Seeing through stereotype of Ian Brady's last victim
Despite a life suffering over her son’s murder and unknown grave, Winnie Johnson showed grit and unlikely joy
HOW HARD life was for Winnie Johnson, whose death was announced at the weekend. She was the mother of Keith Bennett, killed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley in 1964. As we all know by now, Winnie Johnson worked for the return of her son’s body so that she could give him a Christian burial.
The suffering of Winnie Johnson, her search for her son’s body, and her petitioning of his murderers to reveal the location of his grave – the late Myra Hindley cancelled a prison meeting with her at the last minute, on the grounds that it would be too upsetting for them both – is familiar to anyone who has been watching television or reading newspapers for the past 50 years. We think we know the story, just as we think we know about the feelings of relatives of the disappeared, the murdered and the missing as they wait down the years and decades. But of course we know nothing of how they cope or how they lead their daily lives.
The name Winnie Johnson has mostly been twinned with words such as “agony” and “vigil” – understandably. With her death came the headlines that she was Brady’s last victim, because he held out on her, in the most ghastly way, until the end.
So it was surprising to hear Winnie Johnson’s pastor, Canon Ian Gomersall, talk about her on the radio yesterday. Far from referring to her as a victim, he said that Winnie Johnson was “a very down-to-earth and practical woman”. She regularly attended Sunday Mass at Saint Chrysostom’s Anglo-Catholic church in the Victoria Park area of Manchester.
“Although she had this tragic story, she also had a delight in other people. She enjoyed children. She was very affirming of life,” he said.
Canon Gomersall was very clear: “She wasn’t a person who let the tragedy rule her life too much . . . She was an inspiring example to us. It was a privilege to watch her . . .” What he had to say was pretty surprising, and humbling. Over the years and through her mounting tragedy, we’d only been presented with one side of Mrs Johnson, who looked like a lovely old lady and who in fact was a lovely old lady. Here was a bit of complication being thrown into that stereotype, even if it came only from the impression of one person who saw her at church. Of course, Mrs Johnson’s family – she had nine children – are sure to have witnessed other, more intimate, sides of their mother’s grief. But to know that she showed such grit in such circumstances, for her to have left this impression behind her, is to know a little bit of the extraordinary courage she and the families of other murdered and missing persons have, and have to have.
Mrs Johnson died in a hospice after a long illness. Speaking to the BBC’s Sunday programme on Radio Four, Canon Gomersall said that he doubted if Mrs Johnson even knew about the controversy – it would be wrong to call it the hope – which has erupted once more around her dead son. This is probably just as well. Channel 4 is due to broadcast a documentary tonight – Ian Brady: Endgames of a Psychopath. The behaviour of both the documentary-makers and of Ian Brady’s mental health advocate, Jackie Powell, who participated in the programme, has been the subject of strong criticism. Since the programme was made they have argued bitterly with each other in public.
Powell has had her house searched and has been led from it in handcuffs. The source of all this disturbance is the sealed envelopes that Brady gave Powell, whom he appears to trust, and which may or may not contain details of where Keith Bennett’s body is located.
With the best will in the world, it doesn’t seem likely that Brady, a sadistic psychopath, would now suddenly reveal the site of Keith Bennett’s burial. With Brady himself near death – he has been on a long hunger strike – combined with Winnie Johnson’s death over the weekend, it may well be that Keith Bennett’s body will never be found. Powell herself says that this last secret gives Brady a sense of control over others that is vital to him.
We also know that over the years Winnie Johnson tried everything she could think of to get Brady and Hindley to reveal where Keith’s body was hidden. She wanted them injected with truth serum or hypnotised. She wrote to the Queen. She wrote to everyone she could think of and she had people written to also.
Most families of the missing have to wait silently for the news that may never come, for the discovery of a body that will probably never be found. One has to wonder also about the competence of human memory – perhaps Brady can’t remember where he left Keith Bennett’s body; perhaps he could never find the spot again and is only pretending to be able to do it, so that he gets public attention once more.
In an ending that she would never have wanted, Keith Bennett’s memorial may be his mother’s determination, and the way she smiled with the other children she met when she went to church.