At 5.30pm on 1 December 2007, John Darwin walked into a police station on Savile Row, London, with a faint tan, £140 in crisp notes in his wallet and no ID. “I think I’m a missing person,” he told the duty officer.
For his two adult sons, Mark and Anthony, this sudden appearance was miraculous. Their father had been missing, presumed dead, for five years. Mark called his mother, his fingers shaking. “Brace yourself,” he told her. “I am sitting next to Dad.”
Mark’s euphoria would prove short-lived. Unbeknown to the Darwins, an anonymous member of the public was about to type the words “Anne, John, Panama” and find, through a quick Google search, what a lengthy police investigation had failed to uncover.
John Darwin had not spent the last half decade wandering the UK with amnesia. Nor had his wife, Anne, spent the interval searching for or mourning him. The internet threw up a photo of the two of them, smiling while house hunting in Panama. Seven numbers, stamped digitally in the bottom right corner, sealed their fates: 2006 7 14.
Three days after rising from the dead, John was arrested. Tracked down in Panama by a journalist and confronted with this proof, Anne’s first words were: “My sons will never forgive me. They knew nothing.”
Ten years have passed since the Darwins were released from prison. An ITV dramatisation of their story is currently in production. Public interest in the pair, the appetite for gossip about them, has never been fully sated. Part of the attraction is nostalgia. A wistfulness for times when right and wrong were black and white, when criminals were villains. Particularly those who betrayed their children. Especially mothers who did so.
The full story of Anne and John’s subterfuge unfolded slowly, through police interviews and then at trial. At the start of the new millennium, the Darwins had outwardly appeared the perfect middle-class family. Formerly a teacher, he was now working as a prison officer and attempting to build a property portfolio. She was a doctor’s receptionist. But their debts had run wildly out of control. In December 2001 – after failing to refinance his beloved Range Rover, sell his portfolio of crumbling rental properties or reason with the bank – John took out a life insurance policy. By March 2002, he owed £64,000 across high-interest loans and 13 credit cards. On 21 March, he dragged a canoe out from their seafront villa in Seaton Carew on the County Durham coast and drowned at sea.
Only he hadn’t. That evening, Anne drove to a remote car park five minutes from home, flashed her headlights, picked up a bedraggled figure and took him to Durham railway station before going home and dialling 999. “I’m getting worried,” she told the operator. “I called the prison where he works and they said they had tried to contact him as he hadn’t turned up. This isn’t like John at all.”
The RNLI, RAF, coastguard and other emergency services spent 36 hours and £150,000 conducting an extensive air and sea search. Helicopter floodlights illuminated Anne’s windows throughout the night, hunting for her missing husband. The police did not give up until the end of May, when the battered remains of John’s red canoe were found in a nearby lagoon.
When, in April 2003, the coroner finally declared him dead, a tearful Anne said that it would help her sons achieve closure. In fact, it helped her to claim around £250,000 from policies and insurance schemes and begin a new life with her husband.
Inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s book The Day of the Jackal, John had already stolen the identity of John Jones, a baby born months before him, but who died in infancy. As Jones, John acquired a driving licence and passport. In 2006 the couple flew to Panama for the first time, travelling back and forth before buying a flat and 500 acres of virgin rainforest, with the intention of emigrating and building a luxury resort. Anne would later claim that John had returned to the UK only when it became clear that his faked credentials would not support these grand plans.
Insurance companies were not the only victims. Mark and Anthony Darwin were cleared of all involvement in the deception. They had spent five years grieving, comforting their apparently devastated mother. Yet when they cast a wreath out to sea on the first anniversary of their father’s death, John may well have been watching them.
It turned out that just three weeks after disappearing, John had returned to Seaton Carew and had been living in the house next door that they also owned, popping in and out of the family home through a secret, interconnecting door behind a wardrobe, listening in on the phone calls his sons made to their mother.
