Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Inside the mind of a psychopath: the psychology of Ian Brady

The appalling murder of five teenage children in Manchester by the serial killer Ian Brady and his female accomplice, Myra Hindley, are the most infamous killings in Britain in the 20th century.

A recent Channel 4 documentary, "The Endgames of a Psychopath", went some way into explaining some of the psychology of Ian Brady, and how he has remained one step ahead of his psychiatrists and advocates during his four decades of imprisonment.

Before I go more into that, and the mind games played by Ian Brady even up till his old age, one thing that marks Brady out as being distinct from other incarcerated serial killers/ psychopaths is that more than ten years ago he published a self-written book analysing the mentality of serial killers, called "The Gates Of Janus". There is an academic review of this book here. As far as I am aware, this is the only case of a convicted psychopath and serial killer publishing an "academic" book about serial killers and their psychology.
The book itself, from what the review mentioned above says, reads like a quasi-academic piece of work, albeit one that is used as a way seeing murder as a morally ambiguous action, using the thinking of Nietzche and others to justify his perspective. In reality, what this means is nonsense, and is often logically contradictory, but that's besides the point. One one side, the book is an exposition of Brady's views on morality in society (and justifications for crime and murder), while also a study of a number of other serial killers, analysed through the mind of another serial killer. What is most striking is what this tells us about Brady's self-perception: like fictional serial killer-psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter, he sees himself as someone above morality, seeing the morality in society as hypocritical, with his as the supreme intellect, able to use it to justify his own actions; and at the same time, (also like Hannibal Lecter) he claims to be altruistically using his "perspective" to help the police and authorities to understand (and therefore more easily identify) other serial killers.
The fact that he was able to convince an agency to publish such a book in the first place is worth pausing over (while the anger caused to the victims' families doesn't bear thinking about, but that is no doubt Brady's point). In his mind, Brady probably saw the fact that his book was allowed to be published as a) proof that society retains a macabre interest in serial killers, and b) that publishers have have as little conscience as he does; meanwhile, it was a way of promoting his own perspective on morality and society, and giving him even further sick gratification from the publicity. So, the publication of the book was a "victory" for Brady on many different levels.
Brady's publication of "The Gates Of Janus" was an ignominious moment in cultural history. Here was where life imitates art: like Lecter, Brady was offering his "experience" and "intellect" to the police and society to offer his "unique perspective". Of course, this is absolute nonsense in reality: like with Lecter in "Silence Of The Lambs", Brady was using it as an opportunity to seize moral and intellectual control over his moral guardians, while playing duplicitous games with authority: this true psychopath seizing any opportunity to advance his cause.

Even Brady's "justification" for the child murders has been contradictory, but again that's part of his cunning and duplicitous nature. In  his book, Brady claimed that the killings were not for pleasure: the "pleasure" he gained was from the torture of the children, while the murders were to make sure him and Myra Hindley were not caught - however, Brady also has said that the murders were an "existential experience", while also criticising the moral hypocrisy of society over encouraging state sanctioned violence in the military but discouraging in other areas. Again, we simply see a psychopath playing games with his psychiatrists and watchers: this contradicting is consistent with the continual performance to keep others guessing as to Brady's real psychology and him in control; his justifications differ depending on his whim.

Brady is the nearest thing to an "extreme" living psychopath behind bars in Britain today. His biography as a child and teenager fits in with all the classic behaviour and environmental factors that are seen in developing a psychopathic character. He showed all the early signs of sadism, manipulation and cunning, being involved in petty crime till he got a "legitimate" job as a book-keeper after years in borstal and prison (though he had been intent on using this as a cover for further crimes). It was there he met Myra Hindley, an initially naive and impressionable young woman who he was able to charm and manipulate to completely change her personality and appearance, and into being an accomplice to his horrific crimes. Ever since has he shown no remorse for them.
Ever since incarceration, Brady has been playing games of control with the authorities: like the character Hannibal Lecter, he has been able to, when applicable, charm or terrify his psychiatrists and advocates. He has been able to manipulate the authorities into transferring him into more comfortable surroundings.He has been playing grotesque games of psychological control with his victims' families; by sending letters to them in a disingenuous attempt to re-gain their trust. He even convinced the authorities to allow him back to the scene of the crime in a (no doubt faked) bid to help locate the body of the final, undiscovered victim (while being able to perversely savour the moment and his secret knowledge) . He has been on hunger strike for a number of years in protest to his conditions, hoping to get transferred to Scotland (where he was born and "raised"). And now, in a final twist to the story, has evidently been able to charm and manipulate his advocate into claiming the existence of a letter written by Brady, containing the possible whereabouts of the last undiscovered victim. If this letter exists in reality, no one knows except Brady and the advocate. But now the victim's mother has died without knowing the burial site of her murdered son; no doubt as Brady intended.
Brady's final "victory" is that he has written an auto-biography, which he has given instruction to his solicitors to publish upon his death: thus Brady gets to promote his own perspective on events, espouse his "morality" and justifications further, and provide a further insult to the victims' families from beyond the grave. You really can't make this kind of stuff up.

