Monday, March 12, 2012

Making Monsters: A Guest Blog by UK Crime Writer Danuta Reah

Grendel. Source

Bieganski the Blog is honored to host the guest blog, below, by the prize-winning UK crime writer, Danuta Reah.

Reah lives in Sheffield, England. She is familiar with the dark side, a familiarity that, as you see below, helps her to plumb the darker aspects of the
Bieganski the Brute stereotype.

Reah reports, "Every child needs a skill in the playground … my skill was telling ghost stories. I got thrown out of the needlework class when I was nine because the needlework teacher couldn't cope with the ghoulish tales I used to entertain the class with … My first novel was based on a rather creepy encounter I had on an empty station platform one evening - it's a story I often tell when I do author events, but beware: it needs bright lights and a crowd."

Reah's father, Jan Kot, was an officer in the Polish cavalry. His poem appears
here. Reah's murder mystery "Forest of Souls" addresses the tangled histories and moral ambiguities of Eastern Europe.

Making Monsters by Danuta Reah

In 2010, in Northumbria, a gunman, Raoul Moat, went on a killing spree. He killed one man and seriously injured two other people: his ex-girlfriend, and a police officer selected at random and shot in the face at point blank range because Moat "didn't like" the police. Moat later turned his gun on himself.

The police officer, David Rathband, recovered from his very serious injuries, but the attack left him permanently blinded. He was determined to return to work as a traffic policeman – a job he did well and a job he loved. His employers were keen to have him back. He was determined to live a normal life. He was finding it hard to adjust to life without sight.

He said he felt no bitterness or anger towards Moat, who had injured him so badly, and he founded a charity, the Blue Lamp, to support emergency staff injured in the line of duty. He was, our newspapers told us, a hero.

In August of last year, police were called to his house to investigate a "domestic incident." Shortly after that, his wife left him. On the 29th of February 2012, David Rathband was found dead at his home. He had taken his own life.

This is a tragic story of a man trying hard to cope with a terrible event in his life. Was he also trying to cope with the burden of being a publicly proclaimed "hero"? Let's look at this concept of "hero." I am not talking about someone behaving heroically in particular circumstances: the person who runs into a burning building to rescue people who are trapped; the journalist who deliberately places him or herself in danger to get a story out to the world. I am talking about the "Hero," the concept found running through myth and folklore, the Jungian archetype epitomized by beings such as Arthur, Galahad, Achilles, Beowulf.

The universal hero is something recognized across cultures, but this hero is not real. The hero is a social construct, a metaphoric expression of human need. Heroes do not exist. What does exist is people behaving bravely. Was David Rathband a hero in this sense? He behaved bravely when he was shot, playing dead so that Moat would leave. He made brave attempts to cope with the aftermath of the attack, so, yes, he was a brave man but he was not a hero. The status of hero was imposed upon him, and must have added to the stress of his existence. By turning people into heroes we are denying them their humanity. No one can live up to the image of the mythic hero.

But it seems we need out heroes. And as we need our heroes, so we need our monsters.

UK newspapers (and, I am sure, USA newspapers) love monsters. They must, because they constantly create them. The monster, like the hero, is a social construct, a mythic figure, a metaphor, an archetype.

The monster is a familiar figure from our earliest literature. In the poem Beowulf, the monster, Grendel, presents all the characteristics of the mythic monster. Grendel comes from the mist-shrouded moors. He attacks the king's warriors as they sleep, tears one of them open, rips his joints – his "bone-locks" – apart and drinks the blood from his veins.

Grendel is an outsider, he is not human, he is unnatural, an aberration of nature, he is hostile to people, he inspires fear and he carries out unspeakable acts. These are the characteristics of the mythic monster.

How does this relate to the everyday world? We are familiar with modern examples of human evil that our culture has identified as monsters: Hitler, Mengele, the Moors Murderers from the 60s England, Brady and Hindley, the famous serial killers from the US, Bundy, Dahmer, Gein.

The issue here is not what these people have done. They have committed heinous crimes. Is it useful, helpful or right, however, to depict them as monsters?

Less well-known examples can be instructive. In 1997, a British woman, Louise Woodward, was convicted of shaking Matthew Eappen, a baby in her care, to death. During her trial, most newspapers in the UK depicted Woodward as an unjustly persecuted hero. Two of the newspapers ran campaigns for her release.

In the USA, Woodward, as an au pair nanny, was an outsider. Newspaper reports in the US described her as sullen and hostile. The au pair nanny is an object of fear – a figure almost like the wicked step-mother of folk tales, or the witch in the woods who wishes your child harm. Wooward had carried out an unspeakable act – she killed a baby. In 2007, she topped a list of the ten most notorious criminals in Massachusetts. Woodward was, and remains, a monster.

