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Ian Brady's psychiatric nurses speak of 'daily miracle' of treating him

The Guardian logo The Guardian 3 days ago Sarah Whitehead
Ian Brady, the Moors murderer: Ian Brady, who died this week aged 79, had been confined to Ashworth hospital since 1985 after a diagnosis of psychopathy. © Manchester/REX/Shutterstock Ian Brady, who died this week aged 79, had been confined to Ashworth hospital since 1985 after a diagnosis of psychopathy.

Psychiatric nurses who cared for Ian Brady at the high security hospital where he was imprisoned have spoken of the “daily miracle” it took to put his crimes aside and ensure he was treated like every other patient.

Brady, who died this week, had been confined to Ashworth hospital since 1985 after a diagnosis of psychopathy. He had previously spent 19 years in mainstream prisons for the Moors murders.

Nurses who treated him say that his refusal to take treatment seriously made him an exceptionally difficult patient. One nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity, worked with Brady for eight years. Within days of starting his job in the rehabilitation programme at Ashworth in July 1990, he received a letter from Brady saying that he had no interest at all in being rehabilitated and asking for constant supplies of pens and paper. 

Related video: How one child escaped the Moors murderers

(Provided by Sky News)

“I gave them to him but it created a rod for my back,” he said. “He used them to write continuous elaborate letters of complaint on his treatment.”

According to Tony Thompson, who worked as a national nursing adviser in mental health and later as director of practice development in Ashworth, Brady revelled in deriding any attempt at rehabilitation. But Thompson said the public view of Brady left the nurses in a difficult position.

“One of the hardest things for staff was acknowledging that no one wanted him to get better,” he said. “There was huge public pressure to keep him contained and guarded. As care providers, where that did that leave us? What was our role to him?”

That public revulsion of Brady was reflected in reports that his wish to be cremated in Glasgow and have his ashes scattered in the city would not be granted because the city council had asked that none of the four crematoria in the city agree to dispose of his remains.

Earlier in the week, when it was suggested that Brady had wished to be cremated on Saddleworth Moor – where he and Myra Hindley committed the series of murders that made them notorious – coroner Christopher Sumner had postponed releasing his body until he was assured that this would not happen. Funeral directors in Sefton told the Guardian that they would be reluctant to take the body.

Before his death, the media often referred to the Ashworth nurses as “guards”, and Brady, as someone who closely followed the newspaper coverage of himself, was influenced by this.

“He would often say, ‘you’re not really nurses! You’re just just guards here to control me.’ In many ways that was part of our job, but it was not our only job.”

Part of Thompson’s role was leading a group of staff who had to cope with the unpredictability of Brady’s behaviour and the dilemma of understanding heinous crimes in terms of “illness” to be treated.

“We were divided in many ways as there was a public expectation that we could not let him escape,” he said. “Everyone saw him as a criminal but we also saw him as a patient, and while we had to watch his every move from sleeping to going to the bathroom they were also offering skilled care.”

Thompson said professional objectivity was essential to the staff doing their jobs properly. “It was maintenance of boundaries that helped staff handle their ambivalence,” he said. “The most important this was making sure he was treated like everyone else.”

Another of the psychiatric nurses who cared for Brady, Tom Mason, later wrote a book, The Influences of Evil, examining the notion of evil and its influence over aberrant behaviour. In an interview before his death in 2011, he reflected on the strangely mundane nature of some of the work. 

“We had to give Ian Brady meals,” he said. “This seemed like a strange thing to do for someone who had done what he had done, but that was part of our job. I remember seeing Brady for the first time and he had a look in his eye I will never forget. It was a glint that made you shiver.”

According to the anonymous nurse this parity was difficult to maintain as Brady often manipulated situations so that he was the centre of attention. “He was like the protagonist in his own film and we were the walk-on parts,” he said. “The media didn’t help. Every Sunday there was some sort of piece about him which he would read and then cause havoc in the wards.”

He recalls one incident in 1994 when Brady tried to sue the Express newspaper for publishing false claims that he had assaulted one of their writers.

“He couldn’t leave Ashworth so I had to make arrangements for his trial to take place in the hospital. He was furious about this. He wanted his day in court. He wanted to be taken through Liverpool in a van with flashing lights.”

While there were many other patients at Ashworth who had committed the most serious crimes, Brady’s notoriety fed into his belief that he was exceptional.

“The nurses were the ones who saw him all day every day, and it was very hard for them to be consistent,” the nurse said. “But they stayed bold and resolute. Despite his complaints and games the caring machine rolled on. It was a daily miracle really.”

Tom Mason said that even as they maintained professional behaviour, the nurses would debate whether they saw him as a patient or a criminal – or both. “We knew what he had done and we heard what people said about him,” he said. “But when you’re seeing someone every day and serving them breakfast each morning, you just have to keep going and not let whatever it is that makes someone like Brady do the awful things he did affect you or anyone else.”

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