Lethal Young Ladies: The New Zealand Murder Trial

Few topics excite more interest and become stale more quickly than a spicy, spectacular murder. Everyone knows the facts, makes his summing-up and pronounces his verdict; justice is done, and everyone talks of something else. There is rarely much reason for recalling it, except the sorts of reason that prompt “True Crime Stories,” waxwork shows and retired detectives’ memoirs. The case of the two New Zealand schoolgirls is no longer news, but it raised questions which need considering from points of view other than the self-righteous tribalism of the Sunday papers.

Briefly to recapitulate, one girl was 15 and the other was 16, and they killed the older girl’s mother. They had well-to-do homes and were described as highly intelligent; the murder was the culmination of a daydream-world, sex-heated friendship which the mother had threatened to end. The trial revolved round a diary, which recounted their extravagant fantasies and their amorous experiments; they were “insane, incurable and certifiable,” said the defence, “dirty-minded and incurably bad,” said the prosecution. After six days’ trial, the girls were found guilty and, too young for the gallows, sentenced to be detained indefinitely.

It is horrifying enough that two adolescents, through belief in a manufactured world of ideas, should kill another human being in cold blood. But a good deal of the revulsion aroused by murders is in the nature of a conditioned response; for those who are unsure of the amount of horror required, the Press provides helpful guides in the form of denunciatory comments. There is not much indignation over adolescent boys being trained to kill; a particularly lethal air-gunner of 18 is more likely to be decorated than declared either mad or bad, until his own turn comes and they wash him out of the turret with a hose. The writer recalls, too, seeing a war-time booklet on unarmed combat for 15-year-old Boy Scouts and reading what can be done with the rim of a steel helmet. On balance, it seems almost to the diarist’s credit that she felt “very keyed up ” the night before the murder.

Paranoia is the clinical name for the alleged condition of mind of the two girls; it is a form of insanity characterized by delusions of grandeur, persecution and so on. Many of the things tut-tutted over in the reports were not paranoiac at all, of course; plenty of schoolgirls—and schoolboys—keep lurid diaries, create fantasy-worlds and make sexual explorations. The most interesting thing about paranoia is that it can lead to glory as well as the condemned cell. All that was said about these girls can equally be said of some of the most illustrious. For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who according to a magazine article was ” . . . libidinous as a goat and meaner than a spider . . .  he believed wholeheartedly in witchcraft, magic, spells, the whole bag of tricks, and more than once employed ‘necromancers’ to make wax images of his Wall Street enemies.”

There is the case, too, of Salvador Dali (“avida dollars,** a Spanish anagrammist called him—“avida” meaning “ he’s hungry for them.**) His autobiography is a lot more surprising than the reports of the Christchurch trial. As well as art, it brings in putrefaction, cruelty and coprophilia and accounts of his solitary sexual acts, his morbid fetishes and his desire to kill.
Journalists are free with the word “paranoiac” when writing up Dali; George Orwell in “Benefit of Clergy,” commented shrewdly enough on the peculiarities which have made him a lion and a wealthy one, too.
Mental conditions like the one in question can and do lead to inhuman and anti-social acts. It is all too easy, however, to about: “Paranoiacs! Lock ’em away!” and overlook the honour which society accords to other paranoiacs. Easier still, to forget—or not to know at all—that even anti-social actions have social causes, and to believe that some people are simply “incurably bad.” Let us dispose of that last piece of nonsense before going any farther. Leave out “bad”—it can be “good, according to the time and the place and the morality; apart from some who have diseased or disordered brains, there are no incorrigibly anti-social people.
Man is a social being, fending always towards co-operation and order. Each man is dependent on other men for existence, for fee satisfaction of his physical needs, and his emotional and mental ones, too (it has been suggested that even his fear of death is the fear of isolation); he has an interest in good relationships wife his fellow-men. The human concord that is churned as the heart of almost every religion and philosophy in the world is no more, and no less, than what human beings have tried to attain from the beginnings of social life. It is true that the property structures man has erected in his social development have continually frustrated his striving; the fact of the striving remains. All men are social by nature—that is, by the fact of being men.
There is a good deal to be said about the disordered brains, too. The incidence and causes of mental deficiency were investigated by the Wood Committee in 1929 and the Departmental Committee on Sterilization in 1933. Their strongest conclusion was that environment—poverty, ignorance, bad conditions—had more than anything else to do with producing minds “incapable of independent social adaptation.” It seems obvious that a feeble-minded person cannot be called anti-social, even though he lacks responsibility; it is truer that society has not much use for the feeble-minded, because they are “inefficient.”
Mental disorder is a different thing from mental deficiency—it happens much more frequently, too. Modern living creates a host of anxieties, tensions and frustrations (including, in fact, the frustration of man’s social instinct). That is why mental and nervous disorders have spread so rapidly in recent years; it is also why the chief task of psychologists is to alter (if they can) the immediate circumstances which have led to strain. Mental disorders are curable, in the sense of treating and relieving individual cases; in the wider social sense they are not being cured at all because their causes are intensifying.