In the UK, Deborah Eappen became the unknown outsider. Newspaper reports showed her as cold and uncaring (she had let a young stranger look after her children), she showed no grief about her dead child, it was claimed. She carried out an "unspeakable act": she, as a doctor, examined the eyes of her injured child with an ophthalmoscope rather than performing more traditionally motherly acts of grief and concern. 'Debroh (sic) Eappen is in my eyes more guilty than anyone,' claimed a post on a London news web site. Deborah Eappen was a monster.

It seems that, murderer or victim, the status of monster – or hero – is arbitrarily ascribed. The parents of Madeleine McCann, a three-year-old child who went missing in 2007 in the Algarve, held the status of hero in the British press as they desperately sought for their lost daughter. Later, when the local police accused them of being complicit in their daughter's disappearance, the press reports changed. Their continued sojourn in Praia de Luz turned them into outsiders, the unemotional demeanor of Kate McCann became hostility, the parents' leaving of their children in the apartment while they went out was aberrant, the murder of their daughter was an unspeakable act. They were monsters. Madeleine remains lost. Her parents are no longer under suspicion of complicity in her disappearance. They have sunk into (relative) obscurity, neither hero nor monster any longer.

Does it matter that we turn people involved in news events into heroes or monsters (or sometimes both)? Most people depicted as heroes have behaved admirably on at least one occasion, most people depicted as monsters have done terrible things. As long as the press stops hounding the innocent, is there any cause for concern?

I think there is. Heroes and monsters are not reality. They are metaphors and archetypes. If we turn positive acts and evil acts into aspects of the archetype, we are denying their humanity. How do "heroes" behave in everyday life? They behave like human beings, and, doing so, possibly feel they have betrayed their own heroic image. People with cancer must always "fight" they must always be "positive." People like David Rathband must feel no anger towards the person who attacked and damaged them. What's wrong with being afraid? What's wrong with feeling negative? What's wrong with being blazingly, incandescently angry with the person who took your sight? Being a hero is a dreadful burden.

But what about the Ian Bradys, the Myra Hindleys, the Ted Bundys, the Ed Geins, the abusive soldiers at Abu Ghraib? Why shouldn't we see them as monsters? Surely, by their acts, they have relinquished their status as human beings. And this is where the problem lies. They are human, and it is their status as humans that enabled them to do what they did. They were human when they committed their unspeakable acts, as were and are the Nazi war criminals, the genocidal Hutus in Rwanda and the people who led them on, as were and are the armies of Milosevic when they carried out their genocides, as were and are Milosevic, Mladik and Karadzic themselves. These are humans, doing what humans do.

The psychologist Philip Zimbardo talks about the Lucifer effect in relation to human evil. He claims that people, put in contexts of evil, will often commit acts they would not have done, had the context not occurred. This is not to excuse the evil; it is to recognize an important aspect of humanity. We are all capable of evil. Recognizing that capacity in ourselves is the best protection we have against it. If we don't recognize it, there will continue to be Auschwitz, Abu Ghraib, My Lai. There will continue to be murders, massacres and genocides.

Look at this picture: This is a human being, and sometimes, this is what human beings do.
US Soldier Lynndie England with an Iraqi Prisoner. Source.


  1. Well put.

    Monsters and hero archetypes are useful in that the emphasize the salient features of each, so that when we are less aware, we still might be able to recognize them, on the hoof, which is the most useful time to do so.

    They are also deceptive archetypes in that if we wait for all the classical features of each to register, it's often too late.

    Hard to parse often, in the real world. The moo--vies make it look so easy.


  2. Us Poles/Polonians as Grendel?! I would protest that if I wasn't too busy tearing the limbs off passers-by.

    Yes. Why have we been singled out to be "monstrous"?

    Given that people are doing monstrous things world wide - as you chillingly illustrate - you could single out anyone, and generalise from that.

    Had it been Poland, for example, who Agent Oranged a vast swathe of Asia, we would never hear the last of it. And rightly so too by the way. That is surely one of the outstanding horrors in a century of them.

    So once again its all politics.

    For me, it only reinforces the wisdom of being "no part" of the world - not even voting.

    And what should we do about it?

    Is there a more powerful corrective for all the lies and spin in the world than the Christian preaching work?

    Christianity is called "the way of the truth".

    Interesting what you say about the pressures of being a Hero. I can't even cope heroically with my arthritis, let alone what David Rathband had to endure. And his suffering was coldly and deliberately inflicted too.

    I hope very much that Jehovah will remember him and that he has a wonderful awakening ahead of him - that he will open his eyes and see Paradise.

    regards sue

  3. Related essay:


  4. Interesting essay. Thank you for linking.

  5. Hello There,
    I just wanted to see if you were currently interested in additional guest bloggers for your blog site.
    I see that you've accepted some guest posters in the past - are there any specific guidelines you need me to follow while making submissions?
    If you're open to submissions, whom would I need to send them to?
    I'm eager to send some contributions to your blog and think that I can cover some interesting topics.
    Thanks for your time,

    1. Tess Young, what would you want to write about?


Bieganski the Blog exists to further explore the themes of the book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype, Its Role in Polish-Jewish Relations and American Popular Culture.
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