It seems that after many disturbing crimes, the family, friends, or neighbors, in shock at what happened, often say: “But he seemed so nice. So normal. We had no idea.”
Happens all the time.
My friend Katherine Ramsland addresses this in an excellent new blog post in Shadow Boxing on the Psychology Today site.
What if Jack the Ripper Lived with You? by Dr, Katherine Ramsland
An early Ripper tale depicts the role of denial in reframing the obvious.
I’ve long known about an early fictional story based on the murders attributed to Jack the Ripper, but only recently read it. The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes, was published as a short story in January 1911 in McClure’s magazine. Later, she lengthened it into a novella that focused on the female landlady. Alfred Hitchcock changed it somewhat to turn it into a film.
Reportedly, Lowndes was inspired by an anecdote she heard at a dinner party about an elderly couple who were certain that Jack the Ripper had lodged with them around the time of the murders late in 1888. During the Ripper spree, Lowndes had been a young aspiring writer. Although she was in Paris, not London, at the time, she followed the sensational news coverage. Years later, she used the unique context to write a story that drew out gender and class issues in London society. She also shows a keen eye for subtle psychological twists.
The plot is basic: The Buntings, an aging couple with financial problems, are overjoyed when a single man arrives and decides to rent several rooms. Without this stroke of good luck, they would have starved. The lodger, Mr. Sleuth, is an odd duck, but Mrs. Bunting can overlook this as long as he pays and doesn’t cause trouble. Her accommodating attitude foreshadows more dramatic allowances to come.
Mrs. Bunting attends to Sleuth, while her husband spends his time reading newspapers, especially when stories pop up about “The Avenger,” a Ripperesque killer of alcoholic women. Mr. Bunting has a friend on the police force, so he gets behind-the-scenes details. This also gives the author a chance to describe Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, founded in 1875.
Criminological museums popped up in several large cities during the late nineteenth century. Objects and pictures were exhibited to showcase theories about crime and its perpetrators. Into these museums went weapons, poisons, blood samples, fingerprints, hangman’s nooses, morgue photos, crime reconstructions, handwriting samples, police memorabilia, and even human remains.
Mrs. Bunting despises her husband’s obsession with the unsolved Avenger murders, but she begins to suspect that their lodger might be the guy. This is where the story’s genius lies. The more she discovers, the more she covers for him. She even ventures out to a coroner’s inquest – something only vulgar people did – to discover what the police actually know. (Great period detail!)
Mrs. Bunting knows the lodger has a satchel but she cannot find it when she cleans his rooms. She spots red liquid seeping from a locked cabinet, but accepts his hasty and implausible explanation. She begins to act in uncharacteristic ways, including lying to her husband. Each time she discovers something that implicates Mr. Sleuth as a killer, she tones it down.
In part, she needs to feel safe in her own home, and in part, she needs the money. If he’s arrested, she faces poverty.
In this tale you get some early criminal profiling (a “mission killer”), and even a glimpse of Madame Tussaud’s famous wax museum. But most interesting is the way Lowndes so subtly shows how anyone might accommodate the behavior of someone later unmasked as a serial killer.
I hear this question all the time. People just cannot believe that in the home of a serial killer there might be innocent parties. But it happens. Even if certain items or behaviors should seem sinister, denial is a powerful mechanism – especially when a personal investment in seeing things in a more flattering light is strong.
The best expression I’ve seen is in Lionel Dahmer’s memoir about his son, Jeffrey. When Jeff lived in his grandmother’s basement, she complained to Lionel twice about disgusting odors. Jeff had an innocent explanation: he experimented with chemicals on chicken parts from a grocery store. Lionel found a nasty-smelling liquid near the garbage cans that he thought was ordinary meat juice. Why would he have concluded that it was human blood?
“I allowed myself to believe Jeff,” Lionel mused in A Father’s Story, “to accept all his answers regardless of how implausible they might seem…. More than anything, I allowed myself to believe that there was a line in Jeff, a line he wouldn’t cross… My life became an exercise in avoidance and denial.”
He accepted a stolen mannequin as a “prank”, a .357 Magnum as a “target pistol,” a charge of child molestation as an “accident,” and the request for a freezer as a responsible attempt to be economical. Who would have thought it was for dismembered body parts?
The Lodger sheds no light on the Ripper’s identity, but it does portray what can happen when bias and need infect our perception and beliefs.
Visit the original post: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shadow-boxing/201608/what-if-jack-the-ripper-lived-you
And check out Katherine’s recent interview on Crime and Science Radio: