Sunday Times Magazine Cover Story 7th Sept 2003
Memoirs of a Serial Killer - the story of the autobiography of Dennis Nilsen - Sunday Times Magazine cover story
By Russ Coffey
While serving life, Dennis Nilsen has written a book explaining what drove him to strangle 12 men. But should he be allowed to tell his story? Russ Coffey, who has exclusive access to his letters and autobiography, reports
Late at night in August 1998, the serial killer Dennis Nilsen is writing to me from Whitemoor prison, Cambridgeshire. Fifteen years before, he was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years on six counts of murder. He had previously admitted to luring 12 men back to his north London flat over a four-year period, and strangling them. At the time of the trial only six could be identified.
Nilsen didn't drive, so without the possibility of removing their bodies from his home, he dismembered the corpses, then buried the remains beneath the floorboards or flushed them away.
As he hammers out his garrulous letter on an antiquated typewriter, Hamish and Tweetles the budgerigars flap freely around his cell, which contains a desk, a toilet and a bed. He won't be allowed a television for another year, but copies of The Guardian and Private Eye lying on the floor are evidence of his interest in the outside world; a world that, by and large, would prefer never to hear from him again.
Nilsen's letter discusses an autobiography he has written that, he says, tries to show why he became a killer capable of such depravity. The 400-page manuscript is in four separate parts. It includes an analysis of his stunted emotional and sexual development; a description of life as a prisoner that he has mainly spent in a vulnerable prisoners' unit (he calls it a "ghetto for nonces"); and an explanation of why he feels it is important that those who have never met him should see beyond the label of "monster". Though far from complete, it is unique. Nilsen is the only serial killer to have attempted this kind of self-analysis.
"I serve my time as an extreme example of human contradiction in the wide continuum of human nature and its actions," his letter says. He continues: "I am not contained, mute and immobile in a glass jar as some kind of eternal official specimen of popular 'evil'. As I am alive I must live as a man."
To be human, he believes, is to be allowed the freedom to explore the reasons why he became a killer. In another letter sent to me in May 2003, he says: "I seek only to reach out to engage with the human dimension which is anathema to rigid officials of the retribution machine who are content with the official view of men like me as eternally and evilly sub-human and monstrous."
His letters and essays make it clear he believes in his own humanity, despite his past actions. And though he is not campaigning for release (in 1994 his sentence was changed from a minimum of 25 years to a whole life tariff) he wants to exercise what he sees as his right to be heard. He writes: "I know the Home Office will keep me in for natural life one way or the other. Punishment does not come so much from a prison sentence, but from the knowledge of what one has done, a fact in itself never to be adequately redressed."
There are three known copies of the full first draft of his autobiography, The History of a Drowning Boy: the original with his friend Mark (who has asked not to be identified), a second with the cult gay writer P-P Hartnett, and a third that his solicitor holds pending a decision at a judicial review in the High Court on October 20 on whether he should be allowed to continue working on it. In March 2002, this copy was intercepted by the Home Office when Nilsen's solicitor, Nick Wells of Tuckers, sent it in for his client to edit. They did so on the grounds that it contravened the regulations that say inmates cannot have material sent in and out of prison if it concerns a book about their crimes.
Since then, Nilsen has said in a letter that his work "is not about the events of 1978-83 alone, but concerning how a man developed over the 58 years of his existence. There are laws governing publications in this country...The Obscene Publications Act... the laws of Libel which anything I write is subject to like anything else".
"[My work] is written from an overtly moral perspective full in the knowledge of my own faults and failings and criminal culpability, for which I accept full responsibility ... No man lives in a vacuum but in tandem with his society... to explain how he develops over the years... for better and for worse."
At the High Court hearing, counsel for the Home Office will meet Nilsen's barristers, Flo Krause and Alison Foster QC. The court judgment will not consider future publication or debate whether an analysis of the extremes of human evil is legitimate. It will simply decide whether the Home Office's interception of the work under the prison rules is legally valid, and if the freedoms of expression and correspondence granted by the Human Rights Act take precedence and the document should be returned to Nilsen.
His plea is that he has the right to tell his own life story, for he writes: "There is nothing in Prison Rules, Standing Orders, or Laws of England which prohibits me (or anyone) writing a book for publication." But the question remains: have his crimes forfeited this right?
At 4.25pm on Friday the 4th of November 1983 the State through the agency of the Judicial system made its pronouncement on me. The anonymous jury, having gained its thrills and shocks from this theatre of the absurd had finally, by a majority of 10-2, agreed with the judge's and prosecution's view of me and my past actions. The media would take up the clarion call of me as 'Evil beyond belief'. The flashbulbs flashed and the wolves howled and in the universal public consciousness I joined the ranks of the damned alongside Crippen, Haigh, Brady, Hindley, and Sutcliffe." So says Nilsen in his 2001 essay, Brain Damage, written after he began his autobiography.
