Hazel McHaffie

kidnap

Broadmoor

Broadmoor. The very word carried a deeply chilling resonance. The most infamous high security hospital in the world. Makes me think of spine-chilling names like Peter Sutcliffe, Ronnie Kray, Charles Bronson … serial killing, cannibalism, paedophilia, arson, and the like heinous crimes. Or the horrific occasion in 1977, when two inmates trapped a third in a locked area in Broadmoor, and tortured him to death, skinning him alive, ramming a spoon into his brain, before garotting him. What kind of a mind could conceive of, and calculatedly carry out, such barbaric acts? I still remember the shivery sense of profound relief when these men were locked away in this maximum security psychiatric hospital facility for the criminally insane. Little public sympathy for them; widespread fear should they ever be released; a general ‘throw away the key’ mentality! ‘Monsters’, ‘evil incarnate’, ‘irredeemable’. ‘The more whole-life sentences running sequentially the better.’

But TV journalist Jonathan Levi, and cultural historian Emma French, have uncovered a much more nuanced picture of this notorious place. In their book: Inside Broadmoor, (published in 2019 but written before the new hospital was opened in the December of that year) they bring together their observations based on nearly ten years observing and interviewing staff, experts and the patients themselves, and they find that the staff really believe in redemption and rehabilitation – at least in most cases. No matter what they’ve done these men deserve to be treated humanely, and they aim to give them the best chance of a future.

This generosity of spirit from the staff comes in spite of the fact that the threat of violence is ever present. There are on average five physical assaults on staff members each week, but violence is seen as intrinsic to some of the medical conditions these patients suffer from, so it’s viewed more compassionately here than by the public at large.

The authors asked why did the men commit such dastardly deeds? Might they do it again? Can clinicians unravel the mysteries of their brain chemistry and render them safe? Are any conditions untreatable? Is there such a thing as pure evil? What can we do with those who are beyond help? What draws people to this work: 8-900 staff at any given time, all sworn not to reveal any information outside the hospital?  If the inmates are themselves the victims of appalling histories, does society owe them anything in compensation?

It’s hard to believe that 200 of Britain’s most dangerous men can be housed here together, maximum unrelenting security measures notwithstanding, some of them day in day out with no reprieve of any kind for decades. Each one suffering from a serious mental disorder rendering every man a grave and immediate risk to the public, not to mention their combined threat.

There is a popular misconception that, when someone goes to Broadmoor, they are there for life; in reality only a very few high-profile criminally insane individuals remain there for decades. Over the years a lot of work has gone into de-stigmatising and altering perception of severe mental illness, with great emphasis on intensive programmes of drug and psychological therapies. The old prison mentality and ethos has largely gone. As a result, nowadays, the average stay for a Broadmoor patient is less than 6 years, and there is a notably lower reoffending rate than in the UK prison population overall. This is not to say the men all go free into the community – depending on their diagnosis and progress they may be sent to a variety of other less high security institutions.

The demographics of today’s patients have changed radically over the last 150 years. Religious and ethnic factors play a significant part in this, and the authors concluded that, It is tragically clear that work needs to be done urgently to address these inequalities.

What really emerges is the vulnerability of these men alongside their criminal insanity.

It is nothing short of chilling  that … the fate of many Broadmoor patients was fixed from early childhood. Critically, theirs was a childhood not just of deprivation and economic hardship, but of abuse too … Childhood experiences, often shocking and sickening beyond belief, seal the fate of many patients very early on.

One illustrative case is Dillon, born into a ‘satanic’ family. Father broke his bones, sexually abused him, and raped and beat his mother. From birth, mother rejected Dillon, convinced he was evil. She sexually abused him and tried to kill him repeatedly. He was kept locked up in the attic, not allowed to talk to his brothers, or tethered naked to a post and made to eat food off the floor like a dog. By the age of 5 he was an arsonist. From the age of 7 he went into care but became arsonist, kidnapper, violent offender, out of control alcoholic. What chance did this boy have in life? And yet most of us don’t see beyond the violent, criminally insane adult. The staff in Broadmoor do.

One consequence of receiving effective medication, therapy and healing, is that patients can arrive at a deeply vulnerable moment; they begin to have consciousness of the crime that brought them to the hospital in the first place. This is a point of profound fragility. In some cases it’s more than they can handle and proves lethal; they take their own lives. Suicide is rendered possible in the lower risk areas, especially in Victorian buildings where ligature points, such as bars at the windows, have remained because of a shortage of funding to make the necessary alterations.

Hmm, a shortage of funding … Maintaining these dangerous men in secure units under constant surveillance is horrendously expensive. It costs upwards of £300,000 per annum to keep each patient in Broadmoor – five times the cost of a prison stay. Peter Sutcliffe’s 32 year stay in Broadmoor cost the taxpayer in the region of £10 million. In just one of a number of rooftop protests, Charles Bronson did £250,000 of damage.

