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Why we must understand Savile psyche

BACK in 1991 when Dr Anthony Clare interviewed Jimmy Savile for Radio 4's In The Psychiatrist's Chair, it was clear that he felt uncomfortable with much of what the TV presenter and DJ was saying.

Here was a man who never put down roots, who carried no baggage, who had never had any kind of long-term relationship, who spoke of having "no feelings", who boasted of the "clout" he had and who eulogised about his own personal freedom. "I've got a shoulder bag that's not been unpacked for nearly 30 years," he said. "I don't sleep in the same bed more than two nights running … I'm not constrained pretty well by anything. The tough thing in life is ultimate freedom."

Those words seem particularly chilling now that we know a little about the ugly way that Savile exercised his ultimate freedom and considerable clout; now we know, through a report published last week, that he used his celebrity status and access to the NHS to "exploit and abuse" vulnerable patients and staff at several hospitals; that he boasted of having sex with corpses, and that at Leeds General Infirmary where he volunteered as porter, he abused victims aged from five to 75.

Two questions inevitably arise. Firstly, how did he manage to create this protective silence around him? Savile's behaviour was indeed truly shocking - but even more shocking is that he got away with it for so long.

Another question crosses the mind of anyone following the Savile story: Why did he do it?

Up until now, it seems few have dared to talk of Savile as anything other than a monster, but last week psychiatrist Oliver James analysed him in more human terms. He described Savile as "deeply disturbed, as well as disturbing". He suggested that "to understand what Savile was feeling when he groped in public, hear how his victims felt - humiliated, powerless, frightened, finally angry. Those will have been the emotions he lived with and, more or less, urgently needed to extrude." For James, the only way to prevent abusers like Savile was to try to understand them.

Most of us, of course, don't want to understand Savile. We would rather keep him locked in the box marked "loathsome and utterly deviant"; just write him off as a paedophile not worth trying to psychoanalyse. Somehow any attempt to explain the shocking behaviour of the one-time celebrity-saint seems outrageous and a little offensive. There are real abused people out there, who have lived for years with the legacy of having been assaulted by Savile. A man who made millions of pounds, who had five homes, countless cars and a knighthood hardly seems worthy of the word "abused".

Yet we all know this story in which the worst criminals are always the most wounded; we have all heard of the "cycle of abuse". That is not to say that every abused person becomes an abuser. It would be offensive to all those victims who have gone on to live kind and responsible lives to suggest so. However, if we don't seek some sort of psychological explanation, the behaviour of Savile and others like him is too easily dismissed as some demonic variety of sexuality. We are left feeling he was just one of those "others", a paedophile, or necrophile, not quite human.

But the problem is Savile was one of us. And given this, James's pontifications should be welcome.

However, I do have issues with some of the explanations he offers, simply because they are based on limited facts. He postulates, for instance, that Savile's behaviour may have resulted from "a lack of responsiveness from his mother in the early years". Yet we have scant information about Savile's early childhood or the character of his mother, whom he referred to as "the duchess".

Savile himself never suggested that there was any early neglect. Rather he said he thought he was "fifth favourite" in his family of seven siblings. True there are some creepy aspects of Savile's "intense enmeshment", as James terms it, with his mother - one being the fact that for decades after her death, he kept her room as it was, carefully preserving her clothing.

But for the most part, James's analysis of Savile is a kind of join-the-dots between the statistics of abuse and the slender facts that we know about the presenter's early life.

It is, of course, true that many male abusers were themselves victims of abuse, research shows this. But we need to be wary of jumping to conclusions. Both Savile and "the duchess" have now passed away - and it's all too easy to simply say, "They f*** you up, your mum and dad."

Meanwhile, we live in a society that believes in some element of free will. And no-one is saying, even if he was abused, that he should be let off the hook. After all, we know that though some neglected children may turn into monsters, there are many others who become kind and loving human beings. Savile himself believed in that free will. He talked of "ultimate freedom". And what did he use it for? At the age of 82, he was still abusing. Even if it's impossible to forgive him or empathise with him, we ought at least to strive to work out why.

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