Since his conviction, he has been in eight different prisons, spending his free time reading, writing, painting and composing music on a portable keyboard. Although during the 1980s Nilsen wrote in journals and engaged in voluminous correspondence (he still corresponds with "an actor, a teacher, a male ballet dancer, a gay writer, a psychology graduate, and a post office clerk", as well as his friend Mark), it was his move in 1991 to a vulnerable-prisoner unit at Full Sutton prison in North Yorkshire for his own safety that gave him an incentive to focus his thoughts.
His first bout of written introspection took place while on remand for his murders. Confronted with what he had become and how much he had destroyed, he filled 50 exercise books with his thoughts. These he subsequently gave to the biographer Brian Masters, who used them for the award-winning study Killing for Company: The Case of Dennis Nilsen.
In May 1992, Dr Pawlowski of the Connecticut State Penitentiary asked Nilsen to write a "sexual history" to assist him in his studies on serial killers. Drawing on what he had written in the late 1980s, he started writing it on prison notepaper. That summer he was also approached by Central TV, which wanted to interview him. For its research it asked for anything he had written. To make it easier to read, the producer Mike Morley gave Nilsen a battered old iron-framed typewriter. Stamping through the tattered ribbon, Nilsen started writing: "This is a narrative compilation including what I believe to be the salient features of my sexual history. I have spent almost 9 years in a climate of long and detailed introspection, without counselling or therapy of any positive kind. Therefore it has fallen to me to probe the secret recesses of my personality in the hope that I may understand the engine of my actions and effect solutions to problems in a non-destructive way." This became the introduction to what are now his draft memoirs.
In 1993, Nilsen was moved to Whitemoor, where he passed the hours with his Casio keyboard and tape recorder, on which he recorded what he called his "symphoniettas" and "opuses". A year later he was informed that he was to serve a "whole life tariff". A few years later, he wrote to me of how he felt about those subject to such a sentence: "We are dead men locked in a tomb; the living dead, privileged by selective animation. We are required to be neither seen nor heard."
An "indeterminate sentence" is something Nilsen seems to accept as the rightful consequence of his actions, although it is clear that in later years he has felt the strain. He wrote in 1999: "Release is not a present aspiration, as I deserve a long period of imprisonment as punishment. That was never a point of contention in my opinions. What I condemn is the poor, negative quality of life for so many long-termers inside."
A few years earlier, in 1996, the author and former ITN newscaster Gordon Honeycombe had expressed an interest in telling Nilsen's story. They agreed that Nilsen already had half an autobiography and that he should finish it, so Nilsen typed another 200 pages about his life after his arrest. Honeycombe worked on compiling additional information for two years, during which time the Home Office formally stated that it had no interest in the manuscript in a reply to a prisoner's request form from Nilsen.
However, two years later, Nilsen's relationship with Honeycombe came unstuck. Nilsen wanted him to act as an editor and agent for his own words; Honeycombe, whom Nilsen describes as "quite a gentleman", wanted to combine Nilsen's words with other views to give what he saw as the "complete picture". Nilsen now gave the job of editor to the cult gay author P-P Hartnett, with whom he had struck up a friendship. Later, Nilsen felt he couldn't endorse Hartnett's version. He told me in a letter in April 1999: "I have not seen the first edit, nor is the Home Office allowing me to see it. However, Mark has described its shape and read extracts from it onto tape. I heard it before it was confiscated by the prison authorities. From what I know about it, it is unsuitable in its present form. Paul [Hartnett] has been on this editing process for about a year. He has stamped his own personality so much onto the text by his additions that the form presented now misrepresents what I had intended. The entire shape of the edition is not what I wanted. If allowed to I could have done the job myself in a month, two at the outside. (It only took me four months to write.)
"He has me projecting thoughts, feelings and a persona which is most definitely not me. This is an autobiography - not a biography
When I first wrote to Nilsen in 1998 after hearing about his project, he told me he was keen to have the book published because Brian Masters's biography, although the "only serious attempt to understand my situation and its development", ultimately failed to provide an understanding of the man behind the crimes. He wrote: "He misses insightful clues in the first part of the narrative and in the second part I vanish into a muddled array of psychobabble. The human is never explained, or answered." He says elsewhere with typical cattiness: "I'm afraid to phone him in case all I get is his answering machine saying, 'Please speak after the high moral tone.'"
