What do you do?
I’ve spent a lot of my career working with people who have severe personality disorders, including psychopaths and sexual offenders. It was my job to make them less of a risk.
What’s it like working with these people?
It can be surreal. I worked with one serial killer, a trained butcher, who dismembered people. You have to build up a rapport with people in order to work meaningfully with them, so we cooked together. He taught me how to bone a turkey! All along I was aware these were the same skills that he used on his victims.
Which are you more like, Clarice Starling or Cracker?
Neither, these fictional characters are ‘profilers’. Cracker was an emotionally damaged Scot who tramped all over crime scenes. It’s an inaccurate portrayal of what people like me do. But anything that sparks the public’s interest in science and psychology is okay in my book.
What was it like the first time you met one of these offenders?
It was a baptism of fire. I was 21 years old, doing research in a high-security prison, interviewing men who had raped and murdered their victims. While it was daunting, I was able to separate myself from it emotionally and get on with the job. In the end, the prison officers were more difficult than the offenders.
How do you mean?
It was an incestuous, institutional male environment. The guards ordered me to remove my shoes because they were ‘too sexy’. They even ran a book on who would be the first to sleep with me! Things have moved on since then and I don’t work in prisons any more. Forensic psychology is actually a very female world.
Does your professional life ever spill into your private life?
I became the victim of a stalker. He watched me, bought websites in my name and said damaging things about me in public. The police could only issue a harassment warning but I took civil action against him. It stunned me how inadequate the current laws are, but it did give me first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be a victim.
Do you ever think about quitting?
I’ve worked with the most misogynistic, dangerous men imaginable. It takes its toll. I made a conscious decision a while ago to stop working with them and start working more in general mental health and with victims. I’ve also branched into the corporate sector.
Do you meet many psychopaths in the business world?
Yes! One in every 100 people are psychopaths and 20 per cent of CEOs score highly on psychopathic traits. Moderate levels of psychopathic-like traits can be useful, as long they’re tempered with compassion and humility. I draw on my unique experiences to teach skills to business leaders.
I think I am going to worry about you. Promise me you’ll be okay?
I’m pretty resilient. I come from a very stable and ‘normal’ background; that helps. I also have two enormous dogs, Humphrey and Fozzchops. When the complexity and inhumanity of some humans feels a little overwhelming, the simplicity and innocence of a happy dog is a great antidote.
Read more interviews with inspirational women working in science
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- “I love it because it’s so remote. It used to take me three days to forget about the rest of the world” - Dame Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey
- "We lay out hundreds of fake, paper-winged butterflies to see whether they've been nibbled by birds" - Dr Susan Finkbeiner, entomologist