Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Women who kill

Here is a copy of the blog for Murder Is Everywhere in anticipation of my appearance at Aye Write Festival next weekend.  Not funny, but thought provoking....

  “In a world where independent voices are increasingly stifled, PEN is not a luxury it is a necessity.”
 These are the words of Margaret Atwood the Vice-President, International PEN.

It's a fantastic organisation and one I am proud to support. At the Aye Write Festival in Glasgow they usually host a big event at the weekend. This is the third year that they have asked me to be part of it. I think it’s my job to balance the academia (read into that what you will!). My co panellists normally have more letters after their name than a tin of alphabet soup. They tend to close their eyes while talking, hands spanned, fingertips  touching, nodding in concentration... like they  are  in  a channel  four midnight chat  show.  I have such a short attention span that I have usually forgotten the start of the sentence by the time they get to the end of it. I think the point of it is the audience enjoy the contrast, this year the title is.   Bad Women. "Why do some women commit criminal acts? Jean Rafferty (author of Myra, Beyond Saddleworth) discusses Myra Hindley and the taboo of female violence with Zoe Wicomb, followed by crime writer Caro Ramsay and Dr Lizzie Seal (author of Women, Murder and Femininity: Gender Representations of Women Who Kill) discussing the transgressive female in literature."

Like I say I'll do the jokes.

When I say in talks that female serial killers tend to fall in to two types - either acting with a man (folie de deux)... or a member of the medical profession. That tends to get a laugh as I am one of the latter (medic not serial killer!) So the current case of Brazilian doctor Virginia Soares de Souza   has been catching my interest. Details in the British press are scarce and contradictory but she seems to be charged with the murder of seven patients and investigations are going on for another 300 incidents. She is accused of cutting the oxygen supply to patients on life support and then administering Pavulon which relaxes the diaphragm muscle making respiration even more problematic.  I believe that they are analysing over 1700 hospital records. Which could make her the world's worst serial killer. British GP Harold Shipman was convicted in 2004 of killing 15 patients but is probably responsible for 260 plus.

The De Souza case is fairly typical of the way that female serial killers operate.

They have moved with the times though. In the Victorian age they poisoned, (the black widow image) and they killed men (there husband or live in partner or the insured), and children (their own or other people's) usually for financial gain.  Things have moved on slightly and the psychology of the motive of the female serial killer is becoming less clear. They tend not to kill for material gain. In the medically trained there might be some unusual psychopathological behavioural factors (Munchhausen's syndrome) and issues of what we as a society expect women to be i.e. caring and nurturing. Sexual and sadistic motives are very rare but suffering childhood abuse seems to be a consistent finding.

Female serial killers are of course much rarer than male, about 15%. But something inside me wonders how accurate that figure is. Or does the quiet nature of their crimes mean they are going unnoticed.
Obviously anybody with a psychological and perhaps unhealthy interest in the power of life and death will be attracted to the medical profession in any form.

Britain’s  worst medical female serial killer was  Beverley Gail Allitt,  convicted of murdering four children, attempting to murder three other children, and causing grievous bodily harm to another six all in a  59 day period in  1991. She killed by injecting insulin or altering the air supply to her young patients. She received 13 life sentences, a minimum term of 40 years one of the longest minimum terms ever suggested by a trial judge and is unlikely ever to be considered safe enough to be released.

Reading some of the Shipman transcripts it is noted how often his patients said what a great doctor he was, genuine and considerate. The concept of a compassionate carer is echoed in the fact that   when two month old Becky Phillips was admitted to the care of Beverly Allit and died, her twin sister was also admitted as a precaution.  Katie Phillips had to be resuscitated twice after unexplained breathing difficulties. The second time she stopped breathing she suffered brain damage which led to a degree of both paralysis and blindness. She was then transferred to another hospital.

Her parents had been so grateful to Allitt for Becky’s care, they asked her to be Katie's godmother. That is the measure of how much the parents appreciated Allitt within the health care team.

Allitt's motives have never been fully explained. Was it Munchausen’s by proxy? Does that even exist?

The crimes of Myra Hindley are still beyond the comprehension of most people.  She is still one of the most reviled women of the twentieth century but worth mentioning here because she is a classic example of a folie de deux. Rosemary West is another. The big question is, would these women ever have killed if they had not met those men.  Personally I don’t think that is the point, we all have a degree of responsibility for self.  Or is it that we as a society can quite comprehend that the female gender is capable of evil for want of a better word. Something inside me thinks that a clear headed woman would have given Fred West and Ian Brady a wide berth but there was a need in Rose and Myra that these men fulfilled for them. The main issue still is both Myra and Rose still killed children.

I am a little too young to be aware of the impact The Moors Murderers had on the media and on wider society. I do recall, age 14/15, my modern studies teacher refusing to answer the direct question What did Myra Hindley actually do that was so awful? Given Hindley's status as a co-defendant in the first mass-murder trial held since the abolition of the death penalty the debate was that the death penalty should be reinstated for her and Brady.

