Psychology

Abnormal Psychology of Rosemary West

Historically, there’s been a struggle to comprehend the origins of female violence, with research painting female serial killers as reluctant sidekicks or psychotic femme fatales. Most research on serial killers suggest that only male serial killers murder out of sadistic, sexual motivations; and that when paired with a female partner, the woman is usually the passive member of the relationship going along with what the dominant killer wanted. Even in the retellings of the Wests’ story, there’s the slight assumption that Fred was the dominant one in the relationship – since he was older and already had a criminal background. However, stories of her past demonstrate that Rose was hardly passive in her sadistic role of predator and was in many respects the more frightening, volatile, sadistic and passionately wicked half of ‘Fred and Rose’.

Rosemary West provides another example of nature vs. nurture, and how the negative combination of the two can lead to psychopathic behaviors and actions. What makes Rose’s story so interesting is the sexual motivations behind her actions, as well as the sense of power it provided – which may have been more arousing for her than the actual sexual acts. Due to this, this analysis will be different than the other abnormal pieces as we will look closer at the series of events that led to Rose’s evolution towards an adulthood filled with rape, sexual torture, and murder – by examining the normal pattern behaviors of killing couples and the ways in which Rose established herself as the dominant partner.

In a chilling quote, Rose’s father once told a young Rose: “I made you so I can do what I like with you.”


Although research suggests that electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) during pregnancy does not harm the baby, infant Rose did display bizarre behavior, such as rocking her head for ‘hours on end’ and repeatedly hitting herself against the bars of her cot until her siblings protested – suggesting that the electric shock she received in utero did have an impact on her functioning and development. Psychologists believe that the abuse that occurred during Rose’s childhood limited her development further, shaping her views of relationships and sex. “While some people internalize a rocky childhood, Rose learned from her domineering father [Bill Letts] to express her anguish by causing harm to others. The sense of control and power this brought was the complete opposite to the lack of control a small child has within a violent household,” states Dr. Nicola Davies, in a piece about Rosemary West for Pick Me Up Magazine. “Rose saw the power her father had in comparison to her mother, choosing to live with her father and follow in his footsteps.”

As a child, she began to identify with her father and think of herself as someone who is strong and can create fear in others, resulting in her going out and bullying other children, says Dr. David Holmes, a criminal psychologist who’s studied West’s psychopathology intensively. Holmes added that the abuse Rose suffered caused her to learn the wrong skills and motivations for life. “She was on a path that would also certainly lead to abusive relations in the future and be an instigator of abusive relations as well,” says Geoffrey Wansell, the official biographer of Fred West; adding that “there’s no doubt that Bill Letts altered his daughter considerably – as he terrorized his wife and children, hiding his paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis from the family.”  

Sexual abuse expert, Dr. Julia Hislop, whose extensive studies on female sex offenders found that many had been sexually traumatized as children, acknowledges that understanding the offender means recognizing the influence of an abuser/victim relationship. Often, female sex offenders have no sense of appropriate boundaries; and have poor relationship skills, distorted sense of normalcy, lack of self-worth, and intense sexual preoccupations. “Specific emotions, situations, fantasies, justifications, thought processes, interactions with people and behaviors,” says Hislop, “may all increase the likelihood of offending.” According to Dr. Julian Boon, featured in the documentary series Making a Monster, the lack of love and care in Rose’s childhood resulted in the development of a nihilistic attitude at a young age. Soon Rose began to think of others as objects, to be manipulated for her own gain – as she continued the cycle of sexual abuse within the family using her brothers as ‘play things’.

At the onset of puberty, Rose became so fascinated by her developing body, that she would deliberately parade naked or semi-naked around the house in the presence of her younger brother. On numerous occasions, at the age of 13, she would creep into Graham’s (who was 9-years-old at the time) bed at nightfall and molest him and her youngest brother. When Graham was 12 (Rose was 15), she sexually assaulted and raped him. She soon gained the reputation around town as being a ‘nymphomaniac’ and was known to have sex with truck drivers and older men.

Up until Rose meets Fred shortly after her 15th birthday, her psychology was reflective of a sexual offender and molester. Her relationship with Fred took her further down the path of sexual deviance towards abduction and murder.

