Book Review: When She Was Bad

Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence by Patricia Pearson

1997, Random
 House Canada. ISBN 0-394-22430-2

Sugar and spice and all things Nice?

This book hit the stands when I was in Toronto this October. As an avid crime reader fascinated by what shapes people who kill I rushed to get a first copy. I’ve always believed that women can commit murder along with the best of them even though a female killer achieves notoriety as some rare species. This book puts an end to the myth that violent women are a rarity. It also challenges the notion that a sense of “powerlessness” is the same as innocence.

When She Was Bad is not just about notorious killers. It is about ordinary women. Women who kill for lust, women who kill their children, women who batter their male partners, women who are violent in lesbian relationships, street gangs of women and women who fight other women. It is about aggression and women. The graphic information in this well documented book no longer surprises me, nor do the statistics based on research in North America (US, Canada) and Britain. Violent crimes perpetrated by women are on the rise all the time. The types of crime and the profiles of women who kill make fascinating reading so I won’t spoil that for the reader by giving examples here, although it is tempting.

What makes uncomfortable reading is the level of denial we have reached in our western societies in relation to women being aggressive. Men and women find aggression in women unacceptable because aggression is defined in relation to ‘masculine’ characteristics. It is therefore easy for society to identify men’s violent and destructive behaviour. An aggressive woman is not easily defined because she is not conforming to ‘feminine’ characteristics. She is not acceptable to men as she has entered their ‘territory’. She is not acceptable to women because she mirrors what we have been conditioned not to countenance: slugs, snails, and puppy dogs’ tails. This polarised view of the “feminine” being nice and docile has led to women’s natural aggression being retroflected into either self-destructive behaviour, often manifested in physical disorders, or acted out in an underhand way. The facts as presented in this book show that some younger women (who have more aggressive role models) are fighting in street gangs and committing acts of violence similar to their male counterparts. Passive women on the other hand destroy in the safety of their homes. The statistics show that children in America are abused mostly by women.

Society rationalises unpalatable facts by seeing woman as “the victim” and blindly colludes at every level in justifying and making excuses for violent women’s behaviour. This collusion incudes the police force, the courts, the media and the faction of people who hold all men responsible for acts of violence.

What seems unjust is that women are literally getting away with murder by claiming to be a ‘victim’. If a man tries similar tactics (i.e. a cruel childhood and an overdose of testosterone), he is branded a manipulative liar and sent either to jail or to a rehab group to learn to take responsibility for his anger. There are certainly women in jail but where are the rehab groups for violent women? There is a particular blind spot around “motherhood”. Society has a hard time with the idea that a mother might hate her children. There is also this contradiction people who have actively fought for the rights of women to pursue a career and to choose whether or not to have children suddenly do an about turn when a mother murders her child or children. The woman is no longer seen to have a choice and take responsibility. She becomes a victim of circumstance.

This perpetuation of the woman as a “victim” infantilises and demeans her. Have some feminists in their justified attack on patriarchy lost sight of the fact that it is natural for women to be aggressive and violent and in so doing are colluding with the patriarchal view of women as docile and vulnerable? As Susan Swan says on the cover of the book…”Pearson’s timely look at the female shadow is impossible
 to put down. This groundbreaking book about female aggression against men and children is one of the reasons I became a feminist – a respect for human rights “.

This book is not a competitive treatise bragging to men that “woman is deadlier than the male so watch out – nor is it trying to polarise the gender issue further by saying “poor men they are having a tough time, we need to give them a break” – it is saying that as women gain equality, power and choice we must also take responsibility and own our natural aggression. This denied aspect has become our shadow. A shadow based on a sense of powerlessness. It remains a deadly shadow particularly for children. It may erupt in overt violence but is more often acted out by women in a subtle and covert revenge involving plots and manipulations. 
Consequently women have to own their part in the perpetration of abuse. It is not just the sins of the fathers that are generational. The one-dimensional apple-pie mother is no longer limited to just nurturer, carer and giver. She is also tigress, predator, reptile and manipulator. The life-giver has teeth and claws.

The final chapter in the book challenges our conditioning and Stereotyping:
…”The consequences of our refusal to concede female contributions to violence are manifold. It affects our capacity to promote ourselves as autonomous and responsible beings. It affects our ability to develop a literature about ourselves that encompasses the full array of human emotion and experience….Perhaps above all, the denial of women’s aggression profoundly undermines our attempt as a culture to understand violence, to trace its causes and to quell them.”

This is an excellent piece of journalism – well researched and well presented. I felt both stimulated and uncomfortable reading it. I was however left with a sense of impatience. Pearson presents the facts and goes into psychological depths as to the root causes of violence (Alice Miller is quoted) – but she doesn’t really offer any solutions. I’m all for individual responsibility. But what about a collective responsibility? Clearly the current punitive system is not working. Should ‘zero tolerance’ not be leveled towards the root causes of crime rather than the criminal? But that is another book

SARAH KAY is a Gestalt therapist and a member of IAHIP.