A Terminal Cancer Patient Talks to an Exonerated Serial Killer
Today it was announced that Sture Bergwall, formerly known as Thomas Quick, has been freed after spending 20 years locked up in mental institutions. He initially confessed to over 30 murders in Scandinavia and the last of his eight convictions came in 1994. Our friend Kristian Gidlund wrote the following article after the two met on May the 14th for the first (and probably only) time in their lives. Kristian is a 29-year-old journalist and drummer in the band Sugarplum Fairy. He suffers from terminal cancer and has, with his blog and book, helped thousands of Swedes to acknowledge death as a natural part of life.
Sture Bergwall and the author. (Photo by Caisa Ederyd)
In Sweden, Thomas Quick used to be considered to be the worst serial killer in existence. A predator with his sights set firmly on young boys, who he allegedly sexually abused before stabbing them to death with a knife. He was considered a living demon – evil personified – and he lived 20 minutes away from where I lived, in the valleys of Dalarna.
One day he escaped from the Säter Hospital, the psychiatric clinic where he was locked up, convicted of eight murders – among other things. I remember the panic among all the kids in the schoolyard. Our parents picked us up from school and we had to play inside for the rest of the day.
Twenty years later and I’m facing death. For real this time. The cancer that was discovered in my body has forced doctors to remove my stomach and my spleen. It has forced me to go through two dozen sessions of chemo treatments while feasting on my existence. I’m fading away; I’m unwaveringly headed towards death.
During the past two years, I’ve been blogging about my inevitable demise, and the blog has grown to become quite well-read in Sweden. One day, a comment popped up on one of my entries from Thomas Quick, the walking demon. "I recognised myself in your destiny," he wrote. "It was an existential recognition. You were standing in front of death, with the cancer. I used to have death by my side and I lived in a valley of death. Although I can sense life today, I can still fully understand your situation of facing the end of life."
Thomas Quick – who has now reverted to his birth name of Sture Bergwall – speaks softly. He's tall – much taller than I'd expected – and he stands with his arms behind his back when I enter the visiting room of the clinic. I sense insecurity behind his eyes as he surveys the room and looks back to me as if he's searching for something in particular. He smiles gently, dresses well, snuffs portions of Swedish tobacco snus and drinks his coffee without sugar.
In one of the corners of the room are some boxes containing an assortment of toys. In another corner, two wardens await, observing our meeting, occasionally checking back to the headlines in their gossip magazines.
"I feel so much more alive today than how I have in many, many years," Bergwall started. "I have the years of Thomas Quick, and then I have the seven silent years. They were really seven completely silent years, when I was living here without any contact with any other human being, wandering in my cell and the corridors. I had no contact with anyone from the outside."
Since 2010, Sture had been exonerated from seven of the eight murder cases that he previously confessed to. He says that he initially confessed to the murders because he wanted a higher rank within the prison walls. At the time, he had become heavily addicted to medication, which were fed to him when he collaborated with police during the investigations.
When I spoke to Sture, he was waiting for the final murder charge against him to be dropped.
Sture Bergwall, formerly known as Thomas Quick
VICE: How has your view of death changed since you withdrew your confessions?
Sture Bergwall: I think my view of death changed in a very obvious way. Or rather, my relationship with death. I am no longer scared of death. I was always scared before, but ever since this new era began, I'm no longer frightened. I'm calm and safe in my everyday life. It might have something to do with the fact that I am calm in front of death. That might be it.
When I was young, I worked at a care home where an old lady was about to die. She had been very religious her whole life. I was sitting by her side a few hours before she passed and she opened herself up to me and said she was scared and started screaming, "I don't want to die!" She changed completely when death came so near her. Her calm disappeared and turned into panic. It was so shocking to me. A very dramatic experience.
Did it scare you?
Yes, it did scare me.
Do you think she lost her faith right there and then?
Yes. And I think I lost my faith in that very moment. For sure.
How is your relationship with Thomas Quick today?
It's nothing. Except for the fact that I have to deal with what happened during the years with him. That is something I work on all the time. This constant guilt. The constant problem of my life. Thomas Quick affected so many people. Thomas Quick affected my family, my siblings and my siblings' children. Thomas Quick affected the relatives of dead people, people who had been troubled by severe crimes. I will always have to deal with that.
You say you don’t have any relationship with Thomas Quick today – is that even possible?
No, I have to relate to that all the time. But now, Thomas Quick is dead. And first and foremost, Thomas Quick was a fictional character. That makes it possible for me to relate to him so he doesn’t kill me today.
Even if you consider him dead, can you still feel any remorse over what he did?
Absolutely. It’s a part of my everyday situation; to carry that weight. And you have to be clear about that – I carried Thomas Quick's language, Thomas Quick's gestures and so forth.
