A gay policeman’s lot is not a happy one
Nilsen was born in Fraserburgh, in Scotland, the second son of a doomed marriage between a local girl and a Norwegian sailor. His parents had three children but were never able to set up house together, so he grew up in the care of his mother’s folk. His grandfather died when he was six, the corpse being displayed in the local fashion for relatives to pay their last respects. The sight affected Nilson deeply: in some sense, it would seem, death was his primal scene.
After leaving school Nilsen was in the Army for 11 years, serving in Germany and Aden and resigning after Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972. A few months later he joined the Metropolitan Police. Only at this point, in his mid-twenties, did he begin to move in the homosexual world. But a gay policeman’s lot is not a happy one. Nilsen soon resigned from the Force; then, after a period with no job, he joined the Department of Employment, where he was working when he was arrested.
As a young man in the Army Nilsen had fallen in love with one of his fellow soldiers; the feeling was unrequited. Thereafter he developed intricate erotic fantasies involving his own death. After he moved to London he embarked on a round of short-lived affairs and one-night stands. At the end of 1978, when he was 33, one of these brief encounters marked the beginning of his life as a sex murderer.
I remember thinking that I wanted him to stay with me over the New Year whether he wanted to or not. I reached out and got the neck tie. . . quickly straddled him and pulled tight for all I was worth. After about half a minute I felt him slowly going limp… Then I noticed he had resumed breathing… “I’d better drown him,” I thought.
Nilsen’s other murders followed a similar pattern. Drunk, but not as drunk as his victims, doubly intoxicated with music and loneliness, barely awake himself, he would throttle them, take his pleasure with the corpse, then dispose of the body with the butcherly precision he had learned as an army cook.
“It would be better,” he wrote in prison, “if my reason for killing could be clinically defined, i.e. robbery, jealousy, hate, revenge, blood-lust or sadism. But it’s none of these: I never sensed the feeling of killing as such, only a feeling of stopping something terrible from happening, a compulsion to squeeze the person by the throat to relieve and absolve him and me from something terrible.”
Something terrible? Like a crime against nature? No, Nilsen does not seem to have experienced especial guilt about homosexual acts. The thing he was afraid of seems to have been life itself. He often reflects, in the letters and diaries quoted in this book, on the supposed misery of the lives of his victims, lives that seemed to him even more hopeless than his own. Killing them seemed like letting a bird out of a cage. He stops short, though, of claiming he killed out of pity; he killed them, he says, because “I could only relate to a dead image of the person I could love…. The sight of them brought me a bitter sweetness and a temporary peace and fulfilment.”
After their deaths he sometimes wore his victims’ clothes to work; he identified with them to the extent of wanting to change his name to theirs. His murders, he finally concluded, after the trial was over, were a kind of surrogate suicide: he was killing himself in effigy.
Nilsen’s desire to understand his own motives may be sincere—he has, at this point, nothing much to lose. But his very articulacy seems suspect. The danger that his crimes might mean nothing, might have no reason, seems to press on him more strongly than guilt; he is too anxious to secure an explanation; so what appears to be self-analysis is more often a deployment of cliché to bolster his own myth, the myth of the bent branch, the wrong turning.
“No one,” he complains, “wants to believe ever that I am just an ordinary man come to an extraordinary and overwhelming conclusion.”
An ontological error?
Can an ordinary man come to create such a catalogue of horror merely through an ontological error: the failure to acknowledge the separate existence and right-to-life of other human beings? Other people certainly existed more vividly for Nilsen in his imagination than in themselves. That is a common enough phenomenon. Where they were themselves incomplete, young, half-conscious, with ill-formed identities, his fantasy flowed in and stifled them. But there must surely also have been an additional chip missing in the circuits of Nilsen’s conscience for him to arrange, without compunction, so many reruns of his grisly snuff movie. And some special pleasure in constriction for him to become so expert in strangulation.
