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.