Fred & Rose West’s crimes were shocking and I well remember the days at the end of February, beginning of March 1994 when the papers were full of nothing else than the awful rising count of bodies found in a garden, and under a cellar floor, in Gloucester. As the details unfolded I felt a personal pull; I had lived near and in Gloucester, I’d certainly walked along Cromwell Street and Heather West was the same age as me, or would have been if she hadn’t been killed and buried under a patio.
In 2011 Neil McKay’s drama documentary Appropriate Adult was shown on UK TV. This looked at the effect that sitting in on the interviews between Fred West and the police had on the woman designated his ‘appropriate adult.’ The writer had gone to great lengths to look at the psychological impact on the people involved in the investigation. Mae, the eldest surviving daughter of Rose and Fred West was involved in the project and he persuaded her to tell the world what it was really like growing up, and what the last twenty plus years have been like being the daughter of probably the most notorious of all female serial killers. His assistance with the book mean that while Mae’s own words shine through the structure and overall feel is that this is a well-written and thought out book.
Because of my early interest I have read most if not all of the books written about the crimes but I was very interested to hear how Mae came to terms with the realisation that her mother had been far more involved than Mae had wanted to believe. I truly believe that when we obviously recoil from the crimes that their parents committed we forget that the children in the house at the time were innocent and yet they bear the scars not only of their upbringing but also the scars of people’s reactions when they find out who they are. This is a side of crime and the awful ripple effect that is rarely examined.
I’m not going to pretend this is an easy read but I’m glad to say it doesn’t dwell on accounts of the murders themselves, although of course they do feature, rather this is Mae’s account of things she remembers from childhood; Heather and her younger brother Stephen feature largely here because of the first three children of Rose and Fred West were close in age. Mae is at pains to impress that while there was abuse and other unsavoury things going on at home, they also celebrated birthdays, had a lovely sit down Christmas lunch and were turned out to school in spotlessly clean clothes and Rose took the children to school she picked them up at home time. In other words her childhood wasn’t so very different to mine, or I suspect any other child’s in the same era. Mae also puts to bed the lie that the West children knew no better than the way they were bought up. Even as children, as children generally are, they were aware where the differences between their homelife and those of those of their peers. They were embarrassed by ‘sex noises’ leaking into the street and the fact that their father compulsively stole, and abused his daughters.
The extracts from Rose’s letters add another psychological study which is impossible to solve although Mae gives her views on what the letters sending her love from inside prison to the life her daughter was building with such a terrible shadow hanging over her.
What most impressed me is that Mae manages to get across that just because she was played a very bad hand in the cards of life she has her own aspirations, she has passed the right values onto the next generation as have her sisters who she remains close to. I say to those who criticise her decision to write this book, who are we to judge and perhaps if you remove the sensationalism surrounding the author and read the words, this is a study of a number of psychological issues.