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18 September 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 4:21am

The family unit can be the most dangerous place of all – maybe we’d be better off without it

In the cases of Peter Sutcliffe and the Wests the terrible privacy of the family is apparent, the possibility that it could cloak monstrosity.    

By Megan Nolan

This summer marked the tenth anniversary of Gordon Burn’s death. Born to a working-class family in the north-east of England, Burn was a singularly brilliant writer who gave us definitive accounts of the lives of Fred and Rose West (Happy Like Murderers, in 1998) and of the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe (Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, in 1984). He wrote novels as well as non-fiction, but his books about these notorious murderers stand out because of their artistry and also their understanding of particular communities.

Burn’s books are often described as novelistic, which is interesting given that his dialogue is composed of actual speech reported to him by witnesses, survivors, family members. Indeed, the “naturalism” and lack of formal drama mean that the terrible crimes he describes are much more troubling and dreadful to absorb. He is not simply describing atrocities: he is making an arduous effort to insert himself and the reader into the worlds these cases took place in, and which allowed them to exist. The petty, everyday cruelties are somehow worse to read than any descriptions of gore might be – and more demeaning of your spirit. That Fred West’s nickname for Rose was “Cow” for instance, remained with me unhappily for days, as did Sutcliffe’s attempts to humiliate sex workers in his local pub before any killing had begun.

In the two cases – more obviously in that of the Wests, but evident in both – the terrible privacy of the family is apparent, the possibility that the nuclear unit could cloak monstrosity. The Wests made their family into a kind of production line of cruelty, the beatings and the killings and the rape committed upon their own progeny as well as strangers and acquaintances who passed through. Rose West had been abused by her own father since childhood, and now in adulthood she allowed Fred to do the same to their children. Fred West, like his father-in-law, “owned” his family members. Aside from the exuberant sexual sadism, Fred and Rose attacked the children mercilessly for minor transgressions, hitting them in the face and stabbing them with kitchen knives. Their son Stephen West said, “Funnily enough none of all this made a real impression on us as children. It’s what you got used to, it was normal life to us. We knew no better. All we thought was that these were Mum and Dad’s moods and tempers.”

Sutcliffe came from a family of men who humiliated women for a laugh. His father once concocted a bizarre ruse to humiliate Peter’s mother, who had a friendship with a local policeman named Albert. Her husband impersonated Albert on the phone, telling her to buy a new nightdress and meet him at a local hotel. When she arrived, her husband – who had his own mistress as well as more random affairs, none of them concealed – had gathered their children, waiting to mock her in the lobby. No doubt one cruel act of many, the episode seemed to defeat her: soon afterwards, she died.

Sutcliffe’s father was exceptionally eccentric in his cruelties: the glee he took in his acts, not just his derision or disregard, recalls his son’s habit of approaching women selling sex on the street and offering them increasingly low figures. He argued them down to as low as £2 for sex, before ridiculing them by asking: “Is that all you’re worth?” He would then drive off, laughing.

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If serial killers and sadistic perverts of all kinds truly were freaks of nature, bearing no relationship to their surroundings, that would be one thing – dreadful, but easier to accept. But in families that host some form of sadism, that sadism mutates and spreads. An American serial killer named Joseph Kallinger inducted one of his brutalised children into his grim work, and recounted being taken aback by his 12-year-old son’s barbarity. The extraordinary becomes ordinary within the family universe

Because we respect the family as the sacred social structure, we lionise its privacy. Intervention by the state into the family is often regarded as the worst possible move, to be avoided at all costs: Fred and Rose West’s children were flagged as likely abuse victims but nothing came of it until it was too late. Who are you to say that about my child? Whose business is it of yours what happens in my family?

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That we have generally agreed to live in private family units rather than with a communal spirit and a curiosity about alternative ways of being seems to me one of the great failures of society. Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now, a proposal for a radical rethink of gestation and the family, writes: “When we say we want to abolish the family, we’re not talking about taking away the few relationships and infrastructures of love that we have in this world…We know that the nuclear private household is where the overwhelming majority of abuse can happen.”

On the far right, a new generation of fascists are propagandising traditional family values for the purpose of white supremacy – otherwise known as the “white baby challenge”. Greg Johnson, of the US nationalist magazine Counter Currents, writes: “Are you going to be the whiny little maggot who brings all of [your ancestors’] striving and struggles to oblivion because you just can’t get your act together and decide to go off the goddamn pill or stop using condoms or whatever and just take the plunge and carry the race forward one more generation?”

In the past, the most grave accusation a politician could make against queer people – and socialists and weirdos of all kinds – is that they were “anti-family”. But anti-family needn’t mean anti-relationship, anti-community, anti-love. The dethroning of the nuclear unit proposes instead that those things take new forms, expanding endlessly beyond the confines of the locked front door.

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control