My mother, the Twitter troll
By Simon Hattenstone
When Ben Leyland’s mum told him she was in trouble, nothing could have prepared him for the revelation that she was about to be exposed for sending hundreds of abusive tweets about Madeleine McCann’s parents. What happened next would change his life for ever.
THERE WAS THIS ENTIRE PART of Mum that I never knew about,” Ben Leyland says. Brenda Leyland was a stylish, well-spoken and rather private woman who lived in a picturesque village in Leicestershire. He knew she told stories, and that some of them may have been on the tall side. He also knew that she spent a lot of time on her laptop and was increasingly living online. What he didn’t know was that his mother had become a Twitter troll who spent the final years of her life relentlessly attacking the parents of Madeleine McCann, the girl who disappeared in Portugal in 2007 at the age of three and hasn’t been seen since.
In 2014, Brenda was approached by a Sky News journalist who asked her why she was trolling the McCanns on Twitter. She was about to get into a car with her friend to visit a garden centre, and declined to comment. The journalist then told her that she had been reported to Scotland Yard and her tweets were being investigated as part of a larger campaign of abuse against the McCanns. “Well, that’s fair enough,” she said calmly. But Brenda’s face gave her away. Her eyes blinked and her cheek twitched anxiously. Four days later, on 4 October 2014, Brenda killed herself.
Her trolling and subsequent suicide resulted in a number of newspaper stories: about the toxic culture of Twitter; the danger of people hiding behind avatars and fake names on social media; the biliousness of Brenda’s attack on the McCanns; and the tragedy of her death. What could have led a woman to post hundreds of tweets attacking a couple she had never met, and why did she think there was nothing left to live for when she was caught out?
Ben, 38, has not talked to a newspaper about his mother before. But, nearly a decade on, he believes there are lessons to be learned from her story – lessons that have been crucial to his own survival. Ben, who graduated from Oxford University with a degree in theology, is a recovering drug addict who now works as a life coach in Los Angeles for people with mental health and addiction problems.
Although he recognises there was much he didn’t know about his mother, in other ways they were painfully close. “When she died, she took me out too,” he says. “It was a suicide bomb. I never had a separate identity from Mum.” Over the past seven years, he has done detective work, trying to piece together Brenda’s life. Only by understanding her has he been able to understand himself, he says. But it’s not been easy. So much of her life was a fiction, and he’s still trying to disentangle the truth from the make-believe.
After Brenda’s death, Ben gave up his job and devoted himself to his own destruction. He had been working in corporate law for seven years, and the wealth he had accrued, along with the money he received after his mother’s death, meant he could afford not to work for a few years. “I was in grief, but numbing myself with drugs and alcohol. I was like: I’m done, I’m just going to quit the world for a while, eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and do enough cocaine to kill a small village.” He pauses. “Or maybe a large village, frankly. And I just kept going.” When the money ran out, he turned to crystal meth. That was when Ben reached his nadir.
Brenda Leyland, who was 63 when she died, grew up in a military family in Albrighton, Shropshire. She went to convent school and briefly worked in marketing. When she met her future husband and Ben’s father in the 1970s, she told her parents that he didn’t make much money and she was bringing home the bacon. In fact, he was doing very well for himself. A working-class boy, he had grown up in Birmingham and qualified as an accountant. He later went on to develop an assistedliving complex for elderly people, which he sold at a profit. The reality was that Brenda had expensive tastes and was in debt, and her husband frequently had to help her out of her financial difficulties.
Brenda was famous in the family for her stories. There were so many of them that Ben doesn’t know where to start. One that she liked to dine out on was how she had known Elton John when he was a teenager called Reggie Dwight. “She would tell us how she was living on an army barracks when her dad was in the RAF, and Reggie lived next door. She said he was besotted with her school friend and came across to our house to give her love letters for her friend – only to be confronted by my handle-bar-moustachioed grandfather, who scared the living daylights out of young Reggie. Mum had this theory that maybe those early experiences made him gay. It was only when we watched that movie Rocketman about Elton John that me and my dad were like, ‘Really?’”
