REVOLTING INSOUCIANCE OR GENUINE AMNESIA?
Prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple
investigates the way in which murderers and violent criminals live happily with their consciences
`AT TIMES I've felt like a battered hus- band . ,' wrote O.J. Simpson, the Ameri- can football star now on trial for murder, in his pseudo-suicide note addressed to the fatuously adoring American public. It was a revealing, if somewhat ironic, choice of words considering his history: for whatever the outcome of his trial he remains without question a vicious wife-beater, of the kind I meet (alas) every day of the week. Were it not for his celebrity, his story would be utterly banal.
What exactly did he mean by implying that he was a victim of the very kind of crime he com- mitted? Could he really have believed anything so preposter- ous?
The human mind is a subtle mechanism, as often as not devoted to the concealment of truth as to its discovery. The principal (though by no means the only) target of its obfusca- tions is itself: for which of us does not construct a moral alibi for ourselves whenever we have done something we know to be wrong? How quick the mind is then to discover and invent excuses! A thousand extenuat- ing circumstances appear to us at once, unsuspected until the very moment when we realise that we have erred, crowding in on us apparently unbidden. We may even succeed in persuad- ing ourselves that we are the wronged party. But the differ- ence between us and the psy- chopath is that at the back of our minds (almost literally), burrowing like an insect through our skull, is the thought that we are lying to ourselves, that we knew per- fectly well that what we were doing was wrong, but that we went ahead and did it anyway.
Nowhere is the tendency to self-decep- tion greater than among those who have committed violent crimes, especially mur- der. Lack of formal intelligence is no impediment to the most agile of rationali- sations, just as intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against the crudest of denials. Outright denial of homicide, at least in the face of overwhelming evidence, is com- paratively rare: the dispute is usually over the meaning and significance of the deed. Was there provocation, was it self-defence, were there extenuating circumstances? Nevertheless, total denial of the deed occurs from time to time; and it would be surprising if, in the light of recent well-pub- licised miscarriages of justice, the worm of doubt as to the convicted person's guilt did not enter the mind of even the least credu- lous interlocutor. I often don't know what, or whom, to believe; at least for a time.
In this connection, I recall a man accused both of rape and murder, of two different victims. He admitted the former but denied the latter crime, and entered my room in a state of indignant rage.
The police,' he said, 'are trying to pin a murder on me, but I'm not a murderer. They're just saving their own skin. They're trying to ruin my reputation. I'm not a murderer.'
His impersonation of innocence was cer- tainly a good one. In another context — for example, the stage — it might even have been considered superb. I was inclined to believe him.
`But you are a rapist,' I said, trying to divert his mind from what he had not done to what he had.
He looked at me with puzzlement.
`Well, yeah,' he answered, as if to say: So what? What's that got to do with it?
`Rape is a serious crime, you know,' I continued.
He looked genuinely puzzled. I repeated that rape was a seri- ous crime.
`I was nice to her,' he said.
I shall return in a moment to the ways in which violent crimi- nals minimise the gravity of what they have done; but for all this rapist's revolting insou- ciance about his admitted vio- lation, his denial of the murder retained its dramatic force. If any protestation of innocence was genuine, his was.
Sometimes, of course, it is easier to decide whether there is any substance to a man's denial of guilt. Another murderer came back from court having been sen- tenced to life imprisonment. A period of depression is, of course, to be expected after such a sentence, but this man was angry, not depressed. He was red with rage.
`That wasn't justice,' he said. 'It was a kangaroo court.'
`Oh,' I said.
`They didn't listen to me. They didn't call no medical evidence.'
`About what?' I asked.
`What she died of.'
`And what did she die of?'
`How did she get the haemorrhage, then?' I asked.
`They pulled the knife out.'
Denial of the crime sometimes lasts much longer than the weeks or months of remand, however. Two men convicted of murder stoutly maintained their innocence to me and everyone else for many years; so stoutly, in fact, that the prison officers, who do not lightly bestow the benefit of the doubt upon anybody (to put it no stronger), began to believe them.
I saw these murderers once a year, to comply with the bureaucratic regulations regarding life prisoners, and much to my surprise both eventually confessed their guilt during their eighth year of imprison- ment. This change of heart I naturally attributed to my formidable moral influ- ence; until, that is, a more experienced man than I pointed out that lifers usually become eligible for parole for the first time after eight years, and that unless they acknowledge their crimes and express remorse (a concept which does not merit an entry in the index of the two British textbooks of forensic psychiatry, which run between them to 2,432 pages and weigh 121bs) they will never be granted parole.