When Rose met Fred, shortly after her 15th birthday at the Cheltenham bus station, she was initially repulsed by his unkempt appearance, deducing that he was a hobo. However, quickly flattered by the attention he continued to lavish on her over the following days while he sat alongside her at the bus stop, they began a relationship; in which Rose insisted on including Fred’s two daughters whom she noted were neglected. Within weeks of their first meeting, Rose left her job to become a full-time nanny to Charmaine and Anne Marie. By the time Rose was 17, she was responsible for three children, after giving birth to her own daughter Heather, while Fred was imprisoned.

It was while Fred was behind bars that Rose’s darkest parts of her personality emerged. According to Anne Marie, she and Charmaine were frequently subjected to physical and emotional abuse throughout the time they lived under Rose’s care. Although Anne Marie was generally submissive and prone to display emotion in response to the abuse, Charmaine repeatedly infuriated Rose by her stoic refusal to either cry or display any sign of grief or servitude no matter how severely she was treated. Despite the years of neglect and abuse, Charmaine’s spirit had not been broken and she talked wistfully to Anne Marie of the belief she held that her “mommy will come and save me”. Anne Marie later recollected that her sister repeatedly antagonized Rose by making statements such as: “my real mommy wouldn’t swear or shout at us” in response to Rose’s scathing language. A childhood friend of Charmaine’s named Tracey Giles recalled an incident in which she had entered the Wests’ flat unannounced only to see Charmaine, naked and standing upon a chair, gagged and with her hands bound behind her back with a belt, as Rose stood alongside the child with a large wooden spoon in her hand. According to Giles, Charmaine had been “calm and unconcerned”, while Anne Marie had been standing by the door with a blank expression on her face.

Shortly after, Charmaine goes missing, while Fred’s still in prison. When he gets out, Rose tells him about Charmaine. The act is said to have “excited” Fred, who then confessed to Rose that he had already carried out a double murder (having killed his first wife and their nanny, who was pregnant with his child). Fred encased Charmaine in concrete, where she remained undiscovered for more than 25 years (when her skeleton was found, multiple bones were missing leading to the speculation that they were kept as trophies – this proved to be a distinctive discovery in all the autopsies of the victims, as they all were missing several bones).

The pair decide to marry in 1972 and move to Cromwell Road, where everyday life was a kind of delirium of sex and violence – with Rose giving birth to eight children and presiding over a regime of physical and sexual abuse. After her arrest, her step-daughter Anne Marie, and daughter Mae West informed the world of the brutalities they and eldest son Stephen endured in their home. For instance, the West children were assigned numerous daily chores to perform in the house. They weren’t allowed to socialize outside the household perimeters unless Fred or Rose were present, and had to follow strict guidelines imposed by their parents with severe physical punishment being the penalty for not conforming to their rules. The vast majority of the abuse was inflicted by Rose. The violence was sometimes irrational, indiscreet or just inflicted for Rose’s own gratification.

Examples demonstrating this include one occasion, when Stephen was mopping the kitchen floor with a cloth, and Rose accidentally stepped into the bowl of water he had been using. In response, Rose hit the boy over the head with the bowl, then repeatedly kicked him in the head and chest as she shouted: “You did that on purpose, you little swine!” On another occasion, Rose became furious about a missing kitchen utensil, grabbed a knife she had been using to cut a slab of meat, and began repeatedly inflicting light knife wounds to Mae’s chest until her rib cage was covered with them. All while, Mae screamed, and Stephen and Heather stood by, helplessly sobbing. Both Heather and younger brother Stephen tried to run away from home, but returned to Cromwell Street after several weeks of alternately sleeping rough or staying with friends. Both were beaten upon their return.

Between 1972 and 1992, the West children were admitted to the casualty units of local hospitals thirty-one times; the injuries were explained as accidents and never reported to social services.

Writer of Rose West: The Making of a Monster, Jane Carter Woodrow, explains how Rose’s acceptance of Fred’s sexual abuse to their children is a result of her belief that that what her father did to her was normal behavior. However, I would go further to state, that Rose believed it was so normal that she actually encouraged the sexual abuse by Fred – noting that it was neglectful for him not to. She was known for telling her children that they ‘had it coming’, and that – as the man of the house – Fred had the right to violate them whenever he saw fit.

