From the start of the Oscar Pistorius case, I’ve been puzzled about the Pistorians. Of course, there were always many people who liked Oscar, or, to be more accurate, liked what they had heard, seen and read about him in the media.
When we first heard the news of Reeva’s death, we found it hard to believe or understand how such a thing could happen. Even the questions about “roid rage”, which so infuriated Mr Roux were attempts to find a reason why something so unthinkable could happen.
Opinions varied and changed during the trial. Many of us found Oscar’s own testimony and the odd arguments of his team disappointingly unconvincing and troubling. Many people still hoped that some fresh evidence or explanation could clear him of their growing suspicions. (These supporters were of course normal people.)
Read: An open letter to Oscar
The less stable fringe, which I referred to as the “Pistorians”, were the odd ones. They started off with the unshakeable conviction that Oscar must be innocent, and blindly refused to believe any evidence or argument that suggested otherwise. Like true trolls, some even devoted themselves to abusing anyone who failed to share their faith. Interestingly, they slowly faded out of the picture as the trial progressed, and the media lost interest in them.
Seeing some among the herd at the court entrance, shouting, “We love you Oscar”, waving banners and flowers, reminded me of something even more sinister, just a wee step further along the path – something that happens surprisingly often when people are tried and convicted of even the most horrible of crimes.
This is the bizarre sexual disorder of hybristophilia, when people fall in love, to the extent of obsession, with people on trial or convicted of nasty crimes – for example murder, rape or armed robbery. It comes from the Greek and means having a love for people who commit an outrage. It is also often called the “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome".
Petty offenders don’t interest these people. The higher the criminal profile and the more atrocious the crime, the more these small numbers of noisy groupies are turned on, sending fan mail filled with declarations of love and/or lust.
Feeble people with dull lives
Can we explain or even imagine why ordinary women (most cases reported are women, though men can be similarly afflicted) might fall in love with, woo, and even marry, a serial killer?
Read: Famous serial killers
They’re often rather feeble people, leading very dull lives, who enjoy rescue fantasies where the power of their love is strong enough to change and reform a monster. They ignore the cruel man he now is, and focus on the sweet little boy they’re convinced he once was, with a devotion nobody else can provide.
Some seem especially entranced by the glare of publicity and would like to share the media spotlight. Indeed, as the notorious object of their passion goes to jail and becomes inaccessible, they may take on his role and eagerly give interviews to the media. They may imagine that they will be the faithful and heroic rescuer who will prove their “lover’s” innocence.
Some wonder if there might be a degree of vicarious murder in such relationships. You may experience murderous rage towards other people but never act on it, and therefore feel attracted to someone who acted out your fantasies.
It can be very convenient having a boyfriend in jail, especially for women who have been hurt in previous relationships. She always knows where he is; she can fantasise that he’s always thinking of her, and he can’t be unfaithful with another woman. There’s also no cooking or cleaning and no laundry or dirty socks. And no sexual demands either. In a sense, this can be a purely romantic relationship with the advantage that it remains unconsummated.
Bundy, Dahmer and the rest
After his arrest, Ted Bundy, considered to have murdered 35 to 100 women across America, claimed he received hundreds of love letters in jail, and crowds of women crammed into the court-rooms. He proposed to one in court while she was a witness. They even had a daughter together, but she later divorced him, changed her name, and disappeared.
Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer who preferred boys, received letters, money and gifts from women while in prison. (They’re apparently not fussy about sexual orientation.) John Wayne Gacy, who drugged, raped and killed at least 33 young men, eventually had an affair with a woman he met after receiving the death sentence. She believed him to be innocent, which, considering the massive evidence against him, required some seriously delusional thinking.
Read: How a murderer's mind works
Richard Ramirez, known as Night Stalker, murdered and dismembered 13 people in the 1980’s, and also had throngs of women after him while he was on trial. He married one of these in the prison waiting room, but still got letters and marriage proposals from other women.
More recently, Scott Peterson was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, and within hours of conviction began receiving marriage proposals from other women. In Britain, Ian Huntley, the man charged with murdering the Soham schoolgirls, received fan mail from women, often with photographs. Charles Manson had a devoted gang of groupies who were content to commit crimes for him; and even the Norwegian terrorist Anders Brevik and the Columbine High shooters have devoted fans.
All sorts of women fall for the charms of these men. The terrorist Carlos the Jackal is reported to have become engaged to his lawyer and a Scottish criminal married a psychiatrist he met while in jail.
Those affected can be almost delusional, convinced that their relationship is unique and that nobody else can really understand the pain and suffering of their idol. Though he has already killed many people, she’s certain he’d never ever harm her. As we saw in the case of the Pistorians, she will invent mitigating circumstances and excuses. Some Pistorians even refused to believe Oscar’s own evidence in regard to what he admitted to having done.
