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What made Tracy Barlow evil?

Some musings on the biological and neurological causes of crime, with references to Wetherfield’s nasty bit of work.

Firstly, by way of context, this all arises from my reading of this book, “The Anatomy of Violence” by Adrian Raine. It is an absorbing and fascinating book, with a lot of interest to anyone working in the field of violence, abuse and neglect. I’d be very interested to know what the few neuroscientists who dip into this blog make of it.  I will be coming back to some more of the issues raised in the book in later pieces.

You can find the book here, and it really is worth reading – even if you end up disagreeing with some or a lot of it, the thought processes involved in formulating your counter opinion are worthwhile – and as Raine points out, the very action of reading the book and thinking about the ideas is altering your brain’s structure.

So, Tracy Barlowe. For the benefit of the one reader I know (hi Neville) doesn’t own a television, Tracy Barlow is a television character on Britain’s longest running soap, Coronation Street. When I began watching it, she was a little girl much attached to doing colouring in and wearing a parka coat. She grew up to be a nasty bit of work. Here’s some of what she has done :-

Spiking the drink of a harmless oddball, Roy Cropper, so that she could convince him that he had slept with her, breaking his marriage vows, to win a one penny bet.

Murdered her boyfriend Charlie (who admittedly was a beast) spending months beforehand setting up a fake defence that he had been domestically violent

Blackmailing a teenage boy into lying for her at this trial with promises of sex

Lied that a neighbour (Gail Platt) had confessed to murder which sent Gail to prison

Lying to Steve McDonald that the love of his life Becky, had assaulted her causing her to miscarry his twins

Running through the Hare psychopathy checklist, she doesn’t half tick a lot of those boxes. She has no empathy, no remorse, doesn’t take responsibility, is a glib and charming individual, a pathlogical liar, is cunning and manipulative

Now – why is she evil?  (I am of course, aware, that the reason her character is evil is that it makes for good drama to have wicked people and once you start doing wicked stuff in a soap, you become the go-to character for driving such storylines – but I am interested in, assuming for a moment that she were real, why that would be?)

She is bright, wasn’t abused as a child, her parents don’t have violent or psychopathic tendencies, she has had no major life traumas that we know of. She didn’t have a troubled adolescence, had a good education. The first time she got into any trouble was taking ecstasy (this inadvertently led to her needing a kidney transplant, which she got from her mother’s toyboy holiday romance fling, who then dies).

When you look at her life, her mother Deidre has had a lot of romantic entanglements, on and off love affairs, which may have led to feelings of confusion, uncertainty, even rejection. The male figure most constant was Ken Barlow, intellectual but distant – a firm moralist  and a black and white “right and wrong” sort of man (but simultaneously a hypocrite) who never shied away from letting her know that she was a disapointment. And the family unit was constantly shifting, as one or other of the primary carers found a new passion, a new relationship, before reconciling.

Of course there are bigger issues then – which the book explores a lot. Can we ever understand evil, can we predict violence, can we do anything about the factors that lead to violence and anti-social behaviour? Can we repair someone who has taken that path?

One of the interesting studies in the book shows that children who had a violent crime, a murder, in their neighbourhood went on to perform markedly worse in school tests than other children who had not. And that living in an area where a single murder took place nearby lost the equivalent of what a year and a half of education would provide (in terms of alteration to IQ).  Coronation Street may seem far from Baltimore or Washington DC, but it is rife with violence and crime – why even those two old dears in the pub with their sherry (Rita and Emily) both lost husbands to violent incidents AND were the victims of murder attempts.

Another, unexpected one, relates to Tracy’s mother Deidre – she is famous for being one of the few characters on modern tv that is still allowed to do something. In soaps, she is probably the only one left who you see doing this activity and it turns out to be something that studies have shown if you do during pregnacy, you are three times more likely to have a violent or anti-social child or child who turns out to be that in adulthood.


If, as we suspect, Deidre smoked during pregnancy, and judging from her demeanour when she smokes, she’s been a forty a day woman for getting on for forty years now, and her pregnancy was in the early seventies, she almost certainly did, that might actually turn out to be a factor. The hypothesis, supported by these studies, is that smoking in pregnancy affects the formation and structure of the infants brain, and that damage and alteration to the structure increases the relative risk of a violent or antisocial life for your child.  [Of course, the concept of relative risk here is important – if for example there is a 1 in a million chance of hving a violent child, then a threefold increase is, whilst not good, still a pretty low chance, and the book doesn’t really get stuck into the relative risk]

But it was something that surprised me – and once in a while we have a mild moral outrage in the press when we see a pregnant celebrity smoking, but I had no idea that smoking during pregnancy could have any impact on behaviour in later life. (not as much as alcohol, head injuries, malnutrition and lack of care in first year of life, those are the big big factors)


About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

6 responses

  1. It’s compulsory to have at least one thoroughly evil woman and one thoroughly decent man in every soap. I don’t watch Coronation Street: who is the man?

    I am reminded of a Private Eye cover during the Iranian hostage crisis. The caption was IRAN: PRESIDENT’S BRAINWAVE and one of his staff was saying “But Mr President, there’s no such person as Wonderwoman”.

    • I think currently the evil man is Karl, who burned down the pub to get Stella back (his ex, killing in the process Sunita, who he had left Stella to be with). I like the Private Eye cover, which reminds me that the inventor of Wonder Woman also invented the polygraph machine…

  2. In the 40s and 50s just about every adult smoked. Was the crime rate higher then?

  3. It is a good point, and the one which occurrred to me also as I was reading. The book shows that alterations to brain structure can increase the probability of a person being violent, and the studies show that exposure in the womb to smoking alters the structure of the brain in that way, such that the risk of a person being violent increases threefold. But yes, of course, smoking during pregnancy was far more prevalent in earlier decades. So one would have expected the problems that were caused by smoking during pregancy to be much more manifest during earlier decades.

    Perhaps there was a greater counterbalance to antisocial behaviour at that time in the shape of society’s attitudes generally, or a greater fear of the consequences of crime putting the brakes on those tendencies? Perhaps the rate of violence has actually gone down? Perhaps given attitudes towards domestic violence in earlier decades there was more of it, but it didn’t get treated as a crime. Perhaps, as I suggest, “Relative risk” is the important factor when one considers just what a threefold increase in risk might actually mean.

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