Peter Sutcliffe: mad or/and bad?

Last Thursday a mental health tribunal ruled that Peter Sutcliffe (aka ‘The Yorkshire Ripper’ and now know as Peter Coonan) no longer required clinical treatment and could be moved back to a mainstream prison. 1  Some in the tabloid media have inferred from this decision that this means that Sutcliffe is ‘bad’ rather than ‘mad’; in other words, he is ‘sane’ rather than ‘insane’.  This is certainly a view that appears to have been held by the families of Sutcliffe’s many victims over the years. 

As I remarked in a previous post on this topic this kind of ‘either/or’  or ‘polarised’ thinking is extremely unhelpful; just because someone has been diagnosed as being mentally ill it does not therefore follow that the morality of their actions is no longer in question.  Putting aside for the moment the question of whether it is helpful to use terms such as ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ in this context, I think it is worth reminding ourselves that the terms ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ are not clinical categories at all but legal ones; a person is deemed ‘sane’ if they are responsible for their actions and are aware of the distinction between right and wrong.  Conversely, an ‘insane’ individual does not recognise this distinction, and is not deemed to be responsible for their actions. 

When it comes to Sutcliffe, who in 1981 was convicted of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder seven others,2 there appears to have been some blurring of the distinction between his legal status and his clinical diagnosis.  Although Sutcliffe’s plea of not guilty of murder on the grounds of diminished responsibility was rejected by the court, he was diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and it is not clear even with the current mental health tribunal’s ruling whether this diagnosis has ever been changed. 

There are a number of interesting questions here, the first being the (apparent) need for there to be a clear distinction between ‘mad’ and ‘bad’.  Does it matter, to take the example of Sutcliffe, whether he is in fact psychotic?  Does this make his crimes any less heinous?   Furthermore, does anyone really believe that a life sentence in Broadmoor is any better than a life sentence in a more conventional prison?    I think what this case reveals, unfortunately, is a widespread ignorance regarding the nature of mental illness.  For some reason, our culture seems to prefer its criminals to be ‘evil’ and ‘bad’ rather than ‘mad’; and furthermore, cannot seem to accept the possibility that someone could be both ‘mad’ and ‘bad’. 

The other interesting point raised by the Sutcliffe case, for me at any rate, is the question of diagnosis itself.  From a Lacanian position the idea of paranoid schizophrenia is almost a contradiction in terms.  Although paranoia and schizophrenia are recognised clinical categories within the Lacanian clinical framework (both being different types of psychoses), one cannot be both paranoid and schizophrenic – at least, not at the same time.  One of the interesting characteristics of paranoid subjects are their often highly complex delusional systems, which are actually attempts to reconstruct a shattered subjectivity.   And such a shattered subjectivity, often experienced as a complete fragmentation of the self, is the essence of schizophrenia.  In fact, some Lacanians have argued that paranoia itself is an attempt to ‘cure’ schizophrenia. 

Sutcliffe is said to have told the police that God was telling him to kill prostitutes,3 which could be part of a wider delusional system involving women and sex.  But this then brings us back to the first question: even if Sutcliffe had constructed a delusional belief system, within which it made perfect sense for him to kill women, why would this make his crimes any less ‘bad’ or, indeed, less ‘mad’. 

And this leads us to another issue: is someone necessarily any less ‘’mad’ if they know what they are doing, and can justify it according to a particular belief system?  This is one of the fallacies of ‘mad’ people: that they don’t really know what they are doing and are not able to think in a coherent manner.  With regards to paranoid individuals this couldn’t be less true; they often know exactly what they are doing and can explain to you in meticulous detail why they are doing it. 

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  1. Wyatt, T. (2016) Yorkshire Ripper: tribunal rules Peter Sutcliffe can be sent to mainstream prison, The Guardian, 12 August []
  2. Wikipedia (2016, August 15) Peter Sutcliffe, in: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Peter_Sutcliffe&oldid=734555360 []
  3. Although not all his victims were prostitutes, and somewhat worryingly perhaps, the public outrage regarding his crimes only really escalated when it was realised that Sutcliffe was targeting non-prostitutes. []