A special kind of evil

Myra Hindley stands as the embodiment of female evil. Will Rose West take her place? Helen Birch explores the parallels between their cases
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The Independent Online
First there was Myra. Now there is Rosemary. Although nearly 30 years separates the Moors Murders from the horrific events at Cromwell Street in Gloucester, the parallels between the cases are uncanny.

In 1966 at Chester Assizes, where Myra Hindley and Ian Brady were convicted of two and three murders respectively, the jury heard how the couple would go out cruising in their car for victims, with Hindley as the lure. Children, they reasoned, were more likely to trust a woman than a man. Hindley and Brady shared the same obsessions - literature on sadism and masochism, a fascination with fascist philosophy and Nazi Germany.

The court in Winchester where Rose West was tried had heard how Rosemary and Fred West used to go out cruising as well. Fred liked young women, ideally runaways who had "nowhere to go". The pair were heavily into sadism: they used whips, rubber suits and masks as props when they sexually assaulted their victims.

At Chester, the court heard a 16-minute tape of Lesley Ann Downey being tortured before they killed her and buried her on Saddleworth Moor. On it, Hindley is heard by turns cajoling, soothing and threatening the terrified 10-year old. At Winchester Crown Court, survivors of assaults at Cromwell Street have told of being sexually abused by both Rosemary and Fred West, describing in graphic detail how Rosemary could be both "motherly" and brutal, "like Jekyll and Hyde".

Since her conviction Hindley has come to embody the image of female evil, in large part thanks to that famous photograph of her taken just after her arrest, staring blankly into the camera from beneath her peroxide blonde helmet. With Rosemary's conviction, could it be that the image of a dumpy, 41-year-old motherly-looking woman in oversize glasses and a cardigan takes the place of Hindley's fatal blonde as the modern archetype of womanhood gone bad?

It took the jury three days to find Rosemary West guilty of 10 murders of women and young girls, including her eldest daughter, Heather, 16, her step-daughter Charmaine, eight, and her husband's lover Shirley Robinson, who was 18 at the time and eight-and-a-half months pregnant. It seems likely that West, like Hindley, will spend the rest of her life in prison.

For 21 years Hindley insisted that she took no part in the killings. It was only in 1987 that she confessed to her involvement in two more murders, those of Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett. Rosemary, too, has protested her innocence, and her defence, no doubt carefully rehearsed, is a bizarre echo of Hindley's own later "explanation" of her actions: that she was young, working class, uneducated and naive, in the hands of an older, dominating man. She was afraid of what Fred might do to her if she attempted to leave.

Brady and Fred West had other things in common. Since his incarceration, Brady has confessed that he had killed before he met Hindley; West, it is thought, murdered his first wife, Catherine, and a young woman, Anne McFall, in the years before he met Rosemary. Both Brady and West have in different ways left their female accomplices to carry the can.

In 1985, after a long period of illness, Brady was diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia and was transferred from Gartree prison to Park Lane psychiatric hospital. He had, as Lesley Ann Downey's mother, Anne West, remarked, "at least the decency to go mad". Madness has conferred on Brady a kind of dishonourable discharge; since then, attention has focused even more sharply on Hindley.

On New Year's Day, 1995, Fred West hanged himself in Winson Green jail, an act that was widely interpreted as an expression of remorse. In neither case has there been any suggestion that either Hindley or Rosemary West is insane: their sanity makes them all the more culpable.

Women do not often kill. Even more rarely do they kill repeatedly. The number of known female multiple killers in Britain can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Of all the suspects in homicides recorded in England and Wales between 1983 and 1990, only 14 per cent were women. Of these, the vast majority were domestic killings, in which a woman killed her husband or lover, followed, not far behind, by the killing of children. Women, like men, usually kill people they know. Yet precisely because they are such a statistical rarity, cases in which women kill - from Sara Thornton, to Susan Christie (see below) and Myra Hindley - seem far more complex and shocking than those involving men. Male violence, is, after all, old news.

There is still (in the courts, too) a prevailing belief that unless her actions can be accounted for by "women's problems" - post-natal depression, battered women's syndrome, pre-menstrual syndrome - or by reference to one of the old scripts (woman scorned, for example) it is somehow worse for a woman to kill than it is for a man. Men are expected to be violent; women are not. If Hindley and West are not insane, had no obvious motivation, what are they? Manipulative, devious, liars? Monsters? Evil?

Our national obsession with Hindley, which has become one of the longest- running stories in the history of British journalism, suggests that she carries an enormous symbolic weight, which far exceeds the terrible crimes. That famous photograph of Hindley, taken at the time of her arrest, has acquired the status of myth. The stony gaze of Britain's longest- serving (and never to be released) woman prisoner arouses fear, hatred and fascination. There is no comparable, no such resonant image of a male serial killer: not of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, or Dennis Nilsen, who killed single men at his house in north London. Not Graham Ireland, who preyed on gay men, nor Jeremy Bamber, who shot his family.

The passions excited by the Hindley case do not abate because we have invested her with such moral significance. Each time the press returns to the Hindley case, which it has done every year, controversy inevitably follows. If it is suggested that Hindley has recanted, confessed, changed, we confront that mythic image of evil. That myth tells us that Hindley is evil by nature (why else would a woman do what she did?) and so she cannot have really changed; she is pulling the wool over our eyes. We are trapped with the symbolism of Hindley as uniquely evil in part because such high standards of empathy, compassion and moral worth are demanded of women.

Call it maternal instinct, a nurturing impulse, an urge to protect, or argue simply that because women are biologically designed to give birth, but to most of us it is all the more horrifying when a woman takes a life away. Hindley, like Rosemary West, has betrayed all the expectations of how her sex is meant to behave. Rosemary West's sexual appetites were all part of this. This was a woman who liked sleeping with the women who passed through her house as often as she did with men. Stories of Myra Hindley's "lesbian sex romps" in prison have peppered the tabloids for years. The press will not hesitate to forge a connection between Rosemary West's "deviant" sexual tastes and the murders she committed.

That will be the symbolic significance of Rosemary West: she could become the new standard by which female evil is judged. But are we right to suggest that as a woman and as a mother, her crimes are somehow worse than those of her husband, a father who killed two of his own children?

Fred West's suicide means that we shall never know the whole truth. There will just be one enigmatic side of the story, and we will return to pick over the bones of her defence again and again. Multiple killers fascinate us: they are the extremes by which we measure the boundaries of our own humanity. We call them evil because that is the only word we have to distinguish them from ourselves, because their actions seem off the scale of human understanding. Rosemary West will be expelled from society. Yet she will occupy a central place within our culture. She will become a fixed point in our moral universe, like Hindley, a poisoned pole star.