Friday, April 5, 2013

Bad Women

“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 than alphabet soup after their name. 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 their 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.

                                                           Virginia Soares de Souza

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,  it  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.
                                              A typical headline- the terrible revelations seemed never ending

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 (their husbands or live in partners 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 now. In the medically trained there might be some unusual psychopathological behavioural factors (Munchhausen's syndrome) and obvious 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 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. She was  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.
                                                      Beverley Allitt was a well liked nurse

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

                                                                Brady and Hindley

The crimes of Myra Hindley are still beyond the comprehension of most people.  She is 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't 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 killed children. End of.
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 class 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 of 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".
                                                                   Myra Hindley

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 jail 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 fascinating and I've interested to see what my fellow panellists have to say.

This blog was typed on the banks of Loch Ness but as yet I have seen nothing. Still watching...

Caro GB 05/04/2013


  1. Very interesting. I wonder how much suppressed anger these bad women had. I do believe "there be monsters," and psychopaths do exist if not Nessie.

  2. Let me get this straight: you're doing the jokes?