Ophelia or Susan Smith? Divining the Female Monster

When She Was Bad , by Patricia Pearson. Viking, 288 pages, $24.95.

How unfortunate women are! Denied, among so many things, the simple satisfactions of violence, the credit for having gotten down and ripped some sucker’s heart out without being instantly excused and summarily dismissed as mindless, innocent victims of major PMS! Our cultural unwillingness to admit that women are capable of willful aggression-that Mom might use that rolling pin to do some serious damage-is the subject of Patricia Pearson’s well-researched and thought-provoking new book, When She Was Bad .

Bad hardly describes the rich and varied lineup of depraved female miscreants that Ms. Pearson has assembled for our appalled consideration. The much reviled Susan Smith looks rather wan and amateurish beside the more cold-blooded but less celebrated Marybeth Tinning, who murdered nine of her children before it struck the Schenectady, N.Y., police that something might be amiss. Here we have dreamy Amy Ellwood, blithely cruising Long Island with her dead or dying newborn in a cooler in the hatchback of her car; feisty Karla Faye Tucker, who reported having an orgasm while taking a pickax to a guy with whom she’d been feuding; and the remorseless Karla Homolka, who videotaped her fiancé raping and killing her younger sister and the two young Ontario women she and her husband-to-be kidnapped off the street. Aileen Wuornos, the Florida hitchhiker who, over the course of two years, shot seven men foolish enough to give her a ride, lags in the ranks of serial killers, just behind the schoolmarmish Dorothea Puente, who buried eight welfare recipients in the garden of her Sacramento boarding house.

As if these individual cases weren’t proof enough, Ms. Pearson marshals enough statistics to convince the most dubious jury that women are-and have been for some time-on a rampage of murder and mayhem. “Women commit the majority of child homicides in the United States … an equal rate of sibling violence and assaults on the elderly, about a quarter of child sexual abuse, an overwhelming share of the killing of newborns, and a fair preponderance of spousal assaults … about 17 percent of known American serial killers are women.… A 1995 study of young American military couples, arguably the most patriarchal of all, found that 47 percent of the husbands and wives had bruised, battered, and wounded each other to exactly the same degree.” And, closer to home, “In New York City in 1994, girls committed one third of all serious offenses-assault, robbery, harassment-against teachers. In 1991, they were arrested for more than 1,000 felonies.”

Yet despite the evidence, Ms. Pearson claims, we continue to deny that the angel of the house could wreak such devilish havoc. As female violence escalates, we keep inventing new ways to explain it away; thus the wicked perpetrators are seen as debilitated sufferers, their consciences ravaged beyond repair by repressed memory, child abuse, spousal battery, hormonal imbalance and calculated brainwashing at the hands of Mr. Wrong. Even when women-like Guinevere Garcia, who killed her 61-year-old ex-husband just months after completing a jail term for smothering her baby daughter-admit their guilt and declare their willingness to be executed for their crimes, the courts and the public come forward to show them the error of their ways. “Garcia is the quintessential case of a battered woman and an abandoned child,” Bianca Jagger told the prisoner review board; Ms. Garcia’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.

Encouraged by this outpouring of excessive compassion, women seem only too eager to accept the myth of their own innocence. A six-city study found that “80 percent of women who killed claimed they were ‘not responsible,’ whether their victims were men, other women, or children.” Many insist they were acting in self-defense, even when the lethal threat turns out to have been merely a verbal insult. And women like Jean Harris and Betty Broderick, “who traveled considerable distances to enter without invitation the homes of their ex-mates and shoot them dead, claimed that they actually intended to kill themselves.”

Surely, the most dangerous consequence of all this-beyond, of course, the obvious threat to the female criminal’s victim-is that police departments have been tragically slow to distinguish between the homicidal maniac and the solicitous mother, between the kindly grandma and the poisoner bumping off her charges for their welfare checks, between the angel of mercy and the angel of death. Moreover, according to Ms. Pearson, “the failure to take explicit responsibility for our actions poses a conundrum whose implications extend well beyond the lot of the criminal women … [It] undermines what good can come of women’s recognition of their capacity for aggression. It sabotages the credibility of every female cop and combat soldier; every battered wife who stands up to abuse … Women have virtually no access to anger management counseling, sex offender therapy, child abuse prevention programs, and prison security-all because we won’t concede their fundamental agency.”

The case histories in When She Was Bad have an irresistibly grisly fascination, and much of Ms. Pearson’s book is convincing-not that we need to be persuaded that our “victim culture” has deeply eroded our most basic notions of personal morality and social responsibility. It’s encouraging, too, to find someone taking on the insane notion, bandied about by certain feminist psychologists and theorists, that women are, by nature, less rigid and harshly judgmental, kinder, sweeter, more forgiving, nurturing and sensitive to the delicate nuances of human relations.

But we may also find ourselves arguing with Ms. Pearson as we read along, especially at moments when, we feel, her enthusiasm for her own argument causes her to oversimplify, to ignore the ambiguities and complexities that might contradict her thesis. She rightly criticizes the sentimental distortions of the made-for-TV movie about Aileen Wuornos, but seems not to have seen Nick Broomfield’s brilliant documentary about the serial killer, in which Ms. Wuornos appears as a bizarre composite of unalloyed aggression and (as her supporters claim) an almost psychotic degree of childlike malleability and dependence. Ms. Pearson refers to Ophelia as the classic example of a woman turning violence inward but, interestingly, has little to say about Lady Macbeth-an example to us all that women can stir up a heap of trouble.

Do we really believe that society refuses to countenance female violence? The press was, to say the least, assiduous in covering the Susan Smith case and, more recently, that of the “Prom Mom” who bore, and abandoned, her baby at the high school dance. In fact, there seems to be nothing that our culture likes better than a sensational infanticide-precisely because it goes against our notions of how the gentle sex should behave and at the same time confirms our suspicions about what monsters women secretly are. What’s notable about these cases is not our eagerness to excuse the killers, but, on the contrary, the barbarity with which a presumably civilized populace calls out for their blood.

Ms. Pearson is correct in claiming that women are still viewed by men, and by other women, through the murky lens of the most reductive stereotypes. But there is more than one stereotype; in fact, there are two. We have always been willing to believe that women are either whores or saints, witches and angels, instead of acknowledging that most women-most people-fall somewhere in between. This inability to comprehend that humans of both genders are mysterious and incalculably complex mixtures of good and evil has made it all the more difficult for women like Susan Smith and Aileen Wuornos to receive justice or mercy-or, as we might wish for them, help.