People used to tour asylums like the Bethlehem Hospital for fun, visits being especially popular on public holidays at Easter and Christmas.
We’re more civilised now. We get our kicks through television, non-stop. Piers Morgan has lately progressed from Britain’s Got Talent, Celebrity Apprentice, Life Stories and Good Morning Britain to interviewing murderers, not for any investigative purpose but just out of curiosity, it seems, starting off by chatting up “killer women” and then inviting the confessions of selected serial killers.
Now, in this one-off, he interviews a genuine psychopath. At the age of 13, Paris Bennett, from smalltown Texas, stabbed his four-year-old sister Ella to death, to cause the most pain he could to his mother, Charity. Now 25, Bennett is serving a 40-year sentence in jail — but, having been a juvenile at the time, he will one day be eligible for parole.
So Morgan visits him, talking to him on camera for an hour through toughened glass, while Charity follows the conversation from another room, and a pair of experts, an FBI profiler and a specialist in criminal behaviour, offer disillusioned commentary. It’s surely indefensible as entertainment but does it serve any higher purpose? “Psychopaths may seem like us but I want to find out how their minds work,” is all Morgan says in justification, as though that were a noble motive, not a non-sequitur.
Yet it has to be admitted that the interview is gripping and Morgan conducts it boldly. Bennett shows very little affect, staring at Morgan, his face expressionless. He describes the murder without any apparent feeling. “For many years, there was just this hot flaming ball of wrath in the pit of my stomach, and it was directed at my mother. And one of the reasons why I chose to kill my sister and not someone else is because I knew that by doing that I could hurt my mother in the worst possible way.”
He can be heard on the 911 call he made after stabbing Ella 17 times, pretending to perform CPR, when he wasn’t even with her. He’s still a fluent liar now, blankly maintaining: “I love her with every fibre of my being”.
When Morgan asks if he understands what love is, he is stumped, though. “I don’t really know how to answer that question. It’s not simple, so I can’t just point at something and say that’s love.” His mother, who still offers him unconditional love, is upset by that but the experts explain that psychopaths just don’t get it. “He can’t describe love because he can’t feel it.” They have no expectations of him ever changing.
Bennett, however, thinks this interview is worth doing as a rehearsal for presenting himself to the parole board. “I think the most distressing emotion I’ve ever felt in my life is powerlessness, and interviews like this are a way to gain power over myself through self-knowledge”, he says, dreadfully.
Controlled though he may seem, he can’t conceal his rage at anyone who might get in the way of this plan. “I say to the people who believe I am just biding my time until I get out that they are fools.” In a home video of him as a boy, he asks his mother what her “least favourite sentence” might be and then suggests it might be “kill Charity’s children?” He is still the horror he always was.
So Morgan succeeds in displaying a textbook psychopath. To what end, though? As some kind of public service, to help us recognise such tendencies more quickly in people we meet? Or is it that, as an addicted interviewer, he needs to keep moving on to ever more extreme interviewees to get his fix?