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In recent weeks a man serving in the military was arrested by the police accused of the murder of 5 women and 2 children. At this stage this is an open investigation and the police has left the possibility that there may be more victims added to the list.
So, what do we know so far? A man using dating apps approached women using the alias “Orestes” allegedly for a relationship or something serious. The alleged date was when they were murdered never to be seen or heard of. In two of the cases the women had children which he also murdered, in order as he testified to the police, to cover his tracks. It took the local community by storm and caused the usual true crimes sensation which in no doubt will continue as more of the story’s dimensions unfold.
The investigation will be followed by the media in order to explain the kind of mind that led a seemingly “normal functioning” individual to do such a thing. Murder is a crime committed with “malice aforethought”. For the purposes of an open investigation that is the correct procedure; we explore a murderer’s motives, whereabouts, social and personal habits until we find enough evidence that allow the investigative team to connect the dots and make a compelling case that will be sent to court.
Professionally however when we are asked to comment on cases such as this one, our perspective is quite different. In my case, I begin asking the question of harm caused and how this happened. Seven people went missing. How? All women involved so far worked as domestic help and all were migrants. At this point I shall refrain from offering more information or analysis on the women as that unfortunate psychologist who went on the media talking about the submissive nature of the Philippine women that made me sick! One of the victims so far is from Romania so what’s what happens when experts say whatever comes to mind!
In years to come other experts will interview the murderer and ask him all sorts and test him on everything possible to ascertain what made him do it. I shall stand on what we know. He was a soldier, ranked officer, trained in interrogation techniques. He was also an accomplished photographer who approached several women with the intent to photograph them for their portfolio, those who wanted a modelling career. A person of contradictions that will fill the true crime libraries with more gruesome tales. Of course, for one more time we shall wonder if it is necessary to train people to kill without considering the implication of such training may have in their welfare and interpersonal relations.
What about the wider picture? To put the whole case in some perspective. The volume of victims (still ongoing) some of the victims have been missing for over a year, indicates an impunity that only comes from a society that fails to register those people missing. In this case migrant women, working in low paid jobs, that the justice system failed because their disappearance did not raise any alarms. A collective failing to ask the most basic question; where this person gone? In previous similar cases, we have been confronted with the same issue. The biggest accomplisher to murder is social apathy. The murder is a crude reminder that there are groups of people in any society we care very little of. Whether those are hire help, homeless or streetworkers. The murderer usually produces a story that tries to justify why he chose his victims, but the painful reality is that his focus is on people or groups of people that have become invisible. In an interesting research Dr Lasana Harris, identified that we perceptually censor our perception of homeless to stop us empathising. In social sciences we have been aware of the social construction of dehumanising effects but now we can see that these processes can affect our own physiology. The murderer may be caught, and the details of his deeds may scandalize some as we have since Jack the Ripper, but his accomplishes are still out there and it is all of us who become incredibly tribal in an ever-expanding global society.
After all that talk of murder, I feel like having a cup of my favourite tea and a marron glace to take the bitterness away.
Fiske ST (2018), Dehumanizing the lowest of the low: Neuroimaging responses to
extreme out-groups, in Fiske S, Social Cognition; selected works of Susan
Fiske, London, Routledge.
 A cautionary tale…Orestes was the mythological character who murdered his mother and her lover; what’s in a name!
Tomorrow, I am speaking to prospective students at our Applicant Discovery Day, and so I decided to focus this week’s blog on my first-year module on True Crimes and other Fictions. It was also inspired by a recent article bought to my attention, in the Guardian, titled ‘From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment?’ (Rubenhold, 2019). The article shows us there is a clear fascination with true crimes, especially the more grisly and serious events. There is also clearly a fascination held with Jack the Ripper as the mystery of his (or her?) identity remains, and is unlikely ever to be definitively solved.
However, the focus of the article is not to recount more grisly details, but is an observation on the desensitization which has occurred in relation to the murder of women. We are bombarded with their images when alive and posing happily alongside gruesome crime scene photos of their deaths. This has occurred since Jack the Ripper, and the reporting on canonical five, famously with the publication of the crime scene photo of Mary Jane Kelly, described as the ‘poster girl’ for Jack the Ripper’s crimes. My students who had to choose a true crime text and analyse it critically in a book review and presentation highlighted the sensationalisation of these events in the press and the true crime genre as a whole (see Rawlings, 1995; Wiltenberg, 2004 and Bates, 2014).
