Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Ipswich Murders

Serial killings are invariably opaque affairs. Even when - if - the killer is found, we are left unsatisfied. As at the end of Hitchcock's Psycho, the proffered psychological explanations are never quite big enough to fit the facts. The only honest thing to say about the murder of five prostitutes in Ipswich is nothing. Like a black hole, the object itself lies beyond our categories and all we can discuss are its observable effects. And so the killings have become a neutral zone, a blank sheet on which people, unconsciously, write their autobiographies. The Telegraph leader, for example, notes the poignancy of such events happening in the midst of the English rural idyll, in villages with names like Copdock Mill, Hintlesham and Nacton. In The Times Alice Miles says its makes the case for legalised prostitution clear. Does it? In the Guardian Julie Bindel constructs a rather complex feminist case. The serious intent of this is somewhat undercut by the online Guardian's astoundingly tasteless and depressing interactive guide, as if already coachloads of ghoulish onlookers were setting out to tour the sites where the bodies were found. But something has to be said and so, baffled, we talk earnestly about ourselves. The truth is that serial killings say nothing, nothing, at least, that we did not already know.

14 comments:

  1. Super writing. Could not agree more. The work of tortured and sick souls can be commented upon, but nver understood.

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  2. Thanks, Slicker, perhaps we need a metaphysic of evil to save us from our navel-gazing.

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  3. I admit that I had been thinking something like this myself until I had seen the last few days of Sky News’s coverage. I’m a bit too young to remember the last example of a serial killing, but now that I’ve seen the media at work, I’m beginning to wonder why they don’t occur more often. There is a frightening symbiosis at work there.

    I wonder too about the end of Psycho. Much like Thomas Harris’ writing the early life of Lecter, doesn’t it reduce horrendous acts so they become the effect of relatively simple cause? And isn't this what is so horrifying? It is the reverse of ‘imagination’ as a creative force. Both come from within us and are not 'gifted' by the Gods, either good or malevolent. We as viewers, voyeurs, consumers of news, perhaps raise horrific acts to this ‘unknowable’ status simply as a defence mechanism. We cannot live with the horrible truth and like Marlow at the heart of his darkness, we have a choice of living with either a horrendous truth or a more palatable falsehood. Much as a love Psycho, the film that really frightens me is the one Hitchcock made in London towards the end of this life. Frenzy is a much darker version of Psycho because it makes horrendous things seem so ordinary and ordinary things truly grotesque.

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  4. David B.-- great comment, and I agree with you about "Frenzy."

    Our paper has been covering a serial killer in Atlantic City these last few weeks. Four prostitutes were found "arranged" face down in a ditch a couple of weeks ago. The only surprise seems to be that there hasn't been a serial killer here before. It's a perfect place for one: Women willing to hop into a car with any stranger for enough dough to get a hit of crack. Imagine if any of our daughters did that.... We would be terrified out of our minds.

    A.C. is such a strange place, anyway, with its casinos, its almost unbearable mix of hope and despair. I call it "Sodom and Gomorrah on the Sea," and that's how it looks when you drive to it from Philly -- a neon dream (or nightmare) rising up from the marshy flatlands, a destination at the end of a highway.

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  5. A metaphysic of evil? Two suggestions: Alan Moore has direct relevance to this; also Susan Neiman has much to say.

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  6. Not sure I agree that we can't understand such acts, Cityunslicker. Just because an act is abhorrent to us or so far outside the realms of what is acceptable, doesn't necessarily mean we cannot discern some rationality and motive behind it and thus understand it. Admittedly, the rationale may be internal to the actor and not immediately obvious, but it is there. Motivation is a very complex area. Very rarely do we do anything for one simple reason. I am quite certain I will never go on a homicidal rampage, but I cannot rule it out entirely. The potential is in us all. As for evil, it doesn't exist.

