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The Banality (and relative rarity) of evil

I suppose if you asked a member of the public whether evil was to be found in any of these groups :- politicians, estate agents, journalists, people who abuse children and lawyers; once you got past the obvious barbed remarks, there would be a consensus that there is one group where you might actually expect to find it, not just in the worst outliers of that group but diffused throughout.

I haven’t ever kept numbers, but I think I’ve probably done over three hundred care cases over my long and undistinguished career.  And I would say that I have come across more evil than the average person, but substantially less than you might expect, given that every single one of those cases has involved a parent subject to at least a suspicious of harming harmed (or doing something that would cause a risk of harm) to their child.  Of course, some of them are exonerated by the enquiry and either did nothing wrong (the suspicious-looking injury turned out to be an accident, the unpleasant allegation turns out to be fabricated, the evidence of neglect turning out to be something more akin to an evidence that different people have different standards), but that doesn’t account for all that many of the cases – probably 20 or so?

The vast majority of the cases I’ve been involved in – for Local Authorities and parents, have been with people who had changes they needed to make in their life, because they’d taken a wrong turn – whether that be drugs, alcohol, inability to cope, depression or in Wodehouse’s lovely expression “Mistaking it for a peach, having picked instead a lemon in the garden of love”.  Some of those people, when shown that the wrong turn was having an effect on their children they hadn’t realised are able to turn back, most want to and try their best but aren’t able to and some think that they don’t really have to make the choices between their children and something else that professionals are telling them they have to. Like the famous advertising maxim  “Fifty per cent of the money we spend on advertising is wasted, we just don’t know which half”,  you can never be sure of which family that resources and attention are being thrown at will respond, which of them will try but fall short, and which of them won’t really give their all thinking that they can have it all.

But actual evil?  Pretty rare. I would say that I have worked with probably 3 evil people in those 300, which, given that we are drawing from a group of people who had harmed, or were suspected of harming children is a tiny proportion. I have worked with more people who have brought about the deaths of children than I have evil parents.

I once visited a client, who I shan’t name, but had murdered some children; and whilst seeing her, was less than twenty feet away from Myra Hindley, who I think most people might come up with if trying to name a truly evil woman. She wasn’t platinum-blonde, defiant-eyed and black-lipsticked. In fact both of these two women would not have looked out of place in a mobile library. And that made me think of the banality of evil concept – that most people who do truly monstrous things are not necessarily what we in our head think of as being abominations, but are instead shockingly normal.

The Press never seem to get this – as we can see in the last year’s press coverage of the murder of Jo Yeates, it was felt acceptable to smear, vilify and identify a man as the likely killer for not much more than him having a distinctive physical appearance that the Press felt snapped closely into the model that they had in their head of what a killer would look like. They were utterly wrong, and nearly destroyed a man in the process, because he had unorthodox hair…

This whole disconnection between what people who do terrible things look and act like, and what we (persuaded by culture) think they look and act like, causes problems in care proceedings all the time. When we all know that paedophiles look like dirty old men in macs and that they would leap on a child and abuse them the second they got the chance, small wonder that vulnerable women faced with someone who looks like a regular person and who is kind to them, loving to them, and ‘wouldn’t hurt a fly’ and aren’t presenting like a slavering wolf drooling at the prospect of getting at the children find it hard to believe that the person they know could have done the things in the past that they’ve been accused of.  If we equate in the media all people who do awful things to children (and heaven knows I’m not defending the actions) as monsters, it’s no surprise that vulnerable mothers just think to themselves “If he had done those things he was accused of, he’d be a monster. I know him and he’s not a monster. So he’s been wrongly accused”