Anti-social behavior, when it is not the product of a disordered brain, is the reaction of a person to a situation. Not everybody has the same reaction because the circumstances that shape behaviour are not exactly the same in all of us; whatever the reaction, however, it is something learned from society. Jealousy and its resultant crimes can only happen in an environment where possession is important; malice, only where society engenders conflict. The social body, indignant over somebody’s wickedness, is too often Caliban enraged with his own face in fee glass. The two girls in New Zealand were said to be morbidly obsessed with sex: has anybody enquired the state of mind of the people who packed the court to hear, or crowded the street for a glimpse of their faces?

There is no more virtue in whitewashing crimes than in condemning them. The important thing is to see them in the right perspective, understanding why such things happen to people. Some crimes are directly economic, because anything is done for money—and has to be—in our world; men and women steal, cheat and kill because they need it or think they do. The matter is not always so simple; more often crime involves emotions which are the responses of people, as society has made them, to situations, in which society has put them. Even the hard-boiled criminals—where are they boiled so hard but in the rancid social stewpan? The logical answer is to establish a social situation which does not promote anti-social reactions. Marx put it best by speaking of “human society” instead of “civil society.”
The environmental nature of crime is recognized to quite a large extent by those who deal with it (leaving out Justices of fee Peace, who are required to have no knowledge at all of what they are dealing with). The reports of counsels’ speeches in the News of the World show that plenty of them are aware that a prisoner’s life history— his education, housing, wages, health—stands with him in the dock. The fact remains that fee treatment of criminals is based mainly on retribution. The only example of an organized attempt at rehabilitation is the Borstal training of young offenders, which has a certain amount of success —because youth is easily moulded—in disciplining them to society’s requirements.
More humane and rational attitudes to many things have become established since the days of public hangings. Nevertheless, most people still accept that it is right or necessary to inflict retributive punishment on those who break the laws. The popular Press, which butters up public opinion so as to guide it all the more firmly, supports the view that retribution is the only socially practicable answer. Probably under this system it is—even though it doesn’t really work; the main effect of prolonged or repeated imprisonment is to make its victim unfit for any life except one of crime. It is worth remarking also that punishment degrades those who inflict it, as well as those at the receiving end.
It is true that there has been talk at various times about reforming fee criminal law to “humanize” it and provide that unfortunates like the two schoolgirls should be rehabilitated instead of punished. The sentiment is admirable, but most of those who want to rehabilitate criminals never question the sort of world into which they would be rehabilitated. And many of them—presumably, at any rate—object to retribution for crime but agree to it when it is the motive for war.
Why are there crime and delinquency, and the states of mind which lead to them? Crimes against property and its coercive morality are inevitable while private property exists; crimes against people, too, are part of an unhealthy condition of society. There can be little solution of these problems in the social order which breeds them: “human society” is the only real answer. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme may have been mad or just malicious. Either way, the diagnosis is of the world of which they are part, and underlines the need for speedy, efficient cure.

Robert Barltrop