(From the archive. This is a review I wrote of The Strange Case of Thomas Quick. The Swedish Serial Killer and the Psychoanalyst who created him by Dan Josefsson, for the Guardian a couple of months ago. It follows on from an earlier piece Kajsa and I posted, firstly on the LRB blog and then on this one: below, December 2013. That one went more into police and legal failures; this concentrates on the cod psychology at the centre of the affair.)
Ah, Sweden! Lakes, forests and islands; glorious summers (and treble-glazing to take care of the winters); peace; prosperity; beautiful people; gender equality; fantastic parental leave and childcare provision; free university education; true Social Democracy; toleration; massive generosity towards refugees; IKEA… I’ve lived there for 20 years, on and off, and it is still, broadly speaking, my ‘Shining City on the Hill’.
But isn’t that a bit boring? Which is maybe why ‘Thomas Quick’ – a.k.a. Sture Bergwall, a minor criminal much troubled by his homosexual urges – caused such a vicarious thrill when he arrived on the Swedish public scene in November 1993, unmasked as Sweden’s first ‘serial killer’, with a career going back nearly thirty years, to when he was 14, and extending to 39 murders by the time they stopped counting. Most of them involved sexual gratification and ritual dismemberment, with a couple of cases of cannibalism thrown in. (His favourite titbits were nipples and sphlincters.) The tabloids were ecstatic. It made a welcome change from new traffic plans for Stockholm and the love life of the generally well-behaved Crown Princess Victoria. This was ‘Nordic Noir’ with a vengeance. But in this case the press was hardly to blame. The ‘serial killer’ story was corroborated by the police, leading psychiatrists, the judiciary – which convicted him of eight of the murders – and by Quick himself. In fact, Quick was its sole original source. He ‘confessed’ to all these murders before anyone had suspected him of any of them. No other evidence was ever produced for his complicity; not even ‘information that only the killer could have known.’ That was usually found to have been gleaned from heavy hints by his interrogators, or from his own researches among old provincial newspapers in the Stockholm City library. (Who would have thought that a member of the criminal classes could use a microfilm reader?) When he was taken to where he claimed to have buried the bodies, together with trained ‘cadaver dogs’, not a shred was found. (One bit of ‘bone’ turned out later to be chipboard.) Without the police leading him on, his descriptions – of murder sites, the appearances of his victims, and the methods and weapons he had used – were nearly always wrong. In fact, of course, he hadn’t murdered anyone. Reading this account it seems inexplicable that anyone could have thought he did. That, of course, is the tabloid story now.
Josefsson’s isn’t the first book-length account of it, even in English translation. The late Hannes Råstam’s Thomas Quick: the Making of a Serial Killer (2012) was the best of the earlier ones. Råstam was the heroic journalist who started all this off. He laid the blame at the doors of the three agencies involved, roughly equally. The police were simply stupid. (Råstam points out hat they also lied.) The courts – not as democratic as ours, though that might not have made a difference – were totally incapable of dealing properly with cases in which even the defence counsel argued for his client’s guilt, because that’s how Quick instructed him; and then were too rigid to change their minds when the cases fell apart. The psychiatrists who were in charge of Quick were slaves of a particular theory which led them to assume, and then to argue in court on what were supposed to be ‘scientific’ grounds, that Quick had to be guilty, and indeed was more likely to be guilty the more mistakes he made. (The mistakes were a way of approaching the truth.) Josefsson mainly runs with that last idea. Indeed, his book – brilliantly researched, angry, immensely readable in this fine translation – is at least as much about one particular psychiatrist, whom he sees as the real villain here, as it is about Quick.
Her name was Margit Norell, and it was her theory of repressed childhood memory that fuelled the case against Quick. He had been, she claimed, sexually abused by his parents as a young child – a fact that only emerged, and in a grotesque form (this book is not for the squeamish), after weeks of psychotherapy, and under a mixed regime of powerful prescription drugs – which is what set off his own killing spree. His six siblings vigorously denied the abuse, but that just went to show how repressed their memories were. Nowadays ‘repressed memory’ is a contested idea, to be balanced against another notion, ‘false memory’, which may have been what the heavily-doped Quick was exhibiting, if he wasn’t consciously and cleverly making it all up. (From Josefsson’s account of his earlier life he seems quite capable of that.) But Norell’s diagnosis fitted better with the great theory she was hoping to make her name with, after years of perceived failure. She was hoping it would put her up there with Freud. Instead it not only brought down her own reputation, but also gravely damaged that of the whole psychiatric profession in Sweden, as well as, indirectly, of the law.
How on earth could one elderly psychiatrist have this influence? She wasn’t actually employed by Säter hospital, where Quick received most of his treatment, but only acted as an external ‘supervisor’ for his appointed psychotherapists. All of them, however, had been her pupils or disciples in the past; many of them had even been her patients. She obviously exerted a tremendous personal magnetism over them, despite what appears to be a haughty way with them (she was quite upper-class), and a streak of cruelty if she was ever crossed. Many of them, interviewed later by Josefsson, described her as a ‘mother’ figure: often a replacement for the mothers they felt they had never had. They also commonly characterized the group of them together as a ‘sect’ or even a ‘cult’, adhering to a rigid set of beliefs, about repressed memories and how to unrepress them, against what increasingly came to be the scepticism of the rest of the psychiatric world. More than this: Josefsson has discovered, surprisingly, that many of the police and judiciary involved in the Quick cases were also personally under her influence, sometimes, again, as ex-patients of hers. So it was a closed circle, each element reinforcing the others.
It also operated in a particular context of ‘progressive’ thinking about society generally, especially on the Left, going back to the revolutionary 1970s, which welcomed the idea that even schizophrenia and criminal psychosis were environmental rather than biological, and could be cured, ‘naturally’, by means of therapy. Nearly all the people responsible for this miscarriage of justice were good Social Democrats, often distinguished for their liberalism in other fields. Claes Borgström, for example, Quick’s defence lawyer, became a respected Equality Ombudsman later on. That’s an unsettling thought, for us admirers of the Shining City.
It wasn’t a bad theory, if you treated it as a hypothesis. Hypotheses, however, need to be tested. Otherwise they’re not ‘theories’, which is how they are often described, but mere assumptions. Margit Norell’s fault – and it’s a huge one in a ‘scientist’ – was that she would not allow her followers to question her assumptions and methods in the slightest degree. In the Quick case, they ignored every indication that he might be taking them for a ride, preferring to fit awkward facts to the ‘theory’ in the most ludicrous ways. (His siblings’ ‘repressed memories’ are an example.) Police officers and lawyers were blinded by her ‘scientific’ reputation, and overwhelmed, perhaps, by her charisma.
Thomas Quick can hardly be blamed. He was a deeply disturbed and lonely individual, desperate to remain in Säter, rather than be sent to prison where he was sure he would be bullied, and loving the attention, sympathy and drugs he received from his therapists, especially as he ratcheted his murders up. In the end he has done us all a favour by revealing the damage that can be done by a rigid and closed legal system, too much respect for authority, poor police procedures, and ‘theories’ not backed up by empirical proof. Even in Sweden. The poor fellow always wanted to count for something. Now he does.