Dangerous Minds

Literary Review, October 2015

The Strange Case of Thomas Quick: the Swedish Serial Killer and the Psychoanalyst Who Created Him

Dan Josefsson, translated by Anna Paterson

Thomas Quick was, for a time, Sweden’s most notorious serial killer. He was convicted of eight murders but confessed to many more, producing a list of almost forty victims. By his own account he murdered children and adults, including a Dutch couple sleeping in a tent in northern Sweden, but was never able to pinpoint the places where he claimed to have concealed the bodies.

Quick was a fraud, in other words, and all his convictions were later overturned. He wasn’t even called Thomas Quick, twhich was the name he adopted shortly before he began making his sensational confessions. Quick was actually a petty criminal called Sture Bergwall, born in 1950, who had a long history of disturbed behaviour and drug abuse. In 1991, after taking part in an amateurish robbery, he was sent to a psychiatric facility where the staff were enthusiastic about new theories relating to the impact of childhood abuse on adult offenders.

Bergwall was keen to cooperate, embarking on a course of psychotherapy. His release was scheduled for the autumn of 1992 but he was reluctant to leave an environment where he was comfortable and provided with prescription drugs. He began dropping hints that he might have committed very serious crimes, including the murder of an 11-year-old boy. This ‘memory’ surfaced shortly after a Swedish newspaper published an article listing 122 unsolved murders and disappearances. The boy had disappeared 12 years earlier, during his walk to school in a town called Sundsvall, and was presumed to have been murdered. In a procedure which would be repeated many times, Bergwall was taken to the scene of the crime and allowed to wander around with staff from the facility, trying to remember what he had done.

None of these expeditions, which expanded to include police officers and prosecutors, turned up any evidence. Bergwall’s accounts of his crimes often conflicted with forensic evidence and he couldn’t even describe his supposed victims’ appearance with any accuracy. When anyone questioned his story, he staged anxiety attacks so intense that the searches were temporarily suspended.

Bergwall finally stopped cooperating with the charade in 2001, shortly after his final murder conviction. One of his doctors had become concerned about the extraordinarily high levels of prescribed drugs he was taking, and Bergwall embarked on a painful detoxification process. He renounced his ‘Thomas Quick’ identity and returned to calling himself Bergwall; in 2008, after a series of meetings with an investigative reporter, Hannes Rastam, he admitted that his confessions were invented. The journalist made two TV documentaries about the case and Bergwall made the first in a series of successful applications for retrials.

How could all of this happen? Rastam died in 2012 and the story was taken up by his friend, the journalist and documentary-maker Dan Josefsson. His book includes detailed accounts of Bergwall’s chaotic ‘reenactments’ of crimes he didn’t commit; his lies inflicted unnecessary pain on the parents of missing children, some of whom were led to believe that they were about to discover what had happened to their loved ones.

Josefsson’s account of what motivated Bergwall is compelling, painting a picture of someone who ‘had wanted to be important but failed and failed again’. When he arrived at the psychiatric facility, Bergwall realised he was good at telling people what they wanted to hear and his confessions gained him the attention he craved. What’s puzzling is why Bergwall’s doctors and therapists went along with it, but Josefsson has an answer to that: Bergwall told them he had repressed his memory of the murders until they started coming back to him in therapy sessions. The therapist seized on what they believed was a classic example of the hugely controversial theory of ‘recovered memory’.

What’s also central to Josefsson’s book, however, is the idea that this vast miscarriage of justice came about because of the influence of an elderly female psychotherapist who acted as a mentor to virtually all the health professionals involved in Bergwall’s treatment. This ‘white-haired old lady’ was never formally involved in the case but Josefsson characterises her as ‘Thomas Quick’s real psychotherapist’. Long passages of the book are devoted to her theories, friendships and misjudgements, justifying her appearance in the title as the woman who ‘created’ Quick.

Josefsson is so wedded to this thesis that it’s hard for an outsider to judge whether it holds water. He is right to identify the way in which groups have a tendency to reinforce each other’s ideas, closing ranks when they are challenged. But radical and sometimes bizarre notions about the mind were around as long ago as the 1960s, when R D Laing and others began to question traditional ideas about mental illness. Claims about ‘recovered memory’ have surfaced far beyond Sweden.

