How Can a Murderer Change?

Did anyone care to find out why he was “scary” and try to determine a way to change that?

In the aftermath of the most recent school shooting in the USA, blogger Hasty Words asked this question. It got me thinking – can we reach out to others in pain and with our love and compassion steer them away from a life of destruction? Can we change them?

At seventeen, I had a burning desire to help those suffering or confused. At seventeen, I was too young to realise that I was also suffering and confused. I was too young to realise that the needlework teacher who kept giving me books to read might also have been confused.

So I read The Cross and the Switchblade, Once a Junkie, and whatever else she pushed into my hands, and I thought that like the preachers in these books, I should be brave enough to go into dark alleys and encourage drug addicts and violent gang members to change their ways. Or, since there were none of those on the island where I lived, at the very least I should be helping those less fortunate than I.

Right on cue, a lost soul came into my life. He was the ex-boyfriend of a friend and, after we bumped into him in a dance hall, he took to phoning the school accommodation where we lived during term time and asking to speak to me. He spun tales of despair over the break up with my friend, and of drinking to cope with the misery.

I believed his tales, and thought perhaps I could help him. I thought definitely I should help him. So I went to talk with him. He took me hostage at knifepoint, and threatened to rape me. Fortunately self-preservation kicked in and I managed to escape. He was sentenced to four months in jail and I gave up budding ideas of becoming a social worker. Is it ironic that the man who attacked me was a minister’s son?

The gang members in those books really did change their ways. Nicky Cruz, the anti-hero of the Cross and the Switchblade became a minister himself and is now 79 years old and still preaching. And it’s not just 1960s gang members who can be rehabilitated. Even murderers change their ways. Hugh Collins was once known as Scotland’s most dangerous prisoner. Here’s how he describes himself as a young man:

It’s a sickening feeling to strike a blow with a knife and look into that person’s eyes and see the fear and horror there, especially if they know they’re dying. I stabbed other people in fights, I stabbed prison officers inside. I was supposed to be this raging animal in jail, but I was just a scared laddie. When I struck with a blade, I always felt sick. I felt like a monster.

He felt fear, he longed for love.

Love first came to Collins in the form of Barlinnie Prison’s Special Unit, which existed from 1973 until 1995. In this unit Scotland’s most hopeless prisoners were treated not with harsh punishment, but with art. Another of Scotland’s most notorious hard men, Jimmy Boyle, was among the first prisoners in the unit, and his autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, describes the huge positive effect this had on him.

The unit had its critics, but it worked. In an article in the Guardian, Collins describes his time there: The idea was to use art therapy to get people to express themselves without violence… it worked in that I was more aware of where the violence was coming from. 

Though it played a huge part, it’s too simplistic so say that art saved alone these men. Apart from being in the unit, they have something else in common – both met and fell in love with women from very different backgrounds to their own while in prison. Boyle married while still in prison, Collins after his release.

Fore these men, change came too late to prevent someone dying at their hands, but young men hell-bent on shooting schoolmates have also been stopped in their tracks before lives were lost. In 2006, when school teacher Jencie Fagan heard gunshots, instead of running from the shooter, she ran towards him. She persuaded him to put down the gun, hugged him and stayed with him till police arrived. Police hailed her as a hero, but Fagan said, “I was just glad it was over, and no one was killed. And I was sad for him, because I know him. I care about my students immensely.”

In 2013, when a student shot and injured a classmate, teacher Ryan Heber persuaded the shooter to put down his gun.

Ryan Heber’s father explains why this was possible: “Because he knows the boy and the boy knows him … I attribute that to why the boy talked and listened to my son. It’s all about kindness. It’s all about my son being kind and caring about his students that makes this successful.”

Kindness and caring did it – but not just in the moment of crisis. Both these teachers had already built connections with the students such that the boys respected and cared for them.

This of course is also true for Boyle and Collins – the relationships they formed both with professionals who supported them and with the women they married were a big part of their healing. Collins credits his wife as his catalyst for change. “I was a very disturbed guy when I came out and Caroline still took me on. It was through her I changed.”

How could these she and Boyle’s wife help hardened prisoners to change and teachers get boys to put down their weapons before anyone died, but the man I tried to help threatened me with knives? Was I simply not up to the task? Too young? Not loving enough?

Or was there something else?

I don’t want to over-simplify what is a complex issue, but there are a few things I’ve noticed.

First, connection matters. Although the young man I thought I should help had dated a friend of mine, I had never spoken with him. We had no prior connection of any sort. Both the teachers who stopped boys from killing already knew them well, and the boys respected them. According to some reports, the boy Ryan Heber stopped begged him to leave because he didn’t want to shoot him. Jencie Fagan talked about looking upon the students as if they were her own children and said, “I felt real emotion for him.”

Neither teacher talks about feeling fear, but I felt fear in every moment of my attempts to “help”. In general as a teenager, I felt anxious much of the time, and socially inept. That undoubtedly coloured my judgement, and meant I missed danger signals. I was so annoyed with my own anxiety that I had no idea whether my fear was justified or I was just “being stupid.” It’s not hard to see that a quiet, anxious teenage girl would be easy prey for a mixed up man with anger issues.


