The Goleta Connection to ‘The Devil You Know’
Eileen Horne Co-Authors Bestselling Book about Evil with Forensic Psychiatrist Dr. Gwen Adshead
By Matt Kettmann
Ever thought you’d feel compassion for child molesters? Or cheer for a mother to succeed on her third baby after intentionally injuring her first two? Or blame dysfunctional societal systems for breeding serial killers?
Prepare for these reactions and more when reading The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion, a journey through the case files and fascinating life of Dr. Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist famous in England. To translate what she’s learned over the course of her career into an engaging book appropriate for a general audience, Adshead teamed up with her friend, writer Eileen Horne, who was raised in Goleta; built her professional life as a TV producer, radio dramatist, and nonfiction author in London; and now lives across the cul-de-sac from me in her late father’s home.
“Gwen has always been my most interesting friend,” Horne told me a few weeks ago over tea and coffee in her living room, explaining that she’s suggested that Adshead tell her stories to a wider audience for years. “No offense to all of my other friends— and even though my brother is an astrophysicist and my daughter is a political speech writer, she always took the cake!”
Featuring 11 core chapters based on characters who represent a carefully constructed conglomerate of real-life patients and cases, the book puts readers in the passenger seat as Adshead drives through psychological mazes in search of what causes these people to resort to violence. Ostensibly a study of evil and its triggers, The Devil You Know winds up serving as a vaccine of sorts against the pervasively popular notion that evil people are born that way.
“Serial killers don’t spring up fully formed, like monsters screaming out of the dark in some movie,” explained Horne. “They were once children like you and me. So what happens to them, and what can we do to stop it?”
Horne’s own childhood in Goleta was pretty normal. Born into a family of six siblings, she attended Foothill Elementary and La Colina Junior High before moving to the East Coast and then Italy as a teenager, when her stepfather, an engineer for Raytheon, started consulting for the country. “It was life changing,” said Horne, who still owns a home in Umbria and speaks with a more regal lilt than most Californians.
She came back for two years to attend UCSB, primarily to study under renowned Shakespeare expert Homer “Murph” Swander. “He was kind of a hero around here,” she said. But she finished her last two years at the University of London. “I felt more at home on that side of the Atlantic, and I still do,” said Horne. “I consider myself based with one foot here and one foot in Europe.”
Her desire to direct theater fizzled when she realized that television reached so many more people, and she found work as a producer of dramas, thrillers, and other shows for BBC and other major channels for 20 years. In her early forties, Horne sold her production company in order to pursue her true passion of writing.
“I never stopped being a writer at heart,” she said, explaining why she decided to pursue an MFA in creative nonfiction writing at the University of London. “I wanted to make a change in life and do what I wanted to do.”
She co-authored a book called The Pitch, teaching other content creators about how to sell stories, and then Zola and the Victorians: Censorship in the Age of Hypocrisy, about the 1888 obscenity trial over French author Émile Zola. Horne also writes audio dramas for Radio 4, penning more than a dozen of them over the years, including one about a fictional forensic psychiatrist.
That, of course, is based largely on her friend Dr. Adshead and was the first project that emerged from their ongoing collaboration. The second is The Devil You Know, which was first published by Faber & Faber in the United Kingdom in June and hits American shelves on July 20 with Simon & Schuster as publisher. It’s already netting rave reviews, major media attention, and strong sales.
As true-crime stories steadily rang out across podcasts, streaming series, magazines, and book publishers, Adshead was finally ready to start telling her story around 2017. But she was very wary of profiting from other people’s pain and bound by confidentiality rules to protect her patients and their victims.
“What if you tell me about 10 and we weave that into one person who’s a composite?” Horne asked. “That gave her room. She wasn’t stuck just telling one person’s story. And it allowed us to do something that was attractive to a wider audience.”
Their book proposal led to a massive bidding war between 14 publishers in 2018, with a dozen other countries wanting to publish in their native languages. “Suddenly we had this big book on our hands,” said Horne. Did that freak her out? “I like a challenge,” she said. “I wasn’t nervous, but I was aware that it would be a big task.”
