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ALICIA BERENSON WAS THIRTY-THREE YEARS OLD when she killed her husband.
They had been married for seven years. They were both artists—Alicia was a painter, and Gabriel was a well-known fashion photographer. He had a distinctive style, shooting semi-starved, semi-naked women in strange, unflattering angles. Since his death, the price of his photographs has increased astronomically. I find his stuff rather slick and shallow, to be honest. It has none of the visceral quality of Alicia’s best work. I don’t know enough about art to say whether Alicia Berenson will stand the test of time as a painter. Her talent will always be overshadowed by her notoriety, so it’s hard to be objective. And you might well accuse me of being biased. All I can offer is my opinion, for what it’s worth. And to me, Alicia was a kind of genius. Apart from her technical skill, her paintings have an uncanny ability to grab your attention—by the throat, almost—and hold it in a viselike grip.
Gabriel Berenson was murdered six years ago. He was forty-four years old. He was killed on the twenty-fifth of August—it was an unusually hot summer, you may remember, with some of the highest temperatures ever recorded. The day he died was the hottest of the year.
On the last day of his life, Gabriel rose early. A car collected him at 5:15 a.m. from the house he shared with Alicia in northwest London, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, and he was driven to a shoot in Shoreditch. He spent the day photographing models on a rooftop for Vogue.
Not much is known about Alicia’s movements. She had an upcoming exhibition and was behind with her work. It’s likely she spent the day painting in the summerhouse at the end of the garden, which she had recently converted into a studio. In the end, Gabriel’s shoot ran late, and he wasn’t driven home until eleven p.m.
Half an hour later, their neighbor, Barbie Hellmann, heard several gunshots. Barbie phoned the police, and a car was dispatched from the station on Haverstock Hill at 11:35 p.m. It arrived at the Berensons’ house in just under three minutes.
The front door was open. The house was in pitch-black darkness; none of the light switches worked. The officers made their way along the hallway and into the living room. They shone torches around the room, illuminating it in intermittent beams of light. Alicia was discovered standing by the fireplace. Her white dress glowed ghostlike in the torchlight. Alicia seemed oblivious to the presence of the police. She was immobilized, frozen—a statue carved from ice—with a strange, frightened look on her face, as if confronting some unseen terror.
A gun was on the floor. Next to it, in the shadows, Gabriel was seated, motionless, bound to a chair with wire wrapped around his ankles and wrists. At first the officers thought he was alive. His head lolled slightly to one side, as if he were unconscious. Then a beam of light revealed Gabriel had been shot several times in the face. His handsome features were gone forever, leaving a charred, blackened, bloody mess. The wall behind him was sprayed with fragments of skull, brains, hair—and blood.
Blood was everywhere—splashed on the walls, running in dark rivulets along the floor, along the grain of the wooden floorboards. The officers assumed it was Gabriel’s blood. But there was too much of it. And then something glinted in the torchlight—a knife was on the floor by Alicia’s feet. Another beam of light revealed the blood spattered on Alicia’s white dress. An officer grabbed her arms and held them up to the light. There were deep cuts across the veins in her wrists—fresh cuts, bleeding hard.
Alicia fought off the attempts to save her life; it took three officers to restrain her. She was taken to the Royal Free Hospital, only a few minutes away. She collapsed and lost consciousness on the way there. She had lost a lot of blood, but she survived.
The following day, she lay in bed in a private room at the hospital. The police questioned her in the presence of her lawyer. Alicia remained silent throughout the interview. Her lips were pale, bloodless; they fluttered occasionally but formed no words, made no sounds. She answered no questions. She could not, would not, speak. Nor did she speak when charged with Gabriel’s murder. She remained silent when she was placed under arrest, refusing to deny her guilt or confess it.
Alicia never spoke again.
Her enduring silence turned this story from a commonplace domestic tragedy into something far grander: a mystery, an enigma that gripped the headlines and captured the public imagination for months to come.
Alicia remained silent—but she made one statement. A painting. It was begun when she was discharged from the hospital and placed under house arrest before the trial. According to the court-appointed psychiatric nurse, Alicia barely ate or slept—all she did was paint.
Normally Alicia labored weeks, even months, before embarking on a new picture, making endless sketches, arranging and rearranging the composition, experimenting with color and form—a long gestation followed by a protracted birth as each brushstroke was painstakingly applied. Now, however, she drastically altered her creative process, completing this painting within a few days of her husband’s murder.
And for most people, this was enough to condemn her—returning to the studio so soon after Gabriel’s death betrayed an extraordinary insensitivity. The monstrous lack of remorse of a cold-blooded killer.
Perhaps. But let us not forget that while Alicia Berenson may be a murderer, she was also an artist. It makes perfect sense—to me at least—that she should pick up her brushes and paints and express her complicated emotions on canvas. No wonder that, for once, painting came to her with such ease; if grief can be called easy.
The painting was a self-portrait. She titled it in the bottom left-hand corner of the canvas, in light blue Greek lettering.
ALCESTIS IS THE HEROINE OF A GREEK MYTH. A love story of the saddest kind. Alcestis willingly sacrifices her life for that of her husband, Admetus, dying in his place when no one else will. An unsettling myth of self-sacrifice, it was unclear how it related to Alicia’s situation. The true meaning of the allusion remained unknown to me for some time. Until one day, the truth came to light—
But I’m going too fast. I’m getting ahead of myself. I must start at the beginning and let events speak for themselves. I mustn’t color them, twist them, or tell any lies. I’ll proceed step by step, slowly and cautiously. But where to begin? I should introduce myself, but perhaps not quite yet; after all, I am not the hero of this tale. It is Alicia Berenson’s story, so I must begin with her—and the Alcestis.
