The abuse excuse
spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the attempts to play a new get-out-of-jail card.
Accused of murder? Evidence stacked against you? Don’t despair -there is a new get-out-of-jail card to play. No, for once you cannot call upon the Human Rights Act (even Europe’s courts have yet to recognise the human right to commit homicide). But you can try another fashionable legal device: the plea that you were abused as a child, and therefore cannot be held responsible for your actions as an adult.
We might call it the abuse excuse, or perhaps – given that parents are usually blamed for the abuse -the Mother of All Mitigating Arguments. It is a confession, not of your own sins, but the sins of somebody else from your past. You are not really seeking forgiveness, since you do not accept that anything is your fault.
Instead, you demand recognition that you, too, are a victim, a ‘survivor’ in need not of punishment but of support. This week the abuse excuse faces its latest test in court. Jane Andrews, the former assistant to the Duchess of York, is appealing against her murder conviction for killing her boyfriend with a cricket bat and a carving knife.
At the trial, the jury rejected her claim of self-defence. Now she has changed her plea to diminished responsibility, and hopes to convince three Court of Appeal judges that she killed her boyfriend because she had been abused both by him and, as a child, by her elder brother. This alleged childhood abuse was not mentioned at the original trial; a psychiatrist claims to have ‘unlocked’ it from Ms Andrews’s mind. Her brother vehemently denies the allegations. It remains to be seen whether the court will be persuaded; the judge sanctioned the appeal only ‘with some considerable unease’, declaring himself ‘sceptical’ of the new evidence. But what has already been established beyond reasonable doubt is the trend for blaming adult offences on bad childhood experiences.
Earlier this year Rena Salmon, ‘the beauty salon killer’, claimed that she had blasted her husband’s pregnant lover with a shotgun because she had been scarred for life by ‘relentless severe beatings from her prostitute mother’.
Lawyers for Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer initially found guilty of the murder of a teenage burglar, told the appeal court that he shot the boy in the back because of a paranoid personality disorder brought on by previously unmentioned sexual abuse that he claimed to have suffered all of 50 years before. The court reduced his conviction to manslaughter.
And it is not just high-profile, low-life murder cases. The abuse excuse has become a staple argument, almost a fashion statement, for any public figure in need of sympathy. Why did rock musician Pete Townshend access pay-per-view child pornography websites? Because: ‘I believe that I was sexually abused between the ages of five and six and a half … I cannot remember clearly what happened.’ Why was President Bill Clinton such a philanderer? Because, explained his wife, he was ‘scarred’ by psychological abuse at the age of four. In a slightly less glamorous echo, the former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies blamed his ‘moment of madness’ with a man on Clapham Common, and presumably his later episode of badger-watching in a lay-by, on childhood beatings received from his father.
No doubt many of these people are telling the truth. But why should it now be so readily accepted that childhood abuse can automatically explain what happens in later life? Where once it might have been thought that people would leave these childish horrors behind as they grow up, now the belief seems to be that there can be no escape from traumas suffered as a toddler or teenager.
What makes the abuse excuse attractive to the accused is the displacement of responsibility. Since you cannot change what was done to you in the past, how can you reasonably be blamed for whatever your childhood drives you to now? What makes the excuse resonate more widely, however, is our diminished view of the human condition. As a society, we seem to have lost faith in the capacity of individuals to overcome adversity and try to shape their destinies. A culture in which it is assumed that we are victims of forces beyond our control, where we are all experiencing diminished responsibility for our lives, provides fertile ground for the abuse excuse.
No matter what happens to Jane Andrews, these degrading appeals seem set to continue. It is enough to make some of us sympathise with an emotionally unintelligent dinosaur such as the TV gangster Tony Soprano, asking his therapist in exasperation: ‘Is everything about everybody really about their mothers?’
To which the correct answer would presumably be: no, it could just as easily be about their fathers, brothers, teachers, priests, Old Uncle Tom Cobleys and all.
This article is republished from The Times (London)
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