A documentary called ‘Making A Monster’ recently aired on Channel 5 and involved various experts trying to assess to what degree to which the childhoods of some of the world’s worst criminals contributed to them carrying out their terrible acts.
Serial killer Rose West, who carried out her profoundly distressing and utterly appalling crimes (these are so well known that it is not necessary for me to detail them here other than to remind readers that they included killing her own daughter) in partnership with her notorious husband Fred West (who killed himself in prison prior to trial) was one of the subjects examined in the documentary.
Some people have said she was manipulated into her murderous behaviour by her husband, Fred West, but this is clearly far from a full explanation; indeed, it has been suggested that Rose West needed no encouragement from her husband, but was often the instigator of crimes). So let’s look at what the experts said and at other information that has come to light in relation to the childhood of Rose West.
Rose West was born into an exceptionally dysfunctional family. Both her parents had serious mental illnesses. Her father was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic who all his children with the exception of Rose. Instead, though, he sexually abused her and it has been suggested that she came to see the sexual abuse as transactional (as an adult, Rose sometimes worked as a prostitute) – in other words, equating in her mind submitting to the sexual abuse as a way of avoiding the physical abuse meted out to her siblings. Neighbours of the Wests reported that frequently terrible cries and screams could be heard coming from their house.
Rose West’s father also abused her mother who, partly as a result, became so mentally unwell that she required electroconvulsive therapy to treat her anxiety and depression. This was in the days when the procedure was less refined than it is today and, when undergoing the electric shocks to the brain, Rose’s mother would have had violent seizures. One expert suggested that, as she was pregnant at the time with Rose, this would have adversely affected the unborn child’s brain development.
It has also been reported that, as an infant, Rose West would physically rock herself so violently when she was in her cot that the cot would sometimes actually move across the kitchen floor. Apparently, such rocking can be a sign of extreme psychological disturbance and may represent a desperate attempt to self-soothe. Apparently, she continued to display such rocking behaviour even as an adult and was frequently observed doing so in prison (where, incidentally, she is said to have developed a close relationship with fellow, female serial killer, Myra Hindley).
Rose West was said to have been a ‘daydreamer’ at school, which is very likely to have been a form of ‘dissociation’, a desperate attempt to mentally escape from an unbearably painful reality. At this stage in her life, too, she displayed exhibitionist tendencies and would deliberately parade around the house naked in front of her younger brother who she is also said to have molested. It is overwhelmingly likely that this behaviour resulted in large part from the profoundly damaging effect her father’s abuse of herself would inevitably have had.
Other things that have been said about Rose West’s father was that he was a ‘tyrant’ when it came to controlling his family. For instance, as well as handing out savage beatings, he would make his children clean the carpet using toothbrushes and never allow them to go outside to play. Living under such conditions caused Rose to become withdrawn and to retreat from reality into her own protective ‘bubble’.
However, it appears that Rose West formed a trauma bond with her father and idealized him to the extent she couldn’t remain apart from him. This is surprisingly not uncommon amongst abused children. Indeed, such was the extent of her denial about the true nature of her childhood that she has, bizarrely, been quoted as describing it as:’sugar sweet candy-coated flossy merry time.’ Freud, I think, would have referred to this somewhat incongruous description of her childhood as a classic case of reaction formation (an unconscious defense mechanism to reduce anxiety involving the aking up an opposite feeling, impulse, or behaviour to those which would arise were the defense mechanism absent).
Unsurprisingly, given the domestic conditions to which she was subjected, her capacity to learn seems to have been impaired and she was slow to develop academically in relation to reading, writing and arithmetic. Other problems relating to school include her being bullied and excluded from mixing with classmates and later becoming a bully as well, both of which are common effects of being an abused child.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).