Posted on: 31 March 2023

Review of: A Love That Kills: Stories of Forensic Psychology and Female Violence; by Anna Motz; Weidenfeld and Nicholson, £20 pp260

I highly recommend this book and I can imagine it being sold in Supermarkets, very much like the The Devil You Know books by Gwen Adshead. 

The book tells some terrible stories though this is far from just ‘misery lit’. “These stories are difficult and distressing, but also ones we can and must learn from.” (p254)

I always wonder if people read these stories to look for clues about themselves; where the extreme nature of the disturbance throws the brightest light on causes and the workings of the mind for them to understand better.

Anyway, Anna works at CNWL (mentioned in the text) and this book draws on her many years’ experience in forensic settings (what one psychanalyst refers to as a ‘brick mother’, where prison is the “container these women have never known in the form of a loving home, parent or guardian” (p231) but also where the culture within these buildings, including other staff’s good intentions (and they are full of good intentions), can add to the difficulties).

She has a handy way of summing up the issues, for instance with Skye, who dangerously but regularly self-harms, “I realise that my scars are the tears I never shed.” (p256)

And she adds, “there are no simplistic or straight forward happy endings to the complex stories of violent women who abuse and kill.” (p253)

53% of female prisoners (and 27% of males) have been abused as children and the actual abuse revealed here is sometimes hard to take and also a piercing reminder of what happens in front of our own, not knowing, not seeing and not-even-imagining, eyes. 

This is then transmitted through these experiences into further forms of abuse and violence, often extreme violence – crimes – as well as violence turned on themselves (and she has interesting things to say here about how self-harm – ligation- is a choice for some women), or, as in one of the hardest chapters, on others with Fabricated or Induced Illness (Munchausen’s and By Proxy.)

Throughout she has to remain – and does remain – compassionate despite revulsion at the crimes that have brought these women to her; she quotes an authority, “a main task of the analyst of any patient is to maintain objectivity in regard to all that the patient brings, and a special case of this is the analyst’s need to be able to hate the patient objectively.” (p138)


What is remarkable – and skilful – is how she separates and untangles the jumble of anger, guilt, shame and fears accreted inside the person.


“The art of therapy is to hold up a mirror for the patients so they can see the problem …. without falling into the trap of re-enacting the issue you are trying to address…” (p148); and in one case, ‘Tania’, “we had to confront Tania’s anger and soothe her guilt, allowing her to realise that hating her mother for some of the things she had done did not invalidate the love she still felt for her…” (p274)

More than anything I came away feeling impressed with the burdens these professionals carry, their skills and the progress back to life many of their patients make.


See also

Mike Waddington

Communications Director