This whole saga has the feel of some kind of twisted psychological crime thriller - something like Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" and "Silence Of The Lambs".

But this is reality. And it's true that reality often feels more unreal than fiction.

A more general description of the psychology of psychopaths can be found here.
Other examples of serial killers who may also be called "psychopathic narcissists" can be found here.


  1. Hi Lee

    Do you think Ian Brady was abused?? I don't believe the Keightley autobiography. He wasn't popular for one thing.

    1. From what I've read, he certainly had a troubled childhood, so the term "abused" could be applicable. That being said, lots of children have had a tough childhood, and they don't all become career criminals. It's the balance of environmental and biological effects that seem to create the conditions for psychopathy, which seemed most likely to have been the case with Brady.

  2. Hi I agree not everyone becomes a criminal if they've had a bad childhood. Environmental effects of course play a role - pscyhopaths are born with shrunken amygdalas which affect empathy but with proper diet the brain will develop properly. Brady lived in a slum and poverty was rampant so very little food to go round and I read that illegitimate kids were often given less food than others. Biology of course plays a part too as you point out. We don't know what genes he had, if mental illness was in his family or not. Could he have been a victim of incest? Very convenient that his father was a Glasgow Journalist who died 3 months before he was born. His mother refused to name him. Also he seemed to be an outsider in the Sloans, why if they were kind as he said?? He always spoke well of them but could he have repressed memories?

    1. As you say, it is usually a combination of environmental factors that seem to trigger any innate biological factors. This is also why I think "likelihood" helps to explain why more psychopaths have had a certain type of childhood: people in the wrong environment are "more likely" to become psychopaths than those raised in a healthy environment.

    2. I've come to this blog with similar thinking.

      My thoughts are that the psychopath is born but the environment insrils homicidal tendencies. Only a small fraction of psyvjppaths go on to murder.

      There is a pattern of abuse, especially with prolonged abuse from the mother. But there are many cases of abusive, emotionally distant mothers where their children don't go on to commit homicide.

      The psychopath-with-homicidal-fantasies seems like a dice roll where genetics and environment are equally bad. Perhaps genetics influences the environment - the genes come from somewhere...

      I've also noticed a pattern where a parent, usually the mother (it's more common in females AND it's common for serial killers to have attachment issues), displays symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder. This is interesting because psychopathy can be viewed as a combination of two personality disorders - narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial behaviour disorder.

      If there is a deeper connection, personality disorders should be elevated to a much more "serious mental health disorder" status, given that a number of them form a pyramid towards an apex of psychopathy and, ultimately, serial murder.


    3. Hi James, Interesting what you say about patters of Borderline Personality disorder in mothers. Was that the case with Ian Brady's mother? Or his foster mother? We may never know. It is a known fact that Ian was left alone for long periods while his mother went to work and this continued for 4 months until he was handed to the Sloans. Sometimes she seemed to have got babysitters but this doesn't seem to have happened very often. Would you consider this abuse on its own or do you think something more than that happened to Brady?
      Possibly under so much stress and being short of sleep she could have hit him?? Just my two cents. Let me know what you think.

    4. Being left alone for long periods by a maternal figure would be ebough to harm the ability to form attachment.

      It's difficult for me to say it constitutes abuse. Today it would be considered outright neglect. The moving around and minimal potential to form attachment is the important part. Moving around is another big pattern I've seen - bigger than BPD.

