Thoroughly researched and unflinchingly strong-willed, Patricia Pearson’s When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder (2021) is a stunning addition to the true crime genre and, in 1997 as much as today, gives readers a lot to think about.
Pearson’s text is a reprint of her 1997 book of the same name. Here, almost twenty-five years later, When She Was Bad still provokes thoughtful and incredibly salient questions around women, victimhood, and the gendered language we use to talk about female criminality. Winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Non-Fiction Crime Book, When She Was Bad centers around several case studies of female killers, including famous names such as Karla Homolka or Myra Hindley as well as a myriad of women who act violently or murderously toward other women, children, spouses, or vulnerable people in their care. Divided into provocative sections, Pearson interrogates the way we perceive violent women and the language we perpetuate around them, exploring our deep discomfort with a woman who is—as the human condition indicates—capable of violence.
Largely written in response to an all-or-nothing dialogue in second-wave feminism around women as victims of men’s physical and sexual violence, as well as victims of a patriarchal world-order that oppresses and confines their social and economic mobility, Pearson’s text questions the validity of this adamant approach. She wonders whether or not seeing women as exclusively victims does more harm than good. Does slotting women into boxes of victimhood, no matter their crimes, not rob women as a whole of their agency? Is it not only a requirement of feminism that we acknowledge that there are evil women in the world, but an absolute necessity in order to move forward? Pearson argues quite convincingly that yes, on both counts, and therefore our language needs to change.
This text is a book about women, gender, crime, and language. Pearson argues that violence is a human impulse, and although gender binaries may change the form through which that violence manifests, women are no less capable of it than men. The explosive, destructive violence of a male serial murderer might have a very different—and potentially more insidious—character as a female predator in a special care home. Nevertheless, both are driven by out-of-control impulses that lead to mass death, and yet they have significantly different mythologies and vocabularies around them.
The way we talk about women and violence is just as critical and problematic for Pearson. She points out that not only do we not want to talk about mothers who kill their children, but in many ways we can’t because our culture is reluctant to divest mothers of their holy authority. We simply lack the language, in many respects. Pearson boldly interrogates mental illnesses like postpartum depression and battered women’s syndrome, wondering just how many of the infamous women who have used that defence have actually occupied that space, and whether or not we are simply desperate to have this be true rather than acknowledging and understanding some women as predators. Although she acknowledges in her chapters on domestic violence and male/female killing pairs that relations between violent men and women are complicated, she argues that we must see victimhood with the same complexity. Perhaps one of Pearson’s most interesting discussions around language is her characterization of the “Vocabulary of Motive.” The vocabulary of motive is simply the language that violent perpetrators and society use to describe the reasoning behind their violence. This vocabulary is, Pearson argues, a critical point around which our perception of female violence operates. Because the vocabulary of motive can be learned and performed—whether through learned gender roles or through legal coaching—Pearson questions how much we can trust this vocabulary, given how gendered assumptions have permeated violent crime.
Although none of these issues are clear-cut for Pearson, and she acknowledges the complexity of gender as a whole and women’s undeniable disenfranchisement in a patriarchal culture, she points out that if these problems in language and the reluctance to see women as dangerous continue, then violence will continue. Because, as Pearson notes, her arguments are more than philosophical. Women have less access to anger management, counselling, and other programs that are designed around curbing male violence. By adjusting the way we think about women’s relationship to violence, Pearson argues that the implementation of these systems could be beneficial.
Pearson’s remarkable research skills shine through in both her ability to feature other scholars and statistics that showcase her points, and her own case studies and interviews that are truly chilling. The 2021 edition of When She Was Bad contains a new chapter, “When Healers Do Harm,” which contemplates COVID-19’s emergence and the way it has forced us to reckon with the vulnerability of our elderly and, in some cases, the fallibility of our healthcare systems. This new chapter provides a fascinating insight into just how consistent the language around female idealization and victimhood is, even a quarter of a century after Pearson’s original publication.
In addition to the new chapter, there are so many brilliant and comprehensive aspects of the text. I was fascinated to see Pearson address the idea of violence in lesbian relationships. She criticizes the social reluctance to acknowledge that women can be violent in their own relationships because it violates feminist notions of a lesbian utopia. Therefore, she argues, this leaves lesbian women struggling to find support. Additionally, Pearson discusses women’s power dynamics in prisons, arguing that female inmates have a complex and sometimes violent system of authority that again divests them of divine or passive traits. These are just some of many topics in Pearson’s text that are worth reading.
When She Was Bad is a thoughtful and galvanizing text that has an important place in the true crime canon both in the late 90s and now. It encourages us to consider our feminism, our language, and our social landscape as we read about male and female offenders. I highly recommend any true crime reader have this on their shelf.
An uncorrected proof of this text was graciously provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Please add When She Was Bad to your Goodreads shelf, and visit Patricia Pearson’s About page on Penguin Random House’s website.
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About the Writer:
Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA in English from the University of New Brunswick and an MA in English Literature from Queen’s University. Her research focuses on nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbraryand the co-creator of True Crime Index. Rachel is also co-Editor-in-Chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry.