Category Archives: crime

Hindley Wakes

Myra Hindley was not a nice person. So notorious was she, in fact, that following her involvement in the particularly monstrous Moors Murders outside of Manchester, England, in the early 1960s, the use of the name Myra all but disappeared from use and she became popularly known as the ‘most hated woman in Britain.’ Hindley remained behind bars from the time of her arrest in the mid-60s until her death within prison in 2002. She and her psychotic Svegali, the particularly loathsome Ian Brady, were locked into a deeply twisted dance of darkness and sadism that began with Nazi paraphernalia and ended in the murder of children and a lifetime as not only guests of Her Majesty’s Prisons but as pretty much the most reviled people in the UK (particularly for Hindley).

It is interesting to note that in many ways the public treated Hindley far more harshly than Brady, who was generally thought to be the mastermind behind the horrific killings, simply because she was a woman (and Hindley was only too happy to play up this ‘love slave’ role in a calculated play for public sympathy). That a woman could possibly commit such atrocious acts was unthinkable to the popular mind – which conjures up the question, why is it so much less shocking that a man would do these things? Which is a valid topic worth addressing, but that’s another day, another blog.

Hindley spent 36 years in prison, during which she curried favor with figures she felt powerful enough to possibly help her case for parole. Most famously, she allied herself with Lord Longford, an eccentric aristocrat with Irish roots and a penchant for championing the unpopular cause of prisoner’s rights. Hindley hit him up for a visit after an exchange of letters and they embarked upon an unlikely friendship that ultimately cost him the public’s good graces. Even after finding out that Hindley had betrayed him by lying about additional victims and thus soiling his good name, Longford worked through a deep spiritual struggle to arrive at a place of forgiveness.

Their odd friendship was detailed in the very-watchable Channel 4 movie Longford, which caught my attention because the name is the same as an Irish county. My previous knowledge of the Moors Murders consisted of the legend behind The Smiths song ‘Suffer Little Children’ and it’s scandal upon release to the British airwaves in the 1980s. There is a brilliant scene in the film, when Longford, following Hindley’s betrayal, does a radio interview to stump for his new book on the saints. The host is, predictably, far more interested in the salacious details of the Lord’s friendship with Britain’s ‘most hated woman’ and needles the quirky old man mercilessly until he comes up with one of the most beautiful, if brief, speeches on forgiveness I’ve heard to date. The host will not let Longford discuss his book and continues to pepper him with the question of whether or not he regrets championing Hindey’s cause:

Host: It’s a simple answer, Lord Longford, yes or no. Do you regret it?

Lord Longford: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I consider my visiting Myra Hindley, and indeed all the other prisoners I’ve visited for over fifty years, to be one of the great blessings of my life. Now, perhaps, we could get back to the subject of the saints?

Host: But hasn’t she betrayed you? She’s ruined your good name and taken all the hard work you did for her and thrown in back in your face.

Lord Longford: Yes, perhaps there’s some truth in that. Forgiving her has proven difficult, very difficult, not for what she’s done to me, that’s neither here nor there, but for the terrible crimes themselves. Forgiveness is the very cornerstone of my faith, and the struggle to deepen my faith is my life’s journey. In that respect, she has enriched my spiritual life beyond measure, and for that I will always be grateful to her. If people think that makes me weak or mad, so be it. That is the path I have committed to, to love the sinner but hate the sin. Assume the best in people, not the worst. Believe that anyone, no matter how evil, can be redeemed, eventually.

Like both Hindley and Longford, I am an unlikely convert to Roman Catholicism (again, a topic for another blog, another day), and while I certainly cannot claim the same piousness and adherence to doctrine that Longford certainly could (I’m more of a cultural/cafeteria Catholic, a ‘Jesus-Is-My-Homeboy’ type and a Marianist at heart), I found his spiritual path deeply inspiring. While I could never comfortably endorse much of the Catholic dogma out there, I can wholeheartedly get behind the ethos of extending mercy to the most hated and dehumanized of human beings (the thought-provoking U.S. Catholic Bishop’s Statement on Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite recent reads) – prisoners.

In a larger context, I worry greatly about this practice we have of turning each other into things; the penchant we have for labels to help us easily define our fellow men and women, and how we so desperately ache for simple answers (‘she was evil’) to agonizingly complex questions (‘how could she have done such a thing?). I feel a deep uneasiness at the eagerness with which we render one another as less than human by the application of grossly inadequate words and concepts, because we are so very afraid to confront the darkness in the human heart and the illogical, maddening state of the human condition. If we can render an individual inhuman – ‘not like us’ – it is only a myopic and dangerous attempt at brushing the shadow side of our nature under the rug.

Do killers deserve our sympathy? Not particularly. Do I believe some people deserve to die, or to be in jail? Yes, even though I don’t believe the state has the right to take life. Do I believe that some people are simply vile, and should be kept away from the rest of us? Yes, certainly. And do I believe that some people, like Myra Hindley, are irredeemably manipulative or psychopathic? Yes. I do. But at the end of the day, no one is ever not human. These people are the shadow side of us; the faces of the savagery we come hardwired with, viscerally alive if spiritually dead, but no less one of us.

Everything I Need To Know About Love I Learned In A Prison

Several months ago, as summer was mercifully sliding into a languid and temperate fall, I drove down the spine of California to spend my weekend visiting a friend doing time in one of the state’s middle of nowhere megaprisons. I’d never been to a prison of any kind before and though I’d done my research (no spaghetti straps, no jeans, no hoodies, no nothing, lady), the word on the street was that the regulations could be a bit arbitrary (all black clothing was OK last week but isn’t this week, etc.) so I was a little nervous about not being let in. After driving hundreds of miles and booking a nearby hotel, a sista wants to visit her people, ya know?

But it all went smooth as silk. My papers were in order, my outfits were acceptable, I had the requisite clear purse full of quarters, and after pulling all my pockets out and turning around to do the hokey-pokey in front of the inspecting C.O., I was ushered through the metal detector and found myself in a sort of outdoor chainlink holding pen. We’d all hang out there, folks giddy and excited to see their loved ones, until a small herd of visitors had gathered. Periodically they would buzz the gate open and allow us through to make our way several hundred yards down a dusty footpath to the visiting house.

It’s a strange sensation to walk, unescorted, through a prison, even if it was just was on the periphery. I must admit that it was more reminiscent of a community college campus, with its attractive landscaping and quiet hush, than Sing Sing or San Quentin, but all that curly razor wire on top of the omnipresent chainlink kept any illusions in check.

At the visiting house, we were again rounded up into small packs and let through the thick glass doors at regular intervals, assigned a table, and instructed to sit down and wait for our respective inmates to arrive. It took my friend a long time to show, so I had plenty of time to observe – very discreetly – others waiting, as well as the visits already in progress, and to think about how each of these guys had his own story, his own stack of paper, an arraignment, a sentencing, a first day inside. People were playing board games, laughing, stockpiling food from the vending machines, talking with heads bowed, hugging tastefully, and trying very hard to maintain a human connection in the middle of an overly warm, mildly chaotic room that reminded me of any junior high cafeteria.

Finally my friend came down and that day and the next we sat outside, on the small visiting patio, talking about things both deep and trivial. I told him how on certain parts of the journey the highway had smelled like blood, and then all my life’s secrets came out of my mouth and I told him all the things I never knew if I would, things only my best friend knows, even some things he doesn’t. It was easy to forget where we were, with the flowers blooming on the other side of the fence, the hawks flying overhead and wild cats prowling around the grounds. He told me of finding a broken bird and feeding it with food and creatine until it was ready to be let go, and how when the time came, it didn’t want to – but, he had told it, we all have to grow up sometime.

On Sunday at 3pm they called time and all the visitors and inmates dejectedly dragged their feet back inside, stretching out the goodbyes until the very last minute. They herded all the visitors back into our glass pen and let us go one by one, each visitor waving frenetically to his or her inmate, still in the visiting room, as we exited through the sliding glass doors. Then it was back on the footpath and groups of us waiting again by the gate to be let through to the parking lot, our cars, the freeways, home.

Unlike Saturday afternoon, when the mood had been jovial and nearly ebullient due to the next day’s impending visiting hours, the vibe on Sunday was somber; shoulders slumped, feet shuffling, grief borne both nobly and nakedly. There would be no visits tomorrow, and all of us were going to get in our cars and drive many, many miles home, while our guys, whomever and whatever they were to us, would stay there, in their state blues, for a long time.

I started talking to a couple next to me, black folks in their 40s, who had driven all the way from LA. The Mom told me they’d come up to visit their son, and about how she’d bought all this food from the vending machines and kept feeding and feeding him until he pleaded, “Ma, stop, I’m gonna get sick.” The beauty of her simple act, a mother trying to feed her child, caught in my throat and I pushed my sunglasses down over my eyes, trying to be a stoic German girl.

I looked around at these people that I’d gotten to know just a little bit over the last two days – the woman with her wheelchair-bound mother whom I’d discussed different strategies for getting over the coastal mountain-range with; the girlfriends I’d seen putting on blush in the early morning light of the parking lot, the parents of the overfed young man, the young wife of an inmate struggling to get in a cuddle – and thought about how far all of us had driven, the money saved for hotel rooms and gasoline, the time spent hitting redial for the visiting-appointment line, the hours on dark freeways, the clear purses full of quarters, the careful attention paid to wardrobe, and the all the men, some who’d done terrible things and some whose mistakes weren’t so terrible, now shuffling back to their cells in buildings we couldn’t see the inside of, and I realized I’d never in all my life been to a place so overflowing with love. In the middle of nowhere. Beneath all that razor wire.

And this is the thing about love: sometimes I think it thrives best in the ugliest of places; where hope and joy are in short supply, where suffering and shame are as much a part of the day as sunrise and the inevitable night. You can’t stop it with judgments, or prohibitions against spaghetti straps, or miles of freeway. You can’t stop it with time. Just like the cats that didn’t know they were living amongst the exiled and the wicked, love wanders where it wants, knows no cage, and obeys no man.