To detail this, the West daughters provided testimony, admitting that both Anne Marie and Mae were repeatedly raped by Fred, their grandfather, and men who paid Rose for sex (with Anne Marie being forced to prostitute herself within their household at the age of 13). Anne Marie disclosed that she became pregnant and infected with sexually transmitted diseases by her father, when she was a young teenager – after her father said it was his parental duty to “break in” and take the virginity of some of his daughters as soon as they reached puberty. She’s also disclosed that after the first time her father raped her, with Rose’s active encouragement, when she was eight-years-old, Rose explained to her: “Everybody does it to every girl. It’s a father’s job. Don’t worry and don’t say anything to anybody.”

The couple then made it clear that these sexual assaults would continue, with them threatening Anne Marie with severe beatings if they ever received word that she told about the abuse. Rose would occasionally sexually abuse the girl herself, and took extreme gratification in degrading Anne Marie with acts such as binding her to various items of furniture before encouraging Fred to rape her and forcing her to perform household chores while wearing sexual devices and a mini skirt. Anne Marie recalled that on one occasion when she was 13 or 14, Rose took her to a local pub, and insisted that she drink several glasses of barley wine. Once they had left the premises, Anne Marie was bundled into Fred’s van and beaten by Rose, who asked her: “Do you think you could be my friend?” before she was sexually abused by her father and stepmother.

The girls recalled the fear they felt towards their mother, with Anne Marie once stating: ‘Rose would have made a wonderful concentration camp guard…Nothing would have pleased her more than to send many to their deaths.’

Indeed, Rose did appear to take a manic glee in doling out beatings to the children. Her view of the world and its workings meant it was no big leap to go from domestic abuse to serial killing, as an array of young women were taken, tortured and disposed of by the Wests.

Psychology Behind Killer Couples

Researchers found that many couples, no matter the gender, follow a common pattern: two people meet, feel a strong attraction, and establish an intimate familiarity that allows them to share fantasies, including violent ones. When eroticized, this approval encourages acting out, and if the partners succeed in committing a violent crime without getting caught, they grow bolder. The dominant person, often a psychopath, is generally charismatic and maintains psychological control: his or her erotic preferences set the tone. The weaker partner may usually have an unstable personality that makes him or her easily manipulated. After a successful assault, dominant partners often feel arrogant and alive, while submissive partners may experience guilt, anxiety, or regret.

Although most teams operate on this unequal hierarchy, some balance a co-equal partnership and these teams are usually the most criminally diverse and aggressive, because both participants realize that the other person is as depraved as he (or she) is. With no moral boundaries and no incentive to hold back, they work together to affirm and expand their range of criminal creativity. The other person provides a mirror, which can have an erotic effect that instigates even more villainy.

As Dr. Richard Walter, a forensic psychologist featured in Making a Monster puts it, the two fell into a ‘shared psychosis’.

Fred and Rose were a match made in heaven as they shared an interest in sexual violence and promiscuousness. Additionally, they both shared a biological component contributing to their violence; with Rose’s experience being from her mother receiving ECT while she was pregnant. While Fred’s was a result of a brain injury he sustained from a motorcycle accident – possibly damaging his frontal lobe, severely impacting his personality.  While neither appeared to feel any remorse or guilt (as they both most likely shared the same diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder) – details of their first arrest for sexual assault demonstrates who set the tone for this killing duo.

In late 1972, they invited a young Caroline Owens to move in as their nanny. Owens shared a room with Anne Marie (whom she noted was ‘very withdrawn’) until Fred attempted to make sexual advances, causing her to leave. Knowing of Owens’ habits of hitchhiking, the couple formulated a plan to abduct her for their shared gratification. Fred later admitted that the specific intent of this abduction was the rape and likely murder of Owens, but that his initial incentive was to determine whether his wife would be willing to at least assist him in an abduction.

One day, while she was waiting for the bus, they lured her to their car, apologizing for their conduct and offering her a ride home. Once in their car, Rose joined her in the back seat for a ‘girls’ chat’ as Fred drove. Shortly thereafter, Rose began to fondle Owens while Fred asked if she had sex with her boyfriend that evening. When Owens began to protest, Fred punched her into unconsciousness, while they bounded her, and took her home to subject her to hours of sexual abuse. According to her statements, Rose reportedly took the lead, stroking the girl, digitally penetrating her, and kissing her. Then Fred beat her with a belt. When Owens screamed, Rose would smother her with a pillow and further restrain her about the neck, while continuing to molest her. Realizing the gravity of her situation, Owens ceased resisting their sexual assaults.

