There aren’t many support groups for the children of serial killers. ‘There are a limited number of us about,’ Mae West observes wryly.
Mae is a pretty woman. Composed in demeanour, softly spoken, articulate, likeable and with a quiet line in ironic humour, she speaks powerfully on behalf of the tiny but forgotten minority to which she belongs.
You would never guess from her life today — a stable marriage, two children, a comfortable, modern home in a smart enclave of a historic English town — the depths of horror and depravity that scarred her childhood.
‘Sometimes I think when the criminals are sorted out, people overlook their families,’ she says. ‘I often see cases in the news and wonder: “What happened to the children?”
‘My mum is in prison for life. She’s been convicted of the murders of a child and nine young women — one of them my older sister, Heather — and, in a sense, she’s protected.
Smile of a killer: Rose West pictured with Mae as a baby
‘Sometimes I feel: “It’s all right for her.” She’s had counselling, she’s done a degree in English; every course she’s been offered she’s said “yes” to. She has a full life: hobbies, gym, sewing, cookery. She lives in a bubble.
‘But what about us, her children? There’s no place for us to be ourselves.
‘I worry about people knowing or discovering who I am. And I have all these anxieties about my son finding out about his grandparents.
‘My daughter is grown up now and she knows and has dealt with it. She discovered her uncle’s credit card has the name West on it, put two and two together and Googled it. I wish she hadn’t found out that way.
‘And my son’s coming up to nine years old and . . .’ she sighs heavily, ‘all the old fears are surfacing again. My strategy is to leave it. I won’t tell him now. I want him to have a childhood that isn’t marred.
‘It’s always a problem being part of the West family. I know I can’t work with children, and it’s about self-protection as much as anything, because if something happened to a child in my care — if they fell and hurt themselves — I’d be blamed because of my background.
‘I thought about escaping my past once and going to Australia, but they wouldn’t let me into the country because of what my parents did. And to think they used to deport convicts there from Britain!’ She rolls her eyes and laughs bleakly.
‘Once, my husband applied to be a policeman. But he couldn’t get in, and I’m sure it’s because he’s married to me.
‘We feel stigmatised, of course we do. We were overlooked by the authorities while our parents abused us sexually and physically as kids, and now as adults they say: “You’re from an abusive family. We’ll have to keep an eye on you.” ’
The crimes of Mae’s parents, Fred and Rosemary West, were so heinous they appalled and transfixed the world.
In 1994, police searched the family home in a rough street in Gloucester, looking for the remains of the Wests’ eldest child, Heather.
A warren of a house from which Rose worked as a prostitute, 25 Cromwell Street had been sub-divided into rented bedsits by Fred. It became known as the House of Horrors after police excavations unearthed a series of dismembered female bodies in the basement and under the patio.
Among the remains were those of Heather, strangled seven years earlier in 1987 when, aged 16, she had tried to run away from home to avoid Fred’s predatory sexual advances.
Over the course of the previous 14 years, Fred, it emerged, had committed at least a dozen more murders — the majority with Rose, his second wife.
The Cromwell Street victims — some teenagers; all female — were lodgers, nannies, students, hitch-hikers, runaways. They were subjected to brutal sexual assaults by Fred, and sometimes Rose as well. Some were mutilated; many were decapitated.
Rose and Fred had eight children during their marriage — of whom Mae, 46, is the eldest surviving daughter. None of them had an inkling that their home held such gory secrets until their parents were arrested and charged after the bodies had been exhumed.
Fred, it also came to light, had committed at least two further murders alone, while Rose was responsible for killing Fred’s stepdaughter Charmaine from his first marriage to Rena, who was also one of Fred’s early victims.
Fred admitted to this monstrous catalogue of crimes, claiming he’d acted alone. He committed suicide on January 1, 1995, in his cell at Birmingham Prison, where he was being held on remand.
Rose has consistently professed her innocence, but the jury at her trial in November that year did not believe her. Convicted of ten murders, she was sentenced to life imprisonment with a later order from the Home Secretary that she should never be released.
Evil parents: Serial killers Rose West (left) and husband Fred, who killed himself in prison
So profound was the public revulsion towards her, Rose West was dubbed the most evil woman who has ever lived.
