The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 15th, 2007

Lucy’s death illuminates a drug nightmare

When a young woman is brutally and meaninglessly killed, it must be tempting for people who loved her to look for something meaningful to blame.

Lucy Braham, a dearly loved fashion designer, was hacked to death in her parents’ home by a family acquaintance, 23-year-old William Jaggs. When the killer was sentenced last week to an indefinite stay in Broadmoor maximum security hospital, Miss Braham’s father blamed Harrow school and Oxford University.

It is easy to sympathise with him. Jaggs had been drinking heavily and taking drugs since he was a teenager at Harrow, starting with cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, and going on to other drugs including LSD and crack at Oxford. “Drink and drugs appear to be readily available at Harrow,” Mohammed Khamisa QC said in mitigation, and of course the same is true at Oxford and most universities. The court heard that Jaggs suffered from borderline personality disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, partly brought on at Oxford by crack cocaine. He was mentally ill when he killed Lucy.

Her father blames the public school drug culture at Harrow and the “despicable drugs fraternity at Oxford University”. Most people would be inclined to agree that drinks and drugs probably played a large part in this terrible killing. All the same, it is impossible to know quite what causes what. Many doctors and psychiatrists are inclined to think that recreational drugs, not least cannabis, can trigger or perhaps even cause serious mental illness, including psychoses.

But the subject is controversial and it is true that Jaggs might have developed paranoid schizophrenia even if he had never done drugs at all. The reference to personality disorder, and other evidence in court, suggests a character who was always badly disordered. And conversely the overwhelming majority of people who abuse drugs, or who are mentally ill, or both, do not commit atrocious killings.

As Lucy’s father says, we cannot know whether Jaggs’s schizophrenia was induced or triggered by years of drug abuse. However, what is striking – and one can share Mr Braham’s anger – is the inexplicable failure of those in authority at Harrow and Oxford to pay proper attention to a young man who was clearly becoming more and more disturbed, and openly drinking and using illegal, dangerous drugs. Despite many warnings about him, Harrow failed to act, beyond asking him to leave a boarding house after indecently assaulting a younger boy. Oxford merely suspended him.

When I was a student, my university was supposed to be in loco parentis (a position abandoned when 18 became the age of majority). My school most certainly was. What has happened, in these supposedly caring and risk averse times, to these august institutions’ sense of pastoral care?

Contemporaries of Jaggs at Harrow have spoken of a drug culture founded on boredom and money. “If you wanted to use drugs you could get them – there was little to stop you. If you wanted to do ecstasy or coke you could just walk into someone’s room . . . I used to get sent down town to pick up pills or coke . . . We’d have [covert] parties at his parents’ house [Jaggs’ father, like Lucy’s, was a teacher at Harrow] where we’d do coke.”

This is true not only of Harrow. Every public school I know about has a drug problem; proved by the old joke of the public schoolboy, asked whether there’s a drug problem at school, who says confidently, “Oh no, not at all. You can get any thing you like here.”

One boarding school I know of has two night patrolmen out, with dogs, one for drugs and one for alcohol – despised and fooled by the children. I would like to think most public schools would do a great deal better than Harrow with mental illness such as Jaggs’s, but I don’t think many do better with drugs.

I just don’t understand why today’s schools – and indeed why my own entire generation of parents – are unable to stop our children taking drugs. We know drugs are illegal and most people accept that most of them carry some risk – perhaps a high one – of damaging our children’s brains, even if they don’t actually send them mad. These days only hardened deniers continue to insist there is absolutely no risk. So why this bemused inability to stop our children damaging themselves? Why this toxic laisser faire? It is an extraordinary failure of will and of moral authority.

Part of the answer must be that for so long my generation and later ones just didn’t know how dangerous drugs can be. The information wasn’t there and there was quite a lot of puritanical disinformation around as well. Many people still don’t entirely admit the risks, or feel they have escaped harm themselves. I myself thought drugs were only harmful to a very unlucky few, with addictive tendencies.

I didn’t realise the serious risk of long-term damage for most people and that of psychosis for some. Many of us thought drugs were fun, more harmless than alcohol and nicotine. I remember a university friend saying not long ago that the only problem with her children smoking weed was that it introduced them to tobacco.

The whole of London is lightly covered in a thin film of the devil’s dandruff, to use one expression for cocaine. It’s said there are traces of it on every banknote and not all users are young, by any means. Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances still smoke cannabis and are, of course, unable to keep this from their teenage and adult children. One carefully brought up teenager I know very well, on smelling his dad’s cannabis in the house, merely said to his sister: “I hope he hasn’t taken any of mine.”

What moral authority, then, have parents of all classes who’ve enjoyed drugs themselves to tell their children not to take any? What authority have teachers in much the same position? The problem is compounded by a general loss of authority, or perhaps by the general abandonment of authority by generations of parents and teachers since the 1960s.

Lucy Braham’s death, and William Jaggs’s crime, is surely due to a forsaking of moral authority and of pastoral care that extends far beyond Harrow and Oxford. If it shocks us into recognising that, perhaps it will not have been entirely meaningless.