- Murder in the Heart: A True Life Psychological Thriller by Alexandra Artley
Hamish Hamilton, 268 pp, £14.99, July 1993, ISBN 0 241 13150 2
In the spring of 1988, two sisters, both in their late thirties, took a shotgun from an upstairs room in their terraced house in Preston and murdered their father. Each fired a shot at point-blank range into his chest as he lay in their sitting-room incapacitated by an epileptic fit. They then wandered to where the whisky was kept, and sat drinking and weeping with their mother. Eventually, one of them telephoned the police, and said: ‘Someone has shot my husband in the head and I think he’s dead.’ It wasn’t clear to the police, when they arrived, which of the women had made the call and which was in fact the wife.
According to Alexandra Artley, June and Hilda Thompson ‘fully expected to go to prison for the rest of their lives’. They pleaded not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter, and received only a token punishment: two years’ imprisonment suspended for two years. The reason was the extraordinary violence and long years of sexual abuse they had suffered at the hands of their father, Tommy. Mr Justice Boreham conceded that the lives of the Thompson women had ‘been a form of torment’ and that they had taken their punishment ‘before the event’. One small indication of how right this was was the fact (according to one report) that the days spent on remand had been some of the happiest of their lives, and that among the previously inaccessible freedoms they were now looking forward to were reading magazines like Woman’s Own and having Shredded Wheat for breakfast.
Tommy Thompson would not have stood for either. He didn’t allow books into the house and he was the only one permitted to read the newspaper. (He would tell them anything they needed to know). He had a list of strict house rules, which included the perfect frying of his morning egg and the spreading of margarine quickly and efficiently in one direction only. Glasses had to be positioned exactly five inches from the edge of the table, and little fingers to be placed beneath them when they were lifted to be drunk from. Curtains had to be closed at the exact moment day turned into night – a moment so difficult to gauge that a seasonal timetable was developed and pinned up. Failure to carry out instructions was met with kicks or headbutts. ‘Bad behaviour’ (always punishable) included making a noise when being beaten or when being forced to watch one of the others (usually Mrs Thompson) being beaten.
Tommy was systematic in his violence and ingenious in his cruelty. The power to inflict pain appears to have fascinated him. He tortured a variety of pets – to see what happens when you drown a cat or gas a canary or leave a goldfish out of water. He bred rabbits so that he could spend an afternoon killing them. The sense of his own authority was vital to him. He wanted control of everything – from the cooking upwards – and he seems to have regarded his wife and daughters as possessions, to do as he liked with. When he discovered that Mrs Thompson was pregnant for a third time, he insisted on giving her an abortion. She lay on the kitchen table while he poked between her legs with a sharpened piece of green plastic clothes-line until, at the fifth attempt in three weeks, he dislodged the foetus. Then, when June was ten or eleven years old (she can’t remember exactly), Tommy took her to his potting shed and announced his intention to have sex with her: ‘Ye know I have sex with your Mam, June? ... Well, now I want it with you as well.’
Domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse are common. Ten per cent of adults interviewed by a Mori survey in 1985 reported being abused before the age of 16; a survey of female students conducted in the same year revealed that 54 per cent had suffered sexual abuse; and in 1986, 90 per cent of those replying to a BBC Childwatch questionnaire said they had been abused in childhood. Most abuse is hidden, and most stops during the victim’s adolescence. Tommy gave up trying to sleep with his younger daughter early on, but he slept with June, on average, twice a week, for some twenty years, indicating what he wanted with a jerk of the head or by locking his eyes onto hers while the family was watching television. He controlled her contraception, and made her go on the pill. They slept together for the last time only a few weeks before the murder, when she was 36 years old.
Why was Tommy like this? ‘I can’t just write a book about a child abuser saying he was an “evil man,” ’ Alexandra Artley writes. ‘These people don’t just spring out of the ground like dragon’s teeth. There has to be a reason for what he did.’ Did something terrible happen to him once? She strongly suspects that Tommy was himself abused, since ‘these men usually have been.’ But she can’t prove it, though he had a rough(ish) childhood in a poor part of Chorley, and his brother remembers him having his head smashed against the floorboards for some misdemeanour or other. His father was violent and alcoholic, went blind when Tommy was eight, and was then thrown out of the house by his mother. Tommy doesn’t seem to have thought much of the stepfather who replaced him, a mild and (to his eyes unacceptably) unmanly man. There was also an intense, jealous relationship with his domineering mother – a woman who at the age of 86 broke the bones in her hand simply by drumming it impatiently and for no particular reason against the arm of the sofa.
