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#CriminologyBookClub: My Sister, the Serial Killer

The latest book to grace the Criminology book club was My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, and after some excellent choices by @5teveh and @manosdaskalou, and a meh choice from @paulaabowles, the pressure was on for my choice. Unfortunately, it received mixed reviews, but I think I speak for all members of the book club when I say: It’s definitely better than The Yellow Room (sorry @paulaabowles)!

The negatives of the book, as expressed by the uneducated and picky members of the club (I promise I’m not bitter-HA), include the unlikableness of the characters: all morally repulsive, selfish and uninspiring. Whilst the book is set in Nigeria, there isn’t much description to transport you there, something the other books have done well, so this was disappointing. And there is a lot left unanswered. At times the book drops some hints into the characters’ past, hinting at why the sisters are the way they are (basically why one of them is a serial killer of her ex-boyfriends and the other mops up the mess), which is gripping and exciting, until it is left unanswered. The ‘older’ members of the club who weren’t overly keen on the book, felt it had potential but it wasn’t their cup of tea… and in all fairness the factors which they raised as being disappointing, were disappointing. BUT, it was still an excellent read! Myself (@jesjames50), @saffrongarside and @haleysread enjoyed the book, and below we have shared our views:

It is fast past, written in what feels like snippets, dangling possibilities and explanations in each chapter, throwing it back to their childhood, alluding at the dangers they faced together, fighting over the same man who isn’t great so that is slightly confusing: c’mon, have better choices in life partners, or even just dates! So many questions raised and so many left unanswered, but this is part of the book’s charm. It’s a story, an experience, a gripping account of a sister’s devotion to her strange, ex-boyfriend stabbing, sister. How far will she go? Why does she go to these lengths? What happens when the sister becomes too much of a loose cannon? You’ll have to read and not find out! But that’s what makes it an excellent read, by an excellent writer!

@jesjames50

My Sister, the Serial Killer is unlike any other book I have read before. I loved the fast pace and the creeping sense of dread that builds as you read on. The book is like a snapshot in time of the lives of two sisters – there are no right answers, no resolutions and no sense of justice served. Although I felt little affection for the characters, I was invested in their relationships, the story and how it would play out. I think it would work well as a TV or film adaptation and I look forward to reading other books by Oyinkan Braithwaite in the future

@saffrongarside

In an odd sort of way this book reminds me of my relationship with my younger siblings. I’m sure that many older siblings will agree that there is an unwritten obligation to support and protect younger siblings in many situations. In Kerode’s case… she takes this obligation to the extremes! I enjoyed this book as a thriller, but as with the last thriller we endured for book club I did not like any of the amoral characters. I also desired a bit more depth to the story line, the characters and location background – but maybe this is what makes thrillers so successful? Who knows?

@haleysread

So overall, not quite as successful as the Baby Ganesha Detective Agency novels, but I mean come on, its competing with a Cadbury chocolate eating baby elephant! But it’s a book that’s modern, well written, gripping and possess twists and turns. It’s short, sharp and snappy! I am proud and satisfied with my choice, as is Saffron and Haley. The others are in agreement that they struggled to put it down, it was intriguing! But alas not all literature is for everyone (albeit I think they are just being fussy)! On to @saffrongarside’s choice next, wonder what the club will think of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada? Stay tuned…

“Things you need to know about criminology”: A student perspective – Natalie Humphrey, 1st Year student

Vincent van Gogh – The Prison Courtyard (1890)
We are all living in very strange times, not sure when life will return to normal...but if you're thinking about studying criminology, here is some advice from those best placed to know!

The most important module to my understanding of criminology is: At the beginning of the year I believed the True Crime module to be the most important in understanding why crimes are caused. However, I quickly learned that these are not always the best source of information! The Science module is the basis of Criminology in the first year, laying down where it emerged, with Lombroso and Bertillon. I believe these figures are important to understand to grasp criminology.


