Marina Warner writes about women who kill children
‘Snatched,’ said the Sun’s headline about the baby stolen three hours after her birth. This is the old word for what the feared raiders of the nursery, the child stealers, the cradle-snatchers, get up to. The Egyptians devised a special god of the lying-in room, the grotesque Bes, to protect women and babies. Bes was squat and ugly and poked out his tongue and his penis to repel intruders: he was a true scarecrow, and he saw off women who were childless, his myth implies, and filled with envy of the fortune that a new life brings. Lilith is the exemplary cradle-snatcher in Judaic legends; she was spurned by Adam when she refused to lie down underneath him to make love and was supplanted by the fertile Eve. Barren and spiteful, Lilith preyed on children; amulets, posies, charms and lullabies warded off her malign spells. The coral branch often worn by the child Jesus in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child is a survival of this pre-Christian Middle Eastern apotropaic magic. The mother in the judgment of Solomon, who steals another’s baby and claims it as her own, presented a threat whose recurrence in history has been neglected.
But legends do not distinguish this threat clearly from other crimes involving children: killing babies was the chief charge against witches, as detailed in the inquisitors’ how-to books, such as the Malleus Maleficarum, or in phantasmagoric representations of Sabbaths, by Goya among others. Accusations of child abuse draw on this fantastic repertory of acts and images. Infants were the witchhunters’ chief concern, but fairy tales widen the range of victims: in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the witch lures much older children to her cottage in order to cook them and eat them.
Beneath these particular figures of fear and danger lies the generic spectre of Death, who stalked children in times of high infant mortality. The trial of Louise Woodward and her initial conviction for the first-degree murder of Matthew Eappen reverberates with the atavistic confusion of all forms of child death, whether occurring by design, accident or injury, especially when a woman is involved. A large body of beliefs and fears about denatured women has been concealed from view behind a far more insistent object of terror, the male predator. From stalker to serial killer, child molester to cannibal, the figure of perverted male drive has influenced ideas about female sex crimes and child murder. In more familiar, and more recent, stories and beliefs, the bogeymen who raid cradles are almost always male, with sinister swagbags in which they stow their quarry. Local folklore in England associates these figures with moors. Conan Doyle, who drew on all kinds of sources, was alive to this when he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles. In Devon, Dewer the huntsman is said to ride with his pack of whist hounds. A man out walking one evening greeted him and asked him what sport he had had that day. Dewer replied heartily and tossed him a bag. When the man got home and opened it, expecting a nice piece of game, he found the body of his own child. There’s a trace of this type of legend in Jane Eyre’s first encounter with Mr Rochester, but here the predator’s quarry is a young woman and the episode has erotic overtones: the sound of his horse’s hooves reminds her of the Gytrash, a ‘north-of-England spirit’ from ‘one of Bessie’s tales’. This creature ‘haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travellers, as this horse was now coming upon me’.
That fatalities could be attributed to malignant fairies might even have helped to console the bereaved: the agent of suffering was out of reach, unlike Louise Woodward, and nobody was to blame. If the function of such superstitions had been consistently benevolent, all would be very simple; but belief in witchcraft or fairy possession could also lead to terrible reprisals, as it did in Salem. Hubert Butler’s magnificent, sombre essay, ‘The Eggman and the Fairies’, puts paid to any false hopes that a different idea of personal responsibility could lighten the present climate of suspicion and panic or the urge to finger culprits.
The fairies – or devils – that came for children were also perceived as seductive adults who charmed away young children (no longer infants) with gifts and blandishments. In the earliest Dutch autobiography by a woman (1695), Isabel de Moerloose recalls her parents warning that if she stayed out playing longer than she was allowed to, a man in a long black coat would come and put a ball in her mouth to choke her. The sexual anxiety behind this bogeyman is clear, but Moerloose comments that she and her friends thought that grown-ups made up such stories to frighten them into obedience. They experimented with putting a ball in their mouths and found that they could breathe through their noses.
Connections between the abduction and seduction of children arise very early: there are suggestions of illicit pleasures in the lure of the Pied Piper’s music – a story that dates back to the 13th century – and in Goethe’s poem ‘The Erlking’, which also draws on medieval sources. The eroticisation of the child-snatcher transforms these bogeymen into precursors of the paedophiles so deeply feared today. ‘You sweet child, come, come with me! We shall play lovely games together, there are flowers of many colours by the water’s edge, my mother has many garments of gold,’ the Erlking, or King of the Alders, calls out, luring his prey into the depths of the forest. The child riding with his father through the windy night immediately recognises the voice of the Erlking, and cries out. But his father reassures him: ‘In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind’ (‘It’s the wind rustling in the dry leaves’). Again the Erlking tries to entice the boy, and this time he invokes his female accomplices:
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.
