In the wake of the trial that has gripped the nation and the revelation of the gruesome and disturbing details of how Elaine O’Hara spent her last hours, the question on everyone’s lips is “what kind of a person could do such a thing?”
Is Graham Dwyer a cold heartless psychopath with no capacity to empathise with others? Is he a man whose moral compass was so vandalised by events in his life that he had little choice in his actions?
Was he simply acting out his perceived destiny as ‘master’ while subjecting Elaine O’Hara, who was to pay the ultimate price, to that of ‘slave’? It is unlikely that we will ever be privy to the true motivation that underpinned Graham Dwyer’s actions but the story that unfolded in the trial paints a picture that merits further analysis.
We know from media reports that Graham Dwyer lived an ostensibly normal upper middle-class life. He was a well-educated family man with children, stable employment as an architect, and good prospects.
He liked motorbikes and cycling, he collected sports cars, flew model airplanes, put together swing sets for his children, took his wife to dinner, had friends and a good social life.
Yet existing within this seemingly well-adjusted, ordinary husband and father were deep-seated violent sexual fantasies of dominating women, stabbing them during sexual acts, and ultimately killing them.
The story that emerged in the trial read like the plotline from a television crime drama, so fantastical was it in its detail. So what do we know of Graham Dwyer, the family man who sought out, tortured and killed a psychologically vulnerable woman?
The public’s first glimpse of his dark proclivities came from his former girlfriend Emer O’Shea who alleged that during their relationship in the early 1990s Graham Dwyer brought a knife to bed and pretended to stab her during sex. It also emerged Graham Dwyer himself told gardaí in interviews he harboured such fantasies as an adolescent.
We know little of Graham Dwyer’s childhood or adolescent years and have no pointers as to the origin and genesis of these fantasies or as to how the stabbing and asphyxiation of women became eroticised for him. We also know little of how his sexual fantasies found expression prior to his relationship with Elaine O’Hara.
We know there were videos of Graham Dwyer stabbing women during sex. Was this a frequent occurrence? Was this what he was doing while his family thought he was indulging in mundane hobbies?
We know that he cultivated an assumed identity and sought contact with women through bondage and sadomasochistic websites.
The evidence presented depicts a relationship developing between Graham Dwyer and Elaine O’Hara in late 2007. Graham Dwyer inhabited his role as ‘master’ and cast Elaine O’Hara as ‘slave’. Elaine O’Hara was Graham Dwyer’s possession, his plaything to do with as he wished.
He used his power and her psychological vulnerability to circumvent her protestations and to secure her compliance with his wishes and her participation in his violent fantasies.
In effect, Graham Dwyer led a double life, on the one hand a husband, father, workmate and friend and on the other, a violent sexual predator.
His assumed identity allowed Graham Dwyer, the husband and father, to distance himself from the depraved actions of his alter ego, the master, thus abdicating responsibility for his violent and perverse behaviour and safely containing his secret life.
In Elaine O’Hara, Graham Dwyer found a fragile, malleable victim whose chronically low self-esteem and propensity for self-harm and self-denigration allowed her to believe that she was deserving of, responsible for, and desired the ritualistic humiliation repeatedly visited upon her by this man.
In his coaxing, cajoling and harassment of her, Graham Dwyer made sure that this distorted perception she held remained intact to the very end so he could fulfill his desire to torture and kill. By threatening to find someone else to kill if she did not comply, he made her responsible for protecting other women.
Graham Dwyer was artful in how he obtained her co-operation. He sent her regular texts that reinforced her view of herself as subservient. At the same time these texts communicated her importance to him, leading her to believe that he needed her. Elaine O’Hara was a very lonely woman and this contact gave her hope that she was not alone.
It gave her a sense of being accepted as Graham Dwyer understood, encouraged, and helped her develop and live out her sexual fantasies. It gave her a sense of being intimate with and understood by someone in a way that no one else did. In short, Graham Dwyer ‘got’ her.
Just as this contact provided reinforcement to Elaine O’Hara, it provided Graham Dwyer with arousal and anticipation. When he sent these texts and awaited a response from Elaine O’Hara, his own sense of arousal and anticipation of sexual contact increased.
Elaine O’Hara was not the only victim to fall foul of the sexual predatory actions of Graham Dwyer. He snared Darci Day in his web of lust and control. She too was a vulnerable woman who expressed a wish to die.
Graham Dwyer offered to “help” her too just as he was willing to help Elaine O’Hara when she expressed a wish to die. He disguised his perverted agenda with a veil of compassion, concern, and help. He Dwyer wanted to control and possess a woman. He wanted to stab a woman to death while he had sex with her. He was successful in achieving this and almost got away with it, were it not for a long hot summer and a dog walker. Having achieved the pinnacle of his desire after five years of predatory cat and mouse, how did he fill the inevitable void post Elaine O’Hara?
Does he need to find someone else? Does it start all over again? Would there have been another victim? Would she have to be willing, or is that no longer necessary?
We may never know the answer to these questions, but what we do know is that a vulnerable, desperate woman lost her life in a most cruel, brutal, and callous way, with no respect for her value and dignity as a human being.
The intimate turmoil and trauma of her life have been clinically detailed throughout this trial. Two families’ lives have been utterly shattered. A father has lost his daughter in the most unimaginable circumstances. A wife and children have lost their husband and father, once again in a manner which is inconceivable.
While a criminal has been stopped in his tracks, a guilty verdict delivered, and other vulnerable women protected, there are no winners. It is an event that will live on in the mind of Irish society and a tragedy that both families will have to deal with for many years.
- Patrick Randall is a clinical and forensic psychologist. He is director of Forensic Psychological Services and the chair of the Division of Forensic Psychology of the Psychological Society of Ireland. He has extensive clinical experience in the provision of therapeutic and assessment services to those who have committed sexual offences, and has provided supervision and consultation to clinicians working with this client group.
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