Dr Rebecca Myers is used to sitting across the table from child killers, serial rapists, and offenders who score highly on the psychopath scale. Not nosy journalists. Myers – her pen name – is one of Britain’s most experienced forensic psychologists. Responsible for trying to treat the most notorious figures in the UK’s criminal justice system, she has worked in and out of maximum-security prisons for more than 25 years. She has inmates across 15 different prisons in her caseload. The last thing she wants is anyone tracking her down.
Early on in her career, Myers spotted the giveaway “daffodil” blond hair of one inmate – whom years earlier she’d spent 200 intensive hours treating – on the BBC News at Ten. He had been convicted of further crimes, including killing a young woman with a claw hammer. She has never yet walked past an ex-convict she recognises. “But I guess it gets more and more likely.”
We met on a soggy autumn afternoon at one of Myers’ favourite pubs in rural North Yorkshire. She lives nearby with her husband of 20 years – an electrical engineer – and their two sons, aged 15 and 17. Rain hammered down on to the pub’s conservatory roof as Myers, 49, sipped a peppermint tea. Silver star-shaped earrings peeked through her sweep of straight blonde hair, and her nails were painted purple. The only hint at prison life was a blue roll-neck jumper – during her first week as a 22-year-old prison psychologist in 1994, she began wearing polo necks to cover the blushing that would creep up her neck in front of inmates.
When people first meet her, they often ask about the worst crimes she’s dealt with. She has a stock response: “You really wouldn’t want to know.” With details haunting her imagination – even making her retch over the steel seat of a prison toilet on one occasion – she doesn’t want to “contaminate” others.
“I’ve never told a soul the worst thing I’ve ever heard and never will,” she writes in her memoir, Inside Job: Treating Murderers and Sex Offenders. The Life of a Prison Psychologist. The book was pieced together from her prison notebooks; she has kept every work diary and the name of every prisoner she’s met.
Myers has turned down documentary-makers and screenwriters eager for an insight into the minds of serial killers. Some of her cases have been household names – names she refused to disclose (“I never work with people who have double-parked, you know?” she said drily). “I hate ‘true crime’ now,” she said, of the popular podcast and television genre. “I have enough of it in my day job. It’s not nice: it’s sickening and disgusting, and I don’t like the way it’s glamourised and sensationalised.”
There is “a grain” of truth to the trope in fiction of the charismatic psychopath, however. In her book, she describes an excruciating session at “HMP Graymoor” – a fictional maximum-security prison – with her first “PCL-R” (someone who registers on the “Psychopathy Checklist-Revised” test, developed by the Canadian criminal psychologist Dr Robert Hare).
The murderer, who had lured two women into his car by pretending it had broken down and that he needed help, quickly noticed the biro Myers was using to take notes. It was a freebie from the garage where she’d last had her car serviced – in the part of Leeds where she lived. “I know that area,” smiled the man. “Lovely, isn’t it?” (Nevertheless, she handled the session so well that a video of it was used for trainees.)
Ever since childhood, growing up in the suburbs of Leeds, Myers had been drawn to a career in criminal justice. Her father was a probation officer, and as a child she wanted to join the police. When she was 14, however, her mother left home – abandoning Myers and her two younger sisters.
The impact of her mother’s departure led Myers to years of rebellion, “collecting petty criminal, fixer-upper boyfriends”, at least two of whom ended up in prison themselves. She moved to London as soon as she could, to study a psychology degree at Middlesex University and party in Camden. “Maybe I went into psychology because I wanted to understand [my mother] and me better,” she told me.
In the third year of her degree, she started her first prison job. She had to remove or hide the piercings and tattoos of her less law-abiding life.
As she took groups of prisoners through the warped thoughts and behavioural patterns that led to their crimes, Myers discovered her own psychological habits. Imposter syndrome – particularly in what was then almost entirely a man’s world (both of inmates and officers) – had been with her since adolescence. “That feeling of, ‘I can’t do this, people are going to find me out’ comes from the feeling of, ‘If I was good enough, then my mum would have stayed,’” she reflected.
She noticed herself being an “ice queen, pushing people away because it was hard to let them in”. Treating the inmates led her to “this whole realisation about needing to be in control: if I’m in control of a relationship, I’ve got the upper hand, people can’t hurt me, they can’t walk away. But over the years, I’ve very much learned that’s not the way you carry on in relationships!”
Myers even saw something of herself in her patients. “In some areas, they were not dissimilar to me, in that they perhaps used control to cope with the world, or they didn’t trust everybody, and I started to see those likenesses,” she said. “I guess it teaches you that they’re human underneath it all.”
It has been a tough lesson, however. She recalls the cognitive dissonance of learning about the harrowing crimes of Wayne, a serial rapist – who would cut phone lines and remove lightbulbs in the houses of single women he attacked – and discovering he enjoyed a custard cream dunked in a cup of tea.
“You go into treatment with them thinking they’re going to be monsters, and quite quickly you realise they’re not,” she said. “What he did was really evil, but was Wayne evil? I don’t think he was.”
Nevertheless, Myers is disturbed by the horrors of her work. She has developed a “hyper-vigilance” and “over-alertness” that was acute when her children were younger. During a family holiday to Rome, she panicked when her husband let the boys into the Colosseum public toilets alone. “My brain just launches into the what-ifs, because I’ve seen it all. I am aware of cases where men have waited in toilets for lone children.”
To unwind from work, she walks her springer poodles Hector and Boris in fields near the pub. “It’s the first thing I do when I finish a case – get the walking boots on, get hold of the dogs. It really helps.” Even then, her past cases are with her. A few days before we met, she was dog-walking by a disused railway, and fixated on a jogger. “He was coming towards me and was a very big man; I suppose I’m always on alert, my brain starts to overanalyse a situation.”
New Labour began generously funding offender behaviour programmes shortly after Myers began her career. An influx of young female psychology graduates like her were drawn into the work, which aimed to reduce reoffending rates. But now, Britain has a record court backlog of more than 61,000 cases.
“The prisons are full,” said Rebecca Myers, who is particularly concerned about under-resourced probation services. “People are very ill-equipped to leave prison, and probation officers have a massive caseload… Social care, mental health provision in the community, everybody’s on their knees.
“Most of these people are going to be released one day, so why wouldn’t we do everything we can to make it more likely that they’re not going to offend again?”
This article appears in the 09 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, On the brink