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21 October 2015updated 11 Nov 2015 11:29am

The patient in the spider’s web

In Sweden, Josefsson says, the idea that people with repressed memories of abuse could be helped was “an idea that belonged to the left wing”.

By Caroline Crampton

It began with an email describing a funeral, sent to a serial killer at three in the morning. Dan Josefsson wrote to Sture Bergwall – also known as Thomas Quick, Sweden’s most notorious murderer – to tell him that their mutual friend, the journalist Hannes Råstam, had been laid to rest.

“Everyone who is old enough to remember the Nineties remembers Thomas Quick. He was a household name in Sweden,” Josefsson said over the phone from Stockholm. “Children were scared of Thomas Quick – he was like the devil. It was like Hannibal Lecter, but for real, and in Sweden.”

Except, he wasn’t. Before Råstam died at his home in Gothenburg in January 2012, he had performed the most incredible feat of investigative journalism. He proved that the Swedish courts had convicted an innocent man of eight murders, and laid the foundations for Bergwall’s retrial and eventual acquittal.

As a result of that email, Josefsson, also a journalist and TV documentary-maker, found himself on the same path as his friend. Sture’s older brother Sten-Ove asked him to pick up where Råstam had left off. By this time the police investigations were well on the way to being discredited, but Sten-Ove felt that his brother’s experiences as an inmate of the Säter psychiatric hospital still warranted inquiry. How had Sture, a man with mental health and addiction problems who had been convicted of only minor crimes, ended up confessing to over 30 murders, some of them Sweden’s most talked-about unsolved cases?

Josefsson felt sure the answer lay with the secretive cabal of psychotherapists who had treated Bergwall. He was unusually well placed to find out. Before becoming a journalist, he had worked as an assistant nurse on a closed psychiatric ward and had since also written a book about the psychological model of “attachment theory”.

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Bergwall became Thomas Quick, formally changing his name when he began confessing to murders he hadn’t committed. Josefsson’s narrative lays bare the atmosphere in the hospital where he was held.

It isn’t hard to understand how a vulnerable and addicted man could end up wanting to be “rewarded” with therapy by telling stories that his therapists found to be groundbreaking. Bergwall has since explained how he would research cold cases in newspaper cuttings when he went to the library on day release, and even that he drew inspiration for his “crimes” from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

The people who treated him were part of a circle surrounding a psychotherapist called Margit Norell, a well-known pioneer in the field in Sweden. Although she never treated him directly, she supervised and directed those who did, a shadowy yet vital presence in this extraordinary case. In Josefsson’s bestselling book The Strange Case of Thomas Quick, she emerges as the driving force behind the narrative, the spider at the centre of the web.

Norell was a proponent of the now-discredited practice of recovered-memory therapy, in which a patient is induced through hypnosis or dream interpretation to recall instances of trauma, frequently early-years sexual abuse, of which they previously had no recollection. In Sture’s case, it was the memories of sexual abuse that he “recovered” which were supposed to provide the motivation for his crimes.

“I’m convinced that she was acting in good faith,” Josefsson says. “She really believed everything she was teaching, but she was a fanatic. She had no sense of critical thinking at all, she despised scientific thinking . . . she was thinking with her heart, feeling her way. She was very much like a religious leader, I would say.”

Although Bergwall’s is undoubtedly the most high-profile miscarriage of justice resulting from this skewed idea of memory, he was far from the only one. It also became an intensely political subject. In Sweden, Josefsson says, the idea that people with repressed memories of abuse could be helped was “an idea that belonged to the left wing”.

“They sort of went astray; it became a madness in this country,” he notes. Writers such as Stieg Larsson, also a prominent left-wing journalist, were responding to this, he says. Works such as Larsson’s Millennium series, which deals with some of the themes in the Bergwall case, are a product of this trend. “It’s a crime story, but inside it there are left-wing critiques of society.”

It’s difficult to grasp from the outside quite what a grip the Thomas Quick case has had on the public imagination in Sweden. As Josefsson half jokes, to Brits, “everyone in Sweden writes crime novels” but the country itself is a model of social democracy in action. Yet this real-life thriller still holds the population in thrall. The 2013 film that Dan Josefsson made about the Quick case, and the role of the psychotherapists in it, aired to 1.3 million people when it was first shown in Sweden (a country of just nine million). “It was a very big thing,” Josefsson says.

On 30 July 2013, Sture Bergwall was acquitted of the last of the eight murders of which he had been convicted – the final step in what has been called the biggest ever miscarriage of justice in Sweden. He had ceased to be “Thomas Quick” over a decade earlier, withdrawing his confessions, refusing to co-operate further with the police and declining any further therapy. He now lives quietly in the far north of the country, though he is on Twitter and has written his own account of the extraordinary case. It will be published next year.

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This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister