Author on the women with a twisted attraction to convicted killers.
The author explores the Happy Valley plot about women who wed jailed killers.
The most gripping scenes in the recent smash hit Happy Valley, for me, were those set in the highsecurity prison, when murdering rapist, Tommy Lee Royce, sat across the table from Frances, the woman with whom he’d formed an obsessive and unnatural bond. The two hadn’t met before Royce’s conviction, but were engaged to be married. They never touched, and yet the sexual tension between them was all but visible. We watched, fascinated and repelled, as Frances gazed at Tommy, refusing to see what was blindingly obvious to the rest of us – that the man she loved was a monster.
It is a scene repeated, in real life, in hundreds of high security jails across the world; because behind every evil man, there will be a long queue of women, each determined to make him her own.
Once I’d hit upon the idea of a woman obsessed by a serial killer as the central theme of my new book, Daisy In Chains, I was determined to find out if my wild idea at all reflected reality. I found evidence of hundreds of women in romantic relationships with men whom they did not know prior to their convictions for violent crime.
It isn’t hard to understand the appeal of a relationship to a man serving time. A wife, or long-term girlfriend, will be an advocate for his cause, driving forward any appeal process. A steady relationship, and its accompanying permanent address, is considered a big advantage when the possibility of parole comes up. A regular visitor will bring money, food and gifts. Letters and phone calls provide a much-needed break from the monotony of prison life. A prisoner with a woman, especially a good-looking one, gains automatic status within the prison, and there is always the erotic frisson of stolen sexual encounters during visits.
How, though, does one explain the appeal for the woman? Why would any woman commit emotionally, and legally, to someone with whom she cannot possibly build a future? Why should she dedicate herself to a man who will never fall asleep beside her, will never be there at Christmas and holidays, who cannot give her children?
Some of the few psychologists who have studied the phenomenon explain it as the modern equivalent of medieval courtly love. Courtly love isn’t real love, they argue. It’s a romantic ideal. The perfect suitor adores his lady, gives her unconditional love and expects nothing in return. He will long for her letters, for her visits, her phone calls. He will be thinking of her constantly.
This absence of expectation could be the key. A woman need not cook, wash or clean for a man in prison. He won’t fart in bed, roll home drunk in the early hours or cheat on her. He’ll
“MEN WHO KILL MUST ARGUABLY BE THE ULTIMATE ALPHA MALES, THE BEST POSSIBLE PROTECTORS”
never mistreat her, because the guards won’t let him get close enough. She doesn’t have sex, but she has sexual tension in abundance and, for many women, it is the thrill of expectation, rather than the act itself, which is so very delicious. A prison romance could be the ideal solution for a woman who cannot handle the grind of a real relationship.
The killers with movie-star good looks, typified by Happy Valley’s Tommy Lee Royce and my own Hamish Wolfe in Daisy In Chains, serve a different need according to some commentators. These men are the ultimate bad-boy celebrities. The hordes of teenage girls and young women who send them love letters and explicit photographs are falling foul of the age-old teenage need to rebel with the unsuitable boyfriend. Girls who dote on real life Tommys and Hamishes can shock their parents in the knowledge that, baring a prison breakout, they are perfectly safe.
Personally, I doubt that a longing for a lost romantic ideal or a means of shocking parents can entirely explain the fascination for killers. For me, the motivation is often more complex, much darker and doesn’t reflect particularly well on the female gender.
I suspect an entirely unrealistic narcissism lies at the heart of many of these relationships. It doesn’t matter how many women he’s mistreated in the past, she will be the one to get through to him. She will be different. Or maybe it’s that our fascination with killers speaks to our need for an alpha male. If women are genetically programmed to seek out the biggest, strongest, bravest mate, then men who kill must arguably be the ultimate alpha males, the best possible protectors.
Association with a notorious killer can bring a twisted sort of status to women with low self-esteem. A man who kills is powerful. A famous incarcerated killer has a status in society, albeit a rather twisted one. By becoming his woman, the female in question is absorbing some of this power.
I’d go as far as to argue that many of these women are addicted to violence. Many prison ‘brides’ have a history of violent relationships. Becoming involved with a convicted killer allows them to feed this addiction, whilst remaining relatively safe.
All of which rather begs the next question: how innocent are these women themselves?
Some women are fascinated by the crimes as much as by the criminals. What, exactly, did their man do to his victims? How, precisely, did he hurt them? How loud did they scream? In these cases, what we’re really seeing is some sort of evil by proxy. A hybristophiliac is someone who is sexually excited by violence performed on others.
Some of the women drawn to violent men may not just be passive observers. They may be offenders themselves, or potential offenders. Myra Hindley was considered by many to be the real brains behind the killing partnership, in spite of attempts to paint her as just one more of Brady’s victims. Fred West couldn’t live with the consequences of what he’d done. Rose could.
Ultimately, I’m going to say that like attracts like. You show me a woman attracted to a violent man, I’ll show you someone with a potential for violence as great. These women are to be treated with extreme caution. Possibly avoided altogether.
Tommy Leeroyce (James Norton) is Happy Valley’s most alluring killer.
Daisy In Chains (Bantam Press) is out now.