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When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence


National - Ottawa Citizen Online 

Sunday 26 October 1997

Getting away with murder

Ian McLeod

A Toronto author says women get off the hook for violent crimes because society won't admit they can be predators. Ian McLeod reports.

Some women are getting away with murder simply because they're women, says the author of an explosive new book on female violence.

In her 243-page volume When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence, Toronto writer Patricia Pearson argues legal defences, such as battered-women's syndrome, and misogynistic attitudes are giving some women social permission to kill and be violent because society finds it too threatening to admit women are capable of being ruthless, raging predators, just like men.

We would rather think of violent women as hopeless and frail or child-like creatures of abuse or just plain crazy, she says.

But that sort of thinking, she warns, breeds self-justifying women like the villainous Karla Homolka, who sat in her prison cell reading the books Battered Women and Perfect Victim after winning her plea-bargained 12-year sentence for helping kidnap, sexually torture and kill three teenage girls, including her own sister.

"It worries me when people begin to feel entitled to use violence because they've bought so deeply into the idea of their own victimization," Ms. Pearson said during an interview.

"The whole idea of learned helplessness is, you're so helpless you can't walk out the door and therefore, somehow, you're able to discover the strength to shoot the guy in the head. I think a larger number of women than we realize get away with murder for a whole number of different reasons.

"We don't want to take female violence seriously because I think we have our hands full with male violence and I think that we have an idea of women as being the people that you go to for your shelter.

"Out there in the mad and dangerous world at least you can go home at night to a sweet and comforting hearth. We can't accept the fact that we can't go home to a safe house."

But Ms. Pearson doesn't stop there.

Some feminists, she says, have joined in an unholy alliance with misogynists to keep the issue of female violence hidden. That allows misogynists to avoid admitting women are as complex as men and that they commit violence for an intricate variety of reasons, rather than simply madness, battering and self-defence.

It also allows some feminists to continue portraying women as victims rather than predators and to cast out criminal women as isolated sexual deviants, dykes and witches.

The silence on the issue, she says, is making sacrificial lambs out of men who are victimized by violent spouses, mothers and other women. "These guys are pariahs because we're so preoccupied with our fear of what other men are going to do with female aggression statistics.

"The male victims of spousal assault are sort of the sacrificial lambs to our political concern with violence against women."

Paradoxically, one reason she wrote the book was to advance the feminist cause of equality.

"We have to get a grip on the capacity for women to be injurious, on women's terms. We have to stop just reacting against how men define us by saying, 'No, we're not that way, we're good, we're this, we're that' and say, 'Well, you know, yes we are complex and we do do things that aren't necessarily, what is that term, sugar and spice? But we're responsible for them (violent actions) and we want to examine them on our terms and sort them out, develop our own sort of sense of moral accountability and have a better understanding of our own power.'

"I think it's terribly justified for women to kill men when they're situationally trapped," she says. "I think they should just be able to do it rationally, just say, 'What would you have done in my shoes? It was rational self-defence.'"

The book's one obvious flaw, for Canadians at least, is its heavy reliance on American case studies and U.S. research statistics. Ms. Pearson admits the U.S. culture of violence is far more pronounced, but "my American publisher paid me the most money, so I had to do mostly American research, so I tended not to focus very much on the Canadian stuff."

Despite the huge statistical differences in the levels of violence in the two countries, many of the underlying issues are the same, says Ms. Pearson, who specializes in writing on crime issues.

In fact, she got the idea for the book while covering the 1995 Paul Bernardo murder trial and watching the all-Canadian Ms. Homolka testify. She later won a prestigious national magazine award for her article "Behind Every Successful Psychopath" published in Saturday Night magazine, where she's a contributing editor.

"I couldn't believe that there wasn't any other explanation for her but that she was battered. I just thought that was nuts. I started to look into it and I realized that there was very little research on female aggression and that there had to be alternative explanations that presumed that women were complex and that they were powerful and ambitious and they were capable of being rageful and wrathful and so on."

What she found, she writes in the book, is that "although self-justification (for a violent act) is universally human, the vocabulary of motive is different for male and female offenders. Because we won't concede aggression and anger in women, the language we use to describe what they do is much more limited, and much more exonerative.

"There exists perhaps three or four rationales for the whole, extraordinary diversity of violent acts women commit, and they all play into pre-existing prejudices about female nature.

"The operative assumption is that the violent woman couldn't have wanted, deliberately, to cause harm. Therefore, if she says she was abused/coerced/insane, she probably was."

During this week's interview with the Citizen, Ms. Pearson took specific aim at Ontario Judge Lynn Ratushny, who recently completed a two-year review of 98 cases of women convicted of murder and manslaughter. The women had claimed they killed abusive men in self-defence, but that was before a 1990 Supreme Court of Canada ruling allowing the battered-women's syndrome defence.

As a result of Judge Ratushny's review, the federal government in September announced it is pardoning two women and erasing the remainder of [some 30 or 40 women's murder sentences, as far as I can recall F4L] says Ms. Pearson. "My argument to that would be, that everybody who commits a violent crime perceives themselves as threatened, and that includes serial killers."

In the book, she writes: "By the time Homolka took the stand in 1995, the standard of what degree of brutality a woman must sustain before she succumbs to this 'syndrome' had eroded to the point of insulting plausibility."

Although the book has only been out for a week, Ms. Pearson is already being targeted by some women for what they consider a blasphemous piece of work.

"My publisher got a letter from a battered woman's activist, who hadn't read the book, demanding to know why they'd published me. 'I suppose,' she wrote, 'that you would also deny that children are starving in Africa.'

"Well, how do you respond to that?"

She also recognizes there's a danger some anti-feminists may latch on to her book to promote their views.

"For far too long we've been afraid that men are going to define our positions for us. We have to get past that and say 'Well fine, a couple of neo-conservative lunatics are going to say, 'See women do it too, ha, ha, ha,' but the vast majority of people are maybe actually going to gain a much greater understanding of a very complex subject and that's, to me, worth the risk.

"I think it's really important that we understand that if we're going to look at causes of violence, we stop looking at it in gender terms, because you can't understand a man who beats his wife if you don't understand that he may have been beaten by his mother and may have become a misogynist. Not that it's always that simple, but it's not useful to look at it purely in gender terms. There are contributions going back and forth between females and males in cycles of aggression."

                              Copyright 1997 The Ottawa Citizen

References

       1. http://www.ottawacitizen.com/

See also:

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Updates:
2001 02 11 (format changes)
2013 03 08 (removed reference to dvstats.org -- website no longer functions)