All these details were aired to Mark, Anthony and a rapt British public at Anne’s trial in July 2008. John had pleaded guilty to seven counts of deception and a passport offence at an earlier hearing in Leeds but Anne pleaded not guilty to six counts of fraud and nine of money laundering, claiming that John had coerced her. In a packed courtroom at Teesside Crown Court, the jury were not convinced by Anne’s testimony and she was found guilty on all counts. On 23 July 2008, John was sentenced to six years and three months in jail. Anne got six years and six months.
Summing up, Mr Justice Wilkie labelled John the “driving force” behind the deception. But outside court in Middlesbrough, Det Insp Andy Greenwood, of Cleveland Police, told reporters: “We’re pleased with the verdict received. Anne Darwin has been a compulsive liar.”
In the trial by press, moreover, it was Anne who was eviscerated. Headline writers presented John’s crimes as fodder for cheeky puns: “Canoe’s this in Panama?” and later “Canoe man’s staying afloat thanks to wife”.
Anne’s crimes, however, were not so funny. “The mother of all liars” screamed the Daily Mirror’s front page. The Liverpool Echo ran with the more prosaic but no less pointed: “Anne Darwin – bad mother who put herself first”, while the Daily Record chose: “Mum betrayed us over Dad’s canoe ‘death’”. Not “Mum and dad betrayed us…” Just Mum.
Why did the outrage coalesce around Anne and not John? In part because she had been the public face of the deception while John went to ground. But perhaps for other reasons too.
“Dad told one nasty lie and disappeared and said he was dead but she lied for six years,” explained Anthony in a 2008 interview. “Her maternal instincts didn’t kick in for a second to protect us.”
“The mother I had respected and loved all my life seemed to have been transformed into a hideous, lying bitch,” added Mark. “I thought she was a wonderful woman who loved me and would always protect me.”
In her 1976 book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, the poet Adrienne Rich reflected that motherhood “demands of women maternal ‘instinct’ rather than intelligence, selflessness rather than self-realization”, in a way that fatherhood just does not.
Thirty years later, the Echo’s columnist parroted Rich’s words, only with significantly less sympathy for those who fall short. “Mothers will move heaven and earth to protect their offspring; it’s an in-built instinct that dictates your children’s well-being is your overriding priority…
“The court heard that Anne Darwin was a fantastic actress. She was also one lousy mother.”
The world has always loved to hate a “bad” mother. We are more fascinated and even more repelled by stories of children killed by their mothers than of those murdered by their fathers. It’s been that way since antiquity – just ask Medea.
Any hurt inflicted to children is more loathsome when committed by mothers. As Anne Sebba’s new biography reminds us, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg both sacrificed their children’s security to spy for the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Yet it is only Ethel who emerges from their trial reporting as that most monstrous thing of all – a bad mother, whose love for her cause and husband is greater than that for her children. In her seminal 1993 paper ‘Motherhood and Crime’, the American scholar Dorothy E. Roberts pointed out that mothers need not even commit an indictable offence to be condemned: “Society considers women who fail to meet the ideal of motherhood deviant or criminal. It stigmatizes unwed mothers, unfit mothers, and women who do not become mothers…”
In the months that followed Anne and John’s arrest, a newsprint shorthand emerged for each of them. He became “Canoe Man”; she was “Canoe Widow” or “Canoe Mum”. His crimes were committed as a man; hers as a wife and mother.
Anne and John divorced in 2012 and have now been free of the criminal justice system for a decade. John appears to have had little time for looking back, still less trouble reinventing himself. In 2013 he broke the terms of his parole to meet a potential bride in Ukraine, before marrying Mercy May Avila (23 years his junior) in 2015 and settling with her in the Philippines. “I have a new business,” Avila was quoted as saying this year. “I’ve had it for three years now. Boom. Making money.”
Anne, meanwhile, appears to be serving a socially enforced life sentence, devoting her time to apparent acts of contrition. She moved to a tiny flat outside York to be near her grandchildren, babysat for them, found a job working for the RSPCA, and split the proceeds from her 2016 autobiography between that charity and – appropriately – the RNLI.
Reactions to her book were far from warm. “She isn’t a mother, doing something like that to your children is disgusting,” read one online reaction to Radio 2’s interview with Anne. Yet, slowly, her penitence has paid off in her personal life, at least. Both her sons have rebuilt some sort of relationship with their mother.
