The return of the female serial killer at @strifejournal

Cross-posted from: Trouble & Stife

As Joanna Dennehy begins a life sentence for the killing of three men, Debbie Cameron considers the way she has been represented and reflects on the meaning of her crimes 

‘I murdered three men, but it could have been worse—I could have been fat and ugly. If this line had been spoken by a fictional character we could read it as feminist satire. But in fact the words were recorded in an English police station during an interview with Joanna Dennehy, a 32-year old woman accused of stabbing three men to death and attempting to kill two more. In court she pleaded guilty to all the charges against her, and last month she was sentenced to a whole-life term in prison.

Predictably, Joanna Dennehy’s case unleashed a tsunami of media commentary on the subject of ‘the female serial killer’. I last wrote about this mythical figure in 1996, following the trial of Rosemary West. Now, almost 20 years later, she is back in the news, and it seems there might be something new to say about her.

Mythologizing murder

When I refer to ‘the female serial killer’ as a ‘mythical figure’, I don’t mean to imply that she does not exist at all. But discussions of ‘the female serial killer’ as a ‘type’ give the impression that the examples we have heard of are just the visible tip of some vast hidden iceberg. That is a myth. In reality, as opposed to fiction, serial killing is a rare crime, committed by few individuals of either sex. And among those few individuals, the number of women is negligible. Before Joanna Dennehy, Britain had produced only two examples of the ‘female serial killer’—Myra Hindley and Rosemary West—in the space of fifty years.

The other way in which ‘the female serial killer’ is mythologized is through the stories which are told about her—stories about who she is, why she kills, and above all what her killing has to do with her femaleness. Male serial killers are also mythologized, but without the same obsessive focus on their gender. Whereas Joanna Dennehy inspired a slew of articles with titles like ‘Inside the mind of the female serial killer’, and ‘What makes a female serial killer tick?’, no one would call an article ‘Inside the mind of the male serial killer’. The serial killer is male by default: his maleness is both taken for granted and glossed over in the stories told to explain his behaviour.

That observation was the starting point for a book I wrote with Elizabeth Frazer in the 1980s, The Lust to Kill. In it we explored the relationship of what was then more commonly called ‘sexual murder’ to certain forms of masculinity, and asked why that connection was so rarely made in either ‘folk’ or ‘expert’ accounts. We were interested not only in the phenomenon of sexual murder itself, but also in the stories told to explain it. Those stories are revealing about a culture’s sexual politics, its habitual ways of thinking about gender, power, sex and violence.  Joanna Dennehy’s case is interesting because it challenges our assumptions about the way those things fit together.

The female serial killer: monster, victim or psychopath?

In 1995, the FBI profiler Robert Ressler, then regarded as the world’s leading expert on serial killers, declared that to his knowledge there had only ever been one ‘true’ female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. It is open to question whether Wuornos really fits the prototype, since her motive for killing may have been self-defence rather than self-gratification. She was a prostitute, and at her trial she claimed that the seven men she shot were punters who had attempted to rape her. (Except in one case, this defence was rejected: Wuornos was executed in 2002.)

However, Ressler’s definition of serial killing (a term he is credited with inventing) was based less on the motive than the MO: what set Wuornos apart for him was the fact that she acted independently over a long period. By contrast, most women involved in sexual/serial murder (including the two British examples, Myra Hindley and Rose West), have not acted independently, but as one half of a heterosexual ‘killer couple’ in which the man was the dominant partner. In some cases they have been what the FBI calls ‘compliant victims’: abused and controlled by their male partners, they have come to believe their own survival depends on co-operating in the victimization of others. Hindley and West appear to have been more active collaborators, but there was still a pattern of male dominance in both cases. Both women played the submissive role in a sadomasochistic relationship, and both had been on the receiving end of violence from their partners. The victims—children and young women—were selected primarily for the gratification of the man.