Masters suggests that these should not be described as homosexual murders, on the grounds that Nilsen never sodomised his victims. Perhaps the erotic ritual that Nilsen devised might be better described as autosexual, but it was the work of a true invert: for the ritual of fertility, he substituted oblivion; for Eros, Thanatos; for incorporation, immolation. There is a dreadful coherence to it.
In another sense, Masters is right: the Nilsen case does not tell us very much about homosexual desire, it tells us more about self-love and loneliness and despair. Perhaps what is most disturbing about the story is not the crime itself, not even the pot on the stove, but the ease with which Nilsen could find other lost souls to wreak his fantasies on. All those young men who were not missed, who had nothing going for them in the first place: into their nothingness Nilsen forced his craziness. And then they were truly lost.
Masters has had unique access to Nilsen’s own reflections and he interprets them with precision and sensitivity; he also considers and delicately dismisses the lamentably vague and contradictory psychiatric evidence given at Nilsen’s trial. Do we really need psychiatrists to tell lawyers whether or not a man like Nilsen suffers from “diminished responsibility”? Or whether he has a “personality disorder” (more specifically, in the words of one of the two defence psychiatrists, a “Borderline False Self As If Pseudo-Normal Narcissistic Personality Disorder”)? The seeming precision of these phrases resolves nothing. In Nilsen’s case psychiatric evidence served only to prolong the trial and allow the sharks of the courts to sharpen their teeth on the hapless shrinks. Indeed the whole idea, as instituted in the British judicial system, of the prosecution and the defence summoning their respective psychiatrists in order to have them contradict one another seems calculated to make a mockery of the profession and its pretensions to objective diagnosis.
In an instructive postscript to Killing for Company the psychiatrist Anthony Storr argues that the defence of insanity should be dropped altogether from the statute book, that juries should be called on to decide simply whether the accused committed the crime or not, expert advice being sought only afterwards on the possibility of treatment rather than regular incarceration. This sensible suggestion might do something for the reputation of psychiatry. Is it too clean-cut a solution to appeal to lawyers?
From King’s Cross to Heaven
The psychopathology of homicide intersects with the ethnography of contemporary urban homosexuality at only one point in the Nilsen story: the gay pubs where he went in search of trade. As one of the young gay men in Queens says: “You can never be too careful, can you? Not since that head-hunter from Muswell Hill. A girl’s got to keep her wits about her.”
The author’s observations on gay stereotypes in Queens are acute enough: rent boys, leather queens, clones and other species of sex dandy are pinned down; also lesser varieties, the pin-stripe City queen, “like a gentleman farmer looking for a prize bull”, and the straight queen who “sleeps with his wife and loves his children but is tormented by the memory of a wicked fling in Cambridge with a lay-clerk”.
Queens is the Sloane Ranger Handbook for urban homosexuals—part lampoon, part vade-mecum. Here is the topography of the city of night, from the Bell in King’s Cross to Heaven, the electronic barn underneath Charing Cross which is Europe’s biggest gay club. Denizens of this world are immersed in an erotic delirium that serves to hide the surrounding seediness. It may be hard, even with such a guide, for those who have never been caught in the sway of high-tech dance music to understand its allure.
And there is AIDS, the disease that has transformed same-sex sex from a special kind of love game into fatal venery. AIDS goes almost unmentioned in Queens, but it is the fear of this, not of the Dennis Nilsens in the world, that has been at the back of every informed gay person’s mind since the epidemic was first revealed. AIDS is the killer that haunts the bars and backrooms of Heaven; it hovers over casual sexual encounters like the angel of death. To do justice to the creeping effect of this plague we would need a Camus; Pickles sensibly does not try. Nor does he concern himself with the formation of homosexual identity in Britain and the historical development of the community that is the subject of his book, that is to say, with the way that the public unacceptability of homosexual desire still desocialises those citizens who habitually entertain it, leading some to abandon the straight milieu entirely and cleave to the tribal mores of the gay ghetto that are chronicled in Queens. And that leads some, such as Nilsen, to veer off into a private world of sex and death.