Rocketman came out in 2019, five years after Brenda’s death. By then Ben was suspicious about many of the stories she had told him. The thing is, he says, his mother’s stories were so colourful that he wanted to believe them, even if he had his doubts. Take the tale about her father. “She would have you believe he was involved in more missions than anybody else in the RAF. She had these stories about how he got shot down over Crete, and ended up crash-landing and living with the Crete resistance in a cave, subsisting on nothing more than Worcestershire sauce.” He laughs – at his own naivety as much as anything. “She said he got the Victoria Cross, but he didn’t.”
She sounds as if she had an amazing imagination,
I say. “She had a Lewis Carroll, Jabberwockian level of madness and eccentricity,” Ben says, adding that they shared a vivid interior life. “When there’s been serious trauma, sometimes people retreat i nto their imagination.” But Ben was never sure about the nature of the trauma at the heart of Brenda’s life. She would say that her brother had been abused by a Catholic priest, and that had affected her badly. There were also periods in her life when she went away “to get better”. She never talked about what she was in hospital for, but she would come home regaling him with stories about the rich and famous people she had met there.
From the outside, the Leylands looked like a happy, high-achieving nuclear family. Ben’s father was a successful businessman, they lived in the biggest house on the block, and both Ben and his brother were sent to private schools. They went on holidays to the Caribbean, and Brenda was indulged. “She spent a lot of time buying clothes and at makeup counters. She liked the fine life.”
Then, when Ben was 12, the family fell apart. His father left Brenda for another woman, to whom he is still happily married. His brother, then 19, had recently left home, so Brenda and Ben moved to a rented property in Burton Overy, a village in Leicestershire. Brenda transformed their new home. “It was a shit-show when we moved in, but she turned it into something special,” Ben says. Brenda renovated the place, turning it into a classic English country cottage. There were brass and copper utensils hanging on the wall in the kitchen. She painted and aged standard pine dressers and wardrobes so they looked like antique French furniture. “She liked the challenge – maybe part of her had to keep up with the Joneses. She found a good way of making cheap things look expensive, which has a certain metaphorical value because she always wanted you to think she was someone other than who she was. She was terrified that if you knew the real her, you wouldn’t like her.”
Who did she think the real Brenda Leyland was? “A girl who didn’t get an education, a woman who hardly ever worked, who didn’t do the things she thought she deserved to do or was destined for, whose mummy and daddy didn’t like her very much,” Ben says. Who did Brenda want people to think she was? “Many of the things she actually was. She wanted people to see her as this elegant, insightful, articulate person, maybe with an element of mystery. She wanted people to pay attention, and speak of her when she wasn’t there and say, ‘My God, that Brenda Leyland! She can spin a yarn and see through to the core of what’s going on.’” And did people think that? “I thought that, to a certain extent.” He compares her to Anna Sorokin, the Russian fake heiress who conned her way into New York high society as Anna Delvey, before being jailed for fraud in 2019.
In many ways, Ben says, his mother was wonderful. “She was beautiful, intelligent, funny. She had a good way with one-liners. I remember when hand soap got fancy with things like Molton Brown, and she’d be like, ‘Smell my hands, I’ve just been to the toilet.’ We knew what she was referring to, but there was this double entendre. She had an acerbic wit.”
Brenda adored her younger son. “She took an enormous amount of pride in me,” Ben says. “She dined out on my Oxford education.” But there was a downside. She was possessive, demanding of his attention, and constantly gave him the impression that he had failed her. She would tell him he didn’t spend enough time with her, didn’t think about her enough, didn’t love her. “You could always tell she was keeping a scorecard. I was treading on eggshells around her, for fear I might say the wrong thing. There were things you thought she had dealt with that she still held on to. Grudges and resentments. Like, ‘You don’t come home for Christmas, you forgot Mother’s Day.’” Ben says Brenda cost him his relationship with his brother and father. She made him choose between her and them.
He became her life, and Ben found it oppressive. Not
‘I started reading through her Twitter account and I was like, holy shit. I think she lost sight of the McCanns’ humanity. They were just the target of her investigation’
least because he was dealing with his own problems. By the age of 16, he was taking cocaine and drinking too much. He knew he was gay, but couldn’t come to terms with it. He was a child of the 90s, and homophobia was rife. “I remember Stephen Gately of Boyzone being smoked out of the closet and the coverage in the newspapers about all these betrayed female fans,” Ben says. “I saw George Michael getting dragged through the mud. I remember the news of Freddie Mercury dying and the coverage of HIV. There was a lot of shame about it. I remember when there was a story about David Hyde Pierce, who played Niles in Frasier, going to bath houses in LA, and my mum saying, ‘That’s dirty. I don’t want to watch Frasier any more.’”
