Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Holding Up a Mirror

My attention was captured by this article in the Guardian last Saturday.

I was taken by this:

But there is something in us that expects to see an outward sign of evil - as in medieval times when a woman was burned because a mole was taken to be the devil's mark, we monitor his facial expressions for signs of his extreme cruelty.

We look for anything that might possibly justify our belief that he is different, that he is a monster and nothing like us. That is the most important thing, to convince ourselves that an alleged war criminal is different from ordinary people. But time after time, from the Nuremberg trials onwards, all we see is our own reflection in a mirror.

I was taken by this because I had for a while been thinking of posting a piece on the topic of how we expect our villains to look, well, villainous. It's part of the whole celebrity culture thing: if someone looks cool they are cool; if they look normal they are normal; if they look weird they're a psychopath.

I was moved to ponder this issue when I thought of the pictures of Ruth Ellis, last British woman to be hanged and the main news story from the year I was born. She looks quite glamorous.....

and maybe that has contributed over the years to the fact that she never seems to have been viewed by the public as especially wicked. (To be fair, the circumstances of her crime may have played a part, but matters of criminological fact don't usually play much of a role in the public assessment of murderers.)

OK. Now let's try a little Rolf Harris-type experiment. Can you tell who this is?

No? How about this?

Surely you'll recognise her from this one?

But if I show you this one:

the familiar monster appears.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not in the least degree attempting to minimise the horror of Myra Hindley's crimes. I always believed she shared full responsibility with Ian Brady, and to be honest, even if she shared only a hundredth part, the sheer awfulness of what they recorded on tape during Lesley Anne Downey's final minutes would be sufficient for me to want her in jail until she died. (Which of course is what happened.) She may or may not have repented of her crime in later life, and that may or may not have given her inner comfort and peace, but I don't even slightly wish she'd been released. All I'm saying is that - even for me - to see a picture of Myra Hindley looking like a normal human being seems really weird. It's just as Slavenka Drakulić put it in the article I linked back at the start: we're desperate to convince ourselves that Myra Hindley differs from us in what she is rather than simply in what she did; and when we see the pretty girl standing by the budgie's cage with a drink in her hand, or learning to fire a shotgun, we see someone very like ourselves (albeit with 1950s hair). And the realisation that any of us (at least if we were to fall in love with an amoral psychopath with a penchant for torture and weird sex) might be capable of crimes like hers is hard to bear. As I understand the Christian doctrine of original sin, it says that we all have within us the capacity for the most terrible acts: it goes with the territory, it's part of being human. Good call there.


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