(‘My daughters shall be your lovely attendants; every night my daughters dance a round dance, they will rock you and dance you and sing you to sleep.’) In the end, the Erlking takes the boy by force; the boy cries out, the father shivers and spurs on their horse. But when he reaches home, as in the story of Dewer the phantom rider, ‘in his arms the child lay dead’ (‘In seinen Armen das Kind war tot’).
In the poem, the conspirators, the female voices of seduction, appear all the more vicious precisely because they pervert the very character of maternal love and cherishing; and, since the legends have lost the memory of their motives, they are all the more incomprehensible. The older stories of the guardian god Bes, the she-devil Lilith and the judgment of Solomon cast women who place children at risk as figures whose maternal drive has been frustrated. The new demons of crimes against children still act in character as biological women, but they have disqualified themselves from the rank of mother, and from the category of woman altogether. A woman like Myra Hindley is seen to embody a violent sexuality that is more appropriate to the male than the female.
Myra Hindley’s face, as it appears in the famous mug-shot taken over thirty years ago, has become the peroxide icon of this unnatural species, the monster who, as in a medical cabinet, is held up as the aberration that defines, by inversion and excess, the lineaments of normality. Her stare strikes the beholder as stony, the eyes demonically intent, the mouth hard and cruel. This is the very picture of the Stranger to whom children must never speak.
The canting word for a sex offender in jail is ‘nonce’. Helena Kennedy, in her valiant book Eve Was Framed, tells of hearing a story from a woman client about another inmate at her prison, a foster parent who had killed babies in her care, cut them up into pieces, and sent the pieces in the post to their natural mothers. This murderer had been ostracised – worse, she had been ‘noncified’. She retreated to her cell and hung a sign on the door saying she had only killed one child.
Helena Kennedy had some difficulty identifying her: when she traced the case it turned out that, like Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, the woman in question had acted in collaboration with a man. Together, she and her husband had sexually assaulted young girls and boys, and killed a ten-year-old girl. She was sentenced to twenty years, which she has served: the trial took place in 1970. Her name is given by Helena Kennedy as Carol Hanson. Almost nobody has heard of her and few could recognise her face. ‘Nonce’ means ‘nothing’; noncification turns someone into nothing.
When I was young, my father, who was a great one for passing the time of day talking, fell into conversation with a man who came to deliver wine to our house in the country near Cambridge. He offered himself as an odd-job man, and became a familiar figure around the house and in the garden, doing jobs my father couldn’t manage, like clearing the climbing roses out of the gutters from the top of a ladder. On one occasion, this man, who was called Peter Cook, annoyed my mother by playfully pelting her with the prunings as she sat in a deckchair on the lawn below. He would often come to the house in the evenings, after work, when my sister was doing her homework and my parents were out – I was at boarding school and later at university, and so didn’t spend as much time with him.
He told my mother he wasn’t happily married, but she’s not the sort to gossip about such things and didn’t encourage his confidences. I came home one time to hear from my parents that Peter Cook had been arrested. He was the Cambridge rapist. He had terrorised the town for several years, assaulting young women in their rooms, sometimes at knifepoint, and later in his career, intoxicated by his own fame, in full leathers with a zipped mask inscribed ‘Rapist’. He pleaded guilty and the details of his crimes were never published; he was sent to Broadmoor, where he remains. My parents heard news of him now and then, including his request to be changed into a woman. This was refused, as such operations are the privilege of the free citizen. He, too, had become a nonce.
Myra Hindley has refused noncification. She did not plead guilty. She has served 31 years and has not retreated behind a closed door with a confession on it. Her champions have also contributed to her visibility, not least a Dutch criminologist who visited her in Durham and subsequently proclaimed her love of Myra Hindley and her plans for their future together. But Hindley is the main architect of her own public presence, through her tenacious campaign for parole, her newpaper articles, her public statements, her letters to the press, as well as her confession in 1987 to the murders of two more children. Her appetite for freedom speaks of a formidable energy. Another of the characteristics of bogeymen in folklore is that they spring back, irrepressibly, however hard you shut the door on them. (In the theatre version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ adapted by the poet Carol Ann Duffy, the witch simply would not stay in the oven. Finally, when Gretel slammed the door on her, the children in the audience screamed with relief, only to start squealing with thrilled horror again when a hand appeared between the floorboards, grabbing with long, hooked fingernails at the two heroes.)
