The Devil You Know by Gwen Adshead reviewed

The Devil You Know Book Cover The Devil You Know
Gwen Adshead, Eileen Horne
Faber and Faber Ltd
June 03, 2021

In eleven vivid narratives based on decades of providing therapy to people in prisons and secure hospitals, an internationally renowned forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist demonstrates the remarkable human capacity for radical empathy, change, and redemption.

What drives someone to commit an act of terrible violence? Drawing from her thirty years’ experience in working with people who have committed serious offenses, Dr. Gwen Adshead provides fresh and surprising insights into violence and the mind. Through a collaboration with coauthor Eileen Horne, Dr. Adshead brings her extraordinary career to life in a series of unflinching portraits.

Alongside doctor and patient, we discover what human cruelty, ranging from serial homicide to stalking, arson or sexual offending, means to perpetrators, experiencing first-hand how minds can change when the people some might label as “evil” are able to take responsibility for their life stories and get to know their own minds. With outcomes ranging from hope to despair, from denial to recovery, these men and women are revealed in all their complexity and shared humanity. In this era of mass incarceration, deep cuts in mental health care and extreme social schisms, this book offers a persuasive argument for compassion over condemnation.

Moving, thought-provoking, and brilliantly told, The Devil You Know is a rare and timely book with the power to transform our ideas about cruelty and violence, and to radically expand the limits of empathy.

The Devil You Know by Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne

Dr Gwen Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist. In 30 years of experience seeing troubled people she has dealt with a wide variety of issues. Some of her time has been spent with patients at Broadmoor. In The Devil You Know there are 11 stories from her cases.  In these she illustrates many key issues that affect the people she sees. Each case also allows her to expand on issues relating to the topic more generally. The cases are taken from both prisons and secure hospital setting as well as those who are in the community. They are challenging both in the sense of trying to help people deal with their issues but also because of the way the discussion can affect the therapist too. The introduction to this book is very good. It defines the general area of the book and sets the scene very well indeed.

The 11 stories are wide ranging. They have in common very troubled people who have been violent, dangerous or with the potential to be. I won’t give an insight into each of the cases – frankly they are all interesting. However by way of example I’ll mention a couple. The story of Gabriel is about someone who attacked a stranger without any apparent provocation. He is an immigrant from Eritrea. The understanding that Dr Adshead eventually gets of his case is both powerful and interesting. Lydia’s story was another fascinating one. She is leaving prison after serving a sentence for stalking. This allows the general topic of stalking as a offence – both the history and the overall subject – to be considered as part of the chapter. The actual case reads almost like a fiction story – remarkable.

Every one of the chapters made for a good read for me. The broadening out of chapters to cover more general information worked well for me. As an example Kezia’s case – she killed her support worker – allows the author to look at the topic of female violence generally. She also brings in the prevailing views on the subject among psychiatrists who are largely male. Other topics covered include PTSD and sexual abuse. It is probably fair to say that some of the stories make for quite challenging reads. Across the book there are topics of race and the rationale behind the request for a therapy sessions.

The thoughtful and balanced approach that Dr Adshead takes with her patients was impressive. Her “asides” of how patients make her feel are very thoughtful and interesting. I think I probably highlighted more sections in The Devil You Know than in most of the books I’ve read because they seemed so interesting and worth attention. It is definitely one of the best medical non-fiction books I have read. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject – from a professional slant or simply interested.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review