True crime is a genre that is read mainly by women. It has been suggested that women are more interested in psychology generally, and therefore the mysteries of the psychopathic mind specifically, than men. This offers me a degree of comfort; it's a nice statistic I can pull out when I want to justify what I'm sure some of my friends think is an unhealthy interest.
I have at times considered studying for a graduate degree in criminology, not because I desire a change of career, but because I want to justify my morbidity to myself and to the world. But of course this would achieve nothing of the sort; it would be a sticking plaster of respectability on a wound that needs disinfecting. That sounds a bit over the top, but I do wonder about myself. When people talk about the Dunblane Massacre I talk about Thomas Hamilton. When people talk about the Moors Murderers I can remember the address at which they committed their crimes (16 Wardle Brook Avenue). I know the names of all the victims. I have eight books about Fred and Rosemary West, three books on The Yorkshire Ripper and have read countless other accounts of hundreds of sordid and degraded crimes. Why? What has this done for me? What have I learned? The most useful outcome, pro bono, is perhaps that I have written some good lyrics about it, but I've also written some really bad ones too. When there are genre-defying works like Gordon Burn's Happy Like Murderers it is extremely doubtful whether much else of value is left to be said about such people as the Wests. But still my interest persists, still I buy and read books about horrible, horrible crimes, and still I'm not entirely convinced that pure intellectual curiosity is a sufficient, and sufficiently noble explanation for wallowing in this uncleanness. I've learned a lot, but it's hardly been a slog; there are no intellectual gymnastics required to understand what is going on. Psychopaths are not the exotic enigmas that people like to buy and sell them as. They are statistically unusual, but given the sheer amount of humans on the planet, their acts are also not uncommon. Like other kinds of human violence and degradation, their motivations are based in selfishness and obsession that has always been with us, and so if their behaviours didn't have terrible effects they would be considered routine and tedious.
So it may be surprising to hear that I found the Guardian's recent coverage of Ian Brady distasteful. On the 25th June 2013 we were invited to follow the proceedings of The Ian Brady Mental Health Tribunal In Live Tweets from the court by Helen Pidd. Something about this didn't sit right with me, and I wasn't quite sure why, and I've spent a while thinking about it.
Tweeting feels to me an inherently whimsical and often flippant activity. One of its worst aspects is the tendency for people to use it to validate their involvement in an activity while it is happening, and in doing so, inadvertently devalue it. Many people are sincere when they tweet that they are enjoying gigs, but clearly they enjoy even more their ability to tell everyone so. For such people real-time social networking status updates have become a way of verifying their existence and enjoying immediate validation from others. I exist. I am here, now, and others know it. Events cannot reliably be known to have taken place, and cannot have any integral value, unless they are simultaneously reported upon and that reportage commented upon. The circle must be completed immediately or the event vanishes. And then it abruptly vanishes anyway, replaced by a new event requiring validation.
The excitable tone and the inherent disposability and fleeting, transient nature of twitter feeds feels inappropriate for coverage of such events. We would have learned no less had Helen Pidd filed a report for the newspaper at the end of each day after some careful reflection, rather than tweeting mid-session. Perhaps this was felt to be the cutting-edge reportage format for an event of huge public interest. If so, a gauge of how much this level of coverage misjudged the public mood is the half-emptiness of the public gallery.
One thing that has come from my 'studies' of psychopaths is the knowledge that no matter how much time we spend on the subject, we will never be as interested in them quite as much as they are in themselves. The one thing we can be sure of is that Ian Brady, a vain, boastful, and laughably pseudo-intellectual name dropper, craves power and control, and this kind of publicity is exactly what he wants. Brady says he wants to be transferred to a normal prison so he can be allowed to die. But his forced-feeding regime was shown to be nothing of the sort; it is a prop. We cannot know whether he wants to die or not; but we do know he is motivated by power, and whatever choices he makes are done with this in mind.
The only power he has over the world ultimately resides in the possibility that he knows where Keith Bennett's body is, a possibility that he guards jealously and gloatingly. Everything else surrounding that is theatrics, little power-plays where he casts himself as the rebel against the system, the loner among the unthinking masses, the intellectual in a confederacy of dunces. His hunger-strikes, his petitions, his hints of knowledge of the burial site, released at precisely the points when he senses people have lost interest in him, these are transparent attempts at coercion, and we would do well to realise that.
It is a glum enough prospect that necessary coverage of these events give him the oxygen of publicity. But communicating it through real-time tweets felt a bit “Brady hunger strike? LOL!”