Pick Me Up! magazine asked me some questions on the psychology behind the tragic case of Nurse Beverley Allitt, an English serial killer who was convicted of murdering four children in her care, as well as attemtping to murder three other children and causing grievous bodily harm to six children.
Out in the 3rd May 2012 edition, I provided the following answers:
Beverley Allitt (BA) was able to watch children dying without emotion. Why do you think this is?
BA, or the ‘Angel of Death,’ as she became known, was diagnosed with Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP). This diagnosis is given to people in a caring role who deliberately exaggerate, fabricate, and/or cause physical, psychological or behavioural health problems in those they are caring for. It is often diagnosed in people who have a caring role with children, be that a nurse or even a mother. At the core of the disorder is a need for attention, often gained through orchestrating a situation where they are seen to be a martyr. This is what BA was doing when she deliberately harmed children in secret in order to portray a very different image of a caring woman who nursed these children during illnesses that she would exacerbate or cause. BA was able to watch children dying because the children were merely a means for getting her own needs met; she had no emotional attachment to them other than the role they played in gaining her attention and praise.
She befriended the family of one of her victims. How did she pull off this deception, and how could she live with it?
BA befriended the families of most of her victims. By doing this she was gaining more of a ‘hit’ from her drug; by drug I refer to the ‘high’ she gained from the attention she received from being in a caring role. The attention would have been even greater from parents who felt she was trying to save, not kill, their child. She was able to pull this deception off under the role of a nurse and the trust that this role gains from others. We automatically trust someone in a caring profession because it doesn’t make sense that someone in such a position would do harm to another human being. This trust and the nursing role provides a mask for people such as BA, who have a serious mental health problem, to prey on the vulnerable and needy.
She seemed to have a normal childhood, but she had a severe personality disorder. Where do such disorders come from? And can anything be done to help people with disorders like BA’s?
There are a number of theories regarding the cause of MSbP, the most likely being that the need for attention that is characterised by this disorder comes from an emotionally deprived childhood. On the surface, BA’s childhood might have seemed ‘normal,’ but we do not know if her emotional needs were met. In fact, BA’s need for attention was evident even at a young age, when she used to wear bandages and casts in order to make herself more visible to those around her. This behaviour is not that of a child who has all of her needs being met.
Unfortunately, little is known about how to treat this syndrome and a lot more research is needed. Until then, these women (it primarily occurs in females), are likely to need mood altering medications to help with depression and anxiety, as well as intensive psychotherapy. They also need to be kept away from environments such as hospitals and schools, where the opportunity to cause harm to children is greatest.
Why do other people, women especially, find it so hard to understand women killers?
Women are seen as naturally maternal and caring. They are the people who carry a baby for 9 months and then nurture that child into adulthood. They are the giver of life, not the taker. That is how women tend to be perceived anyway. This perception is increased by the physical differences between men and women, with most women tending to be less physically capable of causing harm to another human being. No one wants to believe that another human being can commit such atrocious crimes as BA did, but it is all the harder to understand when it is a woman – the very gender designed to protect babies in their womb until they are ready to enter the world.