When we talk about this remaining conviction, I get the feeling that you have a certain sense of confidence that you'll be freed.
Yes, I do. I didn't make the last two appeals. And the Court of Appeal has approved a rising in my case. This essentially means that I’m going to be freed from the charges.
What is the first thing you will do when you finally become a free man?
The first thing I will do is to walk straight ahead. My goal is to be the one opening the door and then walking straight ahead. And to walk on the road all by myself.
Being so close to freedom, aren't you terrified that you will stumble on the finishing line?
No. This is the safety that I have. I’ve been so sure in this process. I could never have imagined that it was going to take so long, but I’ve been sure all the way.
You’ve been locked up in here for 23 years, and because of it you’ve lost a lot of things in life. What do you miss the most?
I miss that I haven’t seen people grow up or grow old. And something else you mentioned on your blog: the grief. You mourn the life you’re not going to have and I mourn the life I never had.
I think about this recognition you talk about, too. Because perhaps, in a strange way, I feel that we have a point of reference. In a way, we both get closer to this point in two completely different ways, me with my illness that will eventually take my life, and you who, up until recently, were considered to be the most feared serial killer in Swedish history.
Why yes, that's exactly how it is. But I find that these meeting points are very interesting and they make everything very interesting. It's like this junction where we meet makes it all very alive.
Yeah, that's what made me feel this meeting could be interesting, because we have crashed into each other, in a way. If you think about it, our situations are very different, but when we're here, right now, we are both in the same situation. When we started emailing each other, I almost got the feeling that we both viewed death in the same way. Or perhaps what we both think will happen after death. I think we both had a very similar perspective. Maybe not as a physical journey, more like a psychological state of mind when you travel in space, through the galaxies.
Yeah. I thought it was awesome when you told me in an email that you were reading this book Kosmos, which is a book I constantly turn to.
Yes, that surprised me. I believe that when I die I will begin a journey, which all sounds very abstract and odd when you talk about it. But I think I'll travel through space and get a feeling – a mixture between an orgasm and sinking down in a warm bath. And something will give me all the answers to everything I ever wondered. Riddles dissolve. How does that fit into your picture of death?
I recognise myself in that. The first time I heard you talking about this was on TV, and my tears fell. This was because I recognise that way of thinking, and to be able to imagine is an important ability to have. To be able to say that it might not happen that way, but that it also might. To dare to have both perspectives – I think that's full of consolation.
I grew up in Borlänge, where – and I guess the attitude was the same all over Sweden – you were considered a demon, the most terrifying man in the country. As a child I was afraid of Thomas Quick. What do you think when I tell you that?
It’s hard, but at the same time I have to admit that this is the way it was. But it was also as if Sweden needed a demon. Somebody to point at and to be scared of. To fulfil that need… that’s spooky.
But the image of Thomas Quick that society had was based on your own confessions.
Exactly, absolutely. To have been the tongue who said all those things is incredibly hard today. But for the sake of my own context, for the sake of love, I have to adapt to it in a good way. And by "a good way", I mean acknowledging that, yeah, that’s how it was.
I told you that I grew up being afraid of Thomas Quick. Looking back at that time today, are you afraid of Thomas Quick at all?
No, I'm not. And that's rooted in the fact that he was fiction. But it scares me that he took on this role in the limelight. There was a group of people who wanted him convicted and locked up, no matter the costs. Today, my siblings tell me, "You were sick, you had a certain need to be protected, and society didn't sort that out for you. It was rather the opposite – society took advantage of your needs instead." That is frightening. Thomas Quick himself isn't frightening. Society's way of dealing with him is.
So it's rather the interpretation of him that's frightening?
Yes. This thing with pushing for him to be convicted and so forth.
What are you scared of the most?
That my brother will die. He has had cancer and a couple of heart attacks. He must be alive when I get out of here. After that, he can die.
Do you remember your first love?
Yeah, I do. It was at high school. I fell in love with a classmate. It was a guy and I remember it very, very well. But I could never tell him that I was in love because you couldn’t do that in 1964. Homosexuality was still classified as a disease. There were no closets to come out from.
What did you do with this love?
I romanticised it – wrote love letters, poems and novels and was at the same time desperate.
Did he ever find out?
No, he didn’t.
When I leave Sture at the heavily guarded facility, I walk out with mixed emotions. I came there to meet the most hated man in Sweden – a man who scared the shit out of me as a child. But with the hospital entrance behind me and the mirror-black lake of Ljustern in front of me, I wonder who it was I actually met: a man thrashed by the Swedish system of justice, or a hoaxing maniac who can get anybody to believe anything he says?
I still receive messages from Sture. He often writes just one line: "All the best thoughts to you."
I never know what to answer.
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