Were these men innocent, but willing at last to make an accommodation with the power which had done them such terrible injustice in order to secure their release? Or were they guilty, in which case their `remorse' was no more to be trusted than their prolonged protestations of inno- cence? Perhaps it only matters to the psy- chologist and the researcher into human nature who is obliged, after all, to fish in murky waters; for no crime is less likely to be repeated than murder, providing it is of the usual domestic variety.
Denial blends unobtrusively into amne- sia. Memory is a faculty which is effortless- ly subject to a great deal of censorship, and no two witnesses of a scene remember it in precisely the same way, especially if the scene involves one of them in an act of vio- lence. About a third of murderers cannot recall with any clarity their homicidal deed, and, in general, the worse the crime and its consequences (both moral and penal), the vaguer the memory for it. This is a natural enough psychological defence mechanism against the horror of what they have done, but sometimes it is motivated by the mis- taken belief that a man who cannot remember what he has done cannot be tried for it. I recall the fury of an alleged rapist who climbed into a woman's bed after a few drinks and a joint of marijuana whom I pronounced fit for trial.
`How can you expect me to defend myself when I can't remember nothing?' he asked me menacingly.
`You could put it another way,' I replied. `If you can't remember anything, you're not in a strong position to deny the charges.'
He was unimpressed by this argument (the evidence against him was incontrovert- ible), and his amnesia allowed him to believe, even after his conviction, that he was the victim of gross injustice. He did not proclaim his innocence, about which he remained admirably agnostic and open- minded, only that he had never been in a fit psychological state for trial, and there- fore that he should never have been tried in the first place.
In amnesia's house are many mansions, one of which is the distortion of memory in the direction desired, indeed required, by self-esteem. Very frequently the man who has committed an act of violence remem- bers only a slight contretemps, a disagree- ment which admittedly ended in a scuffle, but which was nothing serious. He doesn't really understand what all the fuss is about.
`I gave him a slight tap on the head, that's all,' said one man brought m on a charge of murder. The pathologist's report described a fragmented and stoved-in skull, which had received a crushing blow from a blunt instrument. 'It couldn't've been me,' he said. 'It must've been someone else. I only gave him a tap on the head. They're trying to frame me.'
How many times have I heard a man confess to giving his wife a bit of a push, or to lightly slapping her face (as she deserved), only to hear from her that he had her round the throat and throttled her until she thought she was going to die? How many times have I heard 'We've had our ups and downs like everyone else', only to learn that the downs consisted of bruises and broken bones, teeth knocked out and eardrums perforated with fists? Last week I met a man who had held his wife's head under the water in the bath, and refused to acknowledge that she might have taken the episode seriously, especially as he had beat- en her regularly for ten years. Couldn't she just accept that he intended it as a request (half in jest) that she change her ways?
There are further means by which mur- derers and other violent criminals diminish the significance of what they have done. A man who killed a woman after he raped her said to me, 'I went a little bit too far.' Did he mean by this that the rape was acceptable, and it was just bad luck that the pressure on her neck killed her? I think he did: bad luck often strikes such murderers. They walk about with a knife and then someone perversely comes and impales himself upon it.
The passage of time also diminishes the significance of what the murderer has done. A man who threw his neighbour's baby on the fire and burnt it to death asked me 14 years after the crime whether he could seriously be expected to express much regret or other feeling for something which had happened so long ago. Was I consumed with guilt for the wrongs I had committed back then, he asked me? And if I wasn't, why should he be?
My reply that I had done nothing as heinous as he did not satisfy him. For the difference between us was one of degree, not of kind, and, he continued, could I guarantee that my customary restraint, which prevented me from committing terrible offences, would never under any circumstances lead me to behave as he had behaved? I could give him no such guarantee.
Still, I feel instinctively that an appropri- ate degree of remorse is a necessary condi- tion of the rehabilitation of a murderer (too great a degree of remorse turns into its opposite, into self-indulgence and grandiosity). I might, of course, be wrong: after all, the vast majority of murderers released from prison never kill again, and the remorse they each express, upon which their release is at least partly contingent, is unlikely always to be genuine.
Remorse is impossible without an acknowledgment of what one has done; not merely an acknowledgment of the actus reus, but of the mens rea also. Even this is insufficient: one must realise (and not only intellectually) the impact on the lives of others of what one has done. For this, the cultivation and training of the imagination is necessary, and why the study of literature and history is of more than merely orna- mental worth. Most of the young people I meet can't name a writer, and don't know the dates of the second world war.
Murderers and their deeds raise acutely the fundamental moral and psychological questions of our existence, which is why there are so many murders in literature. The proper study of mankind is murder.