They order these things differently in Oceania. The traditional cultures of the South-Western Pacific described in Ritualised Homosexuality in Melanesia are among the few remaining that have in living memory formally prescribed, for men, what in Western cultures we would characterise as homosexual behaviour, something commoner in the ancient world. In these Melanesian societies it is thought—or was thought until recently—that the delicate edifice of masculinity requires a period of adolescent insemination: youths must fellate or be anally penetrated by a male adult before they can become warriors. For some this initiation is a once only event, for others an extended series of episodes with an affective dimension. It’s a phase: young men are expected to graduate from receiving semen to giving it; they are not expected to continue homosexual activities after marriage.
There are of course many societies where the plasticity of sexual desire is tacitly acknowledged and a variety of erotic activity tolerated among adolescents and others. They include our own to an extent. Many societies also have institutionalised gender role reversal for men who are disposed to live as women. And ancient Greek civilisation famously privileged relations between grown men and adolescents. The distinctive feature of the sexual politics of the Melanesian cultures described here is that copulation with older unmarried men is not just tolerated but is—or was–considered obligatory in order for boys to become men. It is not so much that they grow out of it: they grow because of it. Without it, it is thought—or was thought—they will be weak in adulthood and their wives will run away. Homosexual relations in these societies are regulated in the same way as marriage: certain categories of kin are forbidden as sexual partners, others favoured. The relationship is conceived as the giving and receiving of a scarce resource, semen, and reciprocal obligations and life-long relationships flow from this.
The elaboration of sexual differentiation in one such society was the subject of Guardians of the Flute, an ethnographic monograph by Gilbert Herdt, the editor of the present collection. Ritualised Homosexuality goes beyond this to establish, by accounts of new research and re-analysis of old ethnographic records, the extent and variety of the same-sex idiom among the hundreds of different ethnic groups in New Guinea and adjacent islands. Because of the cloistered nature of these rituals and the prudery of earlier ethnographers, they have not previously been revealed in such detail.
It is classic anthropology, absorbingly esoteric but also suggestive of comparison. Like Margaret Mead’s accounts of Pacific societies, which helped to change American sexual mores in the post-war period, these glimpses of other cultures have wider value in the present period of recovery from the shocks of the sexual revolution in the West. It is indeed only by means of counter-examples from other societies, in conjunction with group variations and individual pathologies within our own, that we can define Western sexuality at all.
Eroticism contained by a communal rite
The Melanesian view of same-sex activity is in some respects the opposite of ours. To them, the idea of a homosexual person is an unfamiliar one; it is something people do, not something they are. And in their world homosexual acts have been incorporated in an elaborate ritual of fertility, part of a heterosexual continuum. To us, by contrast, the association between homosexual intercourse and fertility can only be metaphorical; it does not correspond to the facts of biology as we know them. And western science has gone further: it has progressively divorced heterosexual acts from fertility by contraceptive technology: heterosexuality itself has in this sense become subtly homosexualised.
But the greater problem is not so much the separation of sex acts from organic reproduction as their consequent separation from social reproduction. This is the result of a combination of linked social developments: sexual promiscuity, anonymity, and the erosion of the idea of kinship. We seem to have institutionalised meaning-free sex, something that would horrify the Melanesians as much as prescriptive sex between men and boys may shock us. In Melanesia, it seems, they know that coitus is strong magic, that sex is the most protean of desires, and therefore needs special regulation. They contain eroticism by a communal rite. With us, though, free-form sex, gay or straight, may lead, for some, to the edge of the void. Nilsen’s victims, who did not have the imaginative resources to devise their own private consensual pacts and rituals, were terrifyingly vulnerable to someone such as Nilsen, who developed his fatal rites in isolation. He and they were lost in the twilight of the single life. Without socialisation, without society’s need to reproduce itself, there may be nothing to keep sex and death apart. ★