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Merging Into Murder

Emotional investment and certain mindsets can set up moral meltdown.

Key points

  • Women who love men who kill may have traits that predators target.
  • These women respond to offenders who make the process of compromise syntonic with their needs.
  • Dependency confused with love becomes a mechanism of delusion.
Art by Author
Source: Art by Author

I recently watched The Serpent, the Netflix rendering of the gruesome deeds of international serial killer Charles Sobhraj. He’s suspected of killing travelers in Southeast Asia during the 1970s to steal their goods and use their passports. The portrayal of his female companion, Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who posed as “Monique,” fascinated me. She seemed ordinary. Just a girl attracted to a captivating guy. She soon became a partner in crime—and a person she barely recognized.

Her incremental moral dissolution reminded me of other “lesser” partners of serial killers who convinced themselves they weren't really bad. They acquiesced to a series of minor psychological capitulations but retained enough of their former identity to minimize the changes. Even when they recognized their compromise, they were able to distort or justify it.

I realize that liberties were taken for The Serpent’s plot, but I still thought the Monique character deftly portrayed what we’ve seen in similar male/female murder teams. Few researchers have focused on the subtleties of the submissive partner’s transformation. We know the type of person who’s vulnerable and the type of person who exploits them, but we haven’t quite grasped the intriguing process of moral melt.

In the series (and from what we know of Sobhraj’s approach), we see how he targets Leclerc, seduces her, isolates her, and engages her in theft and murder. He’s just a shady psychopath, but she becomes so emotionally invested in him (or her idea of him) that she hears and sees only what fits her notions. Her need for the life he represents shields her from admitting what he’s doing right in front of her.

In a 2014 article on such teams in Psychology Today, I cited a small study about compliant accomplices. Former FBI Special Agent Robert Hazelwood and Janet Warren, a professor of clinical psychiatric medicine, interviewed twenty wives or girlfriends of sadistic sexual predators. Four had observed or participated in murder, but all were aware of the male’s criminality. Most had strong dependency needs, a background of physical or sexual abuse, and a desire to yield to the dominant male. They enjoyed the attention, the gifts, the feeling of being special, and the prospect of adventure. They believed their emotional needs would be fully met, and that’s what mattered. They were as immature and nearly as narcissistic as the male.

The predators made a display of “love” to test for leverage. Eventually, they introduced a sex act that drew the female outside her comfort zone. Obtaining submission, they added more until deviance became routine. They isolated their partner to increase their dependence. Some of these women became near-prisoners. Most professed how their love for the male had allowed them to look the other way. Some had adopted distancing mechanisms, and some had simply been afraid.

The offenders who led the dance also shared common characteristics. They were confident, charming, and skilled at acting and people-reading. They could also hide just how possessive and cruel they would ultimately become. They were predators with a plan. They seemed to know what they were doing, which contrasted with the females, who sought someone to show them the way.

“The relationship between a killer and his subservient follower is characterized by strong inter-dependence,” said former prison psychologist Al Carlisle, who observed such dynamics. “The dominant person needs the follower's total loyalty in order to validate himself. The subservient follower needs the power and authority of the dominant person, so he or she attempts to become that person’s shadow and to mirror the dominant person's beliefs and ethics.”

Leclerc reminds me of Myra Hindley, one of the Moors Murderers. She grew up as an average girl in Manchester, England. She liked things that were edgy, hoped for a different life, and sought to be special. She thought a certain type of man was the answer. At age 18, she saw Ian Brady. For her, this tall, sallow-skinned, blue-eyed stock clerk who dressed in black became an “immediate and fatal attraction.” She began to stalk him, investing herself for nearly a year in winning his attention.

He noticed. She became his girlfriend, then lover. Brady sensed a neediness in Myra that made her morally tolerant. He gradually displayed his anger and sexual deviance. She liked it. She believed she could become the kind of woman he wanted. That is, she wanted him to form her.

She acquiesced to Brady taking pornographic photos, and checked out a book, Sexual Murders, in her name, so it wouldn't be traced to him. Little by little, Myra became the accomplice he needed. Each time Brady confided a secret, she felt special. She had no idea he was testing just how far she would go.

Myra started drinking more so she could do what Brady asked. She’d invested in him, even bragged about him. When he finally revealed his sexual attraction to children, there was no turning back. She knew it was wrong to lure them for him to rape and kill, but she did it anyway.

She’d later say that the ability to compartmentalize that she'd learned in an abusive home had helped her to participate. Being in love had added another layer: “I couldn’t believe how exciting it would feel to do something really bad, how free you can feel when all is lost.” She'd decided it was better to give in than to lose the man she loved. Leclerc had expressed something similar.

It would be useful to study this process of manipulated capitulation in comparative detail. We might identify not just the precise mechanics but also what this dynamic reveals about other forms of moral and psychological concession.

References

Lee, C. A. (2012). One of your own: The life and death of Myra Hindley. London: Mainstream Publishing.

Warren, J.I., & Hazelwood, R.R. (2002). Relational patterns associated with sexual sadism: A study of twenty wives and girlfriends. Journal of Family Violence. 17, 75-89.

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