Despite the abundant evidence of male leadership, and sometimes coercion, a recurring theme in popular discourse about ‘killer couples’ has been the demonization of the woman. She has routinely been portrayed as ‘more evil’ than her male partner, and is often imagined as the ‘power behind the throne’, the one who instigated the killings even if she did not carry them out. This demonizing narrative is particularly strong in cases where the victims are children (as were all of Brady and Hindley’s and some of Fred and Rose West’s). Women who participate in the abuse and killing of children are ‘monsters’, lacking the instinct to nurture and protect which is seen as a defining feature of normal femininity. This is what makes them ‘more evil’ than the men: they are not just a disgrace to humanity at large, but traitors to their sex.

Media coverage of the Dennehy case has made the inevitable comparisons with Myra Hindley and Rose West, but Joanna Dennehy’s story is clearly different from theirs, and even from Aileen Wuornos’s.  Dennehy’s statement ‘I murdered three men’ was a direct and unequivocal assertion of her sole responsibility for the killings, while the ‘joke’ that followed (‘it could have been worse—I could have been fat and ugly’) made clear that she felt no urge to apologise, nor to claim, as Wuornos did, that there were mitigating circumstances. That defiant flippancy might in theory have prompted commentators to demonize her as a ‘man-hater’, but interestingly the question of her attitudes to men did not feature prominently in the reporting of her case. (I will return later on to this rather surprising omission). Instead, what was emphasized was her clinical status as a ‘psychopath’, who also suffered from ‘anti-social personality disorder’ and ‘paraphilia sadomasochism’.

The label ‘psychopath’ has a long history of being applied to sadistic killers, but it has never been much of an explanation for their crimes. There are many people who fit the clinical profile of a psychopath in the general population: rather than becoming violent criminals, some make successful careers in fields like high finance, where traits like amorality, risk-taking and lack of empathy are helpful rather than dysfunctional. But the suggestion that psychopathy is more relevant to Joanna Dennehy’s story than gender is interesting for another reason. Though the term ‘psychopath’ is formally gender inclusive, it tends to conjure up a male prototype. The behaviours and qualities we associate with psychopaths, such as rule-breaking, risk-taking, emotional coldness and insensitivity to others’ feelings, are all culturally coded as masculine. Manifested in less extreme forms, they are actually considered ‘normal’ qualities for men to exhibit—but not for women, which is one reason why women who do exhibit them tend to be demonized as ‘worse than men’.

Arguably, insisting that Joanna Dennehy should be thought of as a ‘psychopath’ rather than a ‘female serial killer’ is not so much a de-gendering as a re-gendering of her crimes, a way of masculinising her without using explicitly gendered language. It avoids the usual tendency to make a female killer’s femaleness the only important thing about her, but it does so at the cost of obscuring her femaleness entirely. Later on I will say why I think this strategy was found necessary in Dennehy’s case. First, though, we should consider the facts of the case, and the way they were discussed in media reports.

Joanna Dennehy’s story

Joanna Dennehy was brought in a conventional family in the home counties. She was a teenage rebel, however, dropping out of school at the age of 15 and leaving home to live with her 37-year old boyfriend. Neighbours who knew the couple told reporters that they used, and dealt in, drugs, and that Dennehy was also a heavy drinker. She is said to have engaged in casual prostitution to fund these habits. The couple had two children, in whom she reportedly took no interest. She was violent towards her partner: several sources corroborated his claim that she assaulted him physically on many occasions. He told reporters he had left her, taking the children, after she threatened him with a knife.

After his departure Dennehy became sexually involved with a series of other men, one of whom, her landlord, became her first victim. The other two victims were fellow tenants who were ‘lured’, according to reports, with promises of sexual favours. She turned to the man described in court as her current boyfriend, Gary Richards (though she described their relationship as ‘platonic’), to help her dispose of the bodies. Richards also drove her when she made an expedition to Hereford in search of further victims to kill. She attacked two men who were walking their dogs, but both of them survived their injuries.

Early reports of these attacks suggest that the police initially assumed (and in the light of past experience not unreasonably) that they were dealing with a ‘killer couple’, with the man as the prime mover and the woman as his accomplice. But it subsequently became apparent that Dennehy was in charge. This is what distinguishes her from Myra Hindley and Rose West: she was the one who wielded power. She was not in thrall, either physically or emotionally, to an abusive and dominant male partner. On the contrary, most men who knew her seem to have been afraid of her. Apart from Richards, there were two other men charged with assisting her in more peripheral ways; in court they claimed that they had acted under duress—a version of the ‘compliant victim’ defence, but with the usual gender roles reversed.