Friends and family, meanwhile, worried whether spending the next two years “in the company of serial killers and rapists and stalkers” would cause Horne her own psychological issues. “Mostly, I just felt sad,” she said of the research and writing process. “My appetite for crime fiction, which has always been high, declined. I really wanted to watch SNL and comedy programs.”
Working closely with Adshead certainly helped. Horne was very careful not to make anything up and to stick strictly to facts when compiling each chapter into what she calls a “mosaic portrait.” She changed details to mask actual crimes — locations, weapons used, offenders’ countries of origin, etc. — but she did not want to know anything about the real patients’ appearances. “I asked Gwen not to describe anyone to me physically,” she said. “The only thing that I made up is what they looked like, so no patient could ever say that they recognized themselves physically.”
While the book draws from hundreds, perhaps thousands of clinical experiences, each chapter is a little different in terms of cases considered. The one about a female stalker follows a few storylines more closely, while another relies on as many as 50 different sources to paint the picture. That’s a little hard to imagine, but rest assured that each chapter follows a fluid narrative of Adshead meeting and treating a single patient, building toward conclusions that are sometimes happy and sometimes tragic.
“It’s a real act of weaving that goes on, but when we write anything, you always bring something of yourself,” said Horne of this process. When Adshead’s sister read an early draft, she opined, “You’ve captured Gwen’s voice perfectly, but I also hear yours throughout.” Horne was pleased, explaining, “I thought that was a compliment.”
Horne came back to Santa Barbara in 2015 to care for her father, my neighbor Jude Blau— who used to talk about college basketball and the NFL with me in the middle of our cul-de-sac — as he approached the end of his life. But her stepmom, Mary Jane Blau, who frequently baked our family cookies, died first that November while trimming her rose bushes. Jude followed three days later, and then Horne’s mother, Frances Soulé, who lived in Northern California, died suddenly the next year. “It was like dominoes falling,” said Horne. “It was pretty terrible.”
Out of nowhere, Eileen’s husband, Greg Horne, who is originally from Australia, was offered a job in California. “The stars were aligning— clearly, we were meant to be here,” recalled Eileen. She thought they’d stay a year, but it’s been nearly five. She’s especially excited to visit their home in Italy later this summer. “To me, that’s my real home, and we will certainly retire there,” she said. “But for the time being, we’re here.”
Right now, Horne is working the author publicity circuit, writing pieces for newspapers and magazines and enduring interviews about the book for radio and television programs. Many, including myself, wonder if the desired effect of The Devil You Know was to make us feel bad for violent criminals, which could easily be construed by tough-on-crime proponents as a Pollyanna-ish outlook.
“Radical empathy isn’t sympathy,” said Horne of what she hopes the book helps breed instead. “It isn’t about feeling sorry for these murderers. Radical empathy is making a leap that allows you to walk beside someone as they piece together the disjointed fragments of their lives and why they did what they did, but with some detachment. We have to be detached, or we’d burst into tears.”
But even liberal-leaning friends have said they won’t read it because it deals with such dark topics. She urges them otherwise. “This book is not just about crime,” she said. “It is, of course, about criminal offenders and how their minds work and how therapy works. But it’s about all of our minds and what’s possible and what is not possible to change.”
And still others may be reluctant because, despite so much popular attention paid to mental health, psychiatry remains a suspect science. “People are still slightly sneery of it,” she admitted, especially compared to doctors who deal with the rest of our physical health concerns. “But psychiatrists look after the only part of the body that votes. We need to take care of our minds just as much as we take care of our bodies. It’s the task of our time to rebalance the amount of energwy we put into our physical care back into mental-health care.”
Horne and Adshead are pursuing potential film and television ideas around The Devil You Know, and they may work on a second book about violent children. “What Gwen does takes a ton of courage and a lot of heart,” said Horne of her friend and writing partner. “We love working together. It’s an amazing and unusual partnership.”
411 | Eileen Horne will discuss The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion with our senior editor Matt Kettmann on a virtual panel sponsored by Chaucer’s Books at 7 p.m. on July 27. See chaucersbooks.com/event to register for the free chat.