In a case that ignited more racial tensions than had been seen for decades (in that particular region of the UK), Eleanor Williams, 22, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and jailed on March 14 for eight-and-a-half years.
Preston Crown Court found that she had falsely claimed she was raped and trafficked by an Asian grooming gang.
But CCTV footage shown to the court revealed her buying a hammer from a supermarket, which she then used to self-inflict the horrifying wounds.
According to the police, a local Indian restaurant owner received threats such as: “I’ll kill you and your family and bomb your house.”
Of the 151 “extra” crimes in the aftermath of the Williams’s post of her face disfigured from the claimed assaults, 83 were hate crimes.
The English Defence League founder, Tommy Robinson, gathered support while attending a ‘Justice For Ellie’ gathering in Hollywood Park in Barrow.
The judge declared there was “no explanation” for why Williams did what she did. He appeared to be mystified by the fact she had “gone to extraordinary lengths to create false accusations”, including causing herself significant injury.
“Unless she chooses to say why she has told these lies, we will not know,” the judge concluded.
Yet psychiatrists are not unfamiliar with this kind of case, though they are rare.
Allegations of rape against an ethnic minority by a white woman appear particularly psychologically potent in stirring up racial hatred and mobilising a ‘lynch mob’.
But we shouldn’t also forget that for many young Asians, for example, bringing home a prospective date, or romantic partner, who is the “wrong” race, as far as their parents are concerned, causes more conflict than practically any other inter-generational difference.
It appears as true today as it was decades ago. But aren’t we supposed to be living in more rational times?
A false allegation of rape against a black man by a white woman in the racially segregated south of the USA of the 1930s, is central to the plot of To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, one of the most highly regarded and read novels of the 20th century.
Perhaps Williams, at some level, astutely realised that the seething emotions – still lying beneath the surface of our supposedly more enlightened era – would be unleashed by sexual assault allegations targeting an ethnic minority. This may even be a factor in her manipulative plan to garner support and deflect inquiry into what really happened.
There is a difference in the motivation behind false rape allegations which are much more commonly a ‘one-off’, as opposed to this much more unusual case, where there were multiple accusations, involving different target men, over an extended period of time.
We know from research that rape is one of the most under-reported crimes and that perhaps fewer than five per cent of all rapes are ever reported, and of that number, fewer than five per cent turn out to be proven to be false allegations.
Yet, despite this miniscule proportion, we also know from research that the average police officer tends to assume around 50 per cent of all rape allegations are false. This startling over-estimate may be down to the fact that, over time, officers tend to develop an extremely cynical view of the world. After all, most of the time they experience people lying to them.
The police are often looking in the wrong place for evidence that a rape allegation is false; if a victim’s account appears jumbled and inconsistent, law enforcement often erroneously seize on this as evidence of deceit. Instead, it is in examining the motivation which is more likely to reveal the truth behind this kind of allegation.
For the ‘one-off’ allegation, the malicious attempt to seek revenge on someone who may have wronged the claimant is a primary motive, along with an attempt to cover up a regretted sexual encounter, which now is in danger of casting the supposed victim in a poor light reputationally.
This appears to be the central plot device in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mocking Bird.
In the much rarer case of serial allegations, it appears to psychiatrists that the motivation may be remarkably similar to that which also explains what appears to be the emerging epidemic of false claims of suffering from cancer, and other deadly diseases, on the internet.
This is referred to as ‘the lure of victim status’.
Sometimes there is a straightforward appeal for money – these cases are referred to as ‘malingering’. But where no money changes hands, or where there appears no overt material advantage, victims in these scenarios are seeking a more psychological reward. They garner attention and care and emotional support and power in a way they wouldn’t have access to normally given how their frequently dysfunctional lives had panned out.
It may be no coincidence that Williams was described as suffering from self-harm and a not unproblematic childhood.
But, whatever the final motivation, it is possible she also understood that simmering beneath our supposedly tolerant modern society remain racial tensions that appear particularly vulnerable to being stoked up by themes of sex and assault.
The vulnerability of women appears to be particularly potent way of mobilising a community to protect a supposedly defenceless section from the rapacious ethnic group, who are often perceived as more ‘primitive’ and, therefore, out of control.
Sex is particularly explosive when it comes to racial tensions, because intimacy is about the ultimate closeness between two people, who in the eyes of the haters, should not be together, but as segregated as possible. Also, sex is about desire, and for racists the idea that the ‘out-group’ could be desirable, is so unconscionable, the only way to resolve this psychological tension is to come up with the mental solution; that any intimate encounter between two people from different races must have involved coercion.
We also know that fear and the need the defend ourselves tends to create the most aggressive responses within us. This is why the manipulative selling of the Iraq war to the public, for example, involved false claims of weapons of mass destruction – people are most prepared to sanction extreme violence and hostility against an enemy if they believe they are defending themselves, and it is the other side who is the aggressor.
Every war is sold to the public as primarily being an act of defence.
Racism is promulgated by spreading fears of threat and there is perhaps no greater emotional menace than the possibility of sexual violation.
In a statement following the conclusion of the Williams case, superintendent Matt Pearman said: “It was a crisis the town has yet to recover from and the effects will be felt for many years.”
Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist working in private practice at 10 Harley Street, W1 and is author of The Mental Vaccine for Covid-19, published by Amberley Press