The unexpected face of evil

What does our response to the Lucy Letby case tell us about how we envision good and bad?

September 01, 2023
Image: Associated Press, Alamy Stock Photo / Unsplash
Image: Associated Press, Alamy Stock Photo / Unsplash

“I don’t know what Britain’s most prolific child killer should look like, but I’m pretty sure it’s not this,” said BBC correspondent Judith Moritz, following Lucy Letby’s conviction for the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of six more.

Moritz was voicing the cognitive dissonance being experienced by many over this story; the sense of disbelief that sits uncomfortably underneath the horror. Typing Letby—now the UK’s most prolific child killer—into a Google search will show the questions others have been asking: Is Lucy Letby innocent? Is Lucy Letby a scapegoat? Is Lucy Letby really guilty? 

That anyone can be capable of murdering new-born babies is a horror so unspeakable that most of us find it hard to face. We simply can’t believe it because to believe such evil exists renders everything—or everyone—we know and love at risk of senseless harm. People are struggling with the truth that when they stare this particular evil in the face, it is a blonde, blue-eyed, thin, attractive, churchgoing white woman staring back. It is a familiar face. It is the kind of face we have all been conditioned to understand as loving, kind, maternal; the face of someone good. Even after her conviction, newspapers were printing photographs of her parents hand-in-hand alongside her smiling, childhood photos. These are the types of front pages usually reserved for victims of murders, not of the perpetrators of such heinous crimes. 

Professor of psychology Dr Marissa Harrison has warned of the importance of challenging preconceived notions of others—or “schemas”—when looking into serial murders. Dr Harrison’s research shows that Lucy Letby does in fact fit the bill of a female serial killer, even though “most people are not ready to believe that a woman can kill”. Writing in the Guardianshe said: “We must be prepared to recognise that, sometimes, the monster is a vanilla nurse who took dance lessons, fancied a staff doctor, and had teddy bears, fairy lights and a polka-dot dressing gown in her bedroom... and yet destroyed lives in a most extraordinary way.”

Humanity has long felt the need to put a face to the things we find hard to understand; to personify good and evil—these forces we feel around us but cannot see. If evil has a face, a form, a body, then perhaps it helps give us a sense of control over it—an enemy we can fight against. So too God, and so too concepts of heaven and hell.

 Artists and writers have for centuries attempted to creatively depict the evil described in religious teachings. In the Hebrew Bible, the word satan—a generic noun referring to an adversary—first makes an appearance in the book of Numbers. Later in the Old Testament, and when used with the definite article, it becomes the name for the embodiment of a malevolent, supernatural force. Though many Jewish people reject the idea of a supernatural, evil entity (as opposed to evil as merely human choice and inclination), the belief in a supernatural presence can still be found in Christian thought.  In western art, the oldest depiction of Satan, otherwise known as Lucifer, is thought to be the blue angel that features in an early sixth century mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Biblical imagery has inspired depictions of the devil as a fallen angel, a snake, a goat, a fox, and a lion. Medieval depictions imagined the devil as a dragon-like being. Dante’s Inferno describes Satan as having “two mighty wings, such as befitting were so great a bird; sails of the sea I never saw so large. No feathers had they, but as of a bat.”

Though we may supposedly live in a post-Christian society, this imagery continues to shape our understanding of malevolent forces. The idea that evil has a recognisable face has pierced the psyche of western society. When people in the UK today picture evil or the concept of a devil, they might call to mind Hitler or Ian Brady or Myra Hindley; or they may think of a red being with a forked tongue, a tail, horns, and a pitchfork. This red-hued Prince of Darkness character spread more widely through the advancement of print, film and photography in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the red devil being used in advertising campaigns such as those familiar depictions of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, representing the two voices in the human conscience.

In much more recent history, film and television have continued to play with ideas around what evil might look like. The disfigurements of Bond villains betray the ableist idea that evil is made manifest in someone’s physical appearance. Skyfall producer Michael G Wilson has said that: “It’s very much a Fleming [Ian Fleming] device that he uses throughout the stories—the idea that physical deformity and personal deformity goes hand in hand… a motivating factor in their life, and what makes them the way they are.”

