|National - Ottawa Citizen Online
Sunday 26 October 1997
Getting away with murder
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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