Health: All of us have evil urges

Britain on the couch
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The Independent Culture
QUENTIN CRISP makes the following observation in his book The Naked Civil Servant: "Whenever people read in the papers that someone has purchased a machine-gun and mown down a whole neighbourhood, they invariably say, `I wonder what brought that on.' They even make such remarks when the subject is an American negro. To me, the motive is self-evident. Mass murderers are simply people who have had enough."

Sadly, there are powerful processes at work which encourage the media to peddle a different view: that violent men are evil.

Even the most liberal Home Secretary must do his best to influence citizens not to murder and rape each other. If there are rational reasons why a Fred West and a Myra Hindley behave as they do - childhood abuse, low- income parents - it is much harder to condemn them with emotional lowest common denominator adjectives and to exclaim that they must "take responsibility for their behaviour". For these reasons, all attempts - like that of Gitta Sereny in giving Mary Bell a platform - to portray the true causes of violence will encounter widespread hostility.

Over the years, I have interviewed about 150 violent men for television documentaries, and every programme has encountered massive impediments and criticism, as much from my fellow TV professionals as from the critics. The problem is that the more you hear about these men's childhoods, the harder it becomes to distinguish between them and troops firing their guns at the enemy in a war.

Take Henry Howard, an American who killed his mother, grandmother and uncle in a classic spree killing. When Henry was small, he told me, his mother believed she was our Queen Elizabeth, and randomly beat him. His uncle (who lived with them) believed the Second World War had not ended, and was prone to attack the Japanese-descended postman for this reason. He would also grab Henry from time to time and rub salt in his eyes, for no reason. His elder brother's idea of a joke was to wake Henry unexpectedly in the middle of the night with a torch under his chin and a meat cleaver in his hand.

Taken into care, aged eight, Henry was routinely beaten up by the other boys. Moved to another institution, he was locked up in a broom cupboard for days on end, and tortured by the staff. So it went on until, aged 16, he was delighted to be returned to the madhouse that was his family home, where his mental health gradually declined. Eventually, he spent all day listening to two radio channels, one of which was God's, the other the devil's. He made a pact with the latter to kill his whole family if he won the state lottery - which he promptly did (we checked that all these things really happened). Only after two months of agonising over what to do did he finally purchase an armoury of weapons, and kill his family.

I defy anyone who has witnessed Henry's story to call him evil, but the production team with whom I was working were most unsettled by this and dozens of similar stories. At first they accused me of putting words into the violent men's mouths. Then they claimed that the men had been primed by counsellors to make these kinds of "excuses". Finally, they began double- checking the stories to see whether they were true.

Only when they had passed through all these stages did they accept that they were hearing the true causes of violence. What unsettled them most was that their moralising had become unsustainable.

Of the many ways to interpret the widespread reluctance to acknowledge that violence breeds violence, I find the psychoanalytic view the most convincing: accepting that such ideas provide an "excuse" for acting in ways that we, more or less unconsciously, would also enjoy, it undermines the condemnation with which we defend ourselves against prohibited desires.

If Freud is to be believed, men particularly have powerful instinctive urges to act in highly antisocial ways. There can be few people who have never begun a sentence with the words, "I could murder...", when angered. Regarding sex crimes, there is abundant evidence that many men are attracted to juveniles, and to celluloid depictions of exotic sexual practices that put men in dominant positions.

While few men may long to act in precisely the way that Fred West did, there are more than a few potential Humbert Humberts (the paedophile in Lolita) out there, if the average age and looks of the "girls" on Page Three of the The Sun are any guide. It seems plausible that these themes of popular culture do reflect urges deep within men.

The greater the urges, the greater the battle to keep them under control, and this could explain the paradoxical nature of tabloid newspapers. On the one hand, they supply lurid tales of highly antisocial behaviour and pictures to match. On the other, they offer a condemnatory moral position.

They titillate, feed and legitimise the readers' antisocial urges, but they also shore up the moralising psychological defences that restrain them from being enacted.

It is of more than passing interest, in this connection, that Rupert Murdoch has recently taken up with a young woman following the collapse of his marriage.

The very man whose papers exulted most shamelessly in providing detailed accounts of the sexual activities of public figures, is now revealed as having the same impulses himself.

It may well be that the very people who read (and write) moralising tabloids are most at risk of committing the crimes about which they pontificate. It may also be a measure of the maturity of a society whether it resorts to pre-scientific concepts like evil to explain such urges.

The mature society would have to lock up paedophiles, and take severe measures to protect the population from psychopathic men, too. But it would do so because they pose a threat, not to punish them for the citizens' own repressed desires.

Oliver James's book, `Britain On The Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared With 1950 Despite Being Richer', is now available in paperback (Arrow, pounds 7.99)