I haven't won the Booker or dated Martin Amis or been offered a six figure sum for a supermarket bestseller, but I have finally achieved literary cool. I have a stalker.
My novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, arouses strong reactions, often before people have even read it. It's a fiction about Myra Hindley, a fact which seems somehow to disturb people, perhaps because they think fiction is simply an act of empathy. People are anxious about reading the book or censorious. They worry about the families of the victims. They worry about their own motives, my motives, my eye makeup. When the fabulous Deborah Orr offered to interview me for the Guardian, one of the trolls on the paper's website commented, '
You only need to look at the woman's eye makeup to understand that you are dealing with a person of dubious taste and sensibility.'
I'm still not entirely sure why an honest look at someone real should be so much more upsetting than the often lurid and sensational fictional works about serial killers that flood the market. But I can only think that a person who phones up a writer and claims to be Jack the Stripper is both misogynistic and in some way titillated by a book that has tried to be objective.
I was in France staying with my brother and his partner when he first phoned. It was 10 o'clock at night and my sister Mary, who took the call, thought he sounded drunk or drugged. When she told him I was away he launched into a rendition of the song, The Stripper. This went on for some minutes before he said he was Jack the Stripper. 'Do you really not know who I am?' he asked, when she ran through some of our male acquaintances.
He called again a few days later and I took the call. The voice was light and excited, with that febrile energy you get from DJs or television presenters. Mercifully he sang only a couple of verses of his theme tune, before saying he was Jack the Stripper and would he come round to perform his act?
The original Jack the Stripper murdered six women in London between 1964 and 1965. Their naked bodies were abandoned in alleyways, in industrial estates or down by the river. Some were stripped of their teeth as well as their clothes, and most were flecked with industrial paint. They had been strangled or choked to death.
My modern Jack seems a less malign character, gleeful and maybe a little high on bravado. 'Do you think you could handle it?' he asked, amused by his own double entendre and unfazed by my polite refusal.
What a curious world we live in, though, where a stranger can insinuate himself into your life and thoughts through technology. My phone number is on my website, for work purposes, so I have only myself to blame for his knowing it.
But he said a 'generous friend' had offered to pay for his services. When I asked who, he said 'Mary and Catherine.' One of my sisters is called Catherine, but the only person who ever calls her that is her son, when he's trying to wind her up. The other Catherine in the family was my mother, but even a capable wee woman like her would be unable to book a stripper's services from beyond the grave.
It's not difficult to see how my friend Jack picked on those names. Even without paying credits any casual searcher can see on the people-finding site, 192.com, that I used to live with a Mary and Catherine. (My sister and I cared for our mother for many years before she died in 2010.) But Jack obviously didn't know any of the feisty, high-powered feminists in my family if he thought they'd consider a display of his anatomy a desirable gift.
I suppose he thought he was being scary, though he was too cheery to quite hit the mark. Most truly frightening people don't really have much sense of humour. But then I got the impression he doesn't read enough to know that, certainly not my book.
And I don't think he gets out much either.
What if Myra Hindley had looked ordinary when she was arrested? Would we feel the same revulsion against her? Would her image have become an iconic symbol of evil if she had looked as she did in later years, a brown-haired woman with a soft body and a warm-looking smile? Throughout her years in prison Hindley had to live with the fact that for most people, she would always be her 1965 police mugshot¾harshly bleached hair; unnaturally black eyebrows; a sullen, sensualist's mouth; insolent eyes not deadened by what they had seen but full of a malevolent force, trying to dominate the viewer.
No wonder she has been hated for nearly fifty years, hated more even than Ian Brady. Women are supposed to be mothers, nurturers, and a woman like Hindley, who flouted these so-called biological imperatives, is viewed as unnatural. As a feminist, I'm supposed to think that her demonisation is a sign of our society's inherent sexism, and no doubt there's some truth in that.
But I'm a woman, and I know what we are. I don't expect women to be just mothers and carers. Their behaviour and desires can be every bit as dark and destructive as men's, their anger just as ferocious. We are not always victims.
Hindley certainly was not. For me, she actually was worse morally than Ian Brady, because she participated willingly in some of the worst crimes we have seen in this country and it wasn't even her own idea. It was Brady whose urges and philosophy drove their 'existential exercise,' as he calls it now, Brady whose longings were skewed and violent. She went along for the ride, but without him she probably would not have committed murder.
Without her he could not. A lone man would have found it much harder to entice children into his car. No doubt he would eventually have found a way, but she was pivotal to his success. Even in those less anxious days, children were taught not to take sweets from strangers, not to go away with someone they didn't know. A sixteen year old like Pauline Reade, all dressed up to go dancing, would never have got into a car with a single man like Brady. Only when her neighbour, Myra Hindley, asked her for a favour, did the kind teenager agree to go with them.
Many people have talked about folie àdeux in connection with Brady and Hindley, but it doesn't seem a very useful label to me. All of the dictionary definitions talk about the shared delusions of a couple in such a relationship, but what were Hindley's delusions? She went along with Brady's Nazi fixation, learning German, listening to tapes of Hitler rallies, carrying a picture of a female concentration camp guard round in her handbag, but then she also ditched her Woman's Own for Wordsworth's Prelude in order to catch her man¾Brady had ignored her up to that point. Women in those days were still following 1950's patterns. They did what they thought their men wanted.
Brady wanted perversion, terror, violence, and Hindley went along with it as she'd have gone along if he'd wanted lace curtains and cocktails. For him the internal pressures were overwhelming and he would undoubtedly have murdered in the end, but Hindley made a choice. After the first murder, when she claimed to be terrified of Brady's violence, she started an affair with a policeman she sold her car to. Not a smart move if you really are afraid of a man. When Brady clicked his fingers and said he wanted to commit another murder, she ditched her lover and came running. She had the perfect get-out, could have confessed to her policeman and probably played the female victim card, but she decided the lure of blood and sex had more pull.
