Female spree-killing, sex, and celebrity: The case of Joanna Dennehy

joanna-dennehy-press-1Knowing that my latest book is about murder and gender – or, more specifically, about a particular narrative of modern identity and individuality that has made possible the figure of the Western “recreational murderer” – lots of people have drawn my attention to the recent case of Joanna Dennehy.

Dennehy is a 32-year-old British woman who enlisted her apparently enthralled male lovers, Gary Stretch and Leslie Layton, to be her accomplices in the murders of three men, Lukasz Slaboszewski, Kevin Lee, and John Chapman. (See here.) Dennehy’s documented taste for sadomasochistic sexual practices (see here) has added to the frenzied media interest in the case, and has led to the production of some dubious psychiatric diagnoses, which I plan to write about elsewhere. Dennehy is both statistically unusual and discursively rare in being described as a female recreational killer whose apparent motives for committing her crimes were sexual sadism and thrill-seeking.

Yet, one Facebook interlocutor recently pointed out to me that cases of women committing multiple killings similar to Dennehy’s – typically “masculine crimes” – seem to be on the rise and are certainly in the public eye at the moment. (The case of the “Craig’s List Killer”, 19-year-old Miranda Barbour, springs immediately to mind.) While two do not a trend make, it is interesting to wonder if the Zeitgeist is in some way enabling the emergence of a new kind of female murderer. My approach to this problem, then, is historically and culturally, rather than psychologically, oriented. (I am not interested in individual psychological motivation, but in the social-historical conditions that produce the figure of the murderer as bizarrely aspirational, and that make it available to certain classes of person, in certain situational contexts.)

In The Subject of Murder I argue that, in modern Western culture, the murderer has the status of exceptional individual. This goes back to the Romantic/ Decadent idea of the “artist-criminal”, in whom creativity and destructivity are two sides of the same coin. Of course this idealized, semi-fictional figure of potency is implicitly white and male (though his sexual identity is often portrayed as fluid, alternating between heterosexual hyper-masculinity and an ambivalent homoeroticism). Thomas De Quincey, Oscar Wilde, and Jean Genet have all waxed lyrical about the genius-murderer and the trope of murder-as-art in literary and aesthetic-philosophical writing.

In our contemporary culture, this grandiose murderous exceptionality takes the form of celebrity, as David Schmid has compellingly argued in his 2005 book, Natural Born Celebrities. “Murderer” is a celebrity identity, as seen in the wealth of press attention that is brought to bear on infamous killers, and the aura that accrues to people, and even to things, close to those killers. The phenomenon of “murderabilia”, objects and artworks created or previously owned by infamous killers that have a highly collectible status, is one manifestation of this. The attention-seeking behaviour of many serial killers reinforces their visibility. Many killers at large have sent taunting letters to the police and press, such as David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam”, active in the USA in the 1970s. In other cases, such as that of the Yorkshire Ripper (Peter Sutcliffe, in the UK), letters have been sent by others pretending to be the murderer, increasing the visibility of the case and speculation around the identity of the killer. And, tellingly, this was a trend popularized by the first “celebrity serial killer” at the historical moment of efflorescence of the popular press – the still-unidentified  Victorian murderer, Jack the Ripper. (That the mass press and the serial killer are products of the same age is far from a coincidence.) Once caught and imprisoned, notorious killers can also keep up a high media profile. “Moors Murderer” Ian Brady’s recent appeal to be transferred from high security mental hospital to prison, his claim that he had revealed the whereabouts of a victim’s body in a letter to his mental health advocate, and his much discussed hunger strike, are good examples of this. (See my post on Brady here.)

