Britain, and the nursing profession have been rocked by the trial of Lucy Letby. For those who do not know this case, Letby was a placid looking neo-natal nurse. Loved by patients parents to the extent one couple considered making her a Godmother to their child (whom she tried to kill) and well liked amoung colleagues. There has been general shock and amazement at her crimes. Now she has been found guilty and is facing dying in prison the whole country has turned to try and make sense of what happened.
There have been baby killers before. Probably the most well known are the baby farmers of the Vicorian era. Who “helped” women, for a fee, who had given birth outside of wedlock by taking their child in and caring for them. With no social saftey net, and a huge stigma against unwed mothers it may have for some to be an act of kindness, many thinking their babies were going to be adopted by childless but loving couples. However the practice was rife with greed and duplicity and there are several well known cases of baby farmers murdering children, sometimes immediately after recieving them into their care. This of course led to changes in the law, and greater protection for children from abuse and cruelty.
The practice of murdering babies is not totally confident to the Victorian era though. Beverly Allett was a nurse who was convicted in the early 1990s of also killing babies in her care. We also know that medical murderers can be difficult to catch. There is the fact that most medical murders are not necessarily violent or bloody. There is little gore to leave a trail. Therefore it can take some time before a pattern emerges. Once a pattern has, we can also see that often disbeleif comes into play. Wrapping your mind round the fact that a colleague who you have worked along side for years, sometimes in very tough circumstances, can be doing the exact opposite of what your shared vocation is meant to do, must be terrible. Once it has sunk in there is then the layers of beuocracy to get through. We can see in Letby’s case that hospital bosses who ignored warnings, and forced whistleblowers to apologise to Letby, are currently under a lot of pressure to take responsibility and resign. An inquiry will be opened and it is safe to say there will be some harsh judgement.
We have seen this aspect of the case before as well. When Harold Shipman, the grandfatherly looking and well loved GP was convicted of killing an estimated 250 victims. The ripples of shock lasted for some time, and changes were made to prescribing and death certificate practices. We are certainly only at the begining of the process of investigating what exactly happened with Letby, and what changes need to be made to make sure it does not happen again. Essentially the unthinkable has now become thinkable. That thought, now crystalised in societies concious demands action.
Action, while being able to prevent the possibility of similar behaviour though does not address the big question which most people will be asking. Why? For the vast majority of people their attitude to babies is somewhere between the spectrum of, “I’m happy for others, but wouldn’t want one of my own,” to “I absolutely adore them.” I myself exist at the higher end of the absolute adoration but have many friends and aquaintances who have made active decision not to persue parenthood, for various reasons.
It is hard to imagine someone who hated babies becoming a neo-natal nurse. Given that the job can bring huge rewards, but also great low’s. Losing a baby you have fought hard to help live must be a terrible experience for any medical professional to go through. So it is hard to understand if someone actively hated babies why they would chose to specifically go into caring for the most fragile and vulnerable ones, and supporting their parents through such a worrying time.
The prosecution during the trial put forward several theories as to why Letby may have done what she did. One is that she was infatuated with a doctor on the ward, another that she had low-self esteem. None of them really feel like they wholy grasp at and cling onto the truth of what happened. It is the most human of things to do to search for meaning. Often the more difficult the circumstances, the more it rocks beliefs that are at our core the more compelled we will feel to search for meaning. Meaning helps us make sense of things when the world appears particularily chaotic, or counter intuative.
This need for meaning can become all consuming, and what we chose to give meaning to says a lot about ourselves and the society and culture around us. Letby’s crimes were indeed counter intuative. They went against how we expect people to behave around babies. They went against what we believe the nursing profession stands for. They also went against the image that Letby portrayed, one newspaper calling her “beige,” she was pretty much the poster girl for the sometimes sexist slur “basic.” It is now obvious that under her seamingly placid exterior a rage of emotions and low self-worth were battling it out. Is that enough to explain what she did?
The answer is probably no. Her crimes being too big and too shocking to put down purely to low-self worth. We will for years to come have investigative journalists, podcasters, true crime writers pouring over Lucy’s life and trying to find something, anything that will explain the conundrum she presents us with.
However, I strongly suspect that in most of these cases it will be a difficult process to find that black pearl of wisdom. Mainly becasuse I strongly suspect that Letby herself has no idea why she has done these things. Maybe her time in prison will bring her clarity that can be useful for those who aim to prevent a repetition of this abhorance. So often in culture the serial killer, is portrayed as a master criminal. Like Moriarty, able to think hundereds steps ahead in the chess game he plays with Sherlock Holmes, who is also at the same time taking on an intellectule feat that possibly only AI could really do justice too. This image of the serial killer is full of bombast, sound and fury. It is an almost pantomime portrayal of abberation. Designed to give us the comfort of specific and traceable reasons. So even when bad things happen we can snuggle into the comfort of knowing why, not just how.
Real life however is not so quick, so easy. Being what it is, falible, messy, and sometimes incoherant, those of us with the privalege to only read through this case, rather than live through it will at some point have to settle with the truth that a lot of the time we ourselves don’t know why we do things, so expecting a serial killer, someone whoes inner life is so vastly different to our own, to somehow magically give us an answer to comfort us from their crimes is highly unlikely.
This week I have been watching The Patient on Disney +. This series starts Domhnall Gleeson and Steve Carell. Gleeson is a serial killer, who finding traditional therapy is not working for him, kidnapps his therapist to help him work to stop killing. The premis of the show is farcical, however what we really get is a incredibly thoughtfully written piece of television, which is brought wonderfully to life by Gleeson and Carell, touching on questions such as what are lifes blessing, it’s challenges, and what and how we hide from ourselves and others. This beautifully paced series deserves accolades and should be a must watch for any crime fans.