By this time, Brenda was becoming increasingly fascinated by Madeleine McCann’s story. After Madeleine went missing in 2007, everybody was talking about it. Brenda, who lived just 15 miles from the McCanns’ home in Rothley, Leicestershire, was no exception. But, at this point, Ben did not think there was anything unusual in her interest in Kate and Gerry McCann. Brenda was spending a lot of her time on her computer. But as far as Ben knew she was playing card games, like solitaire.
In 2008, Ben moved to the US. He had found life in
Burton Overy claustrophobic. Only 370 people lived there, the post office had closed due to lack of demand, and there was just one pub. Ben couldn’t cope with the idea that he was responsible for his mother’s happiness. “The only person she said she cared about was me,” he says. “It was too much pressure.”
He told himself he was leaving England to escape his debts and Brenda. But in the US he only entrapped himself further. In 2009, he met a French woman and they wed two years later. The pressure of the sham marriage and Brenda’s increasing demands took their toll. “After I got married, Mum pulled me to one side as she got into the taxi to go to the airport and said she had three months to live,” Ben says. “It wasn’t true. It was just that the attention was on me and my then wife, and she couldn’t handle it.” Ben was unhappily married, closeted and living a white-picket-fence life that was a lie. Both he and Brenda were struggling in private with their identities. By 2013, Ben and his wife had separated, and in 2014 they divorced.
In her final decade, Brenda went on trips to India,
Africa and the Middle East. “She loved to travel and would go on her own.” Did she have relationships after the divorce? “She met this much older guy when walking her dog, who she claimed was the owner of Steinway, the piano maker.” Was that true? “I met the guy. He seemed suave and sophisticated. I don’t know what the owner of Steinway was doing living in Leicester.” He shrugs, and smiles.
About three years before she died, Brenda spent a low-key Christmas with Ben and his wife in Washington DC. They played Monopoly, ate pork loin, and did nothing noteworthy. A few days later, after Brenda had returned to England, she accidentally forwarded him an email she had sent to her brother about her Christmas. “She described how, on 26 December, when she was with us at home, we were in Langley, Virginia, at a soiree with heads of state, diplomats and the head of the CIA.”
Ben might have suspected Brenda had made stuff up before, but now he was sure. For the first time, he challenged her. “I said to Mum, ‘No, we were eating pork, playing Monopoly and I think you were losing.’ We had to go three or four rounds before getting anywhere near the truth. I said, ‘What the hell was that story about?’ In the end she said, ‘I was probably drunk and your
uncle was giving me a hard time about coming out to see you so often, and I wanted him to think I was having an incredible time.’” He thinks his mother was ashamed of the emptiness of her own life, and created an alternative reality for herself. Ben began to realise his mother was a mythomaniac.
After this, there were other times when Ben confronted her about lying. “We’d have arguments that reached boiling point, then we wouldn’t talk for months at a time,” he says. “It definitely got more heated between us in the final years.” But Ben was having his own problems with the truth. “I was in a marriage that was window dressing, and my wife didn’t know about my cocaine habit. I had my own shit going on.”
When they spoke on the phone, Brenda invariably updated him on Madeleine and her latest theories about the McCanns. After Madeleine’s disappearance, Kate and Gerry McCann admitted that they had left their three children alone in their apartment in Praia da Luz, Portugal, when they went to eat with friends. Along with many other conspiracy theorists, Brenda was convinced that they were responsible for Madeleine’s abduction, as a result of negligence or worse. Ben admits that he barely listened while she rattled on. At least, he thought, it kept her occupied.
ON 3 0 S E P T E M BE R 2014, Ben received a phone call from Brenda. She sounded panicked in a way he had not heard before. She told him that earlier in the day she had been questioned by a TV journalist about the McCanns. Ben didn’t know what she meant. “Mum said, ‘I’m in trouble.’ I was like, ‘What’s going on?’”
