In his investigation into the mind of a murderer, psychiatrist Richard Taylor examines what killers have in common, and how they're at odds

There are no easy answers inside the mind of a murderer. Picture: Shutterstock
There are no easy answers inside the mind of a murderer. Picture: Shutterstock
  • The Mind of a Murderer: What makes a killer? Richard Taylor. Wildfire, $32.99.

The recent abduction and murder in the UK of Sarah Everard, and the arrest and charging of police officer Wayne Couzens for the offence, is a sad reminder that sexual predators walk among us.

"Murder is not just a crime: it is a major public health problem," writes Dr Richard Taylor, UK forensic psychiatrist and author of The Mind of a Murderer: what makes a killer? And in the wake of Sarah Everard we are reminded it is a political problem, too. People came out in numbers to a vigil demanding safety for women on the streets of London. But, despite the sensation, murder by a predatory stranger is rare.

Murder is strangely gendered. In the UK, the majority of victims are women killed at the hands of their male partner (only 1 per cent of women kill their male partners and it's usually after years of abuse). When women kill, the victim is usually an infant under one year of age.

No systematic answer emerges to the question: "Is the killer mad or bad?

Richard Taylor is in a good position to assess what causes somebody to kill in the manner of Everard's murderer. In his first chapter on sexual homicide he outlines a possible motivation: "The 'wish' to kill the object of one's sexual desires is 'peculiarly understandable' in some disturbed and aggressive males, arising from a combination of sexual longing and aggressive devaluation of the female object of desire - perhaps because of previous rejections by women."

Taylor doesn't really answer the question "why?". He writes that "our prediction skills have improved but remain poor, a bit like trying to do a long-range weather forecast in September for July 1 of the following summer: you can talk about likely climatic patterns, but you can't predict rain on a particular day". It doesn't really seem satisfying, the idea that forensics psychology is a branch of meteorology. Likewise, no systematic answer emerges to the question: "Is the killer mad or bad?"

The courts want this primary inquiry answered, and it is the whole point of calling the forensic psychiatrist as expert witness. Indeed, the wider view might be that without this perplexing question, there would be no need of the profession at all. But psychiatry is as complicated as the question itself. The personality is not as easily dissected as the liver or other organ. Taylor doesn't burden us with theory, while declaring himself persuaded by elements of psycho-analysis.

He does however have compassion, and a wealth of experience across the range of killers and killing which would probably guarantee he has a precedent for each new case presented to him. Compassion comes from witnessing the pitiful conditions, social and institutional, which many who commit capital crimes find themselves in, and the mental anguish arising.

Of course, what emerges from his short course through many kinds of murder is that there are many different reasons for it, and many horrible sets of circumstance out of which it comes. The saddest cases are those of psychotic killing, where the murder comes about from mental illness. A tragedy for the victim, but also for the killer, whose life has been dogged by painful mental illness and whose life is ruined by it and by the consequences of murder. This category includes the mother who kills her child. The most unlike each other are the typical cases of spousal murder - diametrically opposed is the entitlement of many men versus the terror of many women who kill partners. The male wife-killers are the least sympathetic of Taylor's characters - and that includes his encounter with terrorists like Abu Hamza.

While Taylor expands on neuro-pathological causes of murder - deformation in the amygdala etc - he notes that the predisposition is reliably accompanied by a lifetime of sub-optimal care and self-harming compensation, and in which parental neglect, abuse and addiction are over-represented. While serious disturbance in the care of mothers can lead to people who grow up to kill, there is also a preponderance of fathers whose alcoholism and abuse scar their sons and predispose them to kill. Poverty, poor educational opportunity, poor role models, and poor impulse control all play their part.

Taylor's chatty style is sometimes at odds with the gruesome subject matter, and projects something akin to the "cosy" detective story. His editor has rather overdone it with the suggestion he make the subject more approachable by including his own personal detail in the storytelling; we frequently learn which route he takes to get the hospital or prison in question for the day's case.

This story Is a killer 'mad', 'bad' or neither? first appeared on The Canberra Times.