Understanding Dunblane and other Massacres: Forensic Studies of Homicide, Paedophilia, and Anorexia

Understanding Dunblane  outside the Cathedral on 13/3/1996I have always been intrigued by what makes people commit murderous acts of rage.  This is not a morbid reflection on man’s inhumanity to man, on my part,  or indeed an attempt by me to gain vicarious pleasure from learning of the gory details of forensic events.  Rather, it is my way of exploring and seeking to challenge the two way dyadic that produces a rhetoric in seeing good and evil when seeking to make sense of murderous events.  I watched Trevor MacDonald’s Death Row interviews on ITV1 last year and again I was intrigued with the motives and the mindset that makes people, mainly men, commit the most heinous of crimes when they can appear so civil and engaging on camera.

Understanding Dunblane and other massacres was published in 2012 by Karnac Books. I was told about the book by a colleague who had been very impressed by its theoretical content. Peter Aylward FPC, is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. Peter’s previous police career in the detection of major crime (a Metropolitan police special branch officer between 1977 and 1992, he worked in anti terrorism for the Met), led to him specializing in forensic psychotherapy at the secure Broadmoor Hospital.  Peter also consults with clinical teams in a variety of other NHS settings including eating disorder, personality disorder, self harm and child care assessments. “The parent whose child shares the same birth order (e.g. is like the parent in being the youngest child) can provide a greater intensity of (self) projective identification”. Helped by the work of Averil Earnshaw, Aylward argues that crucial events can occur on those dates, (such as death or serious illness) but also ones of great creative change. These become critical dates.

The book is essentially an exploration of the psychic histories of patients who through their forensic acts display their trans generational conflicts and trauma. The author maintains that it is critical that alongside the thinking that addresses “what have you done” there is also the equally important reflective thinking question “what has happened to you”? The author claims that this enables a full understanding of such events by embracing history, again, for both society (particularly the victims) as well as for the offender.  The author seeks to establish the essential need to consider the finest details when taking patient history if we are to understand the patient both within the therapeutic encounter and the treatment team milieu. It is my experience that therapists often take lean notes at the assessment stage (believing that the core material will come out in the wash, so to speak, eventually). However, I agree with Aylward that it can be beneficial to take the most comprehensive personal history as possible at the start of therapy so that the map can be most useful guiding the therapeutic journey.

it is the job of the analyst to become aware when something unconscious is being acted out in the therapy room

The core of psychoanalytical work is where the relationship between the client and therapist (transference) provides a way of understanding how the internal world (past relationships) affects current relationships.  It is the job of the analyst to become aware when something unconscious is being acted out in the therapy room. This is what it means to work with the transference when past memories of relationship dynamics start to occur in the relationship between patient and analyst.

Aylward also draws on the work of Juliet Mitchell and her publication on sibling relations and hysteria Mad Men and Madusaa (2000).  Aylward refers to a “critical date” when offences can occur at the same time that matched a traumatic event in the parent’s life.  This is what Freud called “compulsion to repeat” – an innate tendency to revert to earlier conditions (Freud  1920 p 18-22). Aylward uses the clinical tools including Klein’s (1946) projective identification, Segal’s (1978) symbolic equation, and Freud’s (1900) Ideas on the characteristics of the unconscious.

the importance of taking a meaningful account of history can often be the forgotten past

Aylward finds great theoretical inspiration from the work of Chilean Psychoanalyst Agnacio Matte Blanco which he says helped him with his capacity to think about emotions, using the concepts of “symmetry” and “asymmetry”.  He emphasizes the importance of taking a meaningful account of history, which he says, can often be the forgotten past. For Aylward, this can be indicative of the psychological process of pushing away (repressing) the unconscious.  I have been a fan of the work of Alfred Adler and was, therefore, intrigued when Aylward placed huge importance on taking particular note of the family order from one generation to the next.

So what makes someone become a mass killer? After all, there are many so called misfits who suffer from early family breakdown and who grow up without the father figure as a healthy triangulating influence. But not all of them turn out to be mass killers.  Aylward answers this by offering an analogy of a combination lock.  He does this “to explain the sequence of events that are required for a murderous act to be unleashed, not unlike the exact sequence of numbers for the lock to snap open.”

the traditional three Rs should be expanded to include a  fourth, namely relationships

What can we learn about these findings?Aylward believes that the teaching of the traditional three Rs should be expanded to include a  fourth, namely relationships. Aylward states “I believe we need to educate the next generation of mothers and fathers, starting at the earliest place of schooling and continuing it right up to the sixth form and on to university, about relationships … Inoculating future parents with insight is, I believe, the key.”  Whether Education Secretary Michael Gove will take any notice remains to be seen.

I found the book to be a great read. Aylward provides a coherent story that is both illuminating and a basis for further research and exploration.  His ideas on the psychological composition of offender behaviour is extremely thought provoking whilst his assertion that paedophilia can be treated by helping patients to a supportive, benign and authoritative intervention that they can introject will challenge many.