When I was a child, and my parents did not allow me to consume traumatising media with the impunity I desired, I discovered one effective workaround: on visits to our local video shop, I read the blurbs on the back of horror films. While my parents browsed for their own choice and something age-appropriate for me, I sidled off and binged on them. It worked: the concision of the marketing copy left the stories imprinted in my imagination. Once home, sitting in front of The Parent Trap or 101 Dalmatians, I could pore over them in the privacy of my own mind.
By 12, I had convincingly emphasised my precociousness enough for my parents to surrender to my campaign to receive forensic psychiatry books as Christmas gifts. Some were academic texts; many were poorly written muck masquerading as high-minded analysis. But these books legitimised my formerly gruesome interest in horrific acts. A profile of John Wayne Gacy Jr particularly caught my attention, and when I was back in the video shop with my stepdad I found a fictionalised film of his crimes, and asked if we could rent it.
“Why?” My stepdad asked me.
“He’s interesting,” I said.
“I know why you think that, but he’s not. All these killers you’re so fascinated by are just people whose brains don’t work.”
I thought about his comment while reading the coverage of Lucy Letby’s trial. Letby, a neonatal nurse, is the most prolific killer of children in modern British history, having been found guilty of the murder of seven infants under her care and the attempted murder of six more. The details are intensely distressing, difficult for most of us to believe or accept: from Letby’s inexplicable desire to abuse the most vulnerable human beings, to the years of alleged mismanagement that contributed to her ability to continue killing.
I listened to a podcast throughout her trial which gave regular, short summaries of what had happened in court; unlike most crime podcasts, this one was purely informative. Although inevitably emotive given the subject matter, it was a different experience to the more narrative-driven productions I usually consume. This shift in tone meant that the question of why I was listening was more pressing.
True crime podcasts are sometimes so well crafted that you can shrug off their potential harms: whatever the lived reality of those involved, it’s also a compelling story. Letby’s crimes, told dispassionately, are not a compelling story – except in the basic sense that we find ourselves instinctively drawn to news of a violent act when it occurs. Indeed, the lack of any satisfying narrative is part of why this case is so unspeakably grim.
[See also: Abolish true crime]
In some sense, listening to the relentless litany of Letby’s crimes felt like atonement, given how many people’s suspicions were dismissed, and the nightmarish silence in which the parents of the babies lived for years without answers – some even blaming themselves for their child’s death.
In this, I was reminded of a famous case of a nurse whose prolific career as a murderer was enabled by bureaucratic negligence. Charles Cullen is an American serial killer who was convicted of killing 29 people – but very possibly murdered hundreds more – over 16 years. Numerous people reported their suspicions during that time, but nothing was done.
When Amy Loughren, a nurse and colleague of Cullen’s, grew sure of his guilt, hospital administrators warned her not to speak to detectives without them present. Loughren said: “When I hung up the phone [with the hospital staff], I said to the detectives ‘Let’s get him,’ because I knew at that moment the hospital was going to do everything it could to support itself and not take care of those patients.”
One reason that murderers such as Letby, Cullen and Harold Shipman haunt the public consciousness is that the opportunity to abuse power in the healthcare system is so great, that it is shocking when a medical professional does so. The bond of trust that is in some sense illogical – the confidence that this doctor or nurse, who has total power over your vulnerable body, must be well-intentioned – is rendered absurd by these anomalies.
This power imbalance is part of the dynamics of care work, and, as with any profession, doctors and nurses will have among them dangerous narcissists. Yet it’s intolerable when such individuals succeed in taking the lives of their patients, and that it could be concealed for so long. These events also challenge the faith most of us have in ourselves to be instinctively good judges of character. A consultant who went on to report Letby said his first thought was: “It can’t be Lucy, not nice Lucy.”
Questions remain over the motive behind Letby’s murders. Even the most studied serial killers in history are ascribed motivations that are ultimately nebulous, unprovable, meaningless. Ted Bundy’s Wikipedia page cites “Control. Submission” – undeniably a part of why he killed, but why did he not fear capture enough to stop? Ten more questions arise when one is partially answered. Many articles written about Letby following her conviction have asked: “Why did she do it?”
It’s a natural question, but one which can never be satisfied. The impossibility of a conclusion is why the fascination around serial killers continues, and why our culture never lets the intrigue end. In this case, there are irrefutable systemic failures which must be addressed. We must focus on those: not on the failures of humanity, such as the mind of Lucy Letby.
This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect