Only when he’s banged up does Anthony begin to realize that his freedom was curtailed long before his actual incarceration. His former high-powered job, he comes to see, was a type of prison in itself, with its punishingly long hours, extreme pressures, and lack of leisure time. And the sheer competitiveness of his ambitious colleagues meant he could never rest on his laurels if he wished to succeed. And, before that – indeed, from the age of seven – he was subject to rigid boarding-school rules,. It’s nonsense to say prison is like boarding-school – the differences are huge and prison is infinitely worse – but there are similarities.
In the case of my own school, every hour of every day, weekends and evenings included, was rigorously mapped out for us and we were forbidden to depart from the timetable or to be in a different place from that scheduled. We were also kept within the four walls and forbidden to go out except in a “crocodile”, with one nun leading the way and a second bringing up the rear. Shops were strictly out-of-bounds and we could see our parents only on a few “permitted” weekends. A nun slept in every dormitory, to prevent any girl misbehaving, and we were obliged to maintain a strict silence from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Even the smallest infringement – “Please may I open the window, Mother Agnes?” – had to be reported next morning and any culprits would be banished to the “penance table” to eat their breakfast alone. Our letters in and out were read and phone-calls were forbidden, so no chance of complaining!
Although Anthony wasn’t subjected to such petty “convent” rules, his high-powered school imposed its own pressures in its expectation that every boy must excel. His parents reinforced this by insisting he came top in each and every subject. Nor did they give him the freedom to work out what he wanted in life or pursue any path not based on their own lodestars of wealth, success and status. Even his school-friends had to be approved and, later, he was expected to marry the “right sort of wife”. And, of course, contemporary society imposes its own demands by insisting we are all slim, fit, healthy, successful, attractive and well up to speed with the latest social-media craze or technological advance.
Anthony’s deep-seated need for order and control contributes to his pressures. Any sort of mess or disorder threatens his carefully structured coping mechanisms – hence his abhorrence of Mary’s lawless cat, Sheehan. This aspect of his character was easy for me to write, since I, too, feel compelled to keep everything tidy and organized, partly due to my work as a novelist. Novel-writing can be a very chaotic process, especially at the start, when the projected book is just a mass of jottings, plot-ideas and character-sketches, with, as yet, no firm plan or structure. Thus, it helps to have an ordered exterior world, to compensate for the shifting uncertainties of one’s fictional world.
Alternatively, control-freaks may be battling a sense of general insecurity as, I suspect, in my father’s case. After his difficult childhood, was it any wonder that he lined up his shoes in rows, and kept even his bathroom-cabinet perfectly ordered: nail-file aligned with scissors, scissors with hair-clippers, clippers with comb?
And because childhood influences – and indeed the impact of our genes – are both so powerful, I found myself constantly re-examining the whole issue of free will – another concept central to Catholicism that holds we are free to choose between good and evil and thus responsible for any harm we do. From the time of the Ancient Greeks, there has been a long philosophical debate about whether free will is compatible with determinism, but, that apart, it certainly struck me in researching The Tender Murderer, that both nature and nurture can easily mitigate against such freedom of choice. I even began to wonder if our justice system should take far more account of the often severely limited choices of those dealt the worst cards in life.
Any examination of freedom needs to include freedom from certain things, such as illness, disability, illiteracy, or poverty, but also including freedom from guilt, despair or fear. One of the biggest ordeals of Anthony’s post-prison life is the constant burden of guilt he feels and the sense of himself as a marked man, forced to live in continual fear that his crime will be found out by any new friend, acquaintance, or colleague. Thus, although now released from custody, he can never regain his former clear conscience and his ability to hold his head up high in any social circle.
Another thing that struck me was the paradoxical fact that some inmates find certain freedoms in prison – freedom from the responsibility and pressures of job and family. It can be a genuine relief no longer to have to feed themselves, find employment or housing or run a home. Some deliberately reoffend in order to return to the security of having a roof over their head and three meals a day – admittedly only a small minority. At the other end of the scale are those who risk life and limb trying to escape – again, a tiny few – and, in between, a much larger number who kick against the system, yet endure it with varying degrees of acceptance.
By the time I’d finished The Tender Murderer, I realized I’d barely scratched the surface of the prison system and that I’d never grasp the reality of being banged up day after day unless I’d experienced it for myself. I also felt the need to apologize to those readers who do have first-hand knowledge for any inaccuracies or misjudgements they might find. Yet it’s a different sort of truth that’s of key importance in fiction – the truth of character, emotion and description – and that, at least, I hope I have achieved.