He certainly didn’t look dangerous. He was perhaps the shortest prisoner on the wing, sitting uneasily on the edge of the chair in my office – itself a converted prison cell in a maximum security prison. In fact you could easily have overlooked him – he was thin, even emaciated. His eyes did not flash danger signals, like serial killers were supposed to – but he was undoubtedly the most dangerous individual there. Especially when, with precious little warning, he added me to his hit list.
At the time, I was working as a psychiatrist in a Special Unit in Parkhurst, then the UK’s flagship prison, on the Isle of Wight. He didn’t particularly bother to make eye-contact, but then neither do many others. What really distinguished him from the general run, was that he also had a steely determination, a fixity of purpose which would have been admirable in other contexts – but here it was destined only to result in death. As he casually explained to me, when you or I are falling asleep, we dream up our next holiday – when he does, he focuses on planning his next murder.
So his placid exterior hid a calculating mind, a capacity for planning ahead which would have brought credit to a field marshal, or to any millionaire on the make. Except that here it was pointed downhill, enhancing negativity, destructivity instead of creativity. In my earlier post, I have described how David, a 6 year old, rushed frantically around the house, morning noon and night – here exactly the same energy, the same driving forces were in play – though this time it wasn’t only peace and quiet that would be shattered, but something rather more irreversible.
He had no difficulty in explaining his plan to me, his strategy for achieving his chosen aim in life – he knew it would work, and where the details needed fixing, he’d fix them. His tone of voice in describing this toxic scenario was neither bombastic, nor macho, nor even particularly triumphant. It was just how things were, how things would be – and he would carry on regardless, until stopped.
The lack of human empathy didn’t particularly faze me – it just increased my appetite for finding out where this all came from. I worked on the notion, as I had with David earlier, that though I’d never been here before, I would press ahead on general principles, anticipating that this would enable me (or rather him), to dig out the poison, and cut the destructivity off at source. I was running on optimism, as I had been with David, and my earlier success there, empowered me here. Again, nothing was guaranteed at this point – except that when you kill people, they die. And however well qualified I was, medically, this didn’t exempt me.
So, put yourself in Alec’s shoes – how would YOU plan a series of killings? Bear in mind you are serving a life sentence, for having already murdered in an previous prison. You might think being imprisoned would scupper your lethal ambitions. But no. Alec had it all worked out. He was a clever man. And he used his talents to fulfil his destiny. A destiny he didn’t question – it had been bequeathed to him from earlier times. It was just who he was, what he did, and how he found his “meaning”. He didn’t even seem to regret that his way of living involved other people dying.
In a matter of fact tone, he told me how he was going to solve the fairly obvious constraints that being in prison imposed on his scheme. Every two years he’d select a member of staff, or another inmate. All they’d have to do was fail to say “good morning” in the approved manner, or somesuch, and then he’d seal their fate. Meticulous planning was his forte, so he’d schedule everything down to the last minute. War plans were never as detailed. He would then kill. Of course, as he told me, this would lead him to being moved on to another prison. But that too had been accounted for. Once in a new location, the same routine would begin – spotting an appropriate victim, tune details to the finest timings – kill them, move on, and then repeat it all over again.
Can you really believe that a young man – Alec was 24 at the time – had so dedicated his entire life to cutting innocent people off in their prime – people who he had never met in his life before, and had never done him any harm whatsoever? People who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing about reality seemed to count. There was a blackhole where his thinking should have been. And the parallel with David is striking. Whereas the one rushed all over the place (without a clue as to why), making life a misery for all those who had to look after him (and indirectly for himself) – here we have a slower pace, but a deadlier outcome.
Let Alec describe it, for himself. This is what I recorded him saying in that first interview, verbatim. “But like I said, I’ve said since I've been in prison, that, yes, I'll kill again, I know I’ll kill again. And a part of me wants to kill again. And as long as that part wants to, then I will let it.”
Now with David earlier, his aberrant behaviour ceased, once he knew his mother didn’t hate him, and hadn’t left him, just because he was somehow “bad”. Could there be something similar going on with Alec? It would certainly be deeper, vastly better hidden, harder to reach – for one thing the internal damage, assuming there was some, had festered longer. And Alec had developed much better mental equipment for hiding it – by contrast David, aged 6, almost wore his on his sleeve.
Yet it matters. You, me and the rest of the world want people like Alec to stop their destructivity – whether that is violence or emotional disruption in families, or elsewhere, or political degradation more globally. Either way, listen carefully to the words he uses – “And a part of me wants to kill again”. Surely we can all agree that this is wrong. But listen to the next bit – “And as long as that part wants to, then I will let it.”
As the significance of this sinks in, it will become clear that the only lasting remedy (you might even call it a cure), would be for him to change this thinking, his deeply engrained purpose in life. He would then need to say, to believe, and to then enact “I will stop it”. Until he does so, and delivers, you and I would be wise to beware.
And in case you (or I) thought he was just a paper serial-killer, this is what happened some 12 months later. There was an abrupt change in the wind – he suddenly put an end to our regular weekly sessions. Rumours began to circulate that having stopped the sessions with the doctor, he was then going to restart them, so that, when I turned to switch on my beloved video camera, he would garrotte me from behind. Ominously, he was practising garrotting his pillow.
Well, however keen I was on my work, my enthusiasm was not unlimited. There had been no mention of “garrottings” in my terms of service, not that I could recall. So I took my case to the Deputy Prison Governor, currently in charge of the whole prison. I told him that as these rumour grew stronger, I was even becoming reluctant to walk down the wing to get myself a cup of tea. Now this Governor was someone I trusted implicitly, except he couldn’t resist a bit of mischief. His immediate response was to muse that he did have a Category-A van going out sometime in the following week, so he could remove him in it, then. I am usually a calm soul, but this exasperated me (as was intended) – next week won’t do, it has to be NOW. After all it was my neck.