She told him that her Twitter handle was @sweepyface (named after Sweep, her first boxer dog), and he visited the account where she had been writing about the McCanns. He discovered that her avatar was a photograph of his boxer dog and she had recorded her address as Los Angeles. “When I saw that I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Then I started reading through her Twitter account and I was like, ‘Holy shit.’” There were hundreds of messages about Madeleine and the McCanns. They were vitriolic and potentially libellous. Ben knew his mother had the capacity to rage, and that she had strong opinions about the McCanns, but he had never seen anything like this. Tweets included: “#mccann Q ‘How long must the mccanns suffer?’ Answer ‘For the rest of their miserable lives’”; “I think Kate #mccann sees herself as a modern day Eva Peron beautiful, suffering, instead of a booze filled nymphomaniac”; “Hate a powerful emotion, it is a compliment to Maddie that we ‘hate’ her parents who betrayed her”; “You can move to France, anywhere, but social media is everywhere, our memories are long”; “To Kate and Gerry, you will be hated by millions for the rest of your miserable, evil, conniving lives, have a nice day.”
How did Ben react when he saw the tweets? “My initial reaction was crisis management,” he says. “Damage limitation. I was working in law at that time, and I thought, ‘There’s a story that’s going to come out, we have very little time to deal with it, I have to jump into action mode.’”
He admits that he also took a perverse pleasure in her situation. “There was this part of me that was like, for years I’ve put up with never having been good enough for you, always being told you don’t love me, and finally you’ve fucked up. The tables were turned. So some of it was schadenfreude. I felt vindicated that she was coming to me, cap in hand. But I also felt: now it’s my responsibility to make this go away.”
Even then, he says, he had no sense it could all end tragically. Yes, she had sent a load of nasty tweets and engaged with a community of conspiracy theorists who fed off each other, but back then we didn’t really understand the impact of the internet – after all, it was only virtual reality. “It was a different era,” he says. “This idea that a single person could be completely cancelled didn’t really exist at that time. So when I saw this stuff on Sky News I thought, ‘This is not good,’ but I didn’t have any awareness of the full extent of its impact.”
Ben advised Brenda not to invite the Sky News reporter Martin Brunt into the house, and to say nothing. But he found out at the inquest that she had already spoken to him for half an hour in her home – albeit off-camera. “She was more helpless than I’d ever seen her before,” he says. Was she panicked because she realised she had done something wrong or because she had been found out? “I think she’d had time to reflect that she’d gotten a little bit carried away. That’s what she said in her final email.” Did she have any sense of the pain that the tweets might cause the McCanns? “It’s difficult to say. I think she lost sight of their humanity, and they were just the target of the ‘investigation’.”
He uses the word investigation deliberately. Ben was later to discover that Brenda didn’t think of herself as a troll, but as a journalist investigating the McCanns. “In her last will and testament, she said her job title was investigative journalist. That was the role she had assumed,” he says. Had she ever done any journalism? “No.”
Ben’s attempts at crisis management were in vain. A couple of days later, the story broke on Sky. When he called Brenda, it just went to voicemail. By this time he was really worried. He was talking to his brother, whom he hadn’t spoken to for years after they had drifted apart. “I said to my brother, ‘Do you think there’s a chance she might try to take her life?’ And he said, ‘Well, it wouldn’t be without precedent.’” Ben hadn’t known she had attempted suicide before.
He started to fear the worst. “I had entertained suicide many times, and I knew I was cut from the same cloth as Mum.” A couple of days passed without any contact. A friend told him he needed to get out of the house, so he drove to a beach he had visited with Brenda a couple of years earlier. It was early morning, and he was already drinking white wine when his iPad lit up with a FaceTime call from her. He answered it, but there was nobody there. He called back, and it went straight to voicemail. Nevertheless, he was relieved. “I was like, ‘She’s sent up a flare. She doesn’t want to talk, but she wants me to know everything’s OK.’ I had another couple of glasses of wine and thought, ‘Thank God.’”
A few minutes later, his father called and told him that Brenda had fatally overdosed in a hotel 15 miles from home. He refused to believe it. “I said, ‘That doesn’t make any sense, she’s just called.’” He now thinks that the police at the scene accidentally rang him.