The academic criminology book you must read:
The SAGE dictionary of Criminology has helped me with the basics of the subject. If there was something I became stuck on, this book would usually have an explanation for it. It also has examples which make it much easier to apply

The academic journal article you must read:
Attitudes towards the use of Racial/Ethical Profiling to Prevent Crime and Terrorism, by Johnson, D et al.(2011)
I came across this article when researching my Independant Project on racial stereotyping. It goes into the systematic racism that black people face and how disproportionate racism truly is. With more recently, the George Floyd case, this is still a very prominent article that is true to date

The criminology documentary you must watch:
I am a lover of many true crime documentaries and am always first to watch the new one that has been added to Netflix! The famous ones, such as Ted Bundy’s confession tapes, are fascinating to me, Bundy especially. However, there are many injustices that need to be addressed, not just the notorious serial killers. Jeffrey Epstein’s new documentary is very important in understanding sexual abuse that happened to over 200 underage girls. Athlete A also shows the sexual abuse of underage girls who were part of USA gymnastics.

The most important criminologist you must read:
Becker stood out to me this year as a very important figure. Understanding how young people are so heavily influenced by the labels people and society give, so much so it can shape their lives. Even older people can be easily labelled. This was quite surprising to me at the beginning of my studies.

Something criminological that fascinates me:
DNA and fingerprinting are fascinating to me. I find the science behind the discovery of what occurred at a crime scene and how they unpick it very interesting. This is definitely something I would like to study further.

The most surprising thing I know about criminology is:
It is a much wider subject than I first thought, it involves so much more than you could imagine. It questions everything in society.

The most important thing I've learnt from studying criminology is:
I have learned how unjust our criminal justice system is and how much, we as individuals, stereotype every person we meet. I’ve become more aware of this and have a better understanding of what needs to change.

The most pressing criminological problem facing society is:
Racism is a massive problem today. The racism black people face, especially in the US, is hard to understand as a white woman, but difficult to even contemplate people are treated in such ways. George Floyd, as I mentioned before, was killed because of his race. Problems like this would not happen to a white male, especially when his alleged crime was not violent. Young black men are labelled by the media to be seen as a thug and dangerous, causing many to be assumed of acts they just would not commit. Jane Elliott’s experiment on racism and eye colour from the 1970s is still a lesson that needs to be learned today!

When family and friends ask, I tell them criminology is:
Its more than it seems. Most just think it's about crime, which yes it is, but there is so much more to it. It is not one subject, it is so many put together. Science, psychology, sociology for example.


A little case of murder

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[1]” 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. 

Harris LT, 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. 


[1] A cautionary tale…Orestes was the mythological character who murdered his mother and her lover; what’s in a name! 

Thoughts from the British Society of Criminology Conference at Birmingham City University

Hazel wordle

I attended the BSC conference last week, presenting a paper from my PhD research, doing the usual rounds of seeing familiar faces, meeting some new faces and hoping nobody uttered the words ‘well its more of an observation than a question’. There was one session which particularly inspired me and so is the focus of this blog. The key theme was that as criminologists and educators, we need to review the quality of methods of teaching to keep students engaged, but crucially, not to lose sight of the importance of the content. We must continue to introduce students to more challenging ideas and shift their thinking from accepted wisdom of how to ‘do justice’ and ‘why people commit crime’.

The session attended was on ‘Public Criminology’, which included papers on the experiences of LGBTQ communities in Turkey, with regards to police response to victimisation, another on the use of social media and other forms of broadcast used by academics on criminology programmes, the impact of the 2011 riots on social capital in the UK and the need to re-introduce political issues in teaching criminology. As with many sessions at large conferences, you never quite know what will emerge from the range of papers, and you hope there are some common themes for the panel and delegate to engage with in discussions. This certainly happened here, in what seems to be a diverse range of topics, we generated interesting discussions about how we understand crime and justice, how the public understand this, what responsibilities we have in teaching the next generation and how important it is to retain our critical focus. The paper that really resonated with me was delivered by Marc Jacobs from the University of Portsmouth on ‘The Myopia of Public Criminology and the need for a (re) Politicised Criminology Education’.  Marc was an engaging speaker and made a clear point about the need to continue our focus on the work of activist criminologists, who emerged during the 1970s, asking important questions about class, race and gender issues. He cited scholars such as Jock Young, Stuart Hall, Frances Heidensohn as pioneers in shining a light on the need to understand crime and justice from these diverse perspectives.

