Laura Elizabeth Woollett is the author of The Love of a Bad Man (Scribe, forthcoming September 2016), a collection of short stories about the lovers and accomplices of historical bad men. She is also the author of The Wood of Suicides (The Permanent Press, 2014), an anti-romance novel about a student-teacher affair. Find her at lauraelizabethwoollett.com.
Sixteen was the age I wanted my own Raskolnikov. The handsome, brilliant, impoverished law student at the center of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who attempts to distinguish himself from the rabble by taking an ax to his landlady’s head in a cold-blooded, philosophically-motivated act of ‘perfect murder’—to my sixteen-year-old mind, he was a far more fascinating creature than the boys at my Perth, Western Australia, high school. I liked his melancholy dark eyes; his shiny chestnut hair; his tall, slim, well-built body. I liked the holes in his clothes and the cold places he dwelled in. Most of all, I liked his hunger for the extraordinary, the way he was willing to cast morality aside to prove his extraordinariness.
The convulsions of guilt that follow Raskolnikov’s crime interested me less. His confession and conversion to Christianity didn’t interest me at all. I read hoping the extraordinarily handsome law student would pull himself together, evade justice forever, and be a very successful lawyer and criminal. At sixteen, it goes without saying, I made an art of missing the point.
Sixteen was also the age I read about Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, the Manchester serial killing duo better known as the Moors Murderers. Like thousands of moody, gloomy teens the world over, I was a fan of The Smiths. Entombed in my turquoise-and-lilac bedroom, I listened over and over to ‘Suffer Little Children’, Morrissey’s downbeat crooning about the moors.
Over the moor, take me to the moor
Dig a shallow grave
And I’ll lay me down.
I didn’t know what a moor was, but I liked the song enough to look it up. I followed the online threads, Songmeanings.com, Wikipedia, to Myra Hindley and Ian Brady. I read about Myra, the eighteen-year-old secretary who fell in love at first sight with a tall, slim, sullen twenty-three-year-old office clerk. How he was rude to her for a whole year before asking her out. How they had sex on their first date, in the front room of the row house where Myra lived with her gran. How she changed her appearance for him, dyed her hair blitzkrieg blond and dressed in sexy mod fashions; go-go boots, miniskirts. How she hopped on the back of his motorcycle and let him take her to the wilds beyond town, those moors where they’d later kill and bury four children.
How he gave her books to read.
Crime and Punishment was the first of those books. It wasn’t an accident. In the year before they committed their first murder, they discussed murder in a philosophical sense, what it would take to succeed where Raskolnikov failed, to transcend the ordinary world and commit the perfect crime.
My dad was ten, the same age as the Moors Murderers’ youngest victim, when his family left northern England for a sunny new life in Western Australia. It was 1970, three years after the trial that saw Myra and Ian sentenced for life, all of England—most especially the working-class North—calling for a return of the rope. When I mention Myra Hindley to my dad, there’s a sarcastic snort, a decades-old shudder, the words, “Nasty stuff.” He was a child in Myra’s England, a place of coal mines and steelworks, chain-smoking women with Dusty Springfield hairdos. A place where little boys were told not only to beware of strange men, but strange women too.
I grew up a world away from that England. Hard blue skies and white sand beaches. Too much space rather than too little. A room of my own with dollhouse colors I chose and the certainty of a university education. I chose Crime and Punishment too, the dog-eared copy from Mum’s bookshelf, filched as casually as a fiver from her wallet. Which is to say, it wasn’t given to me by a boy.
But all this seems circumstantial. Fateful, maybe, but circumstantial compared with that other thing—the dreamy drumbeat inside our bodies and outside our neighbourhoods; our hunger for the extraordinary.
There’s something dangerous about the hunger of girls, young women. Because, detached from experience, it’s philosophical. Because it’s shapeless, can take many shapes. Because it wants to prove itself. Because it doesn’t just want a man; it wants the world.
Eight years after first hearing of the Moors Murderers, I read The Gates of Janus, an analysis of serial killing written by Ian Brady. By its 2001 publication, he and Myra had been on the outs for decades, far longer than they were ever a couple. Ian’s references to Myra in the book are snide, oblique; she is the ‘pupil’ to his ‘master’, the weaker party who, once caught, blames the stronger for her criminal actions. But mostly, it reads as a quasi-academic manifesto of moral relativism. Chapters are headed with quotes by Dostoevsky, de Sade, Shakespeare, Wilde, Wordsworth. The tone is detached, pompous, and—knowing the horrific crimes behind it—odious in a way Raskolnikov’s musings on the same subject never were to me, at sixteen.
What it takes to bridge the gap between the philosophical lure of crime and reality of it is something few people ever confront. Looking back, my own teenage ‘crimes’ were laughably banal: ditching school, raiding the liquor shelf, a handful of hookups with regrettable boys. None of these crimes interfered with my education, my reputation. Certainly, none had the lifelong consequences of Myra’s infatuation with Ian Brady. Yet, though I was without doubt a very different girl from Myra, there are ifs that keep me wondering. If I had my own Raskolnikov. If he spoke to me softly of extraordinary things beyond my turquoise-and-lilac walls. If he showed me, in words or looks or touches, how my ordinary self might be cast off. If all those things—the question isn’t so much would I have followed, but how far?