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Rolf Harris’ lack of remorse and the psychology of uncomfortable emotions

14 June 2015

6:29 PM

14 June 2015

6:29 PM

A year into his sentence on 12 counts of indecent assault, it doesn’t look like Rolf Harris has developed much of a sense of remorse. After seeing Mr Harris’s latest foray into song writing, his victims’ lawyer has said he mustn’t be given parole, and she has a point. Theodore Dalrymple (also known as Anthony Daniels), then a prison doctor, described in 1994 the baffling ability of violent criminals to avoid that uncomfortable emotion.

A murderer came back from court having been sentenced to life imprisonment. A period of depression is, of course, to be expected after such a sentence, but this man was angry, not depressed. He was red with rage.

‘That wasn’t justice,’ he said. ‘It was a kangaroo court…They didn’t listen to me. They didn’t call no medical evidence.’

‘About what?’ I asked.

‘What she died of.’

‘And what did she die of?’

‘Haemorrhage.’

‘How did she get the haemorrhage, then?’ I asked.

‘They pulled the knife out.’

One of the most effective defences against guilt is amnesia.

In amnesia’s house are many mansions, one of which is the distortion of memory in the direction desired, indeed required, by self-esteem. Very frequently the man who has committed an act of violence remembers only a slight contretemps, a disagreement which admittedly ended in a scuffle, but which was nothing serious. He doesn’t really understand what all the fuss is about.

‘I gave him a slight tap on the head, that’s all,’ said one man brought in on a charge of murder. The pathologist’s report described a fragmented and stoved-in skull, which had received a crushing blow from a blunt instrument…Bad luck often strikes such murderers. They walk about with a knife and then someone perversely comes and impales himself upon it.

The passage of time also diminishes the significance of what the murderer has done. A man who threw his neighbour’s baby on the fire and burnt it to death asked me 14 years after the crime whether he could seriously be expected to express much regret or other feeling for something which had happened so long ago. Was I consumed with guilt for the wrongs I had committed back then, he asked me? And if I wasn’t, why should he be? My reply that I had done nothing as heinous as he did not satisfy him. For the difference between us was one of degree, not of kind.

Still, I feel instinctively that an appropriate degree of remorse is a necessary condition of the rehabilitation of a murderer (too great a degree of remorse turns into its opposite, into self-indulgence and grandiosity). I might, of course, be wrong: after all, the vast majority of murderers released from prison never kill again, and the remorse they each express, upon which their release is at least partly contingent, is unlikely always to be genuine.


In an earlier article Dalrymple described meeting a man who had severed his girlfriend’s head with a meat cleaver. He was on hunger strike.

It was not remorse which drove him to deprive himself of food: quite the contrary. He had a long history of violent crime, much of it very gruesome, and had spent most of his adult life on the in. He insisted that, before the murder, he had told everyone of his intention to kill someone. ‘I was all on edge, like.’ As a consequence, he believed that ‘they’ had failed to prevent the killing; therefore it was ‘they’ who were guilty, not he.

Rolf Harris’s new song contains lyrics such as ‘That old bandwagon you crawled out of/(rotten to the core)/ conceals a host of foul accusers,/ Twenty maybe more/ My guess is they’ll slide after you/ All following your stench/ Perhaps you believe you’re pretty still, some perfumed sultry wench.’

It’s unclear if he thinks he’ll make any money from it but he’s determined to get into a recording studio as soon as he gets out of prison. Although there’s a very small chance that Mr Harris will reoffend when he’s released, the prospect of this song actually ending up on tape is as strong an argument as any for keeping him behind bars for as long as possible.


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