      I didn't meant to imply BPD in a parent is a requirement - just that the disorder has a particular potential to drive the type of child abuse that "makes" a serial killer.

      One scenario is where a BPD mother is left by the child's father. Sufferers of BPD have a strong overwhelming fear of abandonment. They also deflect blame. It's entirely possible the BPD case would blame or shun the male offspring with the "abandoner" - especially if he looks like his father. Female siblings may not get the same treatment, further deepening resentment of women by the child.

      This only applies, in my mind, to male serial killers whose victims are female. But that's a common demographic, if not the most vommon, for perp. - victim.

  3. Hi James, I think it would be naive of me to think that BPD in a parent is a requirement but it can be a factor. The scenario you present is very interesting and has a lot of truth. As for being left alone for long periods that might have caused attachment problems but if the Sloans were as loving as was claimed it makes one wonder how this alone would have created a psychopath. I can't help feeling that there were other factors too.
    Moving around can be a big problem - in the case of Robert Black who was shunted around a bit - to foster parrents who died, then onto at least 2 different foster homes/orphanages. Brady as far as I know was only handed over to the Sloans although Keightley has said it was suggested that he was in several orphanages at one point which he denied.

    1. Sorry I re-read what I wrote and felt I wasn't clear enough.

      There is strong positive correlation of narcissism/psychopathy and genetics. That can't be denied.

      From case reports, however, I feel both genetic and environmental factors must be aligned (in such a way) to produce a psychopath and even further aligned to produce a psychopathic serial killer.

      The fact he had a difficult attachment to his mother that led to foster care is important. The Sloan family may have been lovely but this is a kid with the genetic make up for psychopathic serial homicide. Requiring a foster family, loving or not, would encourage that development. Foster care, for all intents and purposes, means some kind of "rejection" to a child - even if through agvodental death, the parents have still "left" the child from their perspective.

      I think, because it's the brain, psychopathy is a multi-factorial disorder. The sooner we come to full grips with the nature of this dangerous disease, the better off we will all be.

    2. You have me there with the rejection argument - apparently she did come visiting him every sunday bringing him gifts - he twigged who she was after a while even though no one told him. Yet there is no denying that when he was 12 her visits stopped - (they had been decreasing ) as she moved to Manchester. So certainly at this point he was entitled to feel unwanted. She did write to him though. I am thinking of several in my area who were adopted at 1- 1.5 years old, cared for by nuns and yet turned out okay So I am asking myself why didn't they become serial killers?
      The nuns would not have been able to give them much time as they were so busy. I think part of the answer to my own question is that these people were born 35-40 years after Ian Brady when attitudes towards illegitimacy had changed. Illegitimate children, at least in my area were no longer treated like scum. They were born elsewhere and adopted where no one knew them. Had Ian Brady been born , say 2 or 3 decades later he more than likely would have turned out alright.
      I do agree with your last comment - psychopathology is a multi factorial disorder. Brady may have been the victim of incest( we don't know who his father was) and why did Peggy keep it a secret? Maybe it was a one night stand? also there was lifelong rejection . I find it hard to believe that being left alone by his mother and fostered could be the only reasons for becoming a serial killer. The stigma of illegitimacy at the time meant discrimination, isloation and being treated like dirt. All accounts agree that Brady was friendless and certainly Peggy's departure when he was 12 would have enhanced the feeling that no one wanted him and that would no doubt caused rage.

    3. Excellent comments there from you and James, and I agree with what you're both saying about psychopathy and the various environmental "stimuli" that may provoke it from childhood. To add my two cents to your discussion points, I think that there are many possible factors - and thus potential environmental pathways - that can lead to psychopathy. Hare's Checklist has a "scoring system", which seems to ring true of how different psychopaths with seemingly different upbringings become either serial killers or white collar fraudsters.

    4. "Hare's Checklist has a "scoring system", which seems to ring true of how different psychopaths with seemingly different upbringings become either serial killers or white collar fraudsters" I discuss this is more detail here: http://leedanielhughes.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/psychopathy-and-crime-from-boardroom-to.html

  4. Yes, I had a look through it. Its intersting. Also a question, is it usual for victims of child abuse to deny it and speak well of their families?

    1. "is it usual for victims of child abuse to deny it and speak well of their families?"
      I couldn't say if it's "usual", though I can understand if some of them might do that.