When Jeanne Granelles met Bernard Rifkin in the late forties, she was already considered advanced by the standards of the day. While most of her childhood friends settled for a conventional life of domesticity, she had pursued a college education. After meeting her husband, whom everyone called Ben, she accompanied him to Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, which is now called Oklahoma State University. Jeanne took graduate courses in education and eventually taught an art class there. Ben received a degree in architectural engineering.
Both of them were native New Yorkers, which is where they settled after completing their studies in the early fifties. They leased an apartment in the Bronx and planned to start a family. In late 1958, when Jeanne was thirty-six and Ben was forty, they were approved for an adoption by the Louise Wise Services in Manhattan, an agency that specialized in placing Jewish children with Jewish families. Although Jeanne was not Jewish by birth, she had converted to Judaism after marrying Ben. Before long they were presented with a beautiful baby boy who had weighed eight pounds, six ounces when he was born three weeks earlier, on January 20, 1959. His biological mother was a twenty-year-old student; his father, a student as well as an army veteran, was her twenty-three-year-old boyfriend. The Rifkins named their bundle of joy Joel David.
As happy a time as it was, Ben felt great sadness over the fact that his mother had died less than a year earlier and missed meeting her first grandchild. But the happy family soon moved into a brand new home in Rockland County, a northern suburb of New York City that has since become a civil servant Mecca. Within two years they had adopted a second child, a girl born to different biological parents whom they named Jan. Rockland County was extremely rural back then and Joel remembers leading a Mark Twain-like existence that was mostly filled with happiness. Just before Joel started kindergarten, the family moved to East Meadow on Long Island after Ben landed a job with an architectural firm named Thompson and Zark. The move would prove to be devastating to young Joel, who still refers to the times "before the move" and "after the move" as comparative periods of great joy and immense pain in his life.
"The happiest period of my life keeps going back to Rockland County," he explained. "The beginning of my conscious memory, when I was four, [we had] a very open backyard, maybe a half acre, surrounded by woods on both sides, across the street and behind us. So I had my frogs to play with, my tadpoles, and newts. Whatever crawled in the woods, that was my toy. That was before anybody [bullies] really started getting abusive. So that was a great time."
That was the one period of his life where Joel felt most unencumbered by neuroses. It was also, he recalls, the only time he ever felt like an accepted member of a group. "I remember the woods, the frog pond and that whole bit," he said. "I remember there was this drainage ditch. And I took my troop of friends and decided to go wandering down this drainage ditch. We saw a housing development down at the other end of this drainage ditch and we came back. We didn't know that we were gone for an hour or two, maybe three hours. We had every parent in the neighborhood freaking out. I was more confident back then, I guess. And I went to nursery school with the same bunch of kids, and I didn't have that many problems."
After the family moved to East Meadow in 1964, Joel's sense of impermanence grew more intense by the day. "Because of my birthday I had to wait a year to go to school," he recalled. "I didn't make the cutoff for the district, and there weren't that many kids my age. I went from having a lot of kids my age to practically none. The older kids would play stickball out on the curb, [but] I didn't have the coordination to join in. The only kid my age was my direct neighbor. They let him play all the time because he happened to be an athlete."
Things got even worse when Joel started kindergarten. Already feeling like a misfit because of his lack of both athletic ability and self-confidence, Joel had a host of learning disabilities that were beginning to surface. Besides suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia that impaired his ability to read, he would often stutter when beginning to speak, his mind would wander in mid-sentence, and it was difficult for him to follow simple instructions. Although it was later determined that he had an IQ well above average, many people meeting him for the first time believed that he was mentally impaired.
His feelings of inadequacy only intensified when he attracted the attention of a class bully who he believes dramatically changed the direction of his life. "[In] my kindergarten class there was one guy who would have been inside the [prison] system ahead of me, but he ended up killing himself in a motorcycle accident," said Joel. "He was completely out of control. Because of him I then had a reputation that invited other guys to join in. If you wanted to establish your rep[utation] as a tough guy, I was the guy you looked for. So I just created a nice little secret life for myself. I didn't hang out with other kids. I had very few friends."
Causing Joel even more grief were his always-growing feelings of incompetence around his father. A standout athlete, Ben tried futilely to get Joel involved in sports soon after he learned to walk. But like so many of their father-and-son activities, things did not work out the way either would have liked. "[My father] had been an athlete as a child," recalled Joel. "Had he had the grades under today's situation he would have been a college player in football. Those were the days when quarterbacks were more like running backs and you played both sides. No face mask and leather helmet type stuff. He wanted to take the baseball and the football out and play with his kid in the street. I had as much chance of catching the ball with my face as I did my hands. I was terrible."