How on earth did the West children, also victims of their parents’ sexual and/or physical abuse, cope with the appalling knowledge that their mother and father were guilty of such unspeakable crimes?
Mae addresses this question in a compelling new book, to be serialised in the Daily Mail next week. In it, she paints a graphic picture of life at Cromwell Street, which is all the more persuasive for its occasional flashes of normality.
She writes of her parents’ disgusting obsession with sex; of the sex toys and hardcore porn videos — many filmed by Fred and featuring Rose and her clients — that littered the house.
She recoils, still, from the memory of her parents’ grotesque lack of sexual inhibition. But she also recalls moments when the family felt like any other: the ‘superb’ iced cakes Rose baked for their birthdays; Christmas presents bought from the Argos catalogue; and camping holidays in which she and her sisters were briefly spared Fred’s lascivious attentions.
But Mae endured profound trauma. Raped by her Uncle John — Fred’s brother — at the age of five, she was later terrorised by her father, who groped and fondled her, believing it was his parental duty to ‘break in’ his daughters (take their virginity) when they reached puberty.
Her mother, complicit in these crimes, also beat her children indiscriminately and sadistically.
Mae’s half-sister Anne Marie — the surviving child of Fred’s first marriage — came in for particularly brutal treatment and was first raped by Fred at the age of eight, while Rose colluded in the assault. The abuse continued until Anne Marie fled the family home at 16. But while Mae never doubted her father had committed multiple murders, for a decade she believed Rose, while capable of violence, was innocent of the killings.
And for ten years she visited her mother in prison, pandering to her constant demands for money and clothes, accepting her belated displays of motherly affection as genuine remorse and listening sympathetically to her outpourings of righteous indignation.
Slowly, though, the truth dawned. Rose was ‘coercive, controlling’ — and guilty of the awful crimes she so vehemently denied.
‘I didn’t realise it at the time,’ says Mae now, ‘but Mum manipulated me. She started to hug me and hold my hand when I visited her. She’d never shown me any affection before. She signed all her letters “Love as always, Mum”, yet she’d never told me she loved me before.
‘I realised eventually that she had many different faces and I got the loving one. She put all her children into different boxes and my role was to care for her.
‘She turned to the church and told me she’d “pretty much been adopted” by a vicar and his wife who was a prison visitor. They believed she was innocent.
‘She’d say: “They’re my mum and dad now,” — and that annoyed me, because I couldn’t choose to shrug off my own parents.
‘Even so, I kept loyal to Mum. She claimed that Dad influenced and controlled her and that she’d made a pact to stay with him as long as he didn’t harm us kids.
‘But it started to sound implausible. If that was the case, why didn’t she leave when Heather went “missing”? You wouldn’t just accept that your daughter had disappeared, would you? And why would Mum collude in the sexual abuse? When I started to think about it all, doubts crept in.
‘So when she wrote to me from prison — her letters arrived every week — and said she’d try to be a proper mum and tell me whatever I needed to know, I decided to ask her about Heather when I next visited her.
‘And I watched her squirm. I thought: “She’s not going to give me an honest answer for all her promises.” And she never has done. You never got straight answers. It makes it worse for the families of victims because she is the only one alive now who knows the truth — and yet she hasn’t told it.
‘She’s a hypocrite. She became quite high and mighty in prison, intervening in our lives, claiming my sister Louise wouldn’t be a good parent, overlooking the fact that she and Dad had been responsible for violently and sexually abusing her.
‘She was always the first to judge others, and when I realised she was treating us all differently, I told her it was grossly unfair.
‘She stopped writing to me. I’m not on her visitors’ list any more. It was quite a relief to end contact with her. It had become a burden.
‘Her death will be the next thing (she is 64), and I suppose she might make a deathbed confession. I just wish she’d tell the truth to the authorities, then we’d all know, wouldn’t we?’
Mae West was always determined to achieve; to lift herself out of the slough of corruption in which she was raised, despite her parents’ efforts to keep her mired in it.
Although she was belittled and denigrated by Fred, and made to book clients for Rose, who operated from a boudoir on the top floor of the house (clients would walk past Mae’s bedroom as she did her homework and ask if she was ‘available’), she aspired to escape into a better life.