Tommy himself appears to have been in a permanent rage, made angry by anything, but especially by the chaos in his mother’s kitchen, where her laundry got in his way. His ideal was the Army, where all relationships were formalised and everything was organised, and when he grew up he tried to achieve a similar kind of order. One of the things that struck the police arriving at 193 Skeffington Road on the night of the murder was the clinical orderliness of the house. Arranged on ‘the ground floor almost entirely as an NHS hospital and on the upper as a military barracks’, it had one room set aside, like an army storeroom, for tins, tools and dried foods, and was posted with dozens of biro-written notices listing the pills and medicines the family was supposed to take (for epilepsy, backache, diabetes, toothache, skin disorders, contraception). Artley calls it ‘an eerie amateur museum of one small, ordinary family gone completely mad’. All bills, receipts, every bit of paper, had been kept. And many things were labelled: a notice on a soap dish read: ‘Started to use new soap dish (from “choice”) on 26.11.87. £3. 99).’ Another on a cupboard said ‘Budgies lose their feathers (moulting) in September.’ Tommy made his wife and daughters dress in identical red jackets like his own miniature platoon.
These are the kinds of details that the tabloid press made much of in 1988 (the Sun: ‘The Family They Called the Munsters’), and Artley is not entirely unappreciative of the papers’ accuracy in catching the ‘curious combination of high banality and low horror’ which characterised the Thompsons. Her approach is personal and sympathetic – though it is not without absurdities. Her ‘one reason’ for taking on the project was her own emotional turmoil at finding her thirties nearly over, and a peculiar identification with the Thompson sisters, who, being roughly the same age as she was, must (she felt) also ‘have been suddenly drawn into this emotional foundry in which the submerged child in us suddenly and resoundingly rises up to shape us for new maturity’. Artley rises up a lot in Murder in the Heart – often to inform us about such things as her casseroles and foreign holidays, her children’s ballet-lessons and packed lunches, the neighbour who comes in to plait their hair when she’s away, and her ‘spouse’s’ pleasure in having her back after a hard day in Preston.
There might be said to be a serious point to this, for the greater the contrast between Artley and her subjects, the easier it is for us to see how terrible their lives were; and her emotional up-frontness (anger and irritation either with Tommy, for what he did, or with Mrs Thompson, for allowing it to happen) sets off some of the psychological complexities of the situation she is describing. Artley is certainly not unaware of the fact that she is privileged (she makes a point of it), and is often anxious to put the Thompsons at their ease. But her prose seems to long to have something different to describe – something less violent, or less Northern perhaps – and is often horribly misjudged. It doesn’t seem appropriate to compare Tommy to a portrait by Ribera or to a character out of Balzac, nor to picture him on the post-mortem table as a whole poached salmon, nor to give us passages like this about Mrs Thompson’s early childhood:
As they paused before them for the first time that summer, some bluebells held the magic to make her heart loop in a kind of ecstasy. Bluebells give their colour to patches of sunlight and to semishade, but, holding her father’s hand as they plunged deeper into the bracken of Duxbury Woods, the little girl noted that as the green shade intensified, the moist live flowers turned an even deeper sapphire blue.
The Thompson women trusted Artley, however, and wanted her to know their story. They sent her their diaries and notebooks – on which most of this book is based – and spent two years talking to her, looking at old photographs and wandering around Preston trying to jog their damaged memories. They hope that their story ‘will be of use to others’. It’s clear that it was helpful to them to describe a life that they had been forced to keep secret for nearly forty years – a kind of exorcism, perhaps. ‘When the book’s finished – I’ll be free of him!’ Mrs Thompson told Artley.
Yet what this book makes plain is the extent to which Mrs Thompson was drawn into Tommy’s fiction that he was a model husband. On first meeting him she thought he had the most ‘romantic and warmly dark’ eyes she had ever seen. He promised to be a good husband to her, and to be the father and brother she had never had. She remembers her wedding day as ‘a lovely day ... a very happy day ... we were all so happy.’ Tommy always said he loved her; and when she was in hospital – for either the cancer of the mouth that she developed, or the injuries her husband had inflicted on her – he came to see her every day. The other patients thought she was a lucky woman. She wrote him love letters: ‘Dearest Sweetheart, It was so nice to hear your voice on the phone. You are a Big Love to phone me like that.’ Even June used to think ‘he was a funny old thing – not that bad really, in his own way. If he hadn’t have been that bad with us – always hitting and thumping us, a lot of this would be laughable.’
