Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Folie a Deux?

When two people go on a killing spree together, the question is always asked whether either would have ever done such a thing alone. Did they bring out the worst in each other? Had they never met, might each of their lives have been different?

Roy Hazelwood, a former FBI profiler, and his associate, Janet Warren, did a study of the patterns they found among partners in which sexual sadism was a strong dynamic, publishing it in the third edition of Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation. They spoke with 20 women who had been the wives and girlfriends of men whom they considered sexually sadistic. They hoped to learn more about the habits and sexual preferences of these men, as well as to understand more clearly how they persuade women to partner up with them and even get involved in killing. It is one of the few studies done in which the women get to speak, and while it is valuable for understanding a certain type of killing couple, some of the generalizations give the impression that the psychology of team killers follows a specific formula. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Book cover: The Gates of Janus, by Ian Brady
Book cover: The Gates
of Janus, by Ian Brady

Before looking at this study, let's study a few different types of couples to see how they portray a certain type of dynamic. We begin with the case of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, known as Britain's notorious Moors Murderers. While their case has been covered extensively by many authors, a new book by Brady himself gives their experience together a different cast. That publication came about from his contact with noted crime writer, Colin Wilson, who himself offers an analysis.

When Wilson engaged in a prison correspondence with Brady, he had a unique chance to try to understand a murderer's logic. Brady wrote him hundreds of letters about the nature of killing, and the result was Brady's book, The Gates of Janus, with an introduction from Colin Wilson.

Ian Brady (CORBIS)
Ian Brady (CORBIS)

Called "the most evil man alive," Brady offers his insights into many other murderers, affirming Wilson's classification of Brady as "a self-esteem killer." By that he means that some murderers are fueled primarily by one of the "growth needs" listed on psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human motivations (hunger, safety, social connection, self-esteem, and self actualization). Self-esteem killers act out to feel better about themselves and to win admiration. That does seem like a feasible explanation for Brady's crimes, but a look at Brady's philosophies indicates that he may have been motivated by the need for self-actualization, a step above self-esteem on Maslow's hierarchy. In other words, for him, killing appeared to be a creative expression of his nihilistic ideas about life. He didn't need a partner, but once he had one, all he had to do was persuade her to accept his philosophies.

Book cover: Crime and Punishment
Book cover: Crime and

Ian Brady was a fan of Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote such classics as Crime and Punishment and The Possessed. Both books deal with someone who becomes obsessed with planning a crime, and Dostoevsky had laid out the psychology of such a person in detail. The character of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, in particular, is obsessed with proving that he is beyond the laws of society because he is a "superior" man. He interprets that to mean that, should he decide to, he could kill someone at whim, without consequences. He selects an old woman and carries out his plan, having also to murder another woman who happens along. Then he writes feverishly about the act and its proof that he is a superior being. While he ended up disintegrating, which disproved his ideas about himself, Brady took the notion seriously. For him, it seemed a real possibility.

Brady developed as a loner in Glasgow, Scotland, who indulged in petty crimes that by the age of 17 landed him in jail. His exposure in jail to hardened criminals apparently had some influence, according to Wilson's understanding from Brady's correspondence, and Brady developed an attitude that he was going to act out against society for the injustices against him. His goal was to amass as much money as he could in the least amount of time. Once released from prison, he looked for opportunities to achieve that. He continued to read widely and became a strong admirer of Hitler and Nazism. He also denounced religion.

Myra Hindley (CORBIS)
Myra Hindley (CORBIS)

Myra Hindley was 18 when she met Ian Brady in 1961. She was a simple girl who loved children, and she took a job at Millwards LTD in Manchester, England, where Brady was working. She became infatuated with him and so was an easy mark.

"Ian told me," says Colin Wilson, "that the relationship was so close that they were virtually telepathic." Brady managed, according to Myra's diary, to convince her there was no God and that morality was relative. That meant that her own convictions could not have been firmly grounded. Did he have a sense of this or did he manipulate her into being so pliable? It's likely that her conversion was a little bit of both.

He spoke of Nazism and the violent hedonistic philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, and soon had her hating people as much as he did. He proposed that they enrich themselves through a life of crime, to which she acceded, and she soon found herself helping him to rape children and bury them on the moors. Their first victim in 1963 was a 16-year-old girl, but the children got progressively younger. The next was a 12-year-old boy. (For full details on these crimes, see Crime Library's story devoted exclusively to this killing couple.)