It is possible that the extension of Myra Hindley’s sentence by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, will be deemed to contravene her human rights as defined by the European Convention that the Government is pledged to adopt as law. She may be released. Straw’s decision to reject her appeal for parole casts doubt on our continuing adherence to the principle that imprisonment not only punishes but also redeems the crime and rehabilitates the criminal. In the case of ‘nonces’, this principle has come under increasing pressure. The existence of a register of paedophiles testifies to the widespread conviction that these crimes are irredeemable, and that their perpetrators are psychologically destined to repeat their offence, which, though penalised by law, is generally regarded as an incurable disease – or evil.
Helena Kennedy writes of atrocious crimes such as Hindley’s that the public wishes to see justice done, even though public sentiment seems to be that people who commit acts of this kind are beyond justice: ‘There is a conflict between seeking an explanation for the inexplicable and an unwillingness to allow madness to become an excuse.’ Hindley continues to cause anxiety because she is not covered by either of the terms of this conflict: she has not explained or rationalised her actions, nor has she pleaded madness. Her repentance has not convinced many, partly because of the resoluteness of character she has shown, partly because in respect of child murder, no repentance can be enough. Or perhaps, no repentance is possible because the subject is thought to have disqualified herself from the human capacity to feel remorse. The allegory of Cruelty in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia, the Renaissance handbook for artists, shows a woman butchering a child. Hindley has converted to Catholicism, and it used to be a jibe among Reformers that Catholics could repent and put their deeds behind them. Many considering Hindley’s case find themselves closer to the Lutheran position that contrition, however deep and sincere, cannot undo the past sum of one’s actions.
There are other elements affecting the weather in these terrible streets. In the era of celebrity, a convicted criminal may forfeit a right that hasn’t been considered before: the right to control one’s representation, and, by extension, one’s symbolic rate of exchange in the currency of fame. The splitting of celebrities into person and symbol that routinely results from global fame reflects the social uses of icons – for promoting happiness, for inculcating ideals, for defining purity and danger, for containing fears. In short, some global icons are blazoned for their qualities, some vilified, both approaches defining common values.
Myra Hindley herself joined the protests against her portrait by Marcus Harvey in the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy. If the institution had yielded to the demonstrators, they would have acquiesced to Hindley’s wishes, too. The incidents provoked by the painting – the throwing of ink, the throwing of eggs, bought over the road at Fortnum’s, as well as the resignations from the RA of some very fine artists like Gillian Ayres – take their place in the history of iconoclasm and its shadow double, image-worship. Protestant scepticism about the power of pictures has been weakening for a long time, and a new Catholic confusion between image and reality has been in the ascendant, probably since the start of television. Blairism, Hello!, the Spice Girls and the hollow Millennium Dome belong to the realm of semblance, where appearance is all, and our senses are bewitched by mirages.
In spite of its maker’s silly and sex-starstruck remarks, Marcus Harvey’s portrait is a classic example of a pittura infamante – a painting intended to defame. The handprints of the child making up the features of that mutinous peroxide mug-shot of 1966 literally brand Hindley with her crimes. (Arcimboldo made a portrait of Herod’s face from the corpses of the holy innocents.) The image enters the argument and fixes the identity of its subject. Protesters were misled, I think, by its inclusion in the Royal Academy, taking this as an accolade in itself. The picture’s viewing conditions, with two guards on either side and a white line demarcating the area in front of it, like the scene of a crime, have served ostensibly to forestall further assaults, but they also incriminate in perpetuum the figure of Myra, as the picture is familiarly titled. Hindley may want to present herself as a changed person, a different woman, a stranger to her past self, but the pittura infamante, a piece of the machinery of fame, traps her in its fixed semblance. That Harvey chose a four-year-old – not an older child, the age of Hindley’s victims – to model the hands that stick to Myra’s face shows how strongly the myth of infanticide adheres to and distorts the memory of Hindley’s murders: this woman, the juxtaposition suggests, has contradicted the most fundamental biological laws by turning on the young whom she should have nurtured.
A recent Daily Mail headline announced that the lawyers for Princess Diana’s memorial fund are attempting to trademark her face: 26 photographs will be patented, as well as the designation ‘Diana, Princess of Wales’. This is taking place at a time when the tobacco companies are losing their access to representation, let alone control of their image. One of the rewards of virtue will be authority over one’s ‘privacy’ – above all, over one’s pictures and their dissemination. Alongside personal trainers and bodyguards, millennium celebrity will soon require personal paparazzi in attendance. Correspondingly, one of the penalties of vice has already become inescapable ill fame.
