Sunday, July 20, 2014


The real-life serial killers depicted in "Appropriate Adult".  Some describe him as "simian" and her as obese, 
but these photos show them as banal, ordinary, which is often the case.

Emily Watson and Dominic West, actors portraying the "appropriate adult" and the accused killer

“Appropriate Adult” is a controversial film in two parts from England where the term “appropriate adult” was invented in 1984 in a law reform intended to protect the “vulnerable adult,” by providing someone responsible to witness their treatment, to make sure it was proper.  Usually, the protected person is somehow not able to be responsible for him or her self in performing ordinary daily maintenance like cooking and cleaning, much less moral behavior.  The idea is to guide them into shelter with trained social workers, while recognizing that a buffer is needed even when no social worker or other professional person is available.  

The precursor idea might come from the Catholic church, which seeks to baptize all who wish to join them and normally provides the sacrament through a priest, but also lets any believing and faithful person to administer valid baptism if no priest is available.  There is enormous optimism in this but also a generosity to those who need help.  Assuming that any citizen would be fair, balanced and unscathed in such a role is also quite an “English” idealization dating back to when a citizen was a land-owning male with a family.  It is also related to the function of a religious minister but secularized.  There is no mention of saving souls.

This based-on-reality film is a collision between the notorious English popularity of crime-series with tabloid proportions and the idea that a witness who is an ordinary citizen can guarantee a trial that is fair, judicious, and effective.  Wrong.  At least not when the vulnerable adult is as unimaginably twisted as Fred West.  A big man who attracts women, he is invisibly damaged by a prefrontal cortex trauma, the soldier's and footballer’s brain damage, that he acquired from a motorcycle accident, that makes him unable to understand or steer his own behavior.  At least this is the screenwriter's idea, which is quite modern.   There's a lot more wrong with him and his wife than that.  Yet he’s extraordinarily persuasive, a sociopath, moving from one sentimental script to another without ever reconciling them with reality.  He’s probably not retarded, which was one of the concerns of the police.  He is educationally deficient in the way that many poor people are.  

Emily Watson, playing Janet Leach who was the "appropriate adult", is an actress especially suited for the role of witness, her big blue eyes innocent and unblinking, even as her mind struggles with the shock of the revelations coming from a serial killer who is somehow a child himself.  She is a natural helper with five children and a live-in bipolar boyfriend.

The actor (confusingly named Dominic West but unrelated) does a brilliant job.  Prefrontal cortex damage is as clearly depicted as could be shown without MRI or similar evidence.  We have to draw the diagnosis from West's behavior and thinking, which is conventional but fantastic, a living novel, and in fact he thinks he could write a book that will exonerate him and show him as a victim. 

Doug West

This, of course, is also a conventional fantasy and one shared by his brother, Doug, also at least a criminal and possibly a murderer.  Both men killed themselves in prison before they could be tried, but -- self-incriminating Fred had been able to point out the graves of the dismembered victims.  More than a few books about these serial murders have been written by Fred's daughter, victims, Janet Leach, the detective involved, and crime writers.  It a puzzle that people can’t leave alone.

Some of the identified murder victims

Today Rose is still in prison after being convicted of some of the murders.  A few of the victims had escaped and testified against her.  Evidently she was not seen as needing an “appropriate adult” though she came from a family troubled with mental defect and general depravity.   Maybe she had a more conventional guardian. There is no confidence that all the murders or victims were found.  The film doesn’t give Rose much time, instead concentrating on the relationship between Fred and Janet Leach, the social worker in training, who also wrote a book about it, which was the basic source for the movie.   

A  seemingly more realistic analysis of the situation is at  Neal Darbyshire, a journalist, sat through the trial.  (He's depicted in the film.) He has little praise for Janet Leach.  He sees the tale as being about the murderers.

Neal Darbyshire

But I look at the film quite differently, not in such drastic terms as serial killings, as much as struggling with the difficulty of how to help people who can’t help themselves. What are the proper boundaries for a helping person?   Inevitably the appropriate adult will be changed.  The facts of Janet’s life (middle-aged and just starting a degree in social work) make one wonder that the police chose her for her role and indeed, they later tried to separate her, but she was magnetized by the man's expressed need for her.  She stuck with him until his death, saying she thought she might find out about the rest of the victims.  Maybe at first they didn’t realize how the story would expand.   

The rules for an "appropriate adult" do not predict that the adult will become a confessor.  Their sole duty is to make sure the police and lawyers act honorably, but confidentiality is included as part of that so that the witness will not influence the accused to incriminate or exonerate him or her self.  In this tangle of events, at least in the movie version, Janet became not just a confessor but also the receiver of the kind of transference from Fred that is well-known among psychoanalysts.  Fred slipped the identity of one of the early victims, one he claimed to truly love, over Janet’s true self.  Janet then developed a counter-transference, which is what provides valuable information to a professional psychoanalyst, but she had none of the training or formal definitions that would help her realize what was happening.
Co-dependence is an idea that comes out of alcoholism treatment to describe the behavior of “enabling.”  That is, people claim to want the alcoholic to reform, but meanwhile provide the means and opportunity for the person to go on drinking, partly because of the reward of being the savior and guardian of the alcoholic, plus the excitement and drama of the struggle to stop the troubles, in which they are considered to be on the side of the angels.  This valid syndrome has -- like so many useful concepts -- been exaggerated and used to attack people who are trying to help -- quite apart from their motivation.  I mean, I just watched the amazing film of Elaine Stritch called “Shoot Me.”  Nearing ninety years old and inevitable death, she is enabled by a crew of helpers whose employment is dependent on her.  She is alcoholic, says so; craves an audience, says so; can barely function, says so.  Technically the syndrome is there -- but it is conscious, productive, and certainly not immoral -- though Stritch occasionally says “fuck.”

Janet, as portrayed, is unconscious of what is happening (that she is becoming emotionally involved with Fred), but carefully observes the rules she has been taught in class.  They are inadequate.  Also, the police enable this folie a deux by leaving Janet and Fred to have long conversations in the liminal space of the prison waiting room. (Folie à deux or shared psychosis, is a psychiatric syndrome in which symptoms of a delusional belief are transmitted from one individual to another.”)  In fact, if the film is accurate, the cops repeatedly left her alone in a small unmonitored space with a man known to be a serial killer.  She was in danger, full of adrenaline and the well-known emotional vulnerability of that.

It is futile and ridiculous to think that laws and protocols, including presiding authorities wearing silly wigs, can ever determine the truth of terrifying events, much less discover the causes and assign appropriate punishments.  No amount of good intentions, careful sleuthing, or conscientious confinements can ever eliminate crime or its awful ambiguity.  Not even broad cultural actions to address the causes of criminal behavior are ever really successful, though they can certainly cause improvement.  The difference will be statistical, not individual.  The burden on individuals is high.

Haitians looking for refuge with an appropriate adult escorting them.

In actual fact, the reason for the rule of law is to keep order.  Otherwise the world would be ungoverned in the way we have been witnessing in failed states throughout the world, whether in Eurasia, Africa or Central America.  On occasions in the “civilized” world when the people lose trust in laws, the result is riots.  Persuasive madmen and their enablers impose holocaust.  Even the suspicions of authority abroad in our country today are paralyzing the reservations, the states and the nation.  Who is enabling this?  Who is co-dependent on a state of paranoia and sensationalism?  Where are our Appropriate Adults?  What the heck does "appropriate" mean anyway?

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