On Friday, 28 October 2011, 33-year-old Dutch engineer Vincent Tabak was convicted of murdering his neighbour, Joanna Yeates, in her Bristol apartment. The prosecution’s evidence showed that the burly Tabak gripped Yeates by the throat with one hand; the slightly-built 25-year-old was unable to resist and died from asphyxiation. Tabak dumped Yeates’s body in an abandoned quarry where it was found on Christmas morning, 2010.
The case gripped the nation, with fevered theories about such items as a missing sock and a pizza box. The trial solved these riddles, the answers mundane. Speculation that Yeates’s killer had kept the sock as a trophy or gorged on pizza proved baseless. What the trial failed to answer was the central question of why Tabak killed Yeates.
Tabak claimed that the murder was not sexually motivated. Yeates’s body was found with her pink top pulled up, exposing her bra and part of one breast. Her jeans, however, had not been tampered with. Did Tabak intend to rape Yeates only to end her life before he could do so? Or was the killing itself – with a breast exposed before or shortly after Yeates’s death – his intent? Tabak flatly denied that her death aroused him. His version of events was that Yeates, who had arrived home from the pub with a pizza and two bottles of cider, invited him into her flat and made a flirty remark. Encouraged, he tried to kiss her. Yeates screamed. Tabak seized her throat and clapped a hand over her mouth; moments later she was lifeless.
The prosecution argued that this story was full of holes. Tabak, who tried to cover his own tracks and even frame his landlord for the murder, was painted as cold and cunning.
In addition to the 43 injuries found on Yeates’s body, searches of Tabak’s computers revealed a fascination with violent porn. Tabac watched videos where men held women by the throat during sex. In a video Tabak viewed some days after killing Yeates, a woman asked to be choked. Furthermore, they found an image of a slight, blonde woman bearing a resemblance to Yeates pulling up a pink top to expose her breasts. Prosecutor Nigel Lickley, QC, claimed there was a “resonance” between this image and the way Yeates’s body was found. This evidence was deemed too prejudicial to be admitted. Nonetheless, the jury accepted Lickley’s argument and Tabak was found guilty by a majority of 10-2.
The trial’s conclusion freed the police to reveal their deconstruction of Vincent Tabak. He gave the impression of being in an exclusive relationship with his girlfriend, Tanja Morson. In reality he contacted prostitutes during business trips. In Los Angeles in late 2010 Tabak phoned a woman named Mimi and soon afterwards withdrew $200 in cash. He booked into a hotel 150 miles away under the name Francis Tabak where he may have met Mimi.
Living a lie
Not only was Tabak living a lie but – the police argued – his description of the events surrounding Yeates’s death was a lie. They suspect Tabak may have spied on Yeates and contrived a reason to knock on her door. His claim that Yeates invited him into her flat and flirted with him is dismissed by Detective Chief Inspector Phil Jones, the chief investigating officer, who described Tabak as “intelligent and manipulative.” From his interest in violent porn they believe he gained a thrill from strangling her. The police claim the timing of Tabak’s porn habits is significant. On the morning of 17 December he accessed a porn site, though what he viewed is unclear. It is undisputed that later that day he committed murder.
Yet the police’s explanation has its own Swiss cheese qualities. No evidence was given that Tabak spied on Yeates; due to his business travel he had little opportunity to do so. How he gained access to Yeates’s apartment remains conjectural, as is the assertion that Tabak was sexually aroused by the murder. The description of Yeates’s body, found with one breast partly exposed, smacks of something desperately gone wrong rather than a coolly executed attack. Tabak was smart enough to use rock salt to cover a spot in the snow near his apartment where he dropped the body. But if he didn’t want to get caught, why didn’t he strangle Mimi in San Luis Obispo rather than his immediate neighbour in Bristol? Why did he endanger himself by falsely accusing his landlord then show excessive interest in the investigation?
“It seems odd”
Tabak comes across not as intelligent and manipulative but as confused and naive. Why didn’t he pull down Yeates’s pink top, concealing not just her breast but the sexual nature of his attack? Why didn’t he buy a new laptop, obliterating his internet history and his porn collection? Every unanswered question shifts Tabak further from the calculating killer and closer to the little boy lost. The police profile of Yeates’s murderer is as dissatisfying as Tabak’s somewhat amnesiac self-portrait. As Stephen Morris wrote in the Guardian, “It seems odd that Tabak went from being a viewer of pornography and, possibly, a user of prostitutes to a killer in one leap.”