The painting is a self-portrait, depicting Alicia in her studio at home in the days after the murder, standing before an easel and a canvas, holding a paintbrush. She is naked. Her body is rendered in unsparing detail: strands of long red hair falling across bony shoulders, blue veins visible beneath translucent skin, fresh scars on both her wrists. She’s holding the paintbrush between her fingers. It’s dripping red paint—or is it blood? She is captured in the act of painting—yet the canvas is blank, as is her expression. Her head is turned over her shoulder and she stares straight out at us. Mouth open, lips parted. Mute.
During the trial, Jean-Felix Martin, who managed the small Soho gallery that represented Alicia, made the controversial decision, decried by many as sensationalist and macabre, to exhibit the Alcestis. The fact that the artist was currently in the dock for killing her husband meant, for the first time in the gallery’s long history, queues formed outside the entrance.
I stood in line with the other prurient art-lovers, waiting my turn by the neon-red lights of a sex shop next door. One by one, we shuffled inside. Once in the gallery, we were herded toward the painting, like an excitable crowd at a fairground making its way through a haunted house. Eventually, I found myself at the front of the line—and was confronted with the Alcestis.
I stared at the painting, staring into Alicia’s face, trying to interpret the look in her eyes, trying to understand—but the portrait defied me. Alicia stared back at me—a blank mask—unreadable, impenetrable. I could divine neither innocence nor guilt in her expression.
Other people found her easier to read.
“Pure evil,” whispered the woman behind me.
“Isn’t she?” her companion agreed. “Cold-blooded bitch.”
A little unfair, I thought—considering Alicia’s guilt had yet to be proven. But in truth it was a foregone conclusion. The tabloids had cast her as a villain from the start: a femme fatale, a black widow. A monster.
The facts, such as they were, were simple: Alicia was found alone with Gabriel’s body; only her fingerprints were on the gun. There was never any doubt she killed Gabriel. Why she killed him, on the other hand, remained a mystery.
The murder was debated in the media, and different theories were espoused in print and on the radio and on morning chat shows. Experts were brought in to explain, condemn, justify Alicia’s actions. She must have been a victim of domestic abuse, surely, pushed too far, before finally exploding? Another theory proposed a sex game gone wrong—the husband was found tied up, wasn’t he? Some suspected it was old-fashioned jealousy that drove Alicia to murder—another woman, probably? But at the trial Gabriel was described by his brother as a devoted husband, deeply in love with his wife. Well, what about money? Alicia didn’t stand to gain much by his death; she was the one who had money, inherited from her father.
And so it went on, endless speculation—no answers, only more questions—about Alicia’s motives and her subsequent silence. Why did she refuse to speak? What did it mean? Was she hiding something? Protecting someone? If so, who? And why?
At the time, I remember thinking that while everyone was talking, writing, arguing, about Alicia, at the heart of this frantic, noisy activity there was a void—a silence. A sphinx.
During the trial, the judge took a dim view of Alicia’s persistent refusal to speak. Innocent people, Mr. Justice Alverstone pointed out, tended to proclaim their innocence loudly—and often. Alicia not only remained silent, but she showed no visible signs of remorse. She didn’t cry once throughout the trial—a fact made much of in the press—her face remaining unmoved, cold. Frozen.
The defense had little choice but to enter a plea of diminished responsibility: Alicia had a long history of mental health problems, it was claimed, dating back to her childhood. The judge dismissed a lot of this as hearsay—but in the end he allowed himself to be swayed by Lazarus Diomedes, professor of forensic psychiatry at Imperial College, and clinical director of the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London. Professor Diomedes argued that Alicia’s refusal to speak was in itself evidence of profound psychological distress—and she should be sentenced accordingly.
This was a rather roundabout way of saying something that psychiatrists don’t like putting bluntly:
Diomedes was saying Alicia was mad.
It was the only explanation that made any sense: Why else tie up the man you loved to a chair and shoot him in the face at close range? And then express no remorse, give no explanation, not even speak? She must be mad.
She had to be.
In the end, Mr. Justice Alverstone accepted the plea of diminished responsibility and advised the jury to follow suit. Alicia was subsequently admitted to the Grove—under the supervision of the same Professor Diomedes whose testimony had been so influential with the judge.
If Alicia wasn’t mad—that is, if her silence was merely an act, a performance for the benefit of the jury—then it had worked. She was spared a lengthy prison sentence—and if she made a full recovery, she might well be discharged in a few years. Surely now was the time to begin faking that recovery? To utter a few words here and there, then a few more; to slowly communicate some kind of remorse? But no. Week followed week, month followed month, then the years passed—and still Alicia didn’t speak.
There was simply silence.
And so, with no further revelation forthcoming, the disappointed media eventually lost interest in Alicia Berenson. She joined the ranks of other briefly famous murderers; faces we remember, but whose names we forget.
Not all of us. Some people—myself included—continued to be fascinated by the mystery of Alicia Berenson and her enduring silence. As a psychotherapist, I thought it obvious that she had suffered a severe trauma surrounding Gabriel’s death; and this silence was a manifestation of that trauma. Unable to come to terms with what she had done, Alicia sputtered and came to a halt, like a broken car. I wanted to help start her up again—help Alicia tell her story, to heal and get well. I wanted to fix her.
Without wishing to sound boastful, I felt uniquely qualified to help Alicia Berenson. I’m a forensic psychotherapist and used to working with some of the most damaged, vulnerable members of society. And something about Alicia’s story resonated with me personally—I felt a profound empathy with her right from the start.
Unfortunately, I was still working at Broadmoor in those days, and so treating Alicia would have—should have—remained an idle fantasy, had not fate unexpectedly intervened.
Nearly six years after Alicia was admitted, the position of forensic psychotherapist became available at the Grove. As soon as I saw the advert, I knew I had no choice. I followed my gut—and applied for the job.
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