The question of sex

Dennehy selected adult men as victims, and in the three cases where she actually killed them, she treated them as objects of sexual interest, sending them flirtatious texts and making assignations with them. When male killers select and ‘groom’ their victims in this way, it is understood that the choice of victim, and thus the killing itself, has some kind of sexual significance. In Dennehy’s case, however, there has been confusion about her motives. Discussions of her reasons for killing have been full of unremarked-on contradictions.

The prosecution at Dennehy’s trial did describe her crimes as ‘sexual and sadistic’, and one of the diagnoses offered by the psychiatrist who had seen her after her arrest was ‘paraphilia sadomasochism’: she was said to be aroused by inflicting pain. That point was mentioned in many media reports, and most also mentioned that one victim’s body was found in a sexually humiliating pose (dressed in women’s clothing with his buttocks exposed). Yet the same reports quite often asserted that the killings were not sexually motivated. Perhaps this denial reprises an old tendency to classify murders as ‘sexual’ only if they also involve rape or mutilation of the victim’s sexual organs, missing the point that for some individuals the taking of life, or the method used to do it (for instance stabbing or strangling), can itself be a source of sexual gratification. Or perhaps it reflects an inability to believe that a woman could kill for that reason.

Some writers accused Dennehy of ‘game playing’—a strategy said to be typical of ‘psychopaths’—by giving no explanation for her actions. To my mind this is a strange complaint, since in fact she made a number of remarks, to police officers and to the psychiatrist who interviewed her, which arguably add up to a consistent account of what she thought she was doing and why. She represented herself as someone who killed for fun, for kicks, because she could and because it made her feel powerful. Reports quote her telling the psychiatrist: ‘I killed to see how it felt, to see if I was as cold as I thought I was, and then it got more-ish’. They also quote her describing the ‘euphoria’ she felt when the murders were reported on TV, and making jokes to the police that referenced her ‘outlaw’ status (asked to give her address, she replied that recently she had ‘been on the run’). And some reports quoted a comment made by her younger sister Maria about the moment when she surprised everyone, including her own lawyers, by pleading guilty to all the charges: ‘she likes people to know who’s boss’. Maria saw her sister’s decision to change her plea without notice or consultation as an expression of her overriding need for dominance and control, which had been apparent to those who knew her throughout her life.

Becoming a hero

To anyone acquainted with the cultural history of sexual/serial murder, the account given by Dennehy is very familiar. As Elizabeth Frazer and I noted in our book The Lust to Kill, the same story—essentially, ‘I did it to see how it felt, and I found it felt good so I kept on doing it’—has been repeatedly told by and about a certain kind of murderer since the 19th century. We analysed it as a story about the individual’s desire for transcendence—for absolute freedom, power and control, exercised without regard to the normal social or moral constraints on human action. Transcendence is accomplished through acts of transgression, acts that the subject imagines inspiring both fear and admiration. Killers animated by this desire regard themselves, and frequently represent themselves in private or public communications (such as diaries, photographs and letters taunting the police), as superior to the common herd who meekly abide by the law.

The stories killers tell about themselves are not invented out of nothing, but stitched together from ideas and narratives that already exist in the wider culture. (Murder is one sphere in which life has often imitated art, as well as vice-versa.) The idea of the murderer as an outlaw, rebel and folk-hero is not only seen in killers’ own self-representations, but also in public responses to them. The early, unidentified serial sexual killer known as ‘Jack the Ripper’, who murdered several women in east London in 1888, is an obvious example—his exploits are celebrated in countless books and films, not to mention walking tours and other tourist attractions—but there have also been more recent instances. Before Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, was caught in the early 1980s, football crowds marked their admiration for his ability to elude capture by chanting ‘Ripper 11, Police 0’. Eleven was the number of women Sutcliffe had already killed at the time: he was eventually convicted of thirteen murders. Ted Bundy, an even more prolific killer of women in the USA, inspired a loathsome folk-ditty that ran ‘And now salute the mighty Bundy/ Here on Friday, gone by Monday/ All his roads lead out of town/  It’s hard to keep a good man down’.