There is another way to approach Vincent Tabak that makes perfect sense of all these otherwise conflicting elements: to view him through the prism of sexual shame
There is another way to approach Vincent Tabak that makes perfect sense of all these otherwise conflicting elements: to view him through the prism of sexual shame. None of the following in any way diminishes Tabak’s total responsibility for his appalling, tragic act. Yet if we are to learn from – and help to prevent future instances of – such behaviour we must understand what really happened.
Sexual shame is very poorly understood. Yet is one of the most powerful shaping agents in the human condition. It’s not just that get-me-out-of-here feeling when you get changed at the beach, your towel inadvertently slips and you’re briefly exposed. For those sensitive enough to be aware of society’s deep-seated sexual negativity it unconsciously shapes every moment of their existence.
The sense that sex is illicit creates an emotional withdrawal that allows no avenue for healthy sexual expression and leaves in its wake both unmet desires and an inner rage that is triggered by displays of female sexuality that the victim of shame is simultaneously attracted to and repelled by. The result is the outward presentation of a respectable, normal life while the inner reality is an endless, painful vacillation between desire and disgust and a secret search for ways to discharge pent-up sexual feelings – in Tabak’s case through prostitutes and violent porn. Speaking after the trial, the parents of Joanna Yeates expressed the hope that Tabak suffer a “living hell” in prison. What they – and most people – fail to realise is that, ever since his teens, Tabak’s emotional life has almost certainly been exactly that.
Tabak’s back-story, casually drip-fed by the media, is littered with the symptoms of sexual shame. His background is nondescript and he had no police record. He appears to have had difficulties forming relationships; Tabak was nearly 30 when he met Tanja Morson, his first serious – and possibly only – girlfriend. Friends described him as at times immature and needy; when Detective Constable Karen Thomas interviewed Tabak in Amsterdam she was surprised how much his sister fussed over him. A fear of passing into adulthood – with the sexual confidence it demands, particularly from males – causes those with profound sexual shame to unconsciously resist the onset of puberty. This stalls the sexual maturation process; the result is a fully grown man who remains emotionally and sexually immature. Sex with his girlfriend was in all likelihood vanilla; Tabak would have been too ashamed of his deeper yearnings to reveal them.
This raises the question of whether Tanja Morson was at risk. Her father believes that a “guardian angel” saved her from the same fate as Joanna Yeates. The logic of sexual shame suggests that Morson was never at risk. Sexual shame causes a fracture in the psyche – called the ‘sexual-spiritual split’ by Michael Picucci, PhD – that separates the self into non-sexual (good) and sexual (bad) components.
Madonna or whore
This fracture manifested in Tabak’s reality by perceiving women as either Madonna or whore. In the first camp stood Morson, Tabak’s mother and sisters, and other women he respected. To them he presented only his own respectable side. To understand Vincent Tabak it is vital to realise that this selective presentation was not conscious or deliberately manipulative. Deceitful, yes; but manipulative, no. At the deepest level Tabak deceived himself. Having done so, deceiving Morson – who initially could not believe he was a killer – simply followed. In Tabak’s shame-tinted worldview he would have seen himself as fundamentally decent; he just had a darker side he needed to manage.
For that Tabak turned to porn and prostitutes. Both police and media read much into his encounter with Mimi a few weeks before the murder. Whether Tabak actually had sex with her is unknown and ultimately immaterial. Although Tabak longed for sex with prostitutes it is quite possible his shame caused his nerve to fail at the last moment. If it did happen, it was most likely brief and discomfiting, serving only to worsen his guilt. Why did Tabak drive 150 miles from Los Angeles, check into a hotel under a semi-assumed name and meet a prostitute if all it caused him was pain?
Here is the maxim that impels the victims of sexual shame: because the pain of doing so is less than the pain of not doing so. All of what a Press Association release called Tabak’s “depraved sex secrets” served the same purpose: seeking the alchemical experience that would lance his pent-up desires, ending the angst that was tearing him apart so his inner reality could come into alignment with his outer facade of respectability.