No matter how you approach the subject of Hindley, you will get a different picture of the woman.   She was a sensible young woman, but when she met Glasgow born Brady she fell for him in a big way. He encouraged her to read works by Hitler and de Sade.  He was her first lover and some sources say she was totally under his control.  She certainly acted and dressed to please him but that is a million miles away from accepting his ideas that murder and rape were the “supreme pleasure”.

 The murders of 16-year-old Pauline Reade, 12-year-old John Kilbride, 12-year-old Keith Bennett then 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey are all well documented. Brady and Hindley themselves photographed and taped the torture of Lesley Ann Downey. The last murder was that off 17 year old Edward Evans. Their recorded nonchalant attitude to their vile actions helped to ensure the lasting notoriety of their crimes;
 But it was Hindley's gender that made her so vilified. Her photograph has been referred to by Helen Birch as "synonymous with the idea of feminine evil".

This one picture has sunk deep into the British psyche. The circumstances of Myra Hindley were a million miles away from the circumstances of Ruth Ellis, but a mere ten years apart. One lived out her days in a relatively comfortable prison whilst the other was sentenced to death. This is a subject I may return to after I have debated with my co-panellists as it is a fascinating subject.

Monday, 1 April 2013

The World Tour Of Aberdeen

There are a few things you should know about Aberdeen. One is that the city is made of granite and therefore has a very high background level of radiation. The locally quarried grey granite used in the buildings sparkles like silver due to the high mica content and the city is known as The Granite City or The Silver City.

 The  other thing you should know is that Aberdeen is Gaelic for pneumonia.
 Well, that's not really true - it means "at the confluence of the river  Don  with the sea'.
but you get the picture. It is a  bitter cold place. 

As you may have gathered I have just returned from a world tour of Aberdeen, four events over two days, a drive of 550 miles  which probably sounds nothing but three days before we set off Aberdeen was annexed from all civilised society by huge snow drifts.  The librarian pointed out that  it was sunny one day last year... they refer to good weather as 'a remission'.   

Aberdeen is the oil capital of Europe, the   third most populous city in Scotland and the natives are a hardy breed. There has been human settlement there for the last 8000 years. Remnants of a two thousand year old settlements can be seen spotted around the hills, like this 1600 century fortress where only the front door remains.
This is a fairly typical Aberdonian building in a place called Inverurie and while the lovely gray pallor gives a very light city landscape, it doesn’t exactly warm the soul. I read that  Aberdeen features an 'oceanic climate' and 'that it is  far milder than one might expect for its northern location.' I read that with a huge degree of tourist guide cynicism then I read the next sentence. 'although statistically it is the coldest city in the UK.'  So it is official. It's baltic.
 In high summer it has nautical twilight that lasts all night. You just won't notice it because of the driving icy rain that will be stinging your eyes and your tears will blind you. 

Driving around to small libraries in the  outlying areas,  the names of the  villages gave us a sense of the of historical romance about them Oyne, Weet, Clart, Insch.  One of my favourites is 'Fettercairn'. I also like a place on the  road up to Aberdeen-  Findo Gask, very  Tolkienesque.  As we  made our way through drifts the  economy of the countryside became very evident. Sheep, more sheep, distillery, wild deer, pheasant, more sheep. More sheep. That's about it

 We did notice that these small hamlets have an intense amount of house building going on, it became a talking point at events- the commuter belt of Aberdeen is stretching far now, the economy is bouncing. Wikipedia says that  Aberdeen  was the 54th most liveable city in the World, as well as the third most liveable city in Britain. All I can say is that they must have different criteria to me! 

In 2012 HSBS named Aberdeen as one of the eight 'super cities' that will lead the recovery of the  UK economy. The heliport  in Aberdeen is one of the busiest commercial heliports in the world It was the only city in Scotland to receive this accolade as the rest of us are still looking at increasing dole queues, half built houses, ever spiraling heating bills and starting to feel rather Cypriot about the whole thing.  I've also read that one Aberdeen postcode has the second highest number of millionaires of any postcode in the UK while 20% of Aberdonians live below the poverty line. Like most of these situations, the millionaires will not be native, but those on the poverty line certainly will be.

The weather was intensely snowy, blizzardy and just on this side of dangerous. We stopped listening to the sat nav as  she confidently instructed us to  turn left- onto the road with the huge warning signs, Road closed,  ski gates closed, peril beyond this point, beware of low flying motorcycles. Yip, we were confused about that last one as well.

Between events we drove around  Aberdeenshire  on roads with no other traffic. Slightly eerie to be so close to a major city (20-30 miles) and drive without passing another car or seeing another soul. At one point we joked that the world had ended in some terrible nuclear incident, and nobody had told us.  So either everybody was just somewhere else or.... Aberdeenshire is empty.

Crime readers are probably most familiar with Aberdeen as the setting  of Stuart McBride books and a fair bit of Ian Rankin's Black and Blue is set in Aberdeen, furry boot town as he called it.

I must go there again some time. In the summer.
Next  week I am hoping to do an all action blog on location in Loch Ness.