After my initial contact, I'd expected a reply, but not the 16-page dissertation that arrived a week later. Gitta Sereny's book on the child killer Mary Bell was hot news at the time. His letter began: "The Mary Bell controversy is generated by a fear, on foundations of hypocrisy, by Society which becomes deeply agitated when the spotlight of close examination falls upon itself and own hallowed myths."
"History had dismissed the traumas of Mary Bell from its consciousness merely by placing her outside the realms of human experience, with the expedient use of the label 'monster', and shelving her inside a penal institution. This method spared society from having to acknowledge their association with her name and saved them the bother of having to think too much of her actions as a human in a community. Justice was done and she was gone - out of sight and out of mind. Her voice is always the voice of others."
Over a seven-month period, Nilsen wrote nearly 30,000 words of autobiography, politics, poetry and chat to me on the understanding that one day they may be published. It was remarkable how confessions like the following soon seemed as commonplace a fixture on the doormat as a bank statement: "Millions of people are alienated and marginalised but not everyone finally reacts extremely to this situation. Millions accept their status, and struggle on the best way they can in the poverty of their limited personal aspirations. That's how they get by the pressures of industrial society and this experience called normal life."
"I never lived in dreams of winning the pools as a solution to psychological impoverishment. I was never materialistic. My needs were the needs of a 'dog' who had never been cuddled, patted, wanted, praised or rewarded. I was a viable human being forced by early circumstances into the role of 'lone wolf'. It was my genetic inheritance which decreed that I would possess the difference which would mark me out from 'the norm'. It was not these differences which spawned destructive behaviour later on in life but an utter repudiation of them by my parents, peers and a conventional repressive society then extant."
I had never felt particularly uncomfortable writing to Nilsen, because it was in a professional capacity, but I was aware that in having any empathy for his arguments I was in danger of being manipulated, as were his other correspondents. This abstract concern became more specific when I eventually met Nilsen's friend and sole remaining visitor, Mark, who had agreed to show me the manuscript.
The 12-year relationship between Mark and Nilsen is mystifying. Mark, a businessman, lives with his family in Bedfordshire. As he brought me a cup of tea in his office, Nilsen's painting Bacardi Sunrise lying by the desk, he said: "You must think I am very, very odd." He says he is not a "fan" of Nilsen, but that he has become a friend. "I had wanted to find out what had made this apparently ordinary bloke who used to live near me do what he did. I wrote him a letter and one thing just led to another," says Mark. After his initial letter in 1991 it wasn't long before Mark visited Nilsen; eventually he would become his only regular visitor other than Lord Longford. Early in their acquaintance, Mark was surprised to find Nilsen asking if he wanted to have all his old belongings, which would otherwise be thrown out under prison rules on storage. These are now part of an archive that is kept in a secure place.
Mark visits Nilsen at Full Sutton prison, North Yorkshire, when he goes to visit family in the northwest, and they write as often as they can. Their letters are mainly chatty, Nilsen inquiring after Mark's family and business and unloading what has been happening to him that week. In return for his nonjudgmental friendship, Nilsen has placed absolute trust in Mark. For him, Mark and the book project are all that there is.
letters to his one-time editor P-P Hartnett, Nilsen makes it clear he considers the draft manuscript very much a work-in-progress. In one letter he suggests to Hartnett that he may consider putting in another character, provisionally called Sed Nislen (Nilsen always calls himself Des), who would put questions and demand answers from the narrator, to give the book balance. He writes: "My name is Sed Nislen. Pardon the intrusion but somebody needs to introduce a bit of sanity into this narrative. Somebody needs to challenge a life where all these explanations are merely self justifications and barely disguised appeals for understanding in outrageous bouts of self-pity. Poor little you, eh? What about the poor little victims in all this; 12 men murdered and dozens of others damaged for life. Nilsen, who do you think you are? How dare you exult in this putrefaction of infamy."
Nilsen's draft autobiography suggests that he can in part "exult" in this way because, as he says in part one, "In crimes of emotional and sexual psychology and other deep-rooted problems there but for the grace of God goes anybody. The sex drive and its attending aberrations are very much part of wider society."
In 1999 he wrote to me: "In 1978 [when Nilsen started his killing spree] I entered a pit of imbalances which scored 10 out of 10 and this became unbearable to the point of acute desperation. In the past I had had always a couple of points in my favour. Now I had nothing: I drank and became a murderer to begin the cycle. More drinking at the despair I was a murderer and more murders. It was a downward spiral. There was no one I had trust in to turn to but a small dog who could offer no solutions. Man knows not what alienation is until he has experienced the severity of absolute detachment I was feeling on the morning of 30th December 78..."