San Luis Obispo to Bristol
A few days after San Luis Obispo Tabak returned to a snowy Bristol. He watched porn on the morning of 17 December. Around 8:45 that evening Yeates returned from the Ram on Park Street; five minutes later she was dead. Tabak’s actions after the crime resemble a badly written episode of Midsummer Murders more than a planned coup and cover-up. When the effects of sexual shame are factored in, Tabak’s own version of Yeates’s death suddenly becomes cohesive. That’s not to say entirely truthful, but its outline holds. Besides, the sexually ashamed are poor liars. The police learned this when Tabak changed his story.
It may seem implausible that Yeates had a chance encounter with Tabak and invited him in, yet the alternative is more implausible. Those with sexual shame have a constant fear of being exposed; unless Tabak was sure that Yeates was alone he would not have risked having her partner open the door and ask what he wanted, when the answer was “sex with your girlfriend.” Once inside the apartment, the thought of sex would have intoxicated Tabak. He would have been desperate to interpret any action of Yeates’s as a sexual green light. But shame clouds the reading of sexual traffic lights. The “flirty remark” was either something he misconstrued or a complete fabrication, invented to provide emotional legitimacy for his later actions.
The bungled kiss has the whiff of truth about it, though it’s possible Yeates became uncomfortable with Tabak and asked him to leave. Regardless of how Tabak got into Yeates’s apartment or of what transpired in the moments before the attack, one thing is certain: a rejection took place. Those with deep shame lack the emotional pliability to absorb sexual rejection; it is quite literally intolerable, for the simple reason that it confirms the ashamed person’s deepest fear: they are a sex monster. This was the catastrophic moment that shattered the lives of both Joanna Yeates and Vincent Tabak.
Rejection and murder
Yeates’s rejection unleashed a torrent of emotions that Tabak could not control. Key among these would have been rage at the pain that sex caused him; his lack of sexual access to ease that pain; a desire for a woman to empathise with his sexual pain; and a need to eliminate the witness to his sexual monstrosity. Tabak would not have been conscious of any of this as he flew into a shirt-ripping rage. He gripped Yeates by the throat. This is the most likely moment that he ripped up her top, partly exposing a breast. It was not a moment of sexual pleasure. It was a total emotional meltdown.
As soon as Yeates fell to the floor Tabak too would have felt spent. Disbelief, shock and horror would have assailed him, too appalled by his own atrocity to straighten Yeates’s top, let alone engage in necrophilia. The prosecutor said there was over an hour’s delay between the murder and Tabak bundling Yeates into the boot of his car, wrapped – with an Amsterdam twist – in a bicycle cover. That hour was almost certainly spent in a panic, with Tabak vacillating between turning himself in, committing suicide or covering up. As a nation in the post-Christmas, low-news doldrums soon discovered, he went for the latter – albeit in a haphazard way, his deeds united only in their disarray.
Tabak’s incontinent actions finally landed him on the police radar and in the dock. Justice Field sentenced him to a minimum of 20 years’ prison. The evening after his sentencing he was on suicide watch.
After the trial
After the trial the police called Vincent Tabak a “clever young man”. The Guardian, however, described his actions as “a mixture of cunning and naivety”. The two appraisals are clearly incompatible. The deconstruction given here has its own conjectures. But there is a consistency of behaviour – vitally, of emotional behaviour – the police portrait lacks. The mechanics of sexual shame suggest that it was, as Tabak claimed, a chance encounter gone wrong; that he did not intend to murder Yeates nor did he gain a sexual thrill from doing so. He reached out for sex and lost control in the face of rejection. This does not diminish Tabak’s responsibility for Yeates’s death. He knew he had powerful urges conflating sex and violence, urges that he failed to manage and failed to seek help for.
The question is how many other potential Vincent Tabaks are out there, living nondescript lives until they explode onto the front pages of the media, in every case leaving vulnerable women mangled in their wake. The only way to prevent this is by breaking the silence surrounding sexual shame. We must recognise its potentially tragic pathology and fostering an environment where those affected by it are encouraged to seek help. As long as we close such casebooks by merely demonising the perpetrators, we doom more young women to be found in abandoned quarries at Christmas with their pink tops pulled up, exposing their bras and part of one breast.