As a forensic psychologist with over 25 years’ worth of experience, I’ve worked with and treated plenty who many of us might call wrong’uns or monsters – or, as my gran liked to call all film villains – ‘badjuns’.
The traditional image of a psychologist is a bespectacled man in a bow tie, listening earnestly to someone sprawled on a sofa as they recount their innermost secrets. But on the forensic side of psychology, I consider myself lucky if I get a room with a chair and a table.
The majority of my sessions with clients (a respectful catch-all for the people I work with who have committed crimes) take place in prisons or secure units, but they can also happen in hospital corridors, in police stations or, as happened once, in the woods (as I helped police locate a patient who had disappeared with a knife….).
I’ve met infamous murderers like serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who liked to call me last thing on a Friday afternoon from his maximum-security prison, and less-well known characters, like the panic-stricken hostel resident who stabbed me in the stomach with a kebab skewer.
Or the guy with a fetish for mankinis, whose intimate home-videos I was forced to watch for eight hours because his ex-wife was convinced it was a sign of dangerous sexual perversion (it wasn’t).
Each and every case is different, but over the years I’ve learned that the one thing they all have in common is this: they are all human beings, with multi-layered stories to tell.
The truth is I have usually found something commendable about even the most extreme criminals; serial killer Dennis Nilsen was introspective and, believe it or not, held strong socialist beliefs
They can’t be summed up or explained away in one-word labels and convenient psychiatric diagnoses. People are often surprised when I tell them this, because they want to compartmentalise people who go against the most sacred of our shared values. It is easier to dismiss them as mad or just plain evil (and by virtue, themselves sane and good.)
The truth is I have usually found something commendable about even the most extreme criminals; Dennis Nilsen was introspective and, believe it or not, held strong socialist beliefs.
People are also surprised when I tell them I always shake my clients’ hands.
I shook Ian Brady’s hand once. Why would I shake the hand of a convicted child-abuser and murderer? The simple answer is because it is not my behaviour that needs to change. But also, because I’ve learnt that it is important to acknowledge that someone might be witty, helpful, sensitive or kind to old ladies and kittens, and still also capable of causing great harm.
It is only when you wrap your head around that apparent contradiction, that you can start to understand humans and human behaviour in a more nuanced way – one that is both scientifically informed and compassionate.
That is the mindset needed in this job; I have to understand what led to something terrible, and to work out if a person can be made safe or not. Without a delicate balance of compassion and hard science, it would be impossible to succeed in my work.
And successes do happen. Yes, there are the obvious successes of prisoners beating the odds, going back out into the world and picking up the reigns of their life as law-abiding members of the community.
But also the smaller, more everyday moments, where my input leads to a fair decision – whether that is someone being charged with murder rather than manslaughter, receiving an order for treatment rather than prison, or someone being granted (or perhaps not granted) parole.
But there are far too many failures.
It seems to me that a large part of the problem is that our media, including entertainment channels and even our bookshops, are full of lurid yet superficial crime stories.
Netflix’s Ted Bundy series has made what might have been unspeakable a few decades ago seem entirely mainstream. We feast on attention-grabbing headlines (as Dr Julia Shaw points out in her book Making Evil, a favourite saying among journalists is ‘if it bleeds it leads’) and TV ratings confirm our thirst for violence and human suffering .
And yet, we deny ourselves the chance to fully engage with it. We entertain ourselves with crime stories from a comfortable distance and content ourselves with soundbites from a ‘TV psychologist’ who tells us that these people were ‘born evil’ or are suffering from the latest personality disorder.
After all, it is easier to shout ‘throw away the key’ than it is to confront the reality that our society could have helped make people what they are
As a fresh-faced trainee I worked at HMP Wakefield, where the senior officer in charge of C wing was a man called John Hall. The very first time I met Hall, he was in conversation with an inmate called Terence McCready. McCready was at the bottom of a dubious pecking order of criminals housed at the notorious prison, still referred to by some as ‘Monster Mansion’.
He had committed a string of sexual assaults on children before abducting, raping and killing eight-year-old Karin Griffin and hiding her body in a water barrel. As Hall stood up and left McCready to introduce himself to me, he muttered ‘evil bastard that one’.
A few years later Hall was arrested for raping four women and kidnapping three schoolgirls, crimes he had committed while wearing his prison officer’s uniform.
The blanket-branding of violent and sexual offenders makes it all too easy to be blind to the realities of harmful behaviour.
We think that we will recognise human ‘monsters’ as different to us. This leads to disbelief of thoughts that our favourite musician might also be a predatory paedophile or complaints of sexual assault against a man with high status. It distorts our ideas of what effective justice should look like.
After all, it is easier to shout ‘throw away the key’ than it is to confront the reality that our society could have helped make people what they are. Putting them behind a locked door, out of sight and out of mind, is often an easier solution.
Our Home Secretary Priti Patel has gone as far as to argue for restoration of capital punishment. If we are ever going to tackle violence and sexual violence, we must first accept that no convenient line can be drawn between ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people.
There is no them and us – only us.