Another interesting dimension identified by Rubenhold (2019) in the case of Mary Jane Kelly, is that among Ripperologists she is considered the most popular, due to her being seen as attractive but also due to the particularly brutal nature of her death. This takes us nicely to the recent BBC One documentary on the infamous crimes of Jack the Ripper, which continues in the traditions of depicting images of dead women as entertainment, along with the promise of new revelations on the case. I watched the documentary last night and while there was some focus on the brutality of the killings, there was reference made of the lives of the women and recognition of the assumptions made about them as sex workers, somehow less worthy of our sympathy compared to other victims. However, in anticipation of the documentary, Rubenhold emphasises the dehumanising effect of the victims with the adoption of the ‘virtual reality dissection table’, as the latest tool used to fuel our fascination, in addition to the hundreds of books, websites, blogs and TV documentaries. The new revelations rarely focus on the lives of the women, beyond their status as victims of a brutal killer.
However, what also struck me is the promises made by the documentary, a ‘re-opening’ of the case and using new technology to identify Jack the Ripper. For those who have not engaged with the wealth of literature on the case, the digital and criminological autopsies to identify the killer, and the use of geographical profiling may have provided new and fascinating detail on the key suspects. For those who are aware of literature on the case, the listing of key suspects was nothing new and there was even a high profile new development in the case to identify Aaron Kozminski as Jack the Ripper, with a claim of DNA evidence linking him to one of the victims (Evening Standard, 2019). The revealing of the name, and the revelation of a new victim were presented as new developments warranting re-opening of the case and the scrutiny of criminologists, ex-police detectives, profilers, forensic experts and a celebrity. No doubt the latter was introduced to offer some familiarity to fans of TV crime dramas, and draw viewers in, all part of raising the profile of the documentary. I had recently covered the case in a seminar on my module on True Crimes, using the same suspects which are widely identified in the ‘Ripperology’ community. We listed the evidence presented and all identified Kozminski on the basis of his proximity to Whitechapel, his skills as a barber, and his violence and traumatic childhood in Russia, prior to emigrating to the UK. We examined the validity of the evidence presented in various blogs, online resources, news reports and while there was general agreement about our suspect, other students made the point that we could find equally convincing information about others.
This is the essence of one of the problems of our fascination with true crime accounts – most people will maintain their fascination, based on legitimate emotional responses and assumptions which they will hold on to, and explanations of events they will take as fact. So, when a documentary claims to have new revelations, and conclusions presented in the case as reliable, for many people watching, there would be no need to question this. The same approach seems to be clear with the latest documentaries and dramas on another infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy, famous not only for his crimes, but also for his drive to remain relevant and gain attention. Rubenhold emphasises that whatever the focus of these dramas, allowing watchers to gawp at the images or depictions of the victims when they are dead perpetuates this cycle of dehumanising victims and reducing them to entertainment. Much like the Jill Dando case, and numerous others, the reality is that no matter what technology is adopted, or how often cases are re-opened and scrutinised by one expert after another, some cases will simply never be solved.
I think it is this lack of closure which frustrates not just victims and those connected to events, but also viewers who not only demand to see gruesome images but also demand to have new revelations and conclusions to cases. To be told ‘we don’t know and we never will’ is simply not good enough – whole industries have been based on those willing to stake reputations on delivering the truth. Rubenhold calls for and end to the use of crime as entertainment, to stop the ‘parlour game played for our own entertainment and at the victims’ expense’ (2019). It is perhaps unrealistic to believe we can put a stop to this, but perhaps broadcasters, publishers and those in the true crime industry can stop to think about their responsibilities and the constant re-hashing of old ideas as new revelations. It makes the work of criminologists to inform the public more important, as there needs to be a better understanding of the impact of these events, the effects of sensationalizing them, in addition to how the public understand the response to crime – our work continues, and it feels like we still have a lot to do.
Bates, K. (2014) Empathy or Entertainment? The form and function of violent crime narratives in early 19th Century broadsides, Law, Crime and History, 2.
Rubenhold, H. (2019) From Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, why are dead women’s bodies still being used as entertainment? Guardian, see https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/02/from-jack-the-ripper-to-ted-bundy-why-are-dead-womens-bodies-still-being-used-as-entertainment?CMP=fb_gu
Rawlings, P. (1995) True Crime, The British Criminology Conferences: Selected Proceedings. Volume 1: Emerging Themes in Criminology. Papers from the British Criminology Conference, Loughborough University, 18-21 July 1995.
Tobin, O. (2019) Jack the Ripper may have been Polish barber Aaron Kosminski, scientists claim after fresh DNA tests, Evening Standard, see https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/polish-barber-aaron-kosminski-was-jack-the-ripper-scientists-claim-a4094191.html
Wiltenberg, J. (2004), True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism, The American Historical Review, 109 (5):1377-1404.