Brady hoped to acquire another accomplice, Myra's brother-in-law, David Smith, who came under Brady's spell. He tried to get Smith to kill someone, but when the job was mishandled, Brady grew paranoid, so Myra had to persuade him not to kill the young man. Brady later got him involved in a murder that he had performed in the home of Myra's grandmother, with the elderly woman present upstairs. However, Smith couldn't take what he'd seen, and he told his wife, who informed the police. They arrested Brady first, and then Myra. In 1966, both were sentenced to life in prison, but neither admitted to involvement in these criminal acts. They wrote to each other from their separate prisons. However, Myra returned to Catholicism and her attitudes about Brady shifted. She began to say that she had been under his influence. He had changed her. It had never been her idea.

Myra wanted out of prison, so she wrote a long document that detailed how Brady was entirely responsible for the murders. Like many such psychopathic couples, each partner looks to his or her own interests, so Myra decided to use him to win parole. At first, Brady had exonerated her, but upon hearing how she had turned on him, he implicated her in everything, even saying that some of the brutality was her idea.

By 1987, Myra had admitted to her part in the murders, although she claimed that she was forced into it through blackmail. Brady, she said, wanted to commit the perfect murder, and she had helped him get victims, but she denied being present to any of the actual killings. She believed that Brady would kill her, too, or her grandmother, so she went along with whatever he asked. She also implicated David Smith as Brady's accomplice. Either she was telling the truth or she was playing her female advantage while being even more conniving than Brady.

Yet for all her detail, Brady gave a fuller peak into the motives and experiences of the career killer. In his book, he makes it clear that he thinks of crime as an exciting venture for the solitary explorer, "consciously thirsting to experience that which the majority have not and dare not." Human nature, he believes, when not bounded by social convention, is more inclined toward "the crooked." Nevertheless, it's not the ultimate high; in fact, its lack of satisfaction can be a real letdown. The doer of such deeds is generally too preoccupied with the possibility of discovery that he fails to fully experience it as he might.

As for murder itself, "viewed scientifically, the death of a human being is of no more significance than that of any other animal on earth." Serial killers, he adds, are people who are "unavoidably a failure in many normal walks of life." This would describe both him and Myra. Such a person lacks patience, he writes, and eschews the kind of boredom that most other people accept. "The serial killer has chosen to live a day as a lion, rather than decades as a sheep." Once he has committed homicide, he accepts his acts as normal, and the rest of humanity as "subnormal."

While Brady goes on to describe the cases of individual serial killers such as Ted Bundy and Carl Panzram, he only addresses the dynamics of a team in depth when he discusses the Hillside Stranglers, cousins Kenneth Bianci and Angelo Buono. Here he talks about the shared delusion known as folie a deux, an intellectual form of persuasion and conversion of one partner by another. It can only occur, he says, if the target person is "fertile soil in which such proposals can readily take root." In other words, the criminal desire must already be present.

This analysis removes any ideas about the compliant accomplice who was merely the right kind of person in the wrong place at the wrong time. If a person got involved in crime as the result of another person's influence, then that person was already a criminal waiting to happen. That's Brady's take on it, anyway.

Brady takes a swing at Myra when he writes, "It is human nature that, if caught, the pupil will blame the master for his criminal conduct." Even so, the pupil's zeal, had she not been caught, would have outraced the master's. In that case, a role reversal may occur and the master becomes the pupil. Myra, he seems to be saying, was as bad as he and might easily have become worse.

While he wrote a letter denying that his relationship with her was based on coercion, she insists that he had a certain charm that made her believe anything and want to do anything for and with him. Was that due to her vulnerability or to his power? It's difficult to tell.

Whether Myra was a dormant criminal with Brady's nihilistic criminality a catalyst or whether she acted out of some other motivation, it seems clear that Brady was the dominant personality. It's more likely than not that had she never met him, she would have lived a much more ordinary life. She might have even been nurturing rather than antisocial.

Yet it's not always the male who leads the dance. Sometimes two partners are nearly equal in their capacity for atrocity, and their equal ability to suffer no remorse fuels a pattern of increasingly aggressive acts against others. Only when they get caught do they stop. A number of male-female couples fit this profile, despite the fact that the female inevitably claims to have been a victim. However, her actual behavior tells a different story. A case in point is the couple that has become a role model for many killing couples, Bonnie and Clyde. Their story is fairly well-known, but let's look at a brief summary to see how they developed together as killers.


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