One of Us or Something Other?

Analyzing the Perpetrators of the Acts That Shake Us to the Core: True Crime and Its Place in Books

Though I am technically a forensic psychiatrist, the work I do is perinatal psychiatry—mental illness pertaining to pregnancy and the postpartum period, extending in assessments and clinical work at times to involve children up to age five. This means that in the cases of abuse and murder I see, the victim is almost always a child and the patient or client I see the parent. In my talks I say that I have yet to see one that is ‘evil’—that doesn’t mean that I don’t think what they have done is wrong or excusable, but as a psychiatrist I seek to understand not judge, and in their backgrounds, as Xanthe Mallett comments in most her case histories (Mothers Who Murder), there is usually poverty, abuse and poor role models and difficult circumstances surrounding these cases. She adds inadequate evidence and pillorying by the press as other factors that may influence justice. In the cases I see I generally end up feeling sorry for all involved; these are the mothers that needed help and didn’t get it, possibly should never have had children, and in some cases should have had their children removed but where a society made anxious by the Stolen Generation and Forced Adoption scandals failed to act for the child. In many cases I see when I write recommendations, the ‘this child should be adopted as soon as possible to a loving well vetted couple’ just isn’t an option, even though on the weighing of risk it would be in the child’s best interest.

Because I started to write Medea’s Curse as non-fiction and quickly abandoned this idea because of ethical issues—not just that I couldn’t use cases I had been involved with, but because I did not see it as the ‘right of the public’ to look into cases using real names and causing more pain to the women and their families, unless there was a very, very good reason. My wanting to put a name on a book was not a good reason. Nor was rehashing the same old stuff; I came to the conclusion having read trashy real crime books that to be worthwhile they had to add something very special. When my poor attempts at investigative journalism fell through I decided for me fiction was a far better option; to try through this medium to make unsympathetic characters sympathetic—or at the very least show they are not evil.

Does evil exist? Maybe—I think some of my colleagues who have looked into the psychopaths eyes would say yes; but even in the men’s prisons, there are more men with low IQ’s and mental illness than there are true psychopaths. Carl Williams, the Underbelly ‘hero’ by all accounts loved his family and had friends. Mallett concludes there is evil despite most of her cases not being so—the horrendous abuse of one child by her aunt and the death of another at his mother’s hands before she stuffed him into a suitcase (made all the more tragic because there was a loving grandma who wanted him and the courts had awarded him to) are certainly evil acts but unless you really analyse the cases, see the women and interview those close to them and their family, I am not so sure. Yes there are psychopaths who are only interested in themselves and can’t empathise—but even they don’t all go out and do evil (see Confessions of a Sociopath). We will not see the evil amongst us if we think it is ‘other’. And weak, poorly prepared and poorly supported parents are doing terrible things all the time—there are nearly 60,000 cases of substantiated abuse a year in Australia. As we watch the Royal Commission into institutional abuse in the 50’s to 70’s and fell for the damaged adults giving testimony, I can’t but help think of these 60,000 a year in ten and twenty years’ time.

With a looming panel discussion at Bendigo Writer’s Festival on ethics in writing, I have been pondering more and more about these issues and it was with interest I read House of Grief (Helen Garner) and went to a panel at Sydney Writer’s Festival with Mallett, Julie Szego (The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama) and Asne Seierostad (One of Us). Szego wrote of a little covered trial of a Somali man accused and convicted of rape purely on DNA evidence, even though the cameras at the rape venue didn’t catch him, he wouldn’t have been allowed in (he was 10 years too young) and he had an alibi. He spent 16 months in gaol before the conviction was overturned, largely due to the dogged determination of his mother to see justice. The family originally supported the author then withdrew, so I asked myself; ‘did Szego have the right to tell a story that wasn’t hers to tell’? The young man wanted to write it—he hasn’t. Even if he does, it is unlikely it would be objective—it would be a personal story, and a different one. Szego is a journalist and lawyer. She tells it the way we can believe it and learn from it, and after much thought I decided that yes, not only did she have the right, it was a story that needed to be told. Because it is not about evil but rather prejudices and mistakes—a little too much like the Lindy Chamberlain story, and the Meadows story where the experts were believed and not adequately questioned. I haven’t read the books on Keli Lane and Kathryn Folbigg, though Mallett talks about both cases, but I am less convinced about the public’s right here, except perhaps, like in Garner’s book, as indeed in my fiction one, to show that things are not always black and white. Garner makes us look at ourselves—and that is always a good thing.