In the end, this is a cautionary tale about intelligent people wanting to believe something so much that they abandon reason and normal habits of critical scrutiny. It’s worth reading for that alone, and I’m not sure that the invention of ‘Thomas Quick’ needs to be explained by the influence of a sinister female Svengali.

Portobello Books £14.99

Jeremy Corbyn: what a pity Labour’s new leader is a tongue-tied republican

While refusing to sing the national anthem, he stood like a sulky sixth-former, causing great and needless offence 

Independent on Sunday, 11 October 2015

Some years ago, I was a guest at a literary dinner in a central London hotel. Towards the end of the evening, we were asked to stand for something called the “loyal toast” and raise our glasses to the Queen. Since I’m a republican, I remained quietly in my seat and was surprised when some of the people sitting at my table hissed at me to get up. I was even more surprised when a waiter appeared and pulled my chair from under me, tipping me on to the floor.

It has never been easy to be a republican in the UK. The monarchy is entwined in the nation’s political institutions to a degree that denies individual freedom and undermines democracy, a fact confirmed by the way in which the leader of the Labour Party is referred to during parliamentary business. I’m sure Jeremy Corbyn hates it, but he’s currently the Leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. The job comes with an additional salary on top of what he’s paid as an MP and an expectation that he will become a member of that most archaic and undemocratic of institutions, the Privy Council.

These titles are anything but harmless, putting a gloss on what’s really a species of coercive conformity; the constitutional difficulties they present for a committed republican are obvious and unavoidable. If I were in Corbyn’s shoes, braced for an onslaught from the right-wing press, I would have asked myself a series of questions before the result of the leadership ballot was even announced. Am I willing to sing the National Anthem? What will happen if I don’t? Am I willing to genuflect before the Queen and kiss her hand? If the answer is no, how do I seize the initiative and start a conversation about democracy and values?

One thing a Labour leader could do, at this point, is make a virtue of consistency. He or she (I live in hope) could say that public trust in politicians is low precisely because they stand accused of lacking principles. He could argue that he’s a different kind of politician who stands by commitments he made in the past, even if the result is a temporary burst of unpopularity. He could say that constitutional change isn’t among his top priorities, but he’s not prepared to pretend to be something he isn’t. He could say almost anything, in fact, and the outcome is unlikely to be worse than Corbyn’s failure to say anything at all.

Only three days after becoming leader, he flunked his first test. It’s hard to think of a worse occasion to challenge the central role of the monarchy in public ceremonies than a Battle of Britain memorial service; a refusal to sing the National Anthem, unless it was carefully explained in advance, was always likely to be interpreted as an insult to the families of thousands of young men who died defending their country.

Corbyn could have been bold and set out the principles that would govern his public appearances. He could have used the occasion to speak about the evils of fascism, and the right of people in free countries not to mouth words they don’t believe in. Instead he stood in silence like a sulky sixth-former, causing great and needless offence.

Smart politicians learn from their mistakes. Last week’s meeting of the Privy Council, when Corbyn was due to be sworn in, was an opportunity to demonstrate that his handling of the Battle of Britain service was an aberration. He had a number of options, from politely but clearly refusing the invitation to publishing a reasoned explanation of the ways in which the Privy Council makes a mockery of this country’s commitment to equality. What he actually did was disappear for a few days, apparently on a trip to Scotland, leaving a member of the Shadow Cabinet to make the lame excuse that no one had “explained what actually happens” at the Privy Council.

What is at issue here isn’t Corbyn’s patriotism or the nonsensical claim by David Cameron that he hates this country; it’s whether he is a serious politician who’s interested in changing people’s minds or just the leader of a protest movement. Republicanism isn’t an easy case to make in the UK but that’s only because it’s never been done by a heavyweight politician; too many people on the left are terrified of appearing to criticise the Queen, so they put up with institutions and customs that would cause outrage in other democratic countries.

I can’t imagine President Obama or Angela Merkel shuffling about on their knees as though it’s part of the democratic process, and there’s no reason why Corbyn should do it if it goes against his principles. From any sensible perspective, there’s a chasm between what our MPs have signed up to in laws and treaties and the edifice of inherited privilege enjoyed by the Royal Family.

I’ve always longed to hear centre-left politicians call out the nonsense that goes along with the monarchy, but I also understand why they are reluctant to do it. Now we appear to have the worst of all worlds: a tongue-tied republican in charge of the Labour Party.