It will be noted that all of the names above are male. It is not, of course, the case that there have historically been no female killers, but media and culture have not tended to represent murderesses in the same (ambivalently heroic) terms that they have used to represent men who kill – and that men who kill can then take up as a badge of identity. Prominent female killers of the past century have included Myra Hindley, Rosemary West, and Aileen Wuornos, all of whom killed violently, and (in the cases of the first two at least), for sexual motives. However, the first two names are notable for being one half of celebrity murderous heterosexual couples (Myra and Ian; Rose and Fred), and both women were  vilified in much stronger terms than their male partners, whose sexual violence was, in each case, seen as an aberrant but intelligible extension of socially sanctioned masculinity.  Similarly, Wuornos, as that very rare type of killer, a lesbian lone-wolf, stalking her male victims under the guise of selling sexual services, attracted vitriol and hatred from press and public, and an extremely harsh punishment relative to male perpetrators of similar crimes. (She received multiple death sentences, despite the defense presenting mitigating evidence of childhood sexual abuse, and mental illness.) Some coverage of Joanna Dennehy’s case has discussed the difficulty society has in accepting violent women, and has posited that Dennehy, as a sexually adventurous, hedonistic spree-killer, presents particular problems to the codes of representation that are available for describing women who kill. (See especially Elizabeth Yardley’s intelligent commentary in The Guardian. Avoid the comments if you wish to retain any sort of faith in the critical thinking skills of the reading public.)

Can we really argue, then, that Joanne Dennehy is a representative of a new type of female murderous subject, who employs the same grandiose self-stylization and press attention-seeking tactics as her male counterparts? There is certainly evidence that Dennehy boasted she was seeking to become a “famous serial killer” at least two years before committing the triple murder. (See here.) And, she described herself, while on the run, as “Bonnie” of Bonnie and Clyde, suggesting strong identification with available cultural representations of female criminality. (See here.)  Like the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who conceived their high-school shootings in advance as a media spectacle, and like Stephen Griffiths, the Bradford “Crossbow Cannibal”, who was a criminology student fascinated by the figure of the serial killer, Dennehy was undoubtedly tapping into the same available cultural repository of criminal myth-making as many male killers before her.

So where does Dennehy’s type of murderous subjectivity come from? We might conclude by drawing a parallel with the ways in which what is known as “raunch culture” has been embraced by some women as a (dubious) badge of empowerment in a post-feminist age. This idea was introduced by Ariel Levy in Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005). Levy argues that the rise of the FCP, who is just as likely to appear in a strip club in the role of patron as of performer, has contributed to the erasure of the feminist struggle and to making invisible intersecting, class-based, power imbalances. Female Chauvinist Pig culture co-opts a very narrow definition of “power”, based on aping valorized, typically “masculine” behaviours and roles, and showing that (some) women can access and benefit from those roles too. As Levy points out, these exceptional women achieve their agency in contradistinction to, and at the expense of, other “lesser” women, rather than by raising up the collectivity of women as a group. Perhaps, by analogy, a form of violent, antisocial self-stylization is becoming more available to those women who find themselves on the margins of social acceptability, and who seek to make a name for themselves in a culture obsessed with fame and exposure. It may be that the search for infamy offered by the label of “serial killer” is increasingly the antisocial, shadow alternative to seeking pop fame on The X Factor, or the hyper-visibility of glamor-modeling, for socially disenfranchised women of the twenty-first century, who see individualistic forms of male violence celebrated, and who want a piece of that celebrity for themselves.

On keeping Ian Brady alive

As long as Ian Brady lives, he is made to serve a useful function: as a convenient cultural repository for evil.

Credit: Miles Cole

As I write this piece, doctors are struggling to keep serial killer Ian Brady alive. For more than 10 years, the “Moors Murderer” who, with his partner, Myra Hindley, killed at least five children between 1963 and 1965 – has campaigned from the psychiatric hospital in which he is confined to be allowed to die. He has pursued this end just as tirelessly as Hindley, who died in prison in 2002, campaigned for her release.

Brady has found himself squarely in the public eye in recent months owing to three events. In July, he was taken from Ashworth to Fazakerley Hospital, following a seizure that prevented him attending a mental health tribunal regarding his application to be allowed to die. August saw the death of Winnie Johnson, mother of Keith Bennett, the only known Moors victim whose remains have not been recovered. And Johnson’s death came only days after the arrest of Brady’s mental health advocate, Jackie Powell, on suspicion of “preventing the burial of a body without lawful exercise”, after she allegedly refused to disclose the contents of a letter from Brady revealing the whereabouts of Keith’s body that was to be passed to his surviving family in the event of Brady’s death.