‘By the time I was 18 I had a good job as secretary to a managing director, a car, a steady boyfriend, Rob, and we’d signed for our first mortgage,’ she recalls.
But within four years the settled conformity of this new life ended abruptly. Police were dismantling her family home, her father was in custody and she had been cajoled into joining Rose in a ‘safe house’.
Mae (pictured left) with siblings Heather and Stephen
Inevitably, her relationship with Rob ended. ‘We didn’t have long to enjoy it,’ she says. It is a moment of profound sadness.
Today, her dress is relaxed but modest. Scrupulously neat in a floral blouse, navy cardigan and pressed jeans, she is slim and stylish. Her hair, like her mother’s, is ink-black, her eyes dark brown. But despite her middle-class accent and outward poise, inside she battles demons.
She has been with her husband Pete, 39, whom she met when they both worked for the same insurance company, for 14 years, having had her daughter Amy, now 23, during an earlier long-term relationship.
But the spectre of her parents’ crimes still haunts her. With every past relationship she wondered how and whether to broach the subject of her parents.
Pete recognised her from a childhood photo that was published before they started dating — no explanations were needed — but her fears about future friendships remain. After her son Luke was born almost nine years ago, she became agoraphobic, too scared to leave her home in case she was recognised as a West.
‘I had my son and stayed at home for far too long — I just didn’t go out,’ she says. ‘I was really isolated. I hid away for eight years. I just sat in a room, and yet I knew I had to get out and get a job, be “normal” again.
‘In the end, I phoned Victim Support. I said: “I’m the eldest daughter of Fred and Rosemary West.” There was a pause. I felt I had to explain, and the whole story spilled out.’
Through Victim Support, Mae was referred for weekly sessions with a psychotherapist. ‘I thought it would be all about dealing with my past,’ she says, ‘but it wasn’t. It’s dealing with the present. I didn’t say: “I need help coping with the abuse.” I said I wanted my future to be better, and we wrote a list of things I wanted to change.
‘It was little steps, and each week I’d get tasks. One week it was: “Walk to school with Luke and talk to another mum in the playground.” The next it was: “Invite her round.”
‘And I’ve learnt that I haven’t got the name West tattooed on my forehead.
In the past, if people asked: “Are you Mae West?” I’d say “Yes” and feel I had to tell them my whole life story. But now I’d say: “Why do you ask?” The psychotherapist has taught me it’s unlikely people will reply: “Because I’m a nosey bugger.” ’
Mae has started working again — she has a job in retail which she says is a ‘giant step forward’ — and she hopes one day to take a university degree, a long-term ambition she would never have realised in her teens as her parents believed a woman’s sole job was to ‘breed’.
The chaos and terror of her upbringing have also made her wary.
‘As a child I watched the door when I was showering in case Dad burst in. I can’t stop doing that, even now. I learnt strategies for coping and I’m still hyper-vigilant.
‘I can’t bear to be cornered in a corridor or a room. I’m alert to all the awful stuff that can happen.
‘Once, Mum said: “When you’ve seen bad things, you can’t close your mind to them,” and I think I’m much more aware. Your mind never rests.’
She learned, too, from her early childhood when she was raped by her uncle, to shut off her emotions.
‘I can’t talk about how I feel,’ she says. ‘It’s weird. I cut off my feelings when my uncle abused me. I did it to protect myself. I’m practical. I’m very good at helping if one of my sisters needs her washing machine fixed, but if she rings up crying, I don’t know what to say or do.’
Her home, unlike Cromwell Street, is a place without secrets: there are no hidden rooms, dark corridors, forbidden areas. The John Lewis furnishings, the Next accessories, the bright open-plan spaces, all reflect her place in a civilised world of middle-class aspirations and values.
She will, however, always hold fast to one link with her past: she remains in touch with all her siblings. They are, in a sense, the self-help group society fails to provide.
‘We’ve all coped in different ways,’ she says. ‘We’re very close. I talk to my sister Louise every day on the phone. There are very few people you can go to who share our background.
‘Even in our own family, everyone has had a different experience, and as much as people try to, they can’t understand. They just don’t know what we’ve been through, do they?
‘They say that families are broken up by these things, but we’ve stuck together. Actually, we’re very lucky.’
Some names have been changed.
Monday: Mae West starts her incredible story