Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Dennis Nilsen

Growing Up Alone

Nilsen believes his troubles can be pinpointed to the traumatizing sight of his grandfather's corpse. He was born in Fraserburgh, Scotland, on November 23, 1945 the only child of Betty and Olav Nilsen. It was an unhappy marriage, full of conflict from Olav's drunkenness and long absences.

Wedding photo of Olav and Betty Whyte Nilsen
Wedding photo of Olav and Betty Whyte Nilsen

The marriage lasted seven years until Betty divorced Olav. She and Dennis, along with his two siblings, were already living in the home of her parents, since her husband had never provided otherwise, so they just stayed where they were.

Fraserburgh birthplace of Dennis Nilsen
Fraserburgh birthplace of Dennis Nilsen

Young Dennis especially loved his grandfather, Andrew Whyte, but when Dennis was only six, Andrew died. Without telling Dennis what had happened, his mother took him in to see the corpse, which triggered a terrible awareness of devastating loss. He says in retrospect that it caused a sort of emotional death inside him.

When he was eight, he nearly drowned in the sea, and was rescued by an older boy who was playing on the beach. The boy must have been aroused by Nilsen's prostrate body, for he removed his clothes and apparently masturbated onto him. Nilsen awoke to find a sticky white substance on his stomach.

Then his mother remarried two years later and he withdrew and became a loner. She had four more children and little time for Dennis.

He never exhibited rage, cruelty to animals or other children, or any type of aggressiveness typically associated with conduct-disordered boys who become killers later in life. In fact, he was horrified by cruelties that he witnessed by others.

Once he helped to search for a man who had turned up missing, and he and a friend found the man's corpse on the banks of a river. The man had wandered out in the night and had drowned. The body reminded Nilsen of his grandfather, whose death and permanent departure he had been unable to comprehend. He felt oddly distant.

Having had no sexual encounters as an adolescent, but having experienced attraction to other boys, Nilsen remained fairly innocent. Once he had looked at his brother's sleeping form, exploring his naked anatomy, but that had been quickly aborted.

In 1961, he enlisted in the army and became a cook, which is how he learned butchery.

Nilsen was a butcher in Army Catering Corps
Nilsen was a butcher in Army Catering Corps

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