Fears tell us what we dread to lose. Child snatchers, child killers, sexual violators of the young horrify us at some deeper level even than the atrocities of recent civil wars. In his forthcoming book, The Beast in the Nursery,[*] Adam Phillips discusses the current pervasiveness of the myth that all our childhoods were a corner of paradise, now lost – but regained through children themselves. We want children to be happy on our behalf, we want them to guarantee the possibility of innocence and goodness, not only in their own conduct and desires, but also, crucially, in the desires and responses they inspire in others. So children’s physicality, their seductiveness, has become one of the most painful and recurrent issues of the day, with denials of erotic feelings on both sides accompanied by ever more accentuated sexualised representations of children’s beauty, appetites and even economic power. Paedophiles have become paramount bogeys because their practices both magnify and distort a wider cultural devotion that sanctifies the child, the condition of childhood and the state of childlikeness, infantilising all of us in the pursuit of an ideal humanity at the very same time as it fails to look after children’s interests. We will all be oh-so-carefree and ludic in the playground of the Millennium Dome, but how many playgroups, teachers, schools, hot dinners, bicycle lanes, pollution-free yards, traffic-free streets, libraries, street lights, buses, child-care hours will it house?
Owning up to widespread paedophilia does not, however, clarify the reasons for acts of extreme evil any more than arguing that all men are violent and all sex is rape throws any light on serial killing. It runs the risk of making these crimes banal, emptying them of their meaning, and of our responsibility to confront them in all their exceptional aspects and help prevent them, as we attempt imperfectly to do in the case of war crimes and political atrocities. It is much easier to follow the Hannah Arendt line and give up analysing such acts on the grounds that, in certain circumstances, anyone might – or even would – commit them. So, on the one hand, holding Myra Hindley at bay as ineluctably Other does not meet the question she poses, while, on the other, acknowledging that such a person might be our own darkest face fails to suffice.
Yet another psychological stratagem may be at work in the case of Myra Hindley and our rejection of her plea for liberty: the need to contain, not the risk she represents as an individual, but the danger she represents at the level of fantasy. Again, one of the penalties of her crimes may be that she cannot escape mythic status, can never be meaningless, never come to rest in anonymity.
Witches and other scapegoats were innocent of the child murders imputed to them. Christian anti-semitism in the late Middle Ages conjured terrors in the likeness of its own practices: as Michael Camille has discussed in The Gothic Idol, the supposed sacrileges of Jews and witches mimicked, in ghastly exaggeration, the mysteries of the Mass, the eucharistic miracle, and the living power of images. Legends often lingered with excitement on bleeding hosts and visions of the child Jesus in the Communion bread. The accusations of cannibalism against Jews and witches projected anxieties about this central sacrament of the Catholic religion, that the faithful ate the body of their god. By analogy, the victims of lynching at the time of the plantation system and later were often accused of sleeping with white women: the reverse of what was more frequently the case. Scapegoating functions in these instances as a violent expulsion of the most profound terrors of the community about its members’ own evil-doing – terrors grounded in fantasy. To show the emptiness of the fear, to identify its pernicious workings and put an end to them must be part of any system of justice.
In the case of Hindley and others who have tortured and murdered children and young people, ‘scapegoating’, with its implications of guiltlessness, is not the mot juste. But the continued incarceration of these bogeys drains some of the fear people feel about child abduction, sexual abuse and death; it is not so much that their seclusion helps us feel safe, more that the opposite would make us insecure. The evil Hindley represents she also serves to contain: among the reasons given for her continued imprisonment are her own safety as well as public order. If two guards are needed to police a mere painting, what protection would she need in person?
No individual should be subject to ‘justice by plebiscite’, in Jon Snow’s telling phrase, nor indeed to threat of public lynching. But the law in the media age is not above symbolism and, increasingly, in the new enthusiasm for image worship, its gears mesh with public and private myth-making: these are times of wayside shrines, propitiatory offerings to unquiet ghosts raised up by sudden death. Princess Diana has been introduced into Neapolitan Christmas cribs in figurine form, a witness to the Nativity, with Mother Teresa in attendance on her. Louise Woodward and Myra Hindley, in different ways, revive the nightmare of the infanticidal witches of the past, and the means to control the threat they present are not much less magical: like a witch in an ordeal by water, Louise Woodward sank long enough to be cried innocent by the crowd, but Myra Hindley has not convinced the public that she has atoned. In neither case is this a desirable conduct of justice.
So what is to be done? What prophylactics are there against ‘the plague of fantasies’ (Slavoj Zizek’s borrowing from Petrarch to describe our present state)? Discriminating between the type and degree of crimes against children seems callous towards their victims: yet the present broadness of the term ‘paedophile’ forecloses possible routes to remedies. The word itself is gravely misleading, offering perpetrators the excuse that they act out of love of children. The many different acts of abduction and seduction, the complexities of same-sex and other relationships both within and outside families, and across age groups, the pathology of the various conditions, all need close thinking in order for noncification – that annulment of persons and thought – to come to an end.
[*] Faber, 144 pp., £14.99, 16 February 1998, 0 571 19266 1.