Mrs Thompson made one attempt to run away, though it was more or less at Tommy’s insistence – ‘if you’re in tomorrow night, ah’ll kill ye’ – and she didn’t get farther than her mother’s house, where Tommy came and fetched her back later in the afternoon and told her not to be so ‘daft’. In any case that was in 1954, when, Artley writes, ‘wife-beating was felt to be little more than an unpleasant fact of life among the “lower orders” in which the state could only perilously intervene.’ Assessing the annual crime figures for that year, a Scotland Yard official remarked: ‘There are only about twenty murders a year in London and not all are serious – some are just husbands killing their wives.’ The first refuge for battered women was not set up until 1964, and that was in Pasadena, a long way from Chorley, Lancashire, where Tommy’s mother had said: ‘Make your bed with him and you’ll lie on it.’ The question of sexual abuse didn’t begin to appear on social services surveys until it was ‘discovered’ in the Eighties.
Even so, Tommy didn’t want anyone to get suspicious, and one of his hardest tasks was controlling appearances. He made his wife and daughters pose for happy-looking family snaps (smiling grimly and with their arms around each other – some of the most forceful images in the book); and for 18 years he made June keep a daily ‘diary’ as a doctored record of events, and as proof of her happiness. On her 25th birthday, she wrote: ‘It was my birthday today ... I have everything that I could wish for.’ Keeping his family away from other people was imperative. The fact that the Thompsons moved house thirteen or fourteen times (partly as a result of Tommy’s obsession with DIY and with keeping life cheap) played a large part in their isolation. But as his daughters got older, the outside world was more threatening – other men in particular night have taken an interest in them. Tommy found this thought unbearable. He bought June and Hilda wedding rings so that nobody would get the idea they were available. And he threatened them all with a gun. Hilda wrote in her notebook:
Dad meant what he said ... If anybody got to know about what was going on in this house we were all Dead. Even if he had to go to prison, if anybody did find out, he would serve his time in prison & he would be all nice as though he had changed to a kind person. Then he would dedicate his life to finding us all (wherever we went) & kill us all.
June and Hilda learnt to balance their inner and outer lives, preserving apparently normal relations with the world beyond their front door. They also appear to have learned other strategies for surviving the life they were forced to live. Artley was struck, on first meeting them, by ‘their intense inner silence and emotional “invisibility”, as if they had no interior “swim” of feelings’. This, she discovered, was the ‘frozen watchfulness’ that victims of violence and abuse often acquire; never speaking unless spoken to, doing everything as quietly as possible so as not to irritate or attract attention – a way of staving off a beating.
But there are pressures on the long-term perpetrator of incest too: the fear of discovery, the weight of secrecy; and in the end it was Tommy who began to crack under the strain. He drank more and more – about a bottle of whisky a day. His possessiveness increased. He was frightened by his youngest daughter’s mental instability and by his own new epileptic illness, which meant that he could be thrown into unconsciousness without any warning and possibly for long periods of time. He became seriously depressed and said he longed to die, threatening to shoot them all and then kill himself.
Artley thinks that the more we understand about abusive behaviour, the more likely it is that we will be able to prevent it – and she has provided quite a full profile of a man who looked more or less ordinary to the outside world but who was ‘possibly the most successful male child abuser so far discovered in Britain’. She doesn’t ever learn what the damage to Tommy was, why it was that he had a horror of sleeping upstairs, for example, or why crying, in particular, sent him into a rage, or why he got extra tense in the presence of other men; but her book does testify to some appalling human wreckage. She finds Tommy venal, lazy, deluded and perverted, in addition to his more obvious defects. She also describes him as ‘a child in agony grown to manhood’, somehow ‘arrested around the age of seven or eight’, and it’s not at all hard to see his murder as an act of mercy, as June and Hilda say they felt it to be.
As far as Artley is concerned, Tommy’s murder was almost inevitable, only a matter of time. She doesn’t go into the question of ‘provocation’ for, presumably, she thinks it self-evident that the women were mightily provoked. The fact that June and Hilda waited until their thirties to shoot a man who hadn’t ‘ceased to brutalise them since birth’ makes them ‘strangely heroic’ in her eyes. So too, does their ‘goodness’ to each other and to their mother in the ‘appalling circumstances’ in which they lived. This, apparently, continues. Artley asked them about their future, but ‘the possibility of the sisters at some time leading separate lives seemed to be out of the question.’ The three now live on their own in a council maisonette half a mile up the road from where the murder was committed. Oddly (or not), they have once again set aside a room for ‘spare items’, and June still has the habit of labelling things in biro on white sticky paper.