"The psychological struggles and rages had festered for years. I do not use my own victim past as an excuse for my subsequent actions but as an explanation of how an accumulating set of adverse circumstances assisted towards the impact of aberrant actions. I explain but do not excuse."
"We are not talking about studious 'evil' but human inadequacy. Men will admit to potent criminality or controlling powerful 'villainy' but not 'inadequacy'. My crimes flowed from personal inadequacy developed over a lengthy period."
The first section of the book, Orientation in Me, deals with Nilsen's life up until his arrest. The crimes are not dwelt on, but the account of the growth of his inner sexual fantasy life makes for very uncomfortable, potentially pornographic reading. Less controversially, Nilsen talks about his emotional isolation as a child, growing up in a remote and bleak fishing community in Fraserburgh, Scotland, with, he says, little tactile or emotional contact with his family. He suggests that his grandfather may have abused him. He discusses his obsession with movies, and how he would take solace in their fantasy world. As a boy he says: "I didn't have a father so I invented one on the silver screen." At 16 he left home to join the army; he was stationed in Arabia, Germany and Cyprus, and death became an intrinsic part of his sexual fantasies.
Throughout his London life in the late 1970s, working at the job centre in Soho's Denmark Street, drinking heavily at weekends and trying to satisfy himself emotionally with casual gay pick-ups, the world of illusion became all-consuming until eventually he writes in his book: "fantasy exploded into reality by my loss of control over it, all moral restraints loosened by alcohol. Until then my fantasy world had been an unacknowledged problem. After the first death it became ritual, a cruel medicine to sedate encroaching insanity".
Referring to his teenage life, for example, he confesses to strangling a cat to see "the process and reality of death". But Nilsen did not seem to be grasping the reality of death, and there are points where the autobiography leaves you questioning if you are reading fact or fantasy. This incident is suspicious, as it was "remembered" long after Nilsen gave the biographer Brian Masters the facts he thought relevant to his condition. Nilsen attributes many of these late memories to inhibitions released through cannabis, which he tried for the first time in prison.
Dr Pat Gallwey, Nilsen's defence psychologist at the trial, thinks Nilsen was suffering from a rare mental condition that made him intellectually but not emotionally able to understand his actions. He said: "Nilsen was terribly isolated, with a highly developed fantasy life. This, unchecked, led him to become increasingly schizoid. During his period of offending, he was on the brink of total psychosis."
At the trial he argued that it was, perversely, the killing that stopped Nilsen from descending into all-out madness, and that enabled him to function so seemingly normally - going to work, drinking with colleagues and campaigning for the trade unions - while under his floorboards bodies were rotting.
Sections two to four of the book are concerned with the life of "specimen of evil prisoner B62006", as Nilsen now describes himself. He defends those the other prisoners denounce as "nonces" as people with terrible psychosexual problems who need help more than anything; certainly if they are ever going to be released back into society. He writes: "The system takes the damaged products of society, and at great cost to the community, damages them a bit more."
In his various writings he often compares the crimes of sex offenders to those of terrorists, seemingly unable to understand why people find someone such as himself more "monstrous". Dr Gallwey believes that central to understanding Nilsen is his chronic sense of worthlessness, which reveals itself in his grandiosity, and presumably his constant desire to challenge preconceptions of relative wickedness. Throughout the book, anecdotes are interwoven with meditations on such subjects as the "false public perceptions" of him, censorship, rehabilitation and remorse.
It is difficult to know what form, if any, Nilsen's remorse takes. Nilsen says in his essay Anatomy of an Official Conclusion (a reply to an official report in which his category-A status was reviewed): "Just because I do not make demonstrative expressions of remorse does not rule out that I can and do feel great personal remorse for the damage my actions have caused. Weeping and pain is a very personal circumstance not open to exhibition at official interviews. Remorse is not just saying it, it is doing it." He says that his full co-operation and behaviour in prison is all part of his remorse, and remorse for him is deeply personal. He avoids blaming his drinking for his crimes. "I was never addicted to alcohol," he says in a letter. "My alcoholic consumption was episodic with long gaps between binges. The imbibing was a vital component in the ritual. My addiction was wedded firmly to the ritual."
Yet the treatment of the bodies of his dead, his "invulnerability" to their "squalor", was described by Masters as what made him "finally unrecognisable" as a human. Nilsen tries to defend this accusation, saying in part one of his manuscript that he derived no pleasure from the disposal and it made him violently ill. But this is hard to defend, as he repeated the crime 12 times.