I would not normally have chosen to read Seierstad’s book on Anders Breivek, I think largely because as one of the reviewers said (and they put themselves in the same category), that by reading and writing about him, aren’t we giving him what he wants? This man, what ever his diagnosis, is severely narcissistic.

No one remembers the name of the Dunblane murderer because the town and the media chose not to give him notoriety. Shouldn’t we always do this, to the terrorists, the perpetrators of massacres? Let them die or be thrown in prison ignominiously? But Seierstad was very impressive on stage (and her reviewer said she also managed to reduce him in stature in her book), and it became clear to me that the book was not just about him. It is thick, and I knew within were 77 murders of largely young people my children’s age, so starting it was a daunting task.

It was not easy reading from a content point of view. Yet it also was. A compelling page turner. Seierstad is a seasoned smart foreign correspondent. Her writing is intelligent and thoughtful but also easily accessible. She doesn’t just write Breivik’s story—one of seriously poor parenting and failures of the system when he was a child, as well at the time of the massacre when Norway was caught unawares and too shocked to react quickly—but contrasts it to the soaring brilliance of those who died and survived, and their families. From a difficult escape from Iraq there is in these pages a family of Moslems any country would want to embrace; a loving family who wanted to fit in and make a difference and I think have already, as being part of Norway’s response of love not hate.

I was fascinated by the days spent of Breivik’s trial to psychiatrists’ testimonies, not so much that they didn’t agree (as a psychiatrist I rather think it was a matter of degree and the real issue was about where one drew the line between psychotic delusion and narcissistic personality beliefs, and between competence and incompetence, and the truth is that we don’t have the answers to this) but that it was considered so critical by both court and defendant. This is where we as psychiatrists have come a long way but have further to travel. It is not so long ago we allowed ourselves to let morality be our guide—and consequently classified homosexuality as a disease. We now try to be immune to this but how can we be fully? What Breivik did was immoral—but was it bad or mad? Can it be both?

The court, and Seierstad in her title One of Us elects for bad. I am inclined to agree. Yates when she drowned her five children was talking to the devil and he was talking back; morally she did the right thing because she believed she was sending them to heaven (and she was very religious) and was sacrificing herself for them (her soul was going to hell). But she was psychotic—none of this was true. Atheists would argue including the heaven/hell bit but because this is a commonly held belief we don’t call it ‘mad’, but even they don’t believe he chats to you. Trouble is, many of Breivik’s beliefs were so far from centre, most of us would think they were completely mad.

I believe One of Us is an important book because the beauty of the Norwegian society does indeed soar and in doing so reduces Brievik to a pathetic and meaningless no one who will die in prison, not having achieved what he set out to do in any shape or form. But its title and his story is also important. Seierstad said on the Sydney panel that this was the first time she had written about Norway—her books have been about the middle east and war zones—and she still looked somewhat bewildered that one of us—in her case, she meant a Norwegian—could have done something so appalling. But he wasn’t just a Norwegian. He was a white westerner, a non Muslim, who could have been our neighbour, any of the children I see when doing parenting assessments, one of the ones I wonder if it would not be better for them if they were adopted out. If he was psychotic I don’t think it was his genes, though undoubtedly there was some unfortunate vulnerability there, that mixed with the toxic parenting he had, and the society where no one took him on to make him feel good enough (and there were lost opportunities) then indeed one of us, become the evil other we fear.


About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has 30 clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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