“What I have gone through to get to a stage where I can forgive has been tough,” said Mark in a 2016 interview. “I think my father was the originator, the driving force, and she got caught up. But she could have come clean. She could have stopped it all. And she should have pleaded guilty. After all, she was.”
Anne’s position throughout, however, has been that she couldn’t have stopped it. Taken to Hartlepool police station as soon as her plane from Panama hit the Manchester tarmac in December 2007, she first claimed no knowledge of John’s scheme until after the insurance claim was made. When, after being transferred to Low Newton jail in County Durham, she finally admitted to knowing of his plans from the very start, there was a qualification. She had pleaded with him not to go ahead, she said, and to declare bankruptcy instead. But the force of his personality and the nature of their 30-year marriage left her powerless to resist him. “He was not violent, but could be very manipulative,” she told police. “He had a way of making me feel quite small. I used to say he treated me like a second-year pupil that he used to teach.”
In her autobiography, Anne recounts a relationship peppered with affairs, callousness and belittlements that began when he was a teacher and she a shy, overawed and rather reluctant 17-year-old. Once married, “we never had much of a social life. John once joked to someone that he only took me out when it was voting night.”
He abandoned her, so her book alleges, during an emergency C-section to deliver their first child, going home because “being a biology teacher” he was only interested in the process if he was allowed to watch it. The autobiography also claims he was obsessed with outward shows of wealth, moving her to ever bigger houses away from her friends, work and family, despite her reluctance.
In hiding “he would stand over my shoulder as I was making the necessary calls… Sometimes he would dial the numbers for me. I hated making the calls…” Sex-obsessed by her account, he began an online flirtation with an American woman who sent him topless photos. In 2004, despite Anne’s protests, he flew to meet her in Kansas, supposedly to check out property investments, lost £30,000, and then emailed thinly veiled threats of violence to the American.
Back in Seaton Carew and supposedly lying low, he began taking wild risks, roaming the neighbourhood and the house so brazenly that a former colleague even reported a potential sighting of him to the police. Anne repeatedly broke down under the pressure, yet as she said: “John never had time for what he called ‘my mild hysterics’ and would simply roll his eyes, then walk off.”
Nonetheless, “I couldn’t work out how I’d survive without him, I felt helpless and trapped,” she wrote. “Abuse can take many forms and quite often the victims themselves don’t realise it is happening until it is too late… I had no self-confidence and low self-esteem.”
It was not until she began speaking to a prison therapist, she claims, that she began even to imagine herself capable of an independent life. Even then, John continued to exercise control, tracking her down illicitly after her release and posting an old photo of her to her new address, marked with the copyright symbol.
Which, of course, is exactly what (in the words of the prosecution at her trial) a “determined, resolute woman who was able to lie and deceive at length” would say. Remember too that the judge presiding over her trial concluded that, while Anne played an “instrumental rather than organising” role, she did so “efficiently” and “wholeheartedly”.
Yet in a post-#MeToo society locked in discourse about the abuse of power and the myriad ways that abuse can be exercised, Anne’s stories sound eerily familiar. Colleagues claimed that she looked so ill after reporting John missing that they recommended more time off. Her sons worried that she was not eating or sleeping and was “in a terrible state”.
In 2008 this was judged the performance of a lifetime by the press, police and courts. Yet today, there is little debate that a person’s will can be overborne in plenty of ways that are not physically violent, yet are no less overbearing. We have a vocabulary replete with terms for these techniques: gaslighting, negging, coercive control. Not so 13 years ago, at the time of Anne’s trial. Put aside, for a moment, questions about the veracity of her claims, and consider instead how she seems to struggle even to articulate them.
Prosecutor: “I’m asking you what it was that was hanging over you to force you to take this action. Was the prospect of him coming home and speaking to you in an intimidating way, the prospect of that so terrible that you had to go through with this fraud?”
Darwin: “If I didn’t pick him up I didn’t know what would happen. I was frightened he might walk out on me as I couldn’t live on my own.”