In events like the Letby case, events that shock a supposedly secular and rational nation, many resort to religious language and symbolism because they give weight to what we feel. Even the best-known atheists among us such as Polly Toynbee reach for words such as “evil” when trying to voice what has happened.

At times of national outrage, our beliefs in the transcendent—of things like God, good and evil, heaven and hell—perhaps rise above our national scepticism. Maybe we are not so sceptical after all. This year, Gallup has reported that 58 per cent of people in the US believe in the devil—down only 10 per cent from 20 years ago, when it said: “Regardless of political belief, religious inclination, education or region, most Americans believe that the devil exists.” Research by the Policy Institute at King’s College London released earlier this year found that in the UK while belief in God and heaven have declined over the past 40 years, belief in life after death and hell have remained static. Just under half (49 per cent) of Britons said they believed in God in 2022—down from three-quarters (75 per cent) in 1981. 

But what is the image or idea of God that people have rejected in such numbers? Over the past few days, I have heard people referring to Letby as having “played God”—as if God is a capricious, dice-thrower, who uses their power to kill babies. This caricature of God is of course extremely unattractive—especially in the midst of suffering. What it does reveal is people’s preconceived ideas about who God is and therefore what God looks like—just as there are preconceived ideas about who is good and who is bad, and about what evil looks like. Depictions of God through centuries of art reveal a God who is male, perfect, and powerful; a Christ who is beautiful, sandy-haired, and blue-eyed. Conversely, the way in which the “baddie” in the Jesus narrative—Judas—has been portrayed (often with darker or exaggerated Jewish features) reveals the racism and antisemitism that has been at play. That the art of the Middle Ages added warts and moles to Judas’s skin again demonstrated the equation of evil with supposed ugliness and physical imperfection, while goodness was archetypally beautiful. 

By looking for caricatures of evil, or what a serial killer might look like, it is possible for us to miss the evils staring us right in the face: the rampant consumerism and individualism that has caused climate catastrophe and left people in the global south fighting for survival; the pervasive narratives in our society that tell us some people’s lives are worth saving, and living, and others are not; the hatred of the other.

The Catholic Church has found it helpful to give evil a name for all that is wrong with the world. During a May 1987 visit to the Sanctuary of Saint Michael the Archangel, Pope John Paul II said:

“The battle against the Devil, which is the principal task of Saint Michael the archangel, is still being fought today, because the Devil is still alive and active in the world. The evil that surrounds us today, the disorders that plague our society, man’s inconsistency and brokenness, are not only the results of original sin, but also the result of Satan's pervasive and dark action.” 

Much of the commentary in recent days has suggested that not seeing the malevolence—not believing that this face could fit the crime, despite the evidence—could have played a part in hospital leaders being slow to take action against her, even when their own employees attempted to raise the alarm. “It can’t be Lucy; not nice Lucy,” said one of the consultants at the Countess of Chester Hospital, on realising that the one responsible for the deaths of these precious babies might in fact be her. It’s impossible for us in soundbites and headlines to know the details and facts that have been pored over during the 10-month trial, and the ensuing enquiry will hopefully shed light on how exactly these tragedies were able to happen.

But Lucy Letby’s sentencing has sparked conversations that perhaps had never really gone away: about what justice is and about what retribution entails. Perhaps it might also enable us to re-imagine what hell might be. Letby will spend the rest of her life in prison, and—for her own safety—hidden away even from fellow prisoners who themselves have committed heinous crimes. Is this better or worse than the death penalty? Is it better or worse than the caricatured hellfire and brimstone that has come to symbolise the Christian view of damnation? For former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, Letby’s hell might have just begun. When asked in 2009 what hell is like, he replied “My concept of hell, I suppose, is being stuck with myself for ever and with no way out.”

Perhaps it is human nature to reduce complex realities into simple caricatures and narratives as a way of helping us cope. But perhaps the world might be a better place if we expanded our understanding of who or what is worthy and good, and who or what might not be all that they appear. As senior demon Screwtape writes to his trainee tempter Wormwood in the CS Lewis classic: “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”