Adding to Joel's woes was the fact that his next-door neighbor, a boy who was the same age as he, excelled at everything Joel didn't. By watching his success, Joel began to feel as if his own failures were continually rubbed in his face. To make matters worse, throughout their entire school career they almost always sat next to each other in home room because their last names were so close in alphabetical order. "He was the exact opposite of me," said Joel. "He could whack a Spaldeen [baseball] for ten hours straight, so he was always playing with the older kids. He was the athlete I wasn't. He was socially popular, I wasn't. He played with kids in the street, which I couldn't. He was president of the school. I went to Nassau Community [College], he went to Princeton. You know, the complete opposite. Total."
The dyslexia Joel suffered from was still a largely unrecognized condition in the sixties. His old-school father, who loved numbers almost as much as he loved sports, and was equally adept at both, would spend hours working with his son, but eventually grew infuriated at his inability to grasp the rudiments of math. "It irked him that he could do these crazy math things [and I could not]," said Joel. "These were back in the slide rule days. It took him a while to adapt to little hand-held calculators, [but] you could give him a nine-digit series and come back to him ten minutes later and he'd give it back to you. He could give it back to you backwards if you wanted. He could do mathematical equations and word problems in his head. Me, I couldn't memorize a multiplication table. There would be many nights where he'd sit with me and we'd go over and over it and he'd get frustrated and have to walk away. He finally just gave up."
Ben's frustration only served to make Joel feel more and more like a colossal disappointment, the disenfranchised son of a man he perceived to be a genius. To their credit, neither parent ever slapped Joel with the onus of being adopted and they always thought of him as their son. They did not even tell him he was adopted until he was eleven years old. But even though Joel always assumed he was their biological son, he remembers being confused over the fact that he knew nothing of his family origins.
"Who am I? Where did I come from?" Joel said he used to ask himself in school. "The kids for a brief period were asking what time they were born, when they were born, what their ethnicity was. Either I made it up, or I just said I didn't know. And again I was like the odd man out because I didn't have the knowledge."
Had he been placed in special education early on, Joel believes his emotional growth would not have been so severely stunted. "Dad was actively going to the school and talking to the principals and administrators, [but] the sixties really weren't set up [for children with special needs]," he said. "There would be a special classroom for [grades] six through twelve for what were called the oddballs. [Maybe] I wouldn't have been diagnosed as dyslexic in my twenties. I would have been diagnosed earlier, probably [in my] pre-teens."
While many children grow up surrounded by a close-knit group of friends, Joel, traumatized by the move, the persistent assaults of his tormentor, and his feelings of inferiority around his father, developed a serious social anxiety disorder. Although he yearned to be accepted by others, he was most comfortable alone. He began hiding himself in places where he could not be found and developing a fantasy life that lasted well into adulthood. He remembers telling his first-grade teacher that he wanted to write a book, even though his dyslexia caused an array of embarrassing problems with both reading and writing. Writing was the only endeavor he could think of that would allow him always to be alone.
"Joel always wanted to please my husband, but could never find a way to do it," said Jeanne. "I thought of him as a loner, it didn't fully come home to me what was happening until later. Joel would sit on the curb to play ball with the other kids, but they wouldn't let him play. He would then retreat upstairs and watch out the window."
Jeanne desperately wanted to approach the insensitive kids and demand that they include her son in their games, but she knew that would only add to the grief he was already experiencing. "How [could] I go to the kids and say let him play?" she wondered. "He would never be able to live that down."
At that stage of his life, Joel differed greatly from his sister who was much more socially adjusted, had a good group of emotionally healthy friends and, according to her mother, was more adept at gauging other people's feelings toward her. Jeanne felt Joel was unable to interpret the facial expressions and body language of others. "He never seemed to be aware that people were angry or annoyed with him," said Jeanne. "[He] would do anything for attention, even if it was negative attention."
For all of his problems, Joel was able to derive joy early on from horticulture and photography, solitary pursuits that were also two of his mother's favorite hobbies. "With gardening, he was right in there," Jeanne recalled. "For a kid who couldn't spell, he could remember all the Latin names of plants. One time at the Museum of Natural History, Joel could spell them all in Latin, but not in English. He also loved to disperse seeds throughout the yard, as well as anything to do with fossils."
