A forensic psychiatrist recalls her attempts to connect with some of society’s most damaged and dangerous people
During my first week as a newly qualified forensic psychiatrist at Broadmoor, I had to visit one of the wards. At the foot of a staircase, I stepped aside to let a group of patients pass. Another staff member joined me, and we waited as the men, mainly in their 40s and 50s, descended in silence, walking carefully, hands skimming or leaning on the bannister for support. One man caught my attention because he looked like a stock image of Father Christmas, with a big white beard. When they’d gone, my companion turned to me. “Do you know who that was?” I shook my head. “Peter Sutcliffe… you know, the Yorkshire Ripper.”
I remember thinking, with an intake of breath, “So that’s him.” He was one of the hospital’s most notorious patients, that rarest of offenders, a serial killer. I felt shaken for a moment, and then it dawned on me that the shock was that there was nothing to see. He was just a man, not a monster. When detectives in Yorkshire were desperately trying to solve a series of brutal murders of local women, they interviewed Mr Sutcliffe seven times before he was identified as the suspect. They evidently saw nothing to mark him out from any other man.
Meeting Peter Sutcliffe, it dawned on me that the shock was that there was nothing to see
Most people are killed by someone who, as WH Auden said, eats at their table and shares their bed.