They often manage to meet the men they’re besotted with, though these are usually in high security prisons. Some work as volunteers in prisons, or go on blind dates with men after their release.
British newspapers reported that there are over 100 British women who married or are engaged to men on death row in America, and some of the most active and vehement of the Pistorians were British.
Read: Would you witness an execution?
A common way these sad women find their “one” is through websites, some opposing the death penalty, some just offering prisoners the opportunity to seek correspondents. These are usually accompanied by photos of the men and their explanations of their crimes, pleading for contact and support. They also promise to reply to all letters.
A German waitress fell in love with American killer, Bobby Lee Harris, with an IQ of 75, who was awaiting execution for stabbing his boss to death during a robbery. She saw his picture on a poster opposing the death penalty, and just “knew he was the one”. Soon they were engaged and she moved to America and ended up living with his family.
Some women have romantic relationships with multiple prisoners. One has been engaged to a series of prisoners, all of whom have since been executed.
Some, as we’ll see, even go so far as to marry the prisoner they so obsess about, sometimes with ugly results. Many of these prison brides have a history of prior violent relationships.
An Australian study (Willcox-Bailey’s book “Dream Lovers: Women Who Marry Men Behind Bars”) tells the awful story of a pair of middle-aged religious Christian sisters, Avril and Rose, who walked out on their long marriages, calling them “boring”, to marry men in prison. One was in jail for a series of property offences, but within a week of release he bludgeoned Avril to death with a hammer. Rose married a man who had killed his previous wife, saying she had no fear at all. He went back to jail after he attacked Rose, tried to cut off her ear and to pull out her teeth with pliers.
Some of these women clearly seem to be sexually aroused by the violence their chosen man inflicted on others, and may even send pornographic pictures of themselves to these perpetrators.
Read: Spotting the violence-prone
The relationship may become even more sick. Veronica Lynn Compton began a fierce affair with one of the Hillside Stranglers, a couple of cousins who kidnapped, raped and mutilated young women, then left their corpses displayed on hillsides, back in the 70’s. Kenneth Bianchi, one of the two, devised a complex defence strategy, and asked her to kill a woman while he was in jail, using his modus operandi.
DNA analysis wasn’t available then, only blood typing. He gave her a sample of his sperm to sprinkle on the body of the woman she killed for him. Then he’d be able to claim that though he was in jail, the “real killer” must still be out there. She messed up the murder attempt, and her victim escaped.
Compton was sent to prison for the attempt, by which time Bianchi had married another besotted woman. Compton, however, found another serial killer to fall in love with – a nice, thoughtful guy, who sent her a photo of decapitated female corpse as a Valentine’s card.
Fortunately, most of these perversely romantic women are harmless. They’re nice ladies with a relationship they find easier to manage than those with “free-range” men. These men give them fond attention in their letters, a small price to pay, as these girlfriends send them money, pay their lawyers and work hard for their release, also conveniently providing a fixed address for when they apply for parole.
Constructed from pure fantasy
Love isn’t entirely realistic, and we may fondly imagine our partner to be better than they are in reality. But these are relationships that usually start and end with the dream lover, constructed from pure fantasy, with the prison bars protecting them from disillusionment.
Some experts describe two types of hybristophiliacs: passive and active.
The passive hybristophiliacs are the letter writers and online SKGs (serial killer groupies). They find these men attractive, and feel special themselves for truly understanding them.
Read: Crime can have long-lasting effects
The active/aggressive ones may be willing to get involved with the crimes, finding victims, hiding bodies and other evidence, even committing crimes. They don’t realise that they’re being manipulated. Their narcissism makes them effective enablers. They may be nurses, teachers, and quite often married themselves. They now have more control in this relationship than before. They can decide whether and when to visit, to take a phone call, and whether to work for his release or not.
Now Oscar’s in prison, I wonder what the Pistorians will do. Will they continue to idolize him, or find a new focus for their energies?
Oscar – the long-awaited verdict
What it's like in a South African prison
What the world thinks of Oscar's sentence
- Ramsland, Katherine (20 April 2012). "Women Who Love Serial Killers". Psychology Today. Seltzer, Leon F. (24 April 2012). "Why Do Women Fall for Serial Killers?". Psychology Today. Sheila Isenberg: Women Who Love Men Who Kill, third edition, Backinprint.com 2000.
- Jacquelynne Willcox-Bailey: Dream Lovers: Women Who Marry Men Behind Bars, Wakefield Press 1999,
- "What Is Hybristophilia?: The Invisible Phenomenon of Deadly Attraction, Also Known as Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome." Psychology. Web. 01 Mar. 2010. http://psychology.suite101.com/article.cfm/hybristophilia>.
- "Hybristophilia Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments and Causes - WrongDiagnosis.com." Wrong Diagnosis. Web. 04 Mar. 2010. .
- Why are women drawn to men behind bars? http://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/jan/13/gender.uk
Image: Kiss through bars from Shutterstock
Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.