I found this book profoundly challenging – challenging my preconceptions, my prejudices, my lack of real understanding: the barbed wire around my own reactions. I commend it to you.

 

 

 

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Nadia’s Song

The keening of the women was deafening, painful, the high-pitched mourning ululation of the Middle East rising from a half-million throats. The corniche was a river of black, hiding the sea beyond.

What an evocative opening paragraph! The book? Nadia’s Song by Soheir Khashoggi. This tale of forbidden love and divided loyalties is set against the colourful history of Egypt’s conflicts and cultures. The events of the 1940s in the Middle East especially, add a depth of historical accuracy and credibility to the story.

The mourning ululation from a half-million throats is for renowned Egyptian singer, Karima Ismail, known as ‘The Nightingale’, dead at fifty-three. The country is in mourning, and Karima’s daughter Gabriella is utterly devastated by this sudden unheralded bereavement of a second mother. She can find no closure, no comfort. Something is gnawing away at her: how could it be that her mother had taken drugs, died of an overdose, when she never touched the stuff? As a reporter, as a daughter, she needs answers.

Unravel back to the 1940s when Karima is a young girl, a servant, learning about the ways of the world. A major war is raging in Europe, stretching it’s invading fingers into the homes of rich and poor alike even in at-that-time-neutral Egypt. There are spies and collaborators everywhere, disguised and unremarkable. Watching, listening, liaising, accusing.

But for Karima and her childhood friend, Charles, son of her master, major changes are at work at a much more intimate and personal level. So much divides them in this hierarchical culture. Theirs is a forbidden love – spanning class and race; a love that could not be. Tragedy separates them, but not before a child is conceived. Following the death of Charles, she pours all her raw emotion into her singing.

The code of honour governing behaviour in their culture is strict and rigid. Karima has disgraced her family. Her brother Omar is beyond outraged. He exacts terrible extended revenge. But, desperate to salvage something from the wreckage, he nevertheless finds her a good husband, Munir, more than twice her age, who in turn sees her potential and introduces her to influential people who can nourish her beautiful and exceptional voice. She becomes ‘The Nightingale’.  But the greater her success, the harder Omar presses her for money.

Munir however falls more and more in love with his beautiful young wife and gladly accepts the baby Nadia as his own. But happiness is short lived. Nadia is just two years old when a night of rioting and violence tears her away from her parents. In the same fire, Munir suffers a serious heart attack, leaving him a shadow of his former self. Karima devotes herself to caring for him, but when demands increase for her to return to singing, he urges her to do so. She eventually relents, promising Munir she will, provided he gets better. The promise extracted he can die happy, knowing she will not waste her God-given talent.

Karima has now lost both daughter and husband, and the crushing sorrow adds even more pathos to her singing. Her fame escalates and she is in great demand professionally.

In reality, and unknown to her mother, the child Nadia has escaped from the burning building, and is found and rescued by a childless couple, Dr Tarik Misry and his wife Celine, who take her into their lives and hearts. They rename her Gabriella, and devote themselves to her happiness. Discovering she is not their biological child has a profound effect on Gabriella, and sets her off on a mission to discover her true parentage, and the reality of what really happened to her famous mother.

SPOILER ALERT
The truth is sordid and despicable. Gabriella’s uncle, Omar, from an early age mired in a dark world of drugs and debt and gambling and whoring, is jealous of his sister Karima’s success. He convinces himself that it was he who saved her by finding her a respectable husband; she owes him, big time. He leans on her heavily for money … time after time. For years, she does indeed bail him out, living modestly herself while funding his dissolute and reckless life, but there comes a day, after Gabriella has been reunited with her, when she finally holds firm against his entreaties. Her beloved daughter who was lost is now found, and she must concentrate her resources on being a good mother.

Incensed by her refusal, Omar exacts a fearful revenge: he drops hints about her being a spy, and fabricates a story of her undercover work that leads to her untimely and brutal death, disguised as suicide. Under Egyptian law, two thirds of her great wealth goes to her brother; Omar accepts it with little regret. Years pass.

But now Gabriella is a highly regarded reporter, probing for the truth, aided and abetted by her Irish boyfriend and Karima’s devoted friend and admirer, Farid Hamza, a high-ranking army Colonel. Between them they tighten the net.

However, Omar is not about to roll over and confess. He hatches a plot to abduct Gabriella, gain a king’s ransom in money, and then kill her anyway. Victory went to those who dared, he told himself. And he had always dared. The strong thrill of the plot drives him onwards.

There are just two and a half pages left to reveal the end result! You didn’t think I was going to spoil the finale, did you?!

It was fascinating to learn more of Middle Eastern history through the eyes of those living in that volatile part of the world. Sobering too, to be reminded of the rigid rules and double standards of the day and place.

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