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  7. Neil, in what sense does evil not exist? Presumably this can only make sense in that no action is evil. Not a position that one would imagine taking from inside Aushwitz, for example. It is merely our desire for reality to conform to some theory that can enable us to pretend evil does not exist. If actions can be evil, then evil exists. One could perhaps claim that there is no morality and all actions are essentially the same. To my knowledge the position of Sartre, and very likely the necessary position of any atheist if they are to be wholly loyal to the logic of their position. A view that needless to say seees nothing wrong with Auschwitz due to good and evil being figments of the imagination. Presumably being Irish, you are familiar with the different feeling from English towards reality inherent within the language such as when one uses a phrase such as "Ta bron orm"(accent on a in Ta, and o in bron), meaning sadness is upon me. Sadness or evil being states one enters into, rather than the more possessive and egocentric approach to being that is inherent to the English language. Good, bad, divine, diabolical etc are the arena which is life, and we have enormous freedom to gravitate towards either pole.

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  8. Andrew, are you a priest? I've been trying to figure it out for a month.

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  9. Certainly no priest, Susan. I think my points are all very obvious. I simply don't see how people can admit the existence of the spiritual though, and simultaneously imagine life somehow lies outside this reality. Just an exercise in schizophrenia. Though my sense of spiritual is perhaps best exemplified by Tomorrow Never Knows by The Beatles, which includes Ringo's magnificent drumming mentioned elsewhere.

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  10. I should have known, Andrew, that you would pounce on my assertion concerning evil. It was foolish of me to leave it like that, tagged onto the end of my comment, its arse out the window, inviting attack, but my wife was on my case and I had to finish up quickly. Look, it's like this: when the word evil is used by someone it elicits in me some kind of Pavlovian response and I cry foul. I don't like the word or what it stands for. It seems to intimate some abominable thing that exists in the world independently; a malevolent, insubstantial force, whirling about in the ether, that every now and then enters into human affairs and wreaks havoc. Good and evil seem to be treated as other than merely value judgements, like any others, but rather as aspects of the objective world. To be honest, it is also the religious connotations that perturb me. You state that if actions can be evil, then evil exists. This smacks of what I have just alluded to. Why not (forgive the tautology): if actions can be evil, actions can be evil. Dear, oh dear, I'm going down a silly road now. I'm not going to engage in some philosophical debate over it. I've forgotten most of the philosophy I've read and wouldn't have the ammunition you have at your disposal. You get my basic point, I hope.

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  11. If we had a rigorous underlying theory of human psychology, then we could obtain an understanding of serial killers as one particular model of this theory. Sadly, psychology is not a proper science. Psychology is incapable of making non-trivial and reliable predictions about human behaviour, and predictive capability is the distinguishing characteristic of a science. Psychologists are, perforce, restricted to concocting post-hoc explanations of behaviour which has already taken place.

    Some good points have been made above about the media jamboree associated with these serial killings. Most journalists have only just got over the excitement of the Litvinenko case, and now this! The pack descends on Ipswich, asking residents whether they feel safe to walk alone at night; raising 'ishoos' over prostitution; asking prostitutes why they do what they do, and how they cope with the risks, etc etc. All textbook stuff.

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  12. Actually, there's a fair amount known about serial killers. I almost reviewed a book by a psychologist/serial killer profiler who had interviewed many of the worst offenders (John Wayne Gazy, Ted Bundy, etc.) in their prison cells.

    I ultimately found this book so creepy (and its author, too, whose name I therefore won't give) that I not only quit reading it, I took it out to the trash can and buried it.

    My theory is that there are several genes that helped early humans survive. We know that most humans found sharing and helping each other to be the most positive adaption. But I think another type of person who survived is the one who had the seriously selfish gene: The psychopath. These people have no compassion whatsoever, but use other people to survive and have no guilt about it.

    Such people are the equivalent of my tom cat, who enjoys killing things and toying with them before they die. No guilt whatsoever and no empathy. And yet, a rather appealing being in other ways....

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