Human rights: ethics isn’t on the Foreign Office map

Independent on Sunday, 4 October 2015

A senior mandarin has admitted that promoting human rights abroad is no longer one of the Government’s priorities 

In a little-noticed exchange towards the end of July, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, was asked by a Labour MP whether there was any truth in the rumour that his department’s annual human-rights report was being “drastically” cut back. Hammond responded without hesitation: “Yes. I don’t think it is a rumour.” He added that the change should be seen not as a cutback but as an attempt to make a “very lengthy document” easier to use.

Publishing an annual human-rights report was one of Robin Cook’s initiatives when he became Foreign Secretary in 1997. It quickly came to be regarded as an invaluable resource, providing reliable summaries of countries where torture and other abuses were rife, but it was also a measure of the Labour government’s commitment to promoting democracy. Here is the opening line from the foreword to the 2003 edition, which happens to be on my bookshelves: “A concern for the victims of human rights abuses lies at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy”.

Compare that statement with the evidence given last month by the top civil servant at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald. In only his second week in the job, McDonald was relaxed and assured when he appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Asked by the same Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, whether human rights were now a lower priority at the Foreign Office, McDonald acknowledged what amounts to a dramatic shift in policy: “Well,” he began, “answering as Permanent Secretary, I say that although it is one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities.”

Pressed by Clwyd, who suggested that human rights are now “pretty low” on the agenda compared with trade and industry, McDonald said he “would dispute that it’s low down but [not] that right now the prosperity agenda is higher up the list”. The exchange sheds a fascinating light on George Osborne’s trip to China, which resulted in the spectacle of a senior British minister being praised in  China’s state media for his reluctance to confront his hosts about their ruthless suppression of dissent.

This year’s edition of the human rights report lists China as “country of concern” but the tone reflects what can now be seen as the new priorities. “China’s economic growth continued in 2014, leading to further improvements in the social and economic rights of many of its citizens,” the section begins. It goes on to acknowledge that civil and political rights remain restricted, but the contrast with the language of earlier editions is striking. The 2003 edition opens with a bald catalogue of abuse, including torture, arbitrary detention, “extensive” use of the death penalty, psychiatric abuse, mistreatment of prisoners, and deprivation of religious and cultural rights in Tibet and Xinjiang.

I don’t believe that China has become a nicer, more democratic country in the 11 years separating the two reports. But we now have a Conservative Government whose disdain for the idea of universal human rights has been signalled in ministerial speeches about “British values”, not to mention a manifesto commitment to get rid of the Human Rights Act. The latter has been under unremitting assault for years in the right-wing press, where “yuman rites” are regularly mocked by Daily Mail columnists.

Substantial numbers of people now appear to believe that the Human Rights Act confers unfair advantages on foreigners, instead of establishing mechanisms to ensure that everyone is treated fairly under the law. The Act was one of the most significant achievements of the Labour government elected in 1997, along with Cook’s declaration of an “ethical dimension” to British foreign policy. The record of Tony Blair’s government has been overshadowed by the disaster of the Iraq war, which led to Cook’s resignation as Leader of the House, but his original speech is still worth reading.

“Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves,” Cook said. The speech caused outrage in Tory circles, something I fully understood only when I heard two of John Major’s former ministers complain about the implication that they hadn’t cared about democracy and human rights.

Cook’s vision turned out to be too radical for Tony Blair, who sacked him as Foreign Secretary when he won his second term as Prime Minister in 2001. Blair’s approach to human rights was an incoherent mess: he intervened to stop abuses in Sierra Leone and Kosovo but held out the hand of friendship to two of the world’s worst dictators, Colonel Gaddafi and President Assad. Blair’s willingness to do business with Assad, with whom he appeared at a press conference in Downing Street, is a prime example of foreign policy failure; Assad went on torturing his opponents and suppressing dissent, ensuring that any attempt to overthrow him would be brutal and prolonged.

The preference for “stability” over promoting human rights is one of the reasons why the Middle East is in such a dreadful state today. No dictatorship lasts for ever, but the outcome is likely to be much worse if legitimate forms of dissent have been crushed. British governments have made the same mistake time after time, shoring up nasty regimes and then throwing up their hands when the result is bloody and horrible.

