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The Shipman files Monday, 31 January, 2000, 16:43 GMT
Behind the mask
Shipman: Britain's most prolific convicted serial killer
Dr Chris Missen, Head of Forensic Psychology at Anglia Polytechnic University, analyses Shipman's behaviour in court and speculates on his motivation as a killer.

At first sight, the Shipman case seemed to be a repeat of the trial of Dr John Bodkin Adams, the 57-year-old roly-poly, bespectacled, Eastbourne GP, who in 1957 faced 21 charges of murder at the Old Bailey and was ultimately acquitted on all counts.

Dr Adams received bequests from 132 of his mostly elderly, mostly female patients, at least 40 of whom died in suspicious circumstances. Dr Adams' downfall, like Shipman's, was precipitated by the unexpected demise of an active, socially prominent, wealthy widow.

But in fact, the differences between Shipman and Dr Adams are more marked than the similarities. With one exception, Dr Adams' "victims" were all very elderly, and apart from that same exception, all those who died under his care were seriously or terminally ill.

'Easing the passing'

Childhood trauma

Shipman was reportedly very close to his mother who died when he was 17. This may have been the most critical event of his formative years, reshaping much his psychological make-up thereafter...

If his mother could leave him, reject his love, how could he ever trust anyone, especially a woman, ever again? Yet, he must have realised that such gut feelings were irrational.

But all his intelligence may not have made this insistent sentiment go away. He could only push it further into the back of his mind.

Dr Chris Missen
In many instances, Dr Adams did no more than prescribe increasingly large doses of heroin (diamorphine), morphine and/or barbiturates over an extended period, thereby causing severe dependency.

His very shrewd barrister, Geoffrey Lawrence, latched onto a phrase that Dr Adams often used to explain the unusually high mortality rate amongst his patients. He insisted that "easing the passing" was neither wicked, nor was it murder.

Moreover, in 1957 most people were unwilling to believe that a doctor, then one of society's most highly esteemed citizens and the very embodiment of humanitarian ideals, would be capable of such a catalogue of cold-blooded crimes for such base motives.

Dr Adams also advanced his own cause by projecting the image of a bluff, bumbling and inoffensive old duffer, utterly devoid of malice, dependable and straightforward.

No endearing human qualities

By way of contrast to Dr Adams, Shipman (who had shed two stone since his arrest a year earlier), appeared a solitary, closed-off individual, inscrutable and dour, with no observable endearing or human qualities.

In the witness box, Shipman did not cut an impressive figure. His demeanour and evidence served to emphasise his impenetrability and irascibility. His failure to rebut any of the prosecution's main points seemed not to trouble him unduly. Neither did his complete lack of any sort of coherent defence strategy induce any obvious anxiety.

Shipman made no concessions to his victims' relatives, some of whom he knew well and were in court. He did not even pay lip service to their collective tragedies, by offering his condolences or regrets. His arrogance and utter indifference to the suffering of others was breathtaking.

At times, he displayed a thinly veiled contempt for those he clearly deemed unfit to try him. When the mask dropped, Shipman's scornful, petulant secret self (his true self), would momentarily blaze through.

Shipman the victim

Several times Shipman upbraided his own counsel for her convoluted language, insisting she rephrase the question, though he had clearly understood it all along.

Gradually, Shipman's bearing revealed that he saw himself as the principal victim in the case. He sought to ingratiate and manipulate by subtly appealing for pity.

His collapse shortly before Christmas, from which he quickly recovered, demonstrated that he was a 'good soldier,' carrying on without complaint despite unrelenting provocation.

He may also have been affecting a spurious veneration for the court and his belief in the judicial system, seeking to compare his deference for authority with the unruliness and general disrespect exhibited by most criminals.

This touched the heart of the matter, for if he was guilty as charged, Harold Shipman undoubtedly had a chronic and acute impulse control problem. In effect, he was saying to the jury: "Can you really believe that I - of all people - could possibly have trouble controlling myself?"

Unfortunately for him, much of the pathos he was trying to convey was undone by his occasional flashes of animosity and resentment, plus glimpses of the monumental self-pity he seemed unable to suppress.

What some might have perceived as a deep inner hypersensitivity or vulnerability may have been no more than a swollen ego, in danger of imploding at the least pinprick.

Affront from women

The more inflated his ego became, the more fearful of rejection Shipman became. This was especially the case if what he thought was an affront emanated from a woman of approximately his mother's age at the time of her death.

As time wore on and all his external controls - his partners, parents and young family - fell away, Shipman's reaction to such "aspersions" became increasingly defensive, extreme, violent and difficult to cover up.

Shipman may have carefully buried the truth about himself, ruthlessly separating the conflicting parts of his psyche with layer upon layer of denial, until many of his actions were mechanical, as if he was on automatic pilot.

In the profound depression that invariably accompanies the dissolution of a perilously fragile ego, the least slight may well have triggered suicidal despair, which in Shipman's case was rapidly changed into homicidal rage and directed outwards.

Moreover, the intensity of the fury meant that he could not long delay satisfying the destructive impulse, which might otherwise resume its self-destructive character.

Thus, by reinforcing his identity and reinventing a purpose for him, Shipman's arrest may ironically have saved him from taking his own life, at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Find out more about the Shipman murders

Trial and reaction

See also:

31 Jan 00 | The Shipman files
31 Jan 00 | The Shipman files
31 Jan 00 | The Shipman files
31 Jan 00 | The Shipman files
31 Jan 00 | The Shipman files
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