Hindley was a thrill-seeker, addicted to the heightened reality she shared with Brady. She had probably never felt more alive in her life than when they were committing the murders. As a child her father had been violent to her. Now, as an adult, she could revel in the power she and Brady had over life and death. So callous was she about their victims, that she used to stop Pauline Reade's mother in the street and ask if she had any news about her missing daughter.
Narcissistic and aggressive to anyone who crossed her, Hindley probably had a histrionic personality disorder. She craved excitement and emotional drama, sought the approval of others, needed to be the centre of attention, and had a desire for instant gratification. Had she been brought up in a middle class home with theatrical outlets for these personality traits, she might have become an actress or a musician, but the only way to satisfy them in her surroundings was to follow Brady.
David Smith and Maureen Hindley
She followed him into hell, which showed in her face when they took the notorious mugshot. People have often said her eyes were dark and dead in that picture, but it seems to me they show the depths she had come to. Photographs of her sister taken around the same time show the same fashion for bouffant hair and kohl-rimmed eyes, but Maureen looks like a normal young woman. Her eyes do not burn with the intensity of someone who has seen too much, done too much. Her face is not suffused with secret knowledge, does not brim with repressed anger. Myra Hindley chose the wrong path and it is written in every shadow, every hollow, every sharply angled plane of her face.
Someone said to me recently, when I was talking about Moors Murderer Ian Brady and the letters we exchange, 'So, is he a sort of a friend?' It was a startling question which I pondered for several minutes. The answer, when it came, was even more startling. Yes. Not a friend in the truest sense where there is equality and an exchange of intimate thoughts, but he is someone I care about, someone I have an empathy for, despite the terrible things he has done.
When I first started writing my novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, Myra Hindley was already dead, but Brady was (and is) still alive. I decided to write to him, thinking that if he replied, it would give me huge insight into the kind of person who becomes a serial killer. I didn't expect to believe everything he said, knew that he would try to re-shape history to suit himself, but I hoped I'd be able to negotiate my way through any ambiguities and misinformation. For some reason, I didn't really think that he would reply.
But one morning a letter arrived, the address written in minute, sloping handwriting that I didn't recognise. My heart started pounding like a racehorse on speed when I realised who it was from. There was a malign energy in the writing, a rage that suffused the writer's thoughts on politics, justice and the staff at Ashworth, the secure mental hospital for the criminally insane where he lives.
I took it along to show my brother, on our weekly Saturday coffee afternoon. He peered through his glasses at the tiny writing, absorbing the Brady rant, his contempt for what he called the Ashwitz Gestapo, his disdain for politicians and the blood they have on their hands from the countless wars they have promulgated throughout the last few decades. 'I think,' said Peter in his customary dry tones, 'that it ill becomes a serial killer to adopt the moral high ground.'
And yet when Brady said Bush and Blair bore the responsibility for more deaths than he did, I had to agree. When he said that powerful people were rarely held accountable as he had been, I had to agree. The fact that he had killed those children and left their bodies on the moors did not alter the fact that he was right, that he was a thinking person with a moral perspective, even if few people would agree with him on the subject of murder.
Even there he did have his own morality. He wasn't some animal, blindly driven by his urges. He was a man enthralled by ideas, by the thought that in a godless world man has to make his own laws, his own decisions, has to have the courage to follow where his desires lead him. In one of his letters he said to me of the novel, You'll never get the zeitgeist right.
But I understood the zeitgeist very well. In 1967, only a year after he was jailed for life for the Moors Murders, I was a university student, entranced by Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty, convinced that Nietszche's path of Dionysus would bring me to an understanding of life far deeper than any offered by following the path of convention. These were not contemporary texts, but they spoke to something in the times, provided ready-made formulas for the restless, iconoclastic spirit that was swelling like a tide in the young.
That year, the Doors came along. I was lost, obsessed by the rebellious psycho-drama with which they enchanted a generation, fired up by the moral imperative of Break On Through to the Other Side.
The fact is, I was lucky¾I didn't have many transgressive desires to act on. Drugs scared me, I didn't like the taste of drink (then!), and my sex life was limited to mooning after unattainable boys in the university library. Brady's sophisticated and perverted tastes were beyond anything I (or most people) could imagine.
Those tastes were his tragedy. He is a highly intelligent man who could have had a useful life, but instead he explored his warped creativity and in doing so destroyed the lives of others. To him, murder was a work of art, the murderer more truly alive than the rest of us.
Brady was not alone in highjacking the sixties dream of revolution and personal liberty for his own particular pleasures. The post-war generation was tired of the restraints of a post-war economy, tired of a post-war culture that tried to stuff all the excitement and displacement and change back into the toy-box. The feeling not only that you could but that you should act on your desires led to all sorts of aberrant outcomes that the idealists could never have envisaged: Charles Manson and his blood-soaked cult, the killing at Altamont, drugs and violence and violence and drugs.
For years after the Moors Murders, Ian Brady transcribed Braille books for the blind, difficult and tedious work which was a practical form of atonement for what he had done, but the families of his victims will never forgive him, nor will most members of society. Unlike Myra Hindley, he didn't expect them to.
There is a kind of dignity in that and I think that is why I feel for him. For the sake of a short period of heightened, twisted, ecstatic experience, he has gone on to have a life of misery and isolation. He told me he is alone, but not lonely. That is only one of the many things he says which I don't believe.