Anyone that knows me personally, soon learns that I find true crime fascinating. I always have. I spent many an hour as a child reading the horrific tales of serial killers, with tears of complete and utter terror streaming down my face. Part morbid-curiosity, part intrigue. Sherlock Holmes was a boyhood hero, and true crime was the real deal. No neat and tidy endings here. Sometimes the crime wasn’t solved, and we were left wondering who the murderer really was. This week, the extant half of the moors murderers, Ian Brady, died. If you are not from the UK it may be hard to understand just how hated Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were during their lifetimes. The Daily Mail declared just yesterday, that the two would be “burning in hell” (forget that God allowed their crimes to happen)... The pair were responsible for some of the most heinous and atrocious crimes committed in Britain, and though the total body count of 5 seems less shocking today than it did when the crimes were originally committed, the rape and murder of one of the child victims (recorded onto an audio tape during the crime) still represents a grotesque high-water mark in the annals of the depravity of human nature.
For the most part, I am intrigued by the whodunnit aspect of crime. Man is, afterall, the greatest quarry. Perhaps my favourite murder (I use that term recognising that there is a certain insensitivity to it) is the case of JonBenét Ramsey, and perhaps one day I will write about my thoughts on that case. The murders committed by Brady and Hindley are not of that type. We know that they did it. Their guilt is not in dispute. No. What is interesting and the topic of this post, is the big, fat, why.
In an article for the Daily Mail, Dr Alan Keightley writes about his long relationship with Brady. The two corresponded frequently and engaged in telephone calls nearly every day. And Keightley was bequeathed Brady’s possessions. So, whatever else, the man knows his subject:
‘Why children?’ I demanded to know. He answered immediately, not batting an eyelid: ‘Existential exercises.’
Brady was an evil, sadistic psychopath who considered himself an existentialist, in that he believed it was entirely up to him as an individual to live in whatever manner he chose. He was also a nihilist who thought that life was meaningless, the universe had no purpose, and religion was a delusion.
According to Keightley, it was during his time in borstal (at 17 for a crime he probably did not commit) that Brady immersed himself in existential literature by authors such as Camus and Dostoevsky. And here that he learnt the truth of existence, that much of the world is a sham, and that reality is far harder, and crueler than we are at first led to believe.
Off the bat, given the subject matter, let me caveat this entire post with a disclaimer. I do not condone the taking of any life per se, and am as disgusted by Brady and Hindley’s murders as the next person. Every existential being has as much right to exist as any other, and thus, outwith certain particular situations (war, state executions, self-defence) there is absolutely no justification for killing another person. This is not a moral objection, as I see it. You exist. They exist. You have autonomy over your existence. They have the same. The end…
Brady is in a class of criminals who have discovered the truth and like Icarus, have flown too close to the sun and destroyed themselves. The example that comes to mind is the bank robber. Every day you go to your place of employment. Every hour you are given recompense in the form of money, for the time and effort you give to your employer. You will never be able to get back that time you have given away, but hopefully you feel that the salary is a reasonable enough compensation for your life. The bank robber walks into the bank and says, ‘in just a few short minutes I am going to walk out of here with many man hours worth of money. Only the fool prostitutes himself for a pittance. The great risk I take now pays dividends beyond the normal man’s dreams’.
We are talking then about the ubermensch, the overman, the superman. This is Nietzsche's notion of a new type of human being, who recognises the reality of existence, and takes control. Who sees a sign which says “Don’t walk on the grass”, and promptly ignores it. Convention and expectation rule the normal man. But the ubermensch ignores those psychological rules. He is an existentialist and takes control. It is interesting that according to some writers, Brady and Hindley were caught because they attempted to include another person in the murders (Hindley’s brother-in-law). They did this because they wanted to take up bank robbery!
Whatever Hindley’s role in the murders (and I do not diminish or excuse her), it is evident that Brady considered himself an ubermensch. That, understanding that everything is pointless, that there is no god, that life is without meaning, what does one act matter over another? And it is seems evident that Brady and Hindley discovered that there was very little holding them back from the most heinous acts imaginable. If they wanted to kill a child, nothing could stop them. And I have little doubt that that realisation merely fueled that ubermensch role. Once you have robbed a bank, or killed a child, you have looked behind the curtain and found that there is not an all powerful wizard there. But the world is full of scared people, too afraid to do what they want, and their weakness is their cage. Like a prisoner kept hostage not through any force, but mere words and habit, the ubermensch is liberated into stark existential freedom.
But the ubermensch is not alone in the world. If the ubermensch is Gulliver, then other people are Lilliputians. Perhaps they are not as important or free as the protagonist, but together they can bring him down and cause him great suffering. And Brady was brought down. Caught, tortured, reviled. He has become the great bogeyman of Britain. Evil (a supernatural term I despise) is often a word used when describing him. And now he is gone. Dead. Not in hell, but also not in existence.
So was it worth it, is the question I would have asked him. I would hope that his response would have been, no. That the existential freedom he found in murder, merely led to his own demise. A kind of existential suicide. A hatred for the world and for himself. And there is something that Brady tells us about the modern world. That the more nihilistic, the more existential our world becomes, the more that some will recognise this fact and react in these terrible ways. Remember, not all murderers are nihilists and not all nihilists are murderers. But I do believe that the downfall of religion and the secularization of the modern world mean that we are becoming more aware of life as an existential problem, and one with no real solution. Perhaps however, if we discussed these issues, showed our young people that we are as afraid of life and death as they are, that though life is meaningless we can help one another as existential beings, perhaps we can prevent or mitigate other Bradys?
Do not think that because everything is pointless, that you have the right to stomp and destroy like an existential Godzilla. You may well find that you can do whatever you want, if only for a short time. But the army will come, the Lilliputians will tie you down, and in the end you will be worse off for it. You will leave the world worse off for it. Let Brady be a telling example of the dark side of existentialism and nihilism. He is a reminder that utter freedom in a meaningless universe is a great power, and a power that can destroy yourself and others if not handled correctly.Go Top