This Governor had only been teasing. He reacted with exemplary management talent, sadly not all that common in prison circles. He called me over the following morning, at the end of the Administrators’ Meeting, saying he had moved Alec the previous evening to the “Seg”, the Solitary Confinement Wing. More, he had told him that Dr Johnson would visit, would report back to this Governor, who would then decide how Alec would be disposed of
If you knew the red-tape normally associated with any transfers in and out of that Special Unit, you’d be as amazed as I was. Normally there are endless delays, endless committee sessions in London, and endless dithering one way or another, over which I had hardly any input at all. So here was instant action, and very welcome it was too.
What I hadn’t anticipated is that when I did return to my office in the Special Unit, later that morning, I had three visitors. I was sorting through my paper work when discrete knocks on my office door were followed, in orderly sequence, by three older prisoners. Three. These were meant to be unfeeling, unempathetic, self-centred “psychopaths”. Yet one after the other, they came to plead Alec’s case with me.
One of them pointed out to me that he saw in Alec how he had himself been, 30 years before. “If he goes through his life sentence as the man who threatened to kill the doctor” – well it would be unbearable. The other two, in their own way, added to the same message. This was a prison wing for exceptionally violent, unstable, lifers – yet all this was presented in as courteous a manner as you could wish – no coercion, no threats, no manipulation – just appealing to my better nature to help a fellow culprit. Enough to bring a tear to your eye.
So, it was up to me. Tidying up the things on my desk, I took myself out of the Special Unit, and round to the Segregation Unit. Arming myself with two stalwart prison staff, we gingerly approached Alec’s cell door. Unlocking it carefully, we three stood well back – it was well known that violent prisoners on hearing the unlock, would burst out, as the door was being opened.
Nothing like that happened this time. There was Alec, with his head in his hands, sitting mournfully on the cell bed. A defeated man. I promptly went in, sat beside him, and started talking to him. “I shouldn’t have done it”, he said. “I’ve been in solitary for two years before, but I can’t take it anymore. I need to get back to the Unit”.
Here’s where that exceptional prison management came in. I remember archly telling Alec that my instructions had been to report back to the Deputy Governor, who would then decide what to do next. Which I duly did, and as befitted a remarkable man of principle, he then returned Alec to the Unit.
This had been one of three threats to my life, and by far the most serious. It was over. We resumed our weekly sessions, uncovering more and more of a past that had, till then, been too agonising to contemplate. Indeed too dangerous for Alec to penetrate unaided – so instead of telling me not to press any further, he’d deployed the only language he’d learnt – violence. He couldn’t ask me to shut up – and since he needed to stop me, he resorted to doing so with ultimate finality, something he was familiar with – murder. That blackhole had a lot to account for.
So when we did bridge his blackhole, this is how he described what life inside his head had really been like. This again is verbatim dialogue, from a session some 24 months after we first started. I’ve published more of it in an ebook How Verbal Physiotherapy works, (or search -- smashwords 892956). ($2).
249. Alec: Yeah. And the violent side is one to push in the back of my mind, I'll always know what I've done, but as far as I'm concerned that's finished, I can't change that, that's history, that's happened, but I can stop what could have happened, and as far as I'm concerned that's what I want to do.
250. Bob: Amazing isn't it?
251. Alec: I don't want to hurt nobody, because I wouldn't want to be hurt myself. And its only since we've really got down to this work that I've accepted that, and I've understood it.
252. Bob: I think that's right, I think its a question of understanding it, isn't it?
253. Alec: I mean I've said before, I mean you've seen the type of books that I used to read. I mean I can honestly say that if I hadn't have came here, I would have ended up having a record of killing three, four, five, anybody in the system. It could be a probation officer, it could be a screw, it could be a psychologist, anybody, you know, anybody who's got a bit of authority, I would have directed at them. I mean and that was only because I was brought here, early into my sentence, you know that I've had this chance that a lot of others don't get. I've had the chance to actually sort my problems out, you know, and actually be helped, and let them all come out. And that's why now I can say, I'm going to do it differently. But like I say if I hadn't have came here, then I don't know what would have happened, but I'd have sealed my fate anyway, put it that way, I'd have sealed it.
254. Bob: Mmm, I say to people, and I hope this doesn't upset you, I say to people that you would have been a serial killer.
255. Alec: Yeah, yeah, and I believe that's true, there's no doubt about that.
So, a serial killer no longer. But look what exceptional circumstances were called for. First of all, a 100% expectation that change was something that could come about. Second, the provision of a supportive, trustworthy, consensual environment – not the easiest thing to achieve in a maximum security prison. And finally, long enough to break through the concrete barriers that Alec had felt he needed to erect around the hurts he had suffered all those years ago.
I met Alec some 15 years later, on a private visit – I was denied official access. We were alone in the visits room, and I gave him a hug. He had not killed since being in the Special Unit, and would never do so again. If I’d had a TV camera over my shoulder, we could have transformed penal policy. As it was, I wasn’t even allowed to take a pen and paper in with me.
So how does all this tie in with HAPPIER FAMILIES? How does it encourage stable, secure, confident, and therefore happier people in general. Well, the truth is, these blackholes are everywhere, once you can see them – too many people carry them around in their heads, unaware. And they have destructive strategies and schemes as a result, generally, which vary on a scale somewhere between David and Alec in severity – but they can be unthinking, and unthinkable nonetheless, without special aid. I plan future posts to punch this notion home further, illustrating it with other extreme examples from the many people I’ve worked with, who have taught me so much. See you next time? Thanks for reading.
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