel Norris.

🌳 Joel Norris 🌳

A personal memory about Joel by William J. Birnes

This essay was written for World AIDS Day, December 1, 1999 and first printed in the Perforated Lines blog.

Last week in New York two of Joel Norris’ former editors – one of whom is now a literary agent – got together to talk about Joel, the books he wrote, and the life he lived. Joel is dead. He died from AIDS about six years ago.

Joel was a true-crime writer who’d interviewed Charles Manson, Henry Lee Lucas, Ottis Toole, Arthur Shawcross, you name it. He’d go anywhere for an interview and usually wound up pissing someone off in the process. When he was in Milwaukee during the Jeffrey Dahmer trial he got interviews that made people connected with the case very uncomfortable because he asked a lot of wrong questions about who Jeffrey Dahmer was and why he killed all those people.

Joel had an affinity for anyone who was a victim, particularly of child abuse. He was a psychologist who could smell a victim a mile away and usually knew how to break down the barriers quickly and get a person talking about the shame and guilt that most victims feel. And that’s what made a lot of serial killers want to talk to Joel. And that’s what put him on the wrong side of a lot of cases.

Joel probably contracted AIDS the time he went down to Florida to interview Ottis Toole. He was deep in the hole of a depression and just wallowed, he said months later after he'd come back to Los Angeles, in the sheer misery of living in the most evil place on earth. That's how he referred to Ottis Toole's hometown in Florida.

Joel said he spent most of his time in bath houses talking to people who knew Toole and Lucas. He knew what he was doing and who he was doing it with. And he knew he’d get sick.

By the time he got back to Los Angeles he’d already suffered a relapse of hepatitis. But he figured that maybe he’d pull out of it. So he worked in the little antique stores along La Brea while he tried to sell the idea for his next book – The Serial Killer Business he called it – but the literary market for true-crime manuscripts was just about as soft as Joel was becoming. Then one day he said he was too weak to stand up. Time to go back home and help his mother out with running the bording house. So he called me to put him on the bus to Columbus, Georgia.

It was the last time I would ever see Joel. He was sweating beneath his shocking shoulder length white hair and beard that encircled his entire head. Wearing thick flannels in the middle of a Los Angeles summer because he was having chills, he reeked. Said he didn’t even have the strength to shower. He’d do it when he got home. I thought about the other people on the bus.

About a week later I got call from Joel that he’d made it home and was feeling better. Then six months later he called me from the hospital. Two months after that his mother called me. It was over. She died a couple of months later.

Joel’s two former editors in New York were amazed at the continuing success of his first book Serial Killers, still pumping away after 12 years and 15 printings and earning more than Joel ever thought he would see in a lifetime. But he didn’t have a lifetime. He had 50 years and then he got AIDS and there was nothing anybody could do about it.

With ghost writer William J. Birnes

Cover of Arthur Shawcross. Cover of Henry Lee Lucas. Cover of Jeffrey Dahmer. Cover of Killers Next Door. Cover of Serial Killers. Cover of Walking Time Bombs.