This poem is about Myra Hindley who, together with Ian Brady, was convicted of the sexual assault, torture and murder of several children in 1965. She was originally sentenced to 25 years in prison, but successive Home Secretaries lengthened this (none of them wanting to be remembered as having released her) until eventually she died in prison in 2001. Ian Brady is still held in Ashworth hospital, where he has been on hunger strike for a long time. The relationship between these two has been called a classic ‘folie à deux’, where neither would have committed such terrible crimes on their own, but together a kind of evil chemistry drove them on.
In the usual way, this poem is a monologue, the voice that of Myra Hindley herself. She joined the office where Brady worked about 12 months after him and immediately knew that he was different from the dull and worthy boys she had gone out with before. Neither Brady nor Hindley are referred to by name, but only as ‘the devil’ and ‘the devil’s wife’.
In the first stanza, we see Brady through Hindley’s eyes
in the office as though they were dirt. Didn’t flirt.
Didn’t speak. Was sarcastic and rude if he did.
She sees this as a challenge and responds by being ‘insolent, dumb’ even though she is secretly ‘on fire for him’. Her tactics worked
as good as I got till he asked me out.
There is no mention in the poem of Brady’s admiration of Hitler and his works, nor of his twisted philosophy that held that rape and murder were ‘the supreme pleasure’ a notion he had got from reading the works of the Marquis de Sade. These ideas he shared with Hindley, in addition to his identification with Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Crime and Punishment’. All that we are told by the poem’s narrator is
he put two fags in his mouth and lit them both.
He bit my breast. His language was foul. He entered me.
The idea of burying a doll in the woods is a reference to the way they buried several of their victims on Saddleworth Moors, which led to them being christened ‘The Moors Murderers’ by the press. One of them, Keith Bennett, has never been found.
I went mad for the sex. I won’t repeat what we did.
for eyes. Thumped wound of a mouth.
This part of the poem is concerned with Hindley’s arrest and imprisonment. Since there had never been a case like this before, where a woman was involved in the sexual abuse and murder of children, she was treated as a monster by the press and every detail of her appearance and demeanour was scrutinised closely for clues to her personality. Still under the influence of Brady, she showed no remorse at their trial for the terrible crimes she had committed. This is reflected in the understatement used by Duffy as Hindley’s voice continues her story.
The first stanza is a reference to the murder and burial of their first victim, sixteen year old Pauline Reade, who had been wearing a pink party frock – ‘the doll’. Hindley claimed she had helped to bury the body after Brady had raped and murdered the girl; he claimed she been involved in the assault and murder as well. Duffy uses repetition
I know I carried the spade. I know I was covered in mud.
as a contrast to the final line
But I cannot remember how or when or precisely where.
The second stanza shows Duffy imagining Hindley’s response to the public comments about her looks and her attitude. She had changed her appearance and dress to please Brady and had very bleached hair, short skirts and high boots.
I heard the judge summing up. I didn’t care.
She is aware of the public’s opinion,
I know they chucked the key. It was nowt to me.
I thought in twelve, fifteen, we’d be out on the open road.
This unrealistic hope is quashed in the fourth stanza and she has to face the fact that she will never see Brady again. Duffy uses the idea of the devil and people’s view of women to express both public sentiment and Hindley’s feelings.
which made me worse. I howled in my cell.
If the Devil was gone then how could this be hell?
This part of the poem refers to Myra Hindley’s steadfast denials of her involvement in the sexual abuse and murders. Whereas Brady accepted the fact of his guilt and his sentence, she continued to deny any part of them, mounting an appeal with the help of Lord Longford. The first stanza relates to these denials, the lack of punctuation and grammatical syntax giving an idea of the desperation she feels.
Can’t remember no idea not in the room.
The second stanza deals with her long campaign to win her freedom, which went up as far as the European Court.
Send me a TV crew send me a journalist.
Can’t remember not in the room. Send me
a shrink where’s my MP send him to me.
This string of commands, encompassing the church, the law, the media, psychiatric medicine and politics depicts someone determined to explore every avenue. Her claims, however, remain the same
This short part of the poem refers to Hindley’s decision in 1987 to confess to her part in all the crimes. By this time she was estranged from Brady and his influence over her had waned. Duffy creates a voice that speaks of ‘the long dark night of the soul’, an expression which, in religious terms, means the spiritual suffering that leads to repentance and forgiveness.
these are the words that crawl out of the wall:
Suffer. Monster. Burn in Hell.
These were the sentiments expressed by the victims’ families and many members of the public. Hindley came to understand them.
I will finally tell.
The title of this part of the poem has a double meaning, since it can stand for a legal appeal, which Hindley never stopped trying for. Even when her appeal to the House of Lords was unsuccessful, ‘given the uniquely terrible nature of the crimes’, she was taking her appeal to the European Court of Human Rights when she died.
Duffy’s repetitive use of ‘If’ at the start of each line makes this stanza both a list of methods of execution and a question about whether such methods should be contemplated
If life means life means life means life
There seems to be an implicit question here about whether taking someone’s life violently is any different to locking them away with no possibility of release. But the poem itself finishes on a much bigger question
But what did I do to us all, to myself
When I was the Devil’s wife?
What she did to herself was to lose her humanity and her femininity. What she did to ‘us all’ was, in many cases, to cause the public to lose their sense of perspective and to provide a figure upon whom they felt justified in pouring out every form of invective, and in treating as less than human – after all she was ‘the Devil’s wife’ and thus far removed from the human race. Duffy is warning us that to ignore the possibility of this evil within ourselves is unwise. Myra Hindley was an ordinary secretary until she met Ian Brady, just as many other ordinary people can become torturers and killers, given the right circumstances.