This is certainly what I remember from studying criminology as a post-graduate, and they have informed my teaching, especially criminological theories – I have always had a closer personal affinity with sociological perspectives, compared to biological and psychological explanations of crime. It also reminded me of a running theme of complaint from some students – political issues are not as interesting as say, examining the motivations of serial killers, neither are those lectures which link class, race and gender to crime, and which highlight how discrimination in society is reflected in who commits crime, why they do it, and why we respond the way we do. There is no doubt presenting students with the broader social, political and cultural contexts means they need to see the problem of crime as a reflection of these contexts, that is does not happen as a rare event which we can always predict and solve. It happens every day, is not always reported, let alone detected and solved, meaning that many people can experience crime, but may not experience justice.

As tempting as it might be to focus teaching and engage students through examining the motivation for serious crimes to reinforce students’ expectations of criminology being about offender profiling and CSI techniques which solve cases and allow us all to sleep safely, I’m afraid this means neglecting something which will affect their lives when they do look up from the fascinating case files. I am not advocating the exclusion of any knowledge, far from it, but we need to ensure that we continue to inform students about the foundations of our discipline, and that it is the every day events and the lack of access to justice which they also need to know about. They reflect the broader inequalities which feed into the incidences of crime, the discriminatory policies and practice in the CJS, and the acceptance of this by the public. Rawls (1971) presented justice as a ‘stabilising force’, a premise picked up by New Labour in their active citizenship and neighbourhood renewal agenda. There was an attempt to shift justice away from punitive and retributive responses, to make use of approaches which were more effective, more humane and less discriminatory. The probation services and courts were an important focus, using restorative and problem-solving approaches to genuinely implement Tony Blair’s manifesto promise to be tough on the causes of crime. However, he also continued the rhetoric of being tough on crime, and so there was sense of using community sentencing and community justice in a tokenistic way, and not tackling the broader inequalities and problems sufficiently to allow the CJS to have a more transformative and socially meaningful effect on crime (Donoghue, 2014; Ward, 2014). Since then, the punitive responses to crime have returned, accepted by the public, press and politicians, as anything else is simply too difficult a problem to solve, and requires meaningful and sustained investment. This has been a feature of community justice, half hearted attempts to innovate and adopt different approaches, all too easily overtaken by the need for a day in court and a custodial sentence. It shows what happens when the public accept this as justice and the function of the CJS, even though they are not effective, put the public at risk, and mean entrenched biases continue to occur.

This all emphasises the need to remember the foundations of our discipline as a critical examination of criminal justice and of society. In my own department, we have the debates about where we place theory as part of these foundations. These discussions occur in the context of how to engage students and maintain our focus on this, and it remains an important part of higher education to review practice, content and adapt to broader changes. Moving to a new campus means we have to re-think these issues in the context of the delivery of teaching, and I am all for innovations in teaching to engage students, making use of new technologies, but I firmly believe we need to retain our focus on the content which will challenge students. This is the point of higher education, to advance knowledge, to raise students’ expectations of their own potential and ask them to rethink what they know. The focus on ‘public criminology’ has justified using different forms of broadcast, from TV, tabloid press and social networking to disseminate knowledge and, hopefully, better inform the public, as a counter measure to biased reporting.  I don’t think it is desirable to TV producers to replace ‘I am a Killer’ on the Crime and Investigation network with ‘Adventures of a Problem-Solving Court’ or ‘Restorative Justice: The Facts’. Writing for the tabloid press seems to me an act of futility, as they have editorial control, they can easily misrepresent findings, and are not really interested in anything which shifts the notion of justice as needing to have a deterrent effect and to be a retributive act. Perhaps social networking can overcome this bias, but in an age of claims of fake news and echo chambers, this surely also has a limited affect. So, our focus must remain on our students, to those who will work within the CJS, social policy departments as practitioners, researchers and future academics. They need to continue to raise the debates about crime and justice which affect the marginalised, which highlight prejudice, discrimination and which ensure we continue to ask questions about these thorny, difficult and controversial issues. That, I think, is the responsibility we need to grasp, and it should form a core function of learning about criminology and criminal justice at University.

 

Susie Atherton

Senior Lecturer in Criminology

This entry was re-blogged by the British Society of Criminology blog on 17 July 2018

References

DONOGHUE, J. (2014) Transforming Criminal Justice? Problem-solving and court specialisation. London: Routledge.

RAWLS, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

WARD, J. (2014) Are problem-solving courts the way forward for justice? London: Howard League for Penal Reform.

 

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