In an eerie prelude to his obsession with accumulating souvenirs from his victims, Joel became a compulsive collector. As young as six years old, he would excitedly anticipate rock and fossil expeditions, where he unearthed, among other things, chalk, clay, coal, coral, sandstone, limestone, and basalt. All of these items were proudly showcased in his room, giving a visitor the impression that he wanted to be an archaeologist or a professor someday.
Jeanne was even more ecstatic when her son developed an interest in photography. "It was thrilling for me, absolutely," she recalled. "And I used to let him use the dark room, even encouraged him to use it, and he has never been the neatest person. He had a great eye for composition and was good at so many things, but never took anything far enough. He was great at starting things, but never finishing them. I couldn't understand why."
Although Joel had much more in common with his mother, his most profound familial memories concern his father. He saw him as a mountain of a man who could hold his own in any physical, social, or intellectual arena. He also saw him as a man he could never make proud and whose legacy he could never live up to. His face distorts into a childish yet hurtful grin when describing his father's exploits on the battlefield during World War II, or on the college gridiron during an era when helmets were not routinely worn. In the early seventies Ben had been the vice president of the East Meadow school board, as well as a trustee of the town's public library, where a sunlit atrium is dedicated to him. By all accounts, especially those of his son, he was revered by all who knew him.
Joel always believed that his father, although somewhat modest, basked in the adulation he received as much as the goodwill he dispensed. "He could walk into a room and light it up," he recalled. "He was very gregarious, I guess that's the word, [always giving] big hugs and pats on the back." Oddly enough, one of the things Joel always admired about Ben was his refusal to glorify violence, even though he had experienced plenty of it during World War II. While many of Ben's more macho friends regularly regaled an impressionable Joel with tales of bloodshed on the battlefield, the killer-to-be actually worshiped his father for not trying to get mileage out of his days as a foot soldier in the European theater.
"I know guys who were World War II veterans [who would go] to the VFW, sit around, kick back, and tell stories of the war like that was the only time they felt alive," said Joel. "And Dad would never talk about the war. Even as a kid, [I would say] 'Daddy, tell me a story.' His war stories were all non-combat stories. He never told me about all the kids [young GIs] he saw getting blown up."
Ben's favorite story was the one when he, a sergeant, and his driver were going through a short tunnel when they encountered another vehicle coming in the opposite direction. As they crossed paths, the occupants of both Jeeps -- one German, one American -- realized they had just passed the enemy. "They all did double-takes and kept going," laughed Joel. "No one became a hero and turned around and chased. They were like 'oh no, damn,' and they kept going. He [didn't] tell stories about the blood and guts stuff."
The fact that Ben distanced himself from the violence he bore witness to as a young, impressionable soldier, even while living in a suburban culture where it might have served him well, was a noble effort to shield his always curious son from the atrocities of war. The fact is he and Jeanne went to great lengths to help Joel adjust to a world he felt so uncomfortable in. They always assisted him with his schoolwork and never missed a meeting with his teachers. Even though they came from a generation that frowned on psychiatry, they brought Joel to a doctor in the hope of learning the origin of his dysfunctions.
Because they had a stable, loving marriage, mingled well in social circles, and had many significant friendships, Joel's behavioral patterns confounded them. Making things more confusing was the fact that Jan was so well adjusted. Although Joel was unable to articulate it to himself as a youngster, he was very aware of his parents' innate decency. But that didn't prevent him from experiencing conflicting emotions over his relationship with his father. As much as he and Ben had battled over the years, there was an intricate link between them. Knowing how proud his father always wanted to be of him, and what a bitter disappointment he had actually become, caused Joel even more heartache. His entire life had been a series of enthusiastic starts and premature stops. And, as well intentioned as his father was, he never let him forget that.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Mladinich
The Joel Rifkin Story
From the Mouth of the Monster
The Joel Rifkin Story
They met in college twenty years ago.
One became a decorated NYPD officer and a journalist.
The other became New York's most notorious serial killer.
This is the riveting true story of Joel Rifkin -- the Long Islander convicted of savagely murdering seventeen young women -- as told by Rifkin to Robert Mladinich. The two met as journalism students on assignment together in 1979; more than two decades later, the NYPD detective visited Rifkin in prison to examine what both had made of their lives.
In a chilling series of exchanges, Rifkin bared his soul to Mladinich, chronicling his lost years: the missed opportunities, the failed relationships, and the terrible details behind his killings. But Mladinich probed deeper, forcing Rifkin to confront the horrifying nature of his crimes.
Drawn from interviews with Rifkin and his mother, and conversations with acquaintances and professionals who encountered him, From The Mouth Of The Monster is an exacting true-crime portrayal and a chilling study of the possible evil within us all.