Prosecutor: “When you put it in those words it shows how pathetic your explanation is.”
Darwin: “It may seem pathetic to you.”
Prosecutor: “If John had said to you: ‘Anne, I want you to go and jump off a cliff’, you would, because John told you to, even if you didn’t want to because he had overborne your will?”
Darwin: “I think that’s a very unfair comparison. You were not there to see how I lived.”
If the language of the noughties offered her little help in articulating a form of control that was not physical but psychological, the law offered little defence either.
At her trial, Anne had claimed “marital coercion”, a defence that was abolished six years later, after the crossbench peer Lord Pannick QC argued it to be absurdly anachronistic. The defence was available only to wives, and even then only if her husband were physically present at the time of the offence being committed. As if only married women could fall victim to control, and as if that control could not be cultivated over months and years, till coercion is possible across counties or even continents.
The criminal justice system’s definitions of domestic abuse were in urgent need of update. And in 2015 they were given one. Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act created a new offence – controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship.
It was groundbreaking. For the first time the law recognised that abuse is not limited to physical violence but could be psychological in nature. Coercive control is, in summary, a pattern of behaviour, tailored to the victim’s personality and designed to strip away their freedoms or sense of self and self-esteem.
Previously, courts had struggled to prove a pattern like this could amount to harassment within an intimate relationship. That had now changed, and we discovered just how common this form of abuse was. Coercive control offences almost doubled in the year to March 2019, going from 9,053 to 17,616. Analysis of Merseyside Police’s domestic abuse data found that 95 per cent of victims were women. The subject even featured in The Archers.
Regardless of whether Anne Darwin’s experience constituted such coercion, it is harder, now, to imagine a prosecution lawyer describing a woman’s fear of challenging her domineering husband as “pathetic”. It is far easier too to imagine her pleading guilty, citing such control as mitigation and the courts applying today’s more nuanced understanding. It is more plausible that, under these circumstances and in 2021, she might be given a suspended sentence and avoid jail altogether.
Both inside and outside the courtroom, attitudes towards controlled women and their crimes have changed dramatically. Nothing illustrates this better than Sally Challen’s successful appeal against her murder conviction. Challen was jailed in 2011 after beating her husband to death with a hammer. When in 2019 judges overturned that conviction – on the grounds that Challen was suffering a psychological “adjustment disorder” connected to decades of coercive control by her husband – her media profile was recast, from obsessive green-eyed wife to victim of domestic abuse. “Wealthy husband ‘killed by jealous wife’ who rang 1471 to trace his lover” read the Daily Mail headline in June 2011, while the Telegraph ran with “Jealous wife guilty of killing husband with hammer”. By February 2019, however, headlines in both papers were describing her as “abused wife”.
While coercive control remains an offence, calls have now begun for a new defence, applicable where a crime is committed as a direct consequence of domestic abuse. In September Challen’s QC, Clare Wade, was asked to lead a review into domestic homicide laws. Violence with a weapon carries longer sentences than violence without. Yet women are more likely to use a weapon in defence against an abusive partner, leading victims’ commissioner Dame Vera Baird to explain that “the fear is women – who are themselves victims – are serving lengthy jail sentences for simply choosing to survive”. What does all this mean for Anne Darwin and how we see her today? Well, this is not a fairy tale. Ten years after being released from prison, she is not seen as a lilywhite, innocent victim. Her crimes still look bizarre and breathtaking; their effects cruel and lasting.
Yet a decade on her story seems less of a pantomime too. Revisiting the tabloid headlines quoting her son’s description of a “lying bitch”, you may now find your brow furrowing with feminist discomfort. Reconsider her defence counsel’s account of a husband who, though not physically violent, imposed his will on his wife until “any resistance is shredded” and it may not only raise sceptical eyebrows but red flags too. And when we settle down to relive the story in front of our televisions next year, who among us will find it so simple to hiss and boo?
This piece appears in Giants, the new Tortoise short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, you can buy a physical copy here.
Main image: The Mega Agency