In The History of a Drowning Boy, he also denies a confession made after the trial that the whole process "thrilled him intensely", saying: "I was under constant pressure from almost everyone I spoke to, to admit that I had enjoyed killing. After my trial, in order to give Brian Masters a 'happy' ending to his book on me, I wrote to him saying I probably did enjoy it. I was grasping for an explanation, a certainty instead of leaving the whole sorry conundrum hanging diffused in the air." That "sorry conundrum" is what he is trying to explain with The History of a Drowning Boy.
But with a book that will no doubt cause such offence, what support does he have for offering it to the world? If Nilsen is allowed access to his manuscript, the consequence will be to bring the possibility of publication of the book at some time one step closer.
The human-rights barrister John Cooper says: "It will be up to the court to engage in a balancing exercise of the public interest of upholding the Human Rights Act, and the public interest of not seeing someone benefit from their crime." Though Nilsen does not seek to profit financially from his book, claiming that any monies would be sent to a victim-support charity, in the eyes of the law, publication of his work would be seen to benefit him in terms of his increased notoriety.
Nancy Collins, a senior solicitor for the Prisoners' Advice Service, thinks the judge should recognise freedom of expression as being one of the cornerstones of a democracy. Even if a judge were to decide that a portion of the book should be withheld, she doesn't believe that "an absolute prohibition is a proportional response to the problem". Ultimately, it may come down to whether the judge deems Nilsen's writing to be in the public interest or a form of voyeurism.
One victim who got away, Carl Stottor, who even went to the lengths of writing to Nilsen in an effort to understand him, has said in a newspaper interview that the world doesn't need Nilsen's own words: "He was a nobody, and he has become a somebody through killing. It is wrong to keep feeding the myth."
Early in our correspondence, I asked Nilsen how he would justify publication of his book to those who might be offended. "A book is not a publication which is piped, unsolicited, into the living room," he replied. "It is a medium of choice and ideal for any contentious subject matter. It is entirely by choice that people will read History of a Drowning Boy. It is certainly no whitewash of my life. I have written my past candidly, I can do no other. I make no attempt to "pretty-up" my history. It was what it was. Those who suspect that they might be hurt by its contents will, I trust, decide to stay well clear of it. As for moral justification? Well, I will fall back on the words of the Swiss philosopher/poet Henri Frederic Amiel: "Truth is not only violated by falsehood; it may be outraged by silence."
I refuse to take the easy comfortable road of silence. I cannot justify to my conscience my murders, but explaining my life is something I am bound to do."
But what of his living victims - such as Carl Stottor, Paul Nobbs and Douglas Stewart - who got away? Nilsen's reply is: "Apologies are on the whole sentiments of the self-seeker when one accepts the enormity of homicide. Victims are misrepresented as the 'wounded seeking compensation' when they are 'the hurt who seek to be healed'. I've known some miscreants who have made a science out of the word 'sorry'. It's cheap. More importantly, it's easy."
It would seem that Nilsen says he is offering the victims some kind of explanation. Dr Gerard Bailes of the East Anglia forensic service, however, believes that this is not the kind of explanation victims are seeking. "The sort of explanation that victims want is more usually some fact that can give them closure, like the location of a body," he says. "A book such as this could very possibly trigger a traumatic response."
Aside from his writing, Nilsen enjoys pointing out that he has also composed more than 80 "symphonic suites", painted and written poetry. He brags in a letter to me in November 1998: "It was never preordained that I would end up killing people. There are 66,000 people in prison. How many of these have tried to write a book? How many can, with no formal training act in a standard play, 'live' on the stage for 92 minutes? How many can write, score, direct and play in a 32-minute video? How many can with no musical experience compose perform and record 30 hours of original music in three years? Having a creative ego is not so much a boast as a fact."
If it is a boast, it is also a lament for what he could have done with his life. Considering what Nilsen did become, it is inevitable that someday some of Nilsen's writings will fall into the public domain. The control over all his writings rests with Mark, who has no intention of doing anything with the work without Nilsen's permission. In the event of Nilsen's death he will treat the archive in accordance with the wishes contained in Nilsen's will.
In the last letter I received from Nilsen, dated Friday June 13, 2003, he says he is feeling his 58 years, and can no longer write late into the night. He jokes that he has asked to be put on Braille translation so he can tell David Blunkett what he thinks of him. His budgies have passed away, and he says, in a comparison many will find appalling: "The horror comes always from the stark realisation that no life is replaceable, whether it be that of a small bird or person."
Despite his fatigue, his defiance is still there. He says: "If I just sat amid my 'creature comforts' and let the Home Office roll over me, without challenge, without protest, then that would prove my profile of immorality. I "challenge" because I have more to address than is ordinary. One rehabilitates oneself according to time in human proportions, day by day, little by little - the hard long road of penitence."