But the narrative of transcendence through transgression has always centred on a hero, not a heroine. That is not because women have been incapable of killing, of killing repeatedly or killing sadistically. What women appear to have been incapable of doing is imagining themselves in the position of the unconstrained, transcendent subject. The fantasy of having total power and freedom, and of being entitled to express it through the deliberate taking of life, seems only to have been available to (some) male individuals; female ones have had to settle for a subordinate, supporting role. Joanna Dennehy, however, departs from that pattern. She acted on her own initiative, followed her own desires, and represented herself as the hero of her own story.

Cognitive dissonance

Yet although Dennehy’s case shows that the ‘transcendence’ story can now be told by a woman, the media commentary, with its head-scratching about her motives and its complaints that she did not explain herself, suggests that the wider culture still has difficulty understanding it, or even hearing it, when the protagonist is not a man. The gap between the teller and the tale produces a kind of cognitive dissonance. The covert masculinisation of Dennehy, which I mentioned earlier in connection with the emphasis placed by some commentators on her ‘psychopathy’, can perhaps be understood as a strategy for dealing with that problem.

‘Psychopath’ is not the only masculinising label that has been applied to Dennehy. Long before she became notorious, some of the people who knew her are said to have referred to her among themselves as ‘the man-woman’. Though undoubtedly female, she behaved in ways they could only interpret as ‘masculine’. At the same time, it does not appear that she herself identified as male. Femininity seems to have been an important element of the way she presented herself to others. Not only did she flirt with men as a way of luring them to their deaths, she also flirted with the police officers who arrested her, and complained repeatedly that the clothes she was given to wear were unfeminine—shapeless, unsexy and too big for her body, whose attractiveness was evidently a matter of some significance to her (‘it could have been worse—I could have been fat and ugly’).

The overall impression given by the media coverage is that commentators struggled to make sense of Joanna Dennehy. Although she is, by definition, a ‘female serial killer’, she cannot be represented as an evil child-murdering ‘monster’ like Myra Hindley; nor is she a ‘ripper’ like Peter Sutcliffe, or even a female version of the generic male ‘sex beast/fiend’, since in most reports there is no clarity about whether she had a sexual motive. Perhaps the most striking thing about the whole inconclusive discussion is how little speculation it contained about what did impel her to commit murder. It is extraordinarily unusual for a woman to kill not just multiple victims but multiple male victims. And yet many reports shied away from asking the obvious question, ‘why men?’  If it wasn’t about sex, what was it about?

One commentator, a psychoanalyst, did advance a theory: that the murders had their roots in Dennehy’s early childhood experience of being (as she saw it) supplanted in her father’s affections after the birth of her younger sister. The killing of men was a symbolic form of revenge on the parent who had betrayed her infant love. I find this story unconvincing, but it did draw attention to one detail which was absent or incidental in most other sources.

Dennehy had told some of the people she met as an adult a story about serving time in prison for killing her father after he abused her. In fact she had never been in prison, and her father was still alive. Nor is there any evidence that she was abused, by him or anyone else. But feminists know the possibility cannot be ruled out simply because someone grew up in a respectable middle-class home. There is reason to think that Dennehy felt pain and rage about something. Another detail that was mentioned in news reports, though again it was usually passed over without further comment, was her history of self-harming: in court she sometimes wore T-shirts which revealed that her arms were criss-crossed with scars. It was clear that her victims were not the only people whose bodies she cut.

Perhaps this got passed over because self-harming doesn’t fit with the cultural stereotype the media had decided to use—that of the confident, amoral, self-aggrandizing—and symbolically masculine—‘psychopath’. But individuals who kill are not stereotypes, or characters in fiction. They are complex human beings with complicated histories, and putting them in neatly labelled boxes, whatever labels we use, does not generally help us to understand their actions and motivations.

