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