While some of the victims’ relatives have spoken out about their desire for Brady’s death, it is instructive to reflect on the meaning of the very determined unwillingness on the part of the authorities to let Brady die. (He has been force-fed during the course of his more-than-decade-long hunger strike, and was resuscitated using a defibrillator after his heart stopped for seven minutes, it was reported, on 7th October.) The concerted effort to keep Brady alive parallels metaphorically the longevity of the perhaps unconscious cultural function that he continues to serve, some 46 years after his trial, as a collective figure of hate.

The fact that Brady and Hindley killed children rendered them the “most evil” of murderers. Public hatred accrued especially to Hindley as a woman and therefore as doubly deviant in having transgressed both the legal prohibition on killing and the social edict that women shall protect children. This hatred has passed to Brady in the wake of Hindley’s death. The recent documentary broadcast on Channel 4, Ian Brady: Endgames of a Psychopath, sets Brady up as a Machiavellian figure, taunting Johnson from his hospital bed with the secret knowledge he possesses – the location of the remaining grave – and thereby exercising the power of manipulation over others that is meant to be the sole motivation of that rare type of psychiatric personage, the psychopath. Brady did not appear in the documentary, nor was his voice heard. Black-and-white still photographs that flashed up on the screen were the only evidence that there was a face and an individual behind the Gothic drama being rehearsed. And, while the most recent photograph shows an obviously sick and dying man, this cadaverous physiognomy only contributes to the idea of Brady as some kind of undead monster haunting the cultural imaginary.

Brady and his crimes have thus taken on folkloric proportions. While it is understandable that the murders provoked outrage, this mechanism of dehumanization is possibly the least helpful response society can have to such crimes. The figure of the murderer, since at least the 19th century, has been represented as Janus-faced: an exceptional being on the one hand, transcending ordinary codes of morality in the manner of the Nietzschean Superman, and an atavistic beast on the other: the embodiment of unreasoned animal passions, of civilization gone awry, as described by Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso. The figure of the devious genius criminal is a persona that Brady himself has cultivated, as seen in his claim that his crimes were “existential experiments”.

The effect of this dual othering of the murderer has been to create a “them” and “us” distinction between the normal citizen and those beings perceived to be ontologically capable of evil. While apparently inspiring unadulterated horror, Brady in fact serves a reassuring function for society at large. Excessive media treatment of Brady’s (and, before her death, Hindley’s) spectacular wickedness in abducting and killing children diverts attention from the fact that most abuse of and violence against children happens in the home and within the family. The mystification of Brady enables us to avoid having to question our own, and our culture’s, capacity for enacting less extravagant types of everyday iniquity and harm.

That rare specimen must be kept alive – in body or in the cultural imagination, literally or figuratively – for goodness’s sake. For, so long as he and his persona survive, we can convince and comfort ourselves that we all know where evil lives.


A version of this piece first appeared in the Times Higher Education on 18 October 2012 (link here). It is republished here with their kind permission.

The argument made in this article is a necessarily much abridged and somewhat simplified version of the main premise of my forthcoming book, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer, which I have previously plugged here. The book will be published by Chicago University Press in March 2013 and can be pre-ordered here.

The Subject of murder: Gender, exceptionality, and the modern killer

hi res coverMy book, The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer, which took me six years to write, and which has been in production for over 12 months with Chicago University Press, is finally available for pre-order, though it won’t be in the world until next year. It is a relative snip at $25 / £15.

You can pre-order it here and see the table of contents here.

This is Chicago University Press’s catalogue copy describing the book:

“The subject of murder has always held a particular fascination for us. But, since at least the nineteenth century, we have seen the murderer as different from the ordinary citizen—a special individual, like an artist or a genius, who exists apart from the moral majority, a sovereign self who obeys only the destructive urge, sometimes even commanding cult followings. In contemporary culture, we continue to believe that there is something different and exceptional about killers, but is the murderer such a distinctive type? Are murderers degenerate beasts or supermen as they have been depicted on the page and the screen? Or are they something else entirely?