The sexual politics of serial killing

I am not going to claim that I understand Joanna Dennehy. I don’t have an explanation for her actions, or even much of a theory about them. I suspect, though I cannot know for sure, that her desires and motivations were probably as incoherent as her life was chaotic. (Serial killer fiction, in which the murderer’s character and actions are constructed to display the sort of logic that is needed to make a narrative intelligible, is usually a poor guide to reality.)  In that sense I agree with the criminologist Elizabeth Yardley, who suggested, in an article for The Guardianthat

we need to resist the urge to dismiss [Joanna Dennehy] as a mad or bad aberration and look at the bigger picture in which fatal violence emerged. It is her disconnect from mainstream society that we need to focus our attention on… Instead of asking “why did she do it?”… we need to ask what was there to stop her.

Yardley’s point was that Dennehy had lost all connection to the social institutions, relationships and responsibilities that stop most people from committing such extreme acts: she had dropped out of education at 15, she had never had a regular job, she had cut off all contact with the family she grew up in and with the children from her first relationship. She lived a marginal and structureless life, ‘pursuing’, as Yardley put it, ‘only her own increasingly bizarre impulses in an existence where the line between fantasy and reality had become increasingly blurred’. Yardley also suggested that in a culture characterized by individualism and self-absorption, it is easier than ever before for people who are likely to harm themselves or others to ‘fall between the cracks’.

But while I agree with Yardley’s analysis as far as it goes, I think in some ways it is also guilty of dismissing its subject as an incomprehensible aberration. It concentrates on how Dennehy was able to live as she did and ultimately do what she did without anyone intervening; the question of why she did it, however (why she wanted to kill, why she targeted men, what kind of satisfaction she derived from her acts) is glossed over in the opaque and general reference to her ‘increasingly bizarre impulses’. Though Yardley deserves credit for rejecting the popular stereotype of the ‘female serial killer’ as simply an evil and depraved ‘monster’; her own account seems to imply that the meaning and motivation of Dennehy’s actions is irrelevant to ‘the bigger picture’.

What I’m criticizing here is not the failure to come up with a clear explanation rooted in Dennehy’s life history and psychology. We may never understand exactly what led this particular woman to have, and then to act on, these particular impulses. But if we are going to ‘look at the bigger picture’, that must also mean looking beyond Joanna Dennehy’s individual circumstances to the larger cultural meaning of her story—both the way she has been represented by the culture, and the way she represented herself, using a narrative appropriated from the culture. That story is instructive for two reasons: first, because of the ways in which it departs from the established mythology of the ‘female serial killer’ and makes use of what has previously been a story told by and about men; and second, conversely, because it shows that gender still makes a difference to our perceptions of murder and murderers.

Joanna Dennehy’s case, like Rose West’s before it, has been exploited to argue that serial killing is now an equal opportunity activity, and that women are every bit as amoral, as violent and as sadistic as men. Actually, in the abstract I believe that myself.  What has kept women from doing certain hideous things, or at least from doing them more than once in a blue moon, has nothing to do with what women are like, and everything to do with the power structures which subordinate them. Paradoxically, though, the story of Joanna Dennehy shows how firmly those structures remain in place.

Imagine that three women’s bodies are found stabbed and dumped in ditches over a short period of time, and that this is followed by two incidents in which women walking their dogs are attacked and wounded with a knife. The police conclude, and the media report, that a killer (presumed male) is on the loose. The immediate result will be to place the entire female population on high alert. Women will be terrified, and the guardians of law and order will encourage that fear, advising women not to go out ‘unaccompanied’ (i.e., by men) at night, not to walk their dogs alone, not to socialize or have sex with men they don’t know—a long list of commandments whose draconian severity is out of all proportion to the real threat, and whose effect is not to make women safe (since they are actually more likely to be harmed by the men they turn to for ‘protection’), but to police their behaviour and limit their freedom.

By contrast, Dennehy’s killings did not prompt analogous warnings to men: ‘don’t respond to flirtatious texts from women, don’t make casual assignations with women, don’t go out on your own or walk your dog unaccompanied—because someone out there is killing men, and the next victim could be you’. The story of Aileen Wuornos, similarly, has not been interpreted as a cautionary tale about the risks men are taking by picking up prostitutes.

When the spectre of ‘the female serial killer’ is regularly used to terrorize men, and is effective in instilling fear in large swaths of the male population, we will know that the age of equality has dawned (albeit not in the form feminists were hoping for). But clearly it has not dawned yet.

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