BE N WA S BROK E N. For all their fallouts, he and Brenda had been umbilically linked. Ben felt that as well as taking her own life, she had taken his. He worked for a few more months, but his addictions were getting out of hand. He was drinking whisky with his morning coffee, going to the toilet to take cocaine. It soon became unsustainable. He had to choose between his addictions and work, so he quit work. He told himself he was a hedonist, but he knew he was just destroying himself. He says he has no right to be alive today.
It was only at the inquest in March 2015, five months after her death, that he began to fully understand his mother’s life. Consultant psychiatrist Dr Kris Zakrzewski said he had treated Brenda throughout the 1990s, and that she had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and depression. Dr Zakrzewski recorded that she had twice been admitted to psychiatric hospitals in the 1990s when her depression was “severely exacerbated”. He said there had been “suicidal attempts or gestures”, but her “religion and intense love of children” were regarded as suicide risk limiting factors: “She was a deeply, sometimes morbidly, reflective thinker, often getting despondent over the ways the world is, and particularly angry and despondent over real or perceived mistreatment of children, both her own and others’.”
Dr Zakrzewski said he had lost contact with Brenda in the early 2000s, when she had trouble funding her treatment. “Mrs Leyland was an extremely intelligent and proud woman with a streak of mistrustfulness in her complex though vulnerable personality, time and again giving way to clinical depression. Overall, the risk of serious harm was always there.”
Sky News said at the inquest that it had authorised Brunt to “doorstep” Brenda as it was in the public interest to challenge her about trolling the McCanns due to the growing debate about the lack of control of social media, and because courts were now handing jail sentences to trolls. It believed its investigation would have been frustrated if she had been forewarned. Sky decided to show Brenda’s face in the report, but named her only by her Twitter handle to limit the risk of online abuse by others.
Brunt, a hugely experienced reporter, was described by his employer as a “sensitive journalist and man of integrity”. One reason he chose Brenda rather than the other McCann trolls was because she couldn’t be identified by her Twitter handle. He said she was “self-assured” and “seemed quite confident”. Brunt told the inquest that, on her return from the garden centre, she invited him into her home. “I sat down and said something like, ‘Sorry to have ruined your day.’ Mrs Leyland said something like, ‘I don’t know yet whether you’ve ruined my day or my life.’”
He asked Brenda to do “a more considered” interview on camera. She declined, but he said she told him, “I just want the McCanns to answer questions”, “It’s about how they left their children”; and “I don’t believe their story.” She also said she hoped that she hadn’t broken the law and she had “honestly thought tweeting was a vehicle by which you could express things”. At the inquest, Brunt said he told her the report would appear on Sky News. “She said, ‘I don’t get that.’ I said something like, ‘Well, it may be uncomfortable for a day, but these things tend to blow over.’ I was trying to make her feel less bad about it because I do understand the enormity of being exposed on television.” Brunt said Brenda had been “very pleasant” and that “there had been nothing about her demeanour or anything she said that caused me concern”.
The following day, Brenda called Brunt and asked if they could blur her face. He told her that wasn’t his call. He told her the report would be broadcast the following day. “I think I said, ‘I hope it isn’t too grim,’ meaning for her,” Brunt said at the inquest.
In her final days, Brenda herself was trolled. ‘They Photoshopped her to make her look like a zombie with blood pouring out of her’
“And she said, ‘Well I’ll go out for the day. I was thinking of ending it all, but I’ve had a glass of wine and I’m feeling better now.’ The last thing she said to me was that it had been nice meeting me. After that, I had no further contact with Brenda Leyland.” Brunt said he did think the comment about “ending it all” was a reference to suicide, but he regarded it as “a throwaway remark” and believed there was no risk of her taking her life.
T WO DAYS after the report was broadcast, Brenda was found dead in a hotel room.
Brunt told the inquest at Leicester town hall: “I recognise that my feelings are of little importance compared with those of Mrs Leyland’s family, but I wish to put on record that I was, and still am, devastated by Mrs Leyland’s death.” He said he took his journalistic responsibilities seriously and was not cavalier in his pursuit of stories, but acknowledged that two facts were inescapably linked. “I exposed Mrs Leyland and two days later she was dead. Her death is a haunting reminder that anything we do as journalists can lead to consequences, big or small, and in this case tragic. The enormity of what happened will always be with me.”
