Monday, August 28, 2006


TONY PARKER – Life after Life
Interviews with twelve murderers.
Publisher - Harper Collins – 1990.

Angered by someone’s words or actions we might think momentarily ‘I’ll kill him.’ These three words, similar to ‘I love you’, cannot always be taken at face value. We rarely know the real depth of our love until it’s tested. Likewise our understanding of our more murderous impulses. We’d like to think we’d have more self control in moments of high passion, than to kill. This book demonstrates the power of emotion to override our rational mind and social conscience.

The twelve murderers that Tony so skillfully interviews, tell a universal and sad story. Nine men and three women speak of their lives before the murder, the murder itself and their life after the murder. How they describe their crime varies from distant, to matter of fact, to recollections that are vivid or chilled with regret. Decades later some are still trying to come to terms with what happened to them. Why did they do what they did ?

Their previous life experiences could easily be used to excuse their actions. No one does that. Though it is plain to see that these people had a lot stacked against them. Their lives are dogged by difficult upbringings, social disadvantage or early mis-behaviour that escalates to murder. Some are hopelessly naive individuals, brutalised by circumstance, some socially inadequate or simple minded. The lives and events that lead up to the murder are not insignificant factors. They explain the rage and why they lost control, without excusing it. The murders took only a moment. This book demonstrates just how tragic that one moment was, as the consequences roll on decades later.

Murder is something you can never expunge. You cannot make, or set things right again. For ‘ all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little flower.’ All twelve people are haunted by those few seconds of rage, where their self control fell absent. Their lives are also stained by societies abhorrence. Even after they’ve done time, their lives are immensely difficult. A murderer is a person imprisoned forever by their heinous crime. Society cannot trust them anymore, and doesn’t really believe in the possibility of their reform. Myra Hindley was demonised right up till the moment of her death, and will be written into criminal history in that light.

But then, when you read the account of Phillip Derbyshire’s crime, your sympathies are stopped in their tracks. On one night, unable to handle his floundering relationship with his wife and frustrated by the crying of his eighteen month old son. He vigorously shakes him, throws him in a fire, pours boiling water on him and swings him flat against a wall. He cannot remember when the child stopped crying, nor when it was dead, so consumed was he by his rage. He tells this, then says to Parker ‘ It has to be told first, you have to know about it so you can decide whether you want to come and talk to someone like me, a person who did what I did’ His whole story is heavy with regret and still riddled with incomprehension.

It is noticable how little self justification or rationalisation they weave into the retelling of their stories. There is precious little here to lead you to think they are laying on a sob story to elicit sympathy. Their storytelling is often quite brutally frank and has an authentic air of remorse.

The focus of this book is obviously on the murderers, but we get little sense of the impact on the victims family. Studs Terkel, Parker’s American counterpart, would have interviewed everyone involved; a victims family, the murderer’s family, witnesses to the murder, policemen etc. This way you would bear witness to the whole situation, not just a partial slice. Terkel is also non partisan, he definitely doesn’t take sides. He keeps his own opinions to himself. If I have any criticism of Parker it is that he definitely has a social agenda. He wants to open our eyes to the suffering of the perpetrators of crime. This he does extremely well, but for me the partiality is it’s major flaw. Parker, like Terkel, is a great listener and a sensitive transcriber and editor. He uses vocabulary and sentence structure to give you a sense of his subjects expressiveness, intelligence and ability to reflect. Their character emerges off the page via their style and habits of speech.

The victims of crime so easily illicit our sympathy. Whilst criminals too quickly become evil and unworthy of consideration. It is ,however, useful to appreciate that suffering is universal and impartial to a degree we hardly dare acknowledge. We all suffer from the causes of our actions. Hard and fast definitions of good and evil distort and make a travesty of our perceptions. They really do not help. As people tend then to rush toward the moral high ground and dehumanise the victims and the perpetrators. They also make it impossible for some one to reform, change or move on. Yes, a wrong has been done in often a cruel and gruesome manner. However, would we wish to be described and defined solely by one single act, perpetrated decades ago, that took barely a few seconds of our life ?

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