somebody's husband 14-06-2012

... somebody's son, by gordon burn, a meticulously researched book about the yorkshire ripper, peter sutcliffe.

some second thoughts:

it seemed rather brilliant at first, a brave attempt to get behind the salacious headlines and tabloid rhetoric of vicarious thrills and 'absolute evil', prostitutes who deserved little sympathy and the 'innocent victims' sutcliffe wrongly identified as prostitutes. and indeed it was interesting to to read about sutcliffe's childhood family history in detail. but you can't read this kind of book without wanting some insight into why he went on to do what he did. would he, for example, have become the yorkshire ripper if he hadn't grown up in a town with its busy red light district, drinking in pubs where 'respectable' people mixed with prostitutes and damaged young women with chaotic lives, in a culture where violence against women was widely tolerated? would he have become the yorkshire ripper if he had not worked in a graveyard or become obsessed with a particularly gruesome collection of 'medical' waworks or worked as a lorry driver and so on and so forth?

there is no clear or obvious answer. if there was a clear and obvious answer the police, incompetent and disorganised as they sometimes were, might have caught him earlier than they did 

if there is any conclusion to be drawn it seems to be that psychopaths, however terrible their crimes, are psychologically less interesting than other people. they are psychopaths because they have something missing. there are things which they can't or don't feel (empathy imagination...), and extreme version of ordinary feelings they can't or don't control (anger, sexual desire...). and, ultimately, it is more interesting to read about the complexities of empathy, imagination and self-control than their absence.

one final note: there are passages in the book where burn seems to have been infected by, or possibly to share, some of the prejudices of some of his subjects, particularly with respect to characters who are not white and who are often spoken of dismissively or not given names (... an educationally subnormal west indian... the asian immigrant to whom she was married... married to an asian wearing a sari...).