The following morning, Fred threatened Owens telling her that he and his wife would keep her locked up in the cellar, allow his friends to sexually assault her, and that when they had finished, he would bury her body beneath ‘the paving stones of Gloucester’. Fred then admitted to killing hundreds of young girls, adding that Owens was primarily brought to the house for ‘Rose’s pleasure’. He and Rose then calmly asked Owens whether she would consider returning to work as their nanny. Seeing a potential way to escape, Owens agreed, and vacuumed the house to confirm her acceptance of becoming an extended member of the family. Later that day, she escaped from their home and returned home to her mother who immediately alerted the police as soon as she saw her daughter’s body (which was covered in welts, bruises and cuts).

This pattern of abduction, sexual assault, and violence continued over a 20-year period, with the only modification being that the next victims would not be able to get away.

From these stories, there are multiple instances of how Rose was the dominant partner, including her encouragement of Fred’s sexual abuse to his children (which did not appear to begin until he met Rose), as well as her violent and irrational temper (which also includes a story of Rose chasing Fred with a kitchen knife, attempting to inflict physical pain on him but no stories regarding the reverse happening to Rose). Additionally, while Fred may of been the one to initiate their routine of abducting women, Rose’s preferences provided the framework and plan. Lastly, Fred’s willingness to take the complete blame for the murders demonstrates the level of control Rose had over him. Because while there is potential that his taking blame could’ve been in result of a narcissistic element to his disorder – there’s a greater likelihood that he was indeed the submissive partner who agreed to everything Rose wanted, evidenced through his confessions to Janet Leach.

The stories from survivors like Owens and her own daughters detail the active role Rose took in her and Fred’s deviant acts – demonstrating how Rose used Fred for his strength and charismatic ways (which helped in ensuring that they were never reported to social services in connection to the abuse of their children). She also exploited his flaw – which was that while he could charm men and judges, Fred was unable to charm women (evidenced in Owens immediately leaving their home after he hit on her and his previous sexual assaults being spontaneous attacks). This provided Rose with the opportunity to step in and take control of the situation by first forming the connection with the victim (i.e. initiating a girls’ chat for example), then after they were tied up, initiating the sexual encounter.

While Rose may have only actually killed two people herself (Charmaine and Shirley Robinson), she initiated the death of all of their victims – ultimately confirming her psychopathology of antisocial personality disorder and serial sexual offender. This psychology paired with the psychopathology of a male who also had antisocial personality disorder and was a serial sexual offender, as well as a cold-blooded murderer, made for one of the most depraved couples known to man.


Sources:

  • Carter Woodrow, Jane (2011). “3. The Treatment”. Rose West: The Making of a Monster. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 978-0-340-99247-0.
  • Crime Investigation. Rose West: Britain’s Most Depraved Female Killer. Rose West: Britain’s most depraved female killer | Crime+Investigation UK
  • Davies, Nicola. Making of a Monster: Rosemary West. Pick Me Up Magazine. HealthPsychologyConsultancy.wordpress.com. March 2012.
  • Fred West: Bio-Psycho-Social Investigation of Psychopathic Sexual Serial Killer
  • Hislop, J, (2001). Female sex offenders. Ravensdale, WA: Issues Press, p. 219.
  • Lammers, J, and Imhoff, R. (2015). Power and Sadomasochism: Understanding the Antecedents of a Knotty Relationship. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550615604452
  • Ramsland, K & McGrain, P. (2010). Inside the minds of sexual predators. CA: ABC-Clio.
  • Sillem, Tanya; Wandless, Paul (26 November 1995). “More Questions than Answers”The Independent. UK.
  • Sounes, Howard (1995). Fred and Rose: The Full Story of Fred and Rose West and the Gloucester House of Horrors. Warner Books (London). 
  • Toureille, Claire. (2021). Rose West’s killer psychology started in the WOMB when her depressed mother received electroconvulsive therapy and she was in ‘total denial’ about her sexually abusive father, her solicitor claims in new documentary. Daily Mail.
  • International Journal of Criminology and Sociological Theory, Vol. 5, No.1, June 2012, 864-870

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