Second, boundaries matter. Collins and Boyle met the women they would later marry in a therapeutic setting, where they were not in charge. The woman Boyle married while still in prison was a psychiatrist; the woman Collins married after his release was an art therapist. Although Collins says that for him it was love at first sight, their relationship still took time to develop. Collins’s wife knew how to set limits. She supported him, but he says, “She also made it clear that I had to learn to do things for myself and to be responsible for myself.”

At seventeen, I did not have that level of confidence or understanding. Looking back, I’m not even sure what I thought “helping” meant.

I also didn’t have the training those women had. That matters. That training doesn’t necessarily need to be professional – anything that makes us more self-aware, more able to feel compassion for others whilst also able to set clear boundaries and be compassionate with ourselves, means we are more likely to be able to support people effectively but not get ourselves into dangerous situations.

Yes, we can sometimes help people even if we don’t have training. Someone once got in touch with me to say how much I’d helped him decades before, that a simple gesture had been enough for him to feel cared for and that motivated him to get out of the mess his life had become. However, I hadn’t tried to change him, had just expressed my sadness at his terrible – if self-inflicted – situation. I had no idea that would motivate someone to change. I actually thought I should have done more – but I didn’t know what to do.

I think it comes down to this – if we genuinely want to help others in pain, rather than just wanting to feel good about ourselves (which at seventeen was part of my motivation) we first need to create connections and we need to be authentic. We can’t fake caring, we can’t fake kindness or strength. Well, we can fake it, but that falseness shows. And if we try to fake kindness, we aren’t really being respectful of the people we want to help.

So if authenticity is third factor in rehabilitation it is closely aligned with the next: respect.

Why does respect matter when we’re dealing with criminals and would-be killers?

Because, as judge Victoria Pratt says in her TED talk: if people perceive they are treated fairly and with dignity and respect, they’ll obey the law.

These are the principles of procedural justice – which Judge Pratt uses in her dealings with people brought to court. She assigns defendants essays! Here’s why: You see, assigning a letter to my father, a letter to my son, “If I knew then what I know now …” “If I believed one positive thing about myself, how would my life be different?” gives the person an opportunity to be introspective, go on the inside, which is where all the answers are anyway.

This amazing judge recognises that when even long-term addicts look inside they can find their own answers. A heroin user assigned community service to clean the park where he used to get high realised how many kids played there. He’d never noticed when he was high on drugs. Again, just like Collin’s wife, Judge Pratt provides both caring and accountability. Just like Barlinnie’s Special Unit, she encourages defendants towards introspection.

Without introspection, nobody is likely to change. With it, we become aware of what has previously been buried. In their book, When Anger Hurts, McKay, Rogers and McKay make the point that anger often covers over some other emotion. For instance, fear is beneath the anger of a parent who yells at a child for running into the road. The Special Unit allowed its inmates to get beneath their anger to the vulnerable part that Collins describes as a scared laddie. The teachers whose words stopped shooters touched the loving part inside them.

Writing this post brought insights I hadn’t expected into what happened when I was a teenager and finally laid to rest any doubts I had about whether I could or should have done anything different all those years ago. I realised that I did the best I could, and wasn’t equipped to support someone with the problematic thought patterns that young man who attacked me had. This wasn’t a flaw in me, rather it was simply that I didn’t have the training or emotional maturity to know what I was getting into.

There’s one more thing that I think all the examples I’ve used have in common. The people who intervene – be they a judge, teacher, prison officer or future wife – see something more than just a criminal or bad person before them. They see the whole person, the “better version” that is at the person’s core. And the person responds to that.

This post was written for the third anniversary of 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion, which began in February 2015. I loved writing this post, and finding out about people such as Judge Pratt and the work she does was so inspiring. I’d also love to hear from you – do drop me a comment!



  1. I’m glad this post gave you some closure. And I so very agree with your last statement. I think that’s key to everything else.

    1. Author

      Thanks Lizzi. I was surprised by the insights that came as I wrote this. I had not even planned to write about that attack so long ago, it just came! Likewise, it was through writing this (and through researching it) that I came to see what makes the difference is seeing that wholeness, the core. It takes courage to do that, a courage I didn’t have at seventeen, or maybe it’s not that I didn’t have it but that I wasn’t aware of it. We all have courage, we just often don’t realise it!
      Thanks for reading!

      1. It doesn’t sound like you didn’t have courage. It sounds almost like hou had more courage than sense (in the nicest way) and so wanted to help that guy you didn’t see the wholeness, which included the badness and danger. I think at 17 very few people would have had sufficient life experience to do that.

  2. I don’t think you could have done anything different all those years ago, and I’m so sorry you went through such a horrific experience. I also think that writing and sharing helps other people, so much.

    1. Author

      Thanks Kristi. I agree with you that I couldn’t do anything different and it’s good to be clear about that and let go of guilt about it! And yes, I think writing and sharing does help people – both those of us who write and who read!

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