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House of horrors Keith Baker: Svengali... or just a domineering bully?

As the public reels from the shocking details of Keith Baker's reign of abuse in the Craigavon House of Horrors, psychologist Geoffrey Beattie examines the case

They say that we are becoming desensitised to horror and suffering. We live in an age of horrific images at the push of a button and we can see there in an instant man's unspeakable inhumanity to man, and sometimes woman's too. Of course, we get through it, and lead our normal everyday lives. We are often very good at averting our eyes when the full horror is just about to be displayed, it's part of our predictive sensibility. We see enough, but no more.

But there are some images that we linger on, that we can't ignore. I saw one such image this week. It was an image of a small room, a box room, just big enough for a single bed with the soiled mattress stripped bare. There was no lightbulb or bed clothes. You could see that it was a freezing cold room. A toilet overflowing with excrement was just out of shot.

Filthy pillows, without covers, were stacked on one side, the walls of the room had flaking paint, I noticed a soiled tissue on the bed, the window had been left open to let some air into this putrid, stinking room. That's what photographs never communicate. The smell of things.

But the thing that really caught my eye and made it linger so much longer was what was sitting in the middle of the bed. It was a tin of Quality Street. The kind of large tin of sweets that you might buy for Christmas. The kind of tin of sweets for sharing with family and friends, a tin to be passed around. I close my eyes and I can see a TV advert and the smiling, open faces of a fictional multi-generational family all enjoying their favourite chocolate. 'Perfect for sharing Magic Moments' the strap line for this confectionery reads.

The woman who lived in this room in Drumellan Mews, Craigavon, loved Quality Street. The tin of Quality Street was there for her. She had a favourite, she liked the purple ones best, apparently many people do. She confessed to the police who came to rescue her that she would get a purple one if she was 'very good'. This woman with severe learning difficulties was rewarded with sweets for sex. She was locked in that room for eight years, forced to have sex with dozens of men, and filmed for their sexual gratification. When she was rescued, she weighed just six stone, and had rotting teeth.

As sentencing was handed down in court this week, the judge was appalled by the unspeakable immorality of the crime committed by Keith Baker and his wife.

It has been said repeatedly in the media that Baker was a 'Svengali figure' who controlled his wife, the victim and another woman, revealed as Mandy Highfield, Baker's mistress, who finally alerted the authorities to what was going on in that nondescript house.

"It is not easy to understand how these individuals so lost their moral compass that they could subject an individual who clearly exhibited serious mental defects to mistreatment in sexual terms, depriving her of any dignity, and even depriving her of the most basic of living standards," said the judge in the case.

We are all profoundly and deeply disturbed by many aspects of the story. The complete dehumanisation of one human being by another for sexual gratification, the duration of the abuse, the imprisonment of a victim with learning difficulties in that filthy room.

But there is something else that is equally disturbing to many, and this is what you might call the social dimension to the whole thing - the involvement of others.

Men arriving at this ordinary-looking house on an estate in Craigavon to have sex with this emaciated woman with special needs who had been locked in this tiny, filthy room.

Then there was the collusion and involvement of the wife, under the gaze of the live-in mistress. A lot of people knew what was happening.

It is as if there was some sort of shared consensus among these individuals as to what was taking place. There must have been some sort of constructed and distorted reality to make this whole thing 'acceptable' somehow in the circumstances. There had to be some sort of narrative to accompany these horrific events; they went on long enough after all and people do like to talk. Human beings, as we all know, are storied creatures.

Even Charlie Manson, a Svengali-like figure if ever there was one, had a great story for his followers back at the Spahn Ranch before and after the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969. It was the narrative of 'Helter Skelter', an apocalyptic war between blacks and whites, to be triggered by the murders of Sharon Tate and others, murders that would be blamed, he explained, on the blacks.

His followers, mainly white middle-class females, the 'Family', bought into this narrative. They would have done anything Charlie asked, of course, but they accepted the narrative as well. This made all that killing and butchery that much more palatable.

Of course, it is our attempt to imagine these sorts of things, their narratives, their accounts, what they must have said to each other, how they thought about what they were doing, that disturbs us most.

That's when we start to shield our eyes and cover our ears.

We look at images of Baker after his arrest and try to imagine his hold over these women. He sits in the car covering his face, or trying to, an ordinary, overweight, singularly unattractive man, the great Svengali figure.

Of course, once we start describing someone as a Svengali figure, we begin to attribute to them enormous psychological power; we seem to believe that this power is something that they have been born with.

But many psychologists recognise that the power to influence, the kind of power that we associate with extreme 'charisma', in reality, just derives from a set of processes. The Oxford sociologist Max Atkinson famously coined the phrase 'charisma as method' to describe this.

This 'charisma as method' is manifest in many different forms. There are 'charismatic' politicians, like Adolf Hitler, who have had monumental effects on their followers, exerting a huge emotional influence over mass audiences, somehow directing their emotional responses and swaying their thoughts, both individually and collectively. Hypnotic in his power.

We can now identify some of the psychological processes involved in this, in Hitler's rhetoric, in his body language, in his domineering posturing, in his evocation of fear, in his evocation of hope, in his highly structured speeches that allowed his audiences to respond, applaud, cheer, salute, as one. The body collective.

There was nothing special about Hitler, in his personality or appearance, it was all down to method, or a set of methods that worked in a particular historical and socio-political context.

Baker's methods were more basic, much more basic, and they only worked in that secret and restricted world that he created for himself behind the facades of those two houses knocked together to create his own little world, but they too involved control, dominance of others, the manipulation of emotion to nudge non-rational behaviours into play, and always, always fear.

And, of course, sweet rewards for that defenceless soul locked in that filthy box room, praised when she was good, and given that nice purple Quality Street until all her teeth rotted inside.

Baker wasn't so much an hypnotic Svengali figure, more a domineering bully and control freak who worked out methods of subjugation, and schedules of reward and punishment, to get exactly what he wanted.

A man without any empathy or feeling or any human decency, it would seem. The master of his own small, squalid universe and a man now safely, and thankfully, behind bars.

  • Geoffrey Beattie is Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University

 

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