Incredible as it seems to right-wing politicians, foreign policy is an area where self-interest and principle point in the same direction. Robin Cook knew it, opposing the notion that “political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business”. That’s what this Government seems to be doing. I hope it comes back to haunt them

George Osborne’s visit to China is a new low

Independent on Sunday, 27 September 2015

The visit was a triumph – for Beijing, which won a propaganda coup and a nuclear foothold in the UK

China likes George Osborne. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who spent five days in the country last week, isn’t one of those rude foreign visitors who bangs on and on about the torture and imprisonment of dissidents. No, our George is a breath of fresh air, welcomed by Chinese state media for his pragmatic approach and his “modest manner”.

In case your heart isn’t already swelling with pride, an editorial in the Global Times described the Chancellor as “the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region’s business potential instead of finding fault over the human-rights issue”. Instead of making a song and dance about the country’s most famous political prisoner, Liu Xiaobo, our George was more intent on inviting the Chinese to take a major role in Britain’s nuclear industry.

Forget the fact that China isn’t exactly renowned for its expertise in nuclear technology. It would be sheer bad manners to question the wisdom of placing a key piece of infrastructure under the control of a foreign power whose interests, to put it mildly, might not always coincide with those of the UK. I can easily envisage a future in which British ministers might not show as much restraint on questions of human rights abuses or of cyber-espionage. Should we really place ourselves in the hands of a country that will be in a position to flick off the UK’s light switch? Getting Chinese investment in the UK trumps everything else, it seems – including our national security.

Britain isn’t the only country that’s extending a hand to China but it’s definitely edging ahead in the sycophancy stakes. The Prime Minister has refused to meet the Dalai Lama, who came to the UK last week, because he was so horrified by China’s furious reaction to their meeting in 2013; Cameron and Osborne don’t want to do anything that might upset next month’s state visit to London by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. When he arrived in Washington two days ago, it was to a red-carpet welcome but there is said to be little personal warmth between him and President Obama. Last year, the US State Department said it was “deeply disturbed” by the death of Cao Shunli, a Chinese lawyer and human-rights activist who died in hospital after being denied medical treatment for several months.

The London visit promises to be very different, with British ministers hailed in the Chinese media for displaying “the vision of European politicians of a new generation”. The message is stark: Western leaders who want to do business with China need to shut up about democracy, free expression and the right to protest. The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to go along with this; China’s one-party state has changed a bit in recent years but nothing like enough to deflect criticism of its dreadful human-rights record.

According to Human Rights Watch, China’s government systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion. Since 2013, the country’s leadership has “unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years”.

Bizarrely, this assault on fundamental rights has been accompanied by a mellowing in attitudes towards China. The Conservative Party is at the forefront, muting Britain’s critique of human-rights abuses until it reached last week’s historic low point. The Chancellor has played a key role in this process, which dates back to the autumn of 2013 when he led a trade mission to Beijing. “China is what it is,” Osborne said then. “We have to be here or nowhere.” He was accompanied by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is another enthusiast for trade links between the two countries.

Even Prince Charles seems to have been brought into line. Six months ago his elder son, Prince William, pitched up in China and delivered an invitation from the Queen for next month’s state visit to London. It was widely seen as an attempt to repair relations between China and the royals, which have been rocky since Charles refused an invitation to a banquet with a previous Chinese president during a state visit in 1999. Last month it was reported that Charles would meet President Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, and attend a lunch with the couple at Buckingham Palace.

This change of heart will have come as another blow to the Dalai Lama. It was first signalled in July when he came to the UK and made a slightly surreal appearance at Glastonbury festival, without receiving an invitation to meet the Prince. It’s well known that China loathes the Dalai Lama, who remains, despite his occasionally erratic behaviour, a powerful symbol of Tibet’s aspirations to independence.

Last week he told the BBC he would welcome a female successor but she would need to be “very attractive”; such forays into gender politics seem a tad unwise; perhaps the 80-year-old monk is feeling the pressure. The list of people who have refused to meet him recently includes Pope Francis and ministers in several European governments, suggesting that his political clout has diminished since he met 11 heads of state in 2002. Last week he said Cameron was interested only in “money, money, money”.

He could also have pointed out that recent events highlight the incoherence of Conservative foreign policy. Five years ago, Cameron sent British planes to bomb Libya, arguing that he had a moral duty to protect civilians and to do nothing would betray people striving for democracy. Now he’s keen to do business with one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes. Colonel Gaddafi must be turning in his grave; things could have been so different if only he’d offered to invest in the British nuclear industry.

Civil partnerships should be for everyone, including siblings and friends

Independent on Sunday, 13 September 2015

Dealing with the loss of a much-loved relative or friend is bad enough without having to put your home on the market

Giving tax breaks to couples who have sex? It doesn’t sound like mainstream Tory policy, but that’s the position (for want of a better word) that the Government has got itself into where civil partnerships are concerned. It admitted as much last week in the House of Lords, when a minister flatly refused to extend the current legislation to include brothers and sisters.

People in civil partnerships and married couples are exempt from paying inheritance tax when one of them dies. It confers a huge financial advantage: property values have risen dramatically in recent years, especially in London, and many homes are worth a lot more than the inheritance tax threshold of £325,000. Everyone else – siblings or unmarried friends, for instance – has to pay tax at 40 per cent on anything above the threshold.

Lord Lexden, who also happens to be the Tory Party’s official historian, has just tried to persuade the Government to remedy this injustice. He knows the present law creates anxiety for many elderly people, who face a potential tax bill running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Often the surviving sibling has no option but to sell a home he or she has lived in for decades, placing the burden of a house move on someone who is already coping with a bereavement. Dealing with the loss of a much-loved relative or friend is bad enough without having to put your home on the market.

Lexden got short shrift from the minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, who confirmed that there are no plans to change the law. The conversation between the two is fascinating, not least because they’re both Tories but on completely different sides of the argument. Williams’s response revealed the blinkered thinking that has characterised official responses ever since civil partnerships were first proposed by Tony Blair’s government. Williams recalled that they were introduced for same-sex couples at a time when they weren’t allowed to marry. “Civil partnerships are the equivalent of a marriage: a loving union,” she went on, as if anything else was self-evidently excluded.

It’s tempting to respond with a lecture on the many faces of love, quoting a variety of Greek philosophers. Is the Government really claiming to recognise only one kind, between two people who have sex with each other? What about the deep affection between sisters who have lived together for 30 years or close friends who have pooled their resources to buy a flat? If love is the test, as the minister appeared to imply, a whole range of domestic arrangements could claim to qualify.

I don’t think that this or previous governments intended to discriminate against people in non-sexual partnerships, but that’s been the outcome. Of course, two friends who jointly own a house could get married, but it would be widely assumed that they’re in a sexual relationship; in that sense, the law encourages pretence, which is all the odder when you consider how keen the Government is to crack down on “sham” marriages in immigration cases. And there’s another anomaly: civil partnerships aren’t open to two friends of the opposite sex, whether or not their relationship is sexual, because only same-sex couples are legally able to become civil partners.

This is what happens when the law is altered piecemeal, instead of using equality and fairness as guiding principles. The Blair government introduced civil partnerships in 2004 because ministers didn’t dare legislate for same-sex marriage. In effect, and without intending to do so, they created an alternative which also appealed to some heterosexual couples. That was a no-brainer: if you don’t like traditional gender roles, “partner” is a much more attractive description than “husband” or “wife”.

Some of us argued that the new law should apply to everyone, but more than a decade later straight couples still can’t become civil partners. It’s incoherent, to say the least, and a heterosexual couple is seeking a judicial review of the ban. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan need to raise a substantial sum to cover their costs; being a modern couple, they’ve launched a crowd-funding campaign to pay for the case. Their legal action and last week’s intervention in the House of Lords are by no means the first attempts to remove the layers of discrimination built into the law.

Back in 2005, two sisters in their eighties argued that excluding them from a civil partnership was unfair as the surviving sister would have to sell the family home, which had previously belonged to their parents, to pay death duties. They didn’t get anywhere.

What’s beyond question is that the law governing adult relationships is a mess, for ideological reasons. It was the Conservatives – who are supposed to disapprove of social engineering – who recently introduced yet more discrimination into the system; from this April, married couples and civil partners have been able to claim a tax break which isn’t available to cohabiting partners – although only households on low incomes stand to benefit. So in another example of (I hope) unintended consequences, a couple where the husband abuses his wife could now be better off than an unmarried couple whose relationship is based on respect and equality.

In the modern world, adults expect to choose the living arrangements that suit them, not the government of the day; it isn’t up to ministers to make value judgements about the quality of people’s unions by enshrining discrimination in the law and the tax system. Most people aspire to loving and affectionate bonds, but they won’t always be sexual. Weirdly, when they talk about love, it’s the Tories who appear to have sex on the brain.