Last year I began an extraordinary correspondence with one of the UK’s most notorious psychopaths. I’m glad it’s over – but it offered a unique view into the mind of a murderer.
What makes a psychopath? Why do psychopaths act the way they do? Is it really possible to understand the psychology of a psychopath?
The BBC science strand Horizon, of which I’m editor, has a hard-earned reputation for its uncompromising scientific journalism. So I took the decision to write letters to a number of Britain’s most notorious psychopaths and serial killers to see if we could – theoretically, at least – hear first-hand what they thought had motivated them to commit their evil crimes.
I got just one response. From Moors Murderer Ian Brady.
It’s an extremely strange sensation to hold a handwritten letter from such a wicked man. Scrawled on half a sheet of lined, torn A4 paper, it began “Thanks for your interesting letter”. It wasn’t until the writer mentioned the book he had written (The Gates of Janus: Serial Killing and Its Analysis) that I realised who the letter was actually from. I saw the signature and froze.
Should I respond? Would Brady really offer any insight? Horizon makes films of record, a snapshot of the scientific understanding of the world around us, however uncomfortable. So yes, I responded.
One trait that seems to be ubiquitous with psychopaths is narcissism. So I wrote back to Brady, explaining that I had read The Gates of Janus when it was first published in 2001 (which was true) and that there were questions I had about some of the ideas contained in it, notably Brady’s thoughts on morality.
In his book he states that while “morality and legality are decided chiefly by the prevailing class”, he prefers “individual systems of principles rather than a collective set of precepts largely impossible to quantify or enforce”. I wanted to discover what his principles were.
Brady refused my request for a filmed interview, but he did write back. He described his time in prison and some of his experiences. It became clear very early on that Brady treated all authority with contempt.
He wrote about what a fantastic chess player he was, the prizes he’d won with his oil paintings, how many books he’d read, and the 20 years he’d spent translating books into Braille for schools (until the authorities at Ashworth Hospital stopped it). Yet not once did he mention the children he’d murdered and the lives of the families he’d shattered.
In total I received five letters from Brady. I also, chillingly, received a Christmas card. I found the whole experience deeply disturbing.
I understand that some critics will say that engaging with Brady served only to boost his warped sense of self-importance, but I felt it was important to hear first-hand how he actually thought. Even his prevarication and evasion provide some insight. Current research suggests that the environment anyone with psychopathic tendencies is brought up in can affect their later behaviour. This may not be surprising, but that shouldn’t dilute its importance.
It is estimated that somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 psychopaths live in Britain today. The vast majority of them never commit a crime, so perhaps the label “psychopath” isn’t sufficiently precise. As a society we have to examine how we identify, and even treat, dangerous psychopaths in the future. For some – like Moors Murderer Ian Brady – our only option will probably be to lock them away for ever.
By Steve Crabtree
Horizon: What Makes a Psychopath? is on Tuesday 29 August at 9pm on BBC2