‘That awful mug shot’ was how the famous murderess Myra Hindley described the 1965 image that has sealed her in the public memory for decades. She bemoaned the fact that it was permanently associated with her, arguing in an open letter to the Guardian newspaper that ‘people can change’. Carol Ann Lee grew up knowing all about this chilling woman and has chosen to make her the focus of this extraordinary biography, which she discussed with Ruth Wishart as part of the Edinburgh Book Festival. I went along to find out more.
Many column inches have been devoted to Hindley’s apparent reinvention whilst in prison, from the Catholic zeal to the university degree in Humanities, and yet nobody can truly tell us if she really had repented for her inhumane crimes of multiple abduction, abuse and slaughter of children alongside her boyfriend Ian Brady. Carol Ann Lee felt that there were many unexplored avenues regarding the investigation (such as the reactions of the police officers handling the case) and the crucial role that this woman played in the death of ordinary people’s sons and daughters. Unlike many biographers and crime writers before her, Lee was determined to be accurate, to seek out the truth, and to ask permission from all of the victims’ families before producing the book: ‘I wanted to get the facts right – these children were owed that’. She was also keen to demonstrate that Hindley did not deserve any sympathy for her working class upbringing especially, as victim John Kilbride’s brother Danny pointed out, countless people such as himself had a similar childhood to Hindley’s but ‘I didn’t turn out like that’. Lee went on to explain that the lack of traumatic events in Hindley’s past made her 1980s autobiography attempt ‘dull’, according to its reader, David Astor, who ‘advised her to make a lot more of any events in her childhood’. If Hindley had a difficult and upsetting background then the public would be far more likely to see her behaviour as a foregone conclusion, rather than acts of will.
I have always been horrified by the Moors Murders, as they came to be known, but have found it particularly frightening due to Myra’s gender. Indeed, the very reason that children fell into Brady’s clutches was because Hindley approached them – luring them with ‘the facade of respectability’, as talk chairwoman Ruth Wishart put it. We are told when growing up that we should not talk to strange men, but women are generally seen as trustworthy, maternal and empathetic. I am not ignorant enough to presume that most killers are male, but I have read past statistics that have indicated violent or confrontational homicides tend to be perpetrated by men (stabbing or strangling, for example), whereas women opt for as little close contact as possible (poisoning or shooting, both of which are conducted from at least arm’s length). These murders would traditionally fit the ‘male’ bracket, yet Hindley played an active role in them – something which she was able to deny until a tape recording of Lesley Ann Downey’s torture surfaced, with Brady and his accomplice equally contributing to her distress. Lee points out that this was the main hole in Hindley’s claims of innocence or manipulation by Brady, causing her to admit that ‘I have no defence for that [tape]’. Although Lee cannot pass judgement in the book, a member of the audience asked her what conclusions she had drawn about Myra Hindley’s level of involvement and enthusiasm whilst committing these crimes. Pausing for a short while, Lee then stated: ‘I believe she was a willing participant. Her role was minimised to try and get parole’.
So, why did Hindley get involved in such evil acts, and why wasn’t she repulsed by them? Lee believes it’s all about power, as did Hindley’s prison therapist. Lee began her writing career with a biography of Anne Frank and a children’s book on the Holocaust, both of which caused her to examine the bizarre role of Nazi collaborators and camp guards who would ‘lead children to the gas chambers’ before going home and kissing their own offspring at night. What Lee calls the ‘dichotomy of personality’ (that sharp divide of sadism and love) drove her to examine Myra Hindley and her actions. Like the Nazi guards and their compartmentalised lives, Hindley maintained close relationships with family and friends whilst she roamed the streets with Brady to pick up children. Interestingly, her handbag contents included a photograph of a female Bergen-Belsen staff member, who was Brady’s pin-up. Even more bizarrely, as a prison inmate Hindley was said to dote on her niece and she became godmother to several young people, so there was evidence – whether contrived or genuine – of a caring side that she was keen to display to the world. The most poignant question of the talk arose when Carol Ann Lee remarked that nobody had ever challenged Hindley on how she would react if her beloved niece was subjected to the same treatment as a Moors Murders victim.
The talk closed with a fascinating contribution from a lady in the audience, who revealed herself as being one of Hindley’s former prison officers for seven years. She felt that Hindley had shown signs of changing as a person, mainly through finding religion, however it must be said that nobody can tell whether the ‘good Catholic’ Myra was all just an act. Regardless of Hindley’s desperate need for public support, Lee’s book tells us that it was extremely difficult to find a crematorium for her body when she died in 2002, and she was loathed as much in death as in life. Though the press was told that no specific location had been given by Hindley as to where she would like her ashes to be placed, Lee countered that this was a lie. The last traces of her body were scattered by her lesbian lover at a beauty spot on the foot of the same moors where Myra Hindley and Ian Brady buried the evidence of their crimes.
Carol Ann Lee’s biography, One of Your Own: The Life and Death of Myra Hindley (Mainstream Publishing), is available now in paperback.