Two weeks after Brenda took her own life, the then justice secretary Chris Grayling quadrupled the maximum custodial sentence for trolling to two years. Grayling said: “These internet trolls are cowards who are poisoning our national life. No one would permit such venom in person, so there should be no place for it on social media.”
The abuse of the McCanns was an early example of armchair detectives and conspiracy theorists swarming around a news story. It heralded a new era of trolling that has now become all too familiar. There had been a dramatic rise in the number of trolls jailed by the time Brenda died. In 2014, 1,209 people were found guilty of offences under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, compared with 143 in 2004. Most are believed to be trolls abusing social media platforms.
Last month, the family of Nicola Bulley, whose body was pulled out of the River Wyre in Lancashire three weeks after she went missing in January, were repeatedly savaged on social media. In the nine years since Brenda died, social media companies have done little to clamp down on people using their platforms to defame and abuse individuals.
In April 2022, convicted rapist and paedophile Christian Brückner emerged as the prime suspect in the Madeleine McCann case.
BR E N DA L E Y L A N D SPE N T her life hiding – by making things up, and concealing herself behind fake names and avatars. After she died, Ben examined her Twitter account closely. There were friends in the McCann trolling community who grieved her passing. But, by and large, after she was exposed people on social media were cruel and unforgiving. In her final days, the troll was trolled mercilessly. “On Twitter people said things like, ‘I hope you beg for mercy, I hope you get gang raped orally, anally and vaginally,’” Ben says. “They Photoshopped pictures of her to make her look like she had fangs and was a zombie with blood pouring out of her.” As Brenda had forgotten about the McCanns’ humanity, so her critics forgot about hers. Ben believes in her final hours she would have read some of these tweets.
Nine years on, he no longer blames the Sky News exposé for his mother’s death. It was inevitable that at some point she would be exposed for one thing or another, he says. There were so many things she was ashamed of that she had never addressed – her mental health problems, her mythomania, her anger, her lack of purpose. “That’s what killed my mum,” Ben says. “It was encrusted layers of shame over the years that made it impossible for her to do more than allude to stuff that she had to deal with. Her inability to say, ‘I need help’; her inability to say, ‘I am not OK.’”
As for Twitter, Ben says that’s merely a platform. “The problem isn’t what these trolls are saying, or that these trolls are nasty people who have nothing else in their life but to sit in a basement being awful. The question is why are they like that. What has happened that has created people who are only able to find joy in venting their spleen and displaying their resentments in this way?” He talks about how many people feel alienated from society, the number living in poverty, the paucity of mental health support. “If you treat the symptom, you never get to the heart of the problem. The problem is: why are people so angry and afraid?”
Most importantly, Ben believes Brenda’s death taught him how to live. He began to realise that, if he was going to survive, he would have to overcome the shame that was suffocating him. So he finally came out, and owned his addictions. In fact, he became obsessively truthful. For the past few years he has been writing about his life and his mother’s. There is not a taboo, indignity or humiliation he doesn’t expose – whether it’s experimenting with his mother’s vibrator, dressing in her clothes, or a compulsion to shit in the garden. He is on a one-man mission to root out shame from our existence. It’s particularly important today, he says, when we live in a world where mobs pile on indiscretions, unpopular opinions and poorly chosen words.
Ben has managed to turn his life around and and as a life coach is now helping others to do the same. He only wishes Brenda could have done the same. “Our stories run in parallel in so many ways,” he says. “I’m glad there was a fork in the road, and that I didn’t end up doing what she did, because there were times when it could have very easily ended that way.”
We’ve been talking on Zoom for about three hours. Ben says he wants to make one thing very clear – he doesn’t want to dishonour his mother. “Because at the end of the day, I fucking love my mum. I miss her, and I’d pretty much do anything to bring her back. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me, and it damn near destroyed me. But if there is something positive to come out of this, it’s the experience I’ve had of completely unburdening myself of my shames and my secrets and my pain, and finding out that if you do that, not only are you going to be OK, but you can help other people get better, too.” •
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