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22May

The Devil You Know by Dr Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne review – hope for the worst of humanity

A forensic psychiatrist who’s worked at Broadmoor shows why it pays to treat criminals with compassion in these revelatory case histories of her patients, from serial killers to child abusers

On the face of it, there might seem every reason to resist this book. Dr Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has worked at Broadmoor, the secure psychiatric hospital where some of the UK’s most notorious criminals are detained, knows this. In her opening pages, she describes chatting on aeroplanes with strangers and feeling tempted not to reveal what she does for a living to forestall reactions such as: “What a waste to bother with such monsters.” She has even toyed with lying for a quiet life and saying she is a florist. But I’d advise anyone with their own version – compelled and repelled – of being the stranger in the adjoining seat to keep an open mind: Adshead’s warm intelligence, curiosity and nuanced understanding of her work inspire trust in what turns out to be an unmissable book.

Once a criminal has been sentenced and drops out of the news, that is – for us – the end of their story. But for Adshead, it is the beginning. The first question she asks patients is: where does your story start? It is the question of someone who values narrative above psychiatric diagnosis. It is her unsensational enterprise to show that people who do monstrous things are not necessarily monsters. She knows it is more comfortable to dismiss a murderer, arsonist or paedophile as an aberration than to acknowledge any damaged humanity. She sees it like this: “Over the years, I’ve come to think of my patients as survivors of a disaster, where they are the disaster and my colleagues and I are the first responders.”

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