In The Subject of Murder, Lisa Downing explores the ways in which the figure of the murderer has been made to signify a specific kind of social subject in Western modernity. Drawing on the work of Foucault in her studies of the lives, crimes, and legends of killers in Europe, Britain, and the United States, Downing interrogates the meanings of media, medical, legal and creative texts produced about and by murderers. Upending the usual treatment of murderers as isolated figures or exceptional individuals, Downing instead argues that murderers are ordinary people, reflections and symptoms of our society at the intersections of gender, agency, desire, and violence.”

I’ll hope to post more here on the sex-critical aspects of the book, which perhaps don’t appear obvious in the Press’s copy, in the run-up to publication. The book interrogates, in particular, how the  perceived gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity and age of given killers determine the treatment they receive and the ways they are represented in the discourses produced about them. The more they deviate from the white, male, heterosexual default social subject (who is also the default “subject of murder”, since murder is a product of, not other to, society), the more aberrant they are made to appear.

Critical reflections on feminism, insanity, and the institution of childhood on the occasion of Shulamith Firestone’s death

Shulamith Firestone, radical feminist writer, died on 28th August 2012, aged 67. She is best known as the author of  the groundbreaking polemic, The Dialectic of Sex (1970), written when she was only 25 years old.

It has taken me more than a fortnight to complete this piece, which I knew I wanted to write as soon as I learned of Firestone’s death. I kept delaying, abandoning, and redrafting because my feelings and thoughts about her life, her work, her reception, and the gap she leaves in the landscape of feminism, have been hard to untangle and to articulate. And also because they matter so much to me. Firestone was — and is — one of my feminist inspirations; she was a sex-critical luminary and a queer thinker avant la lettre, shining the light of counter-intuitive insight on cultural commonplaces that pass as natural, and illuminating the obfuscating mechanisms of oppression that make them appear so. She grasped the harsh and unpalatable truth of the female condition in the culture in which she lived. She described — controversially — female lives and identities circumscribed and defined by the tyranny of biology (“maternal instinct”, compulsory pregnancy, childbirth, nuclear parenthood), and she was unafraid to speak against these shibboleths of femaleness and femininity, and to imagine alternatives to them based on the harnessing of burgeoning bio-technology.

The obituary of Firestone that first alerted me to her death appeared in The Villager. While, on the one hand, it acknowledges that her work was “pioneering” and “key” to the development of twentieth-century feminism, on the other it emphasizes, perhaps disproportionately, the idea that she “suffered from mental illness” throughout her whole life (citing her alleged paranoid-schizophrenia, reported by one of Firestone’s “few friends”). It makes much of the fact that her final years were characterized by solitude and poor health. (She was, towards the end of her life, reputed to be a recluse; her body was found in her apartment roughly a week after she had died.)* While these biographical facts are not irrelevant to a consideration of Shulamith’s life, the emphasis on them comes at a price — and at the expense of paying sufficient attention to the searing truth and import of her work. And this effect is not accidental or innocent. It is part of a common cultural narrative and a normalizing strategy, both of which I want to unpick.

Mental illness carries a huge and unfair stigma in our culture. Damningly, in the case of writers and thinkers, that stigma risks coloring perceptions of their work. And perhaps it is particularly true of female writers that their biography trumps and is used to explain away or downplay their achievements. (I am reminded of the recent cruel and loathsome Telegraph obit of Irish novelist Maeve Binchy, which criticized her for having written so frequently about mother-daughter dynamics given that she had no children of her own.) It is not wrong per se to record the fact that Shulamith Firestone suffered from mental illness. The danger lies in the probability that emphasizing this biographical detail will provide an alibi for those — and there are many — who would justify dismissing Firestone’s contentious political ideas as “mad”, “far-out”, “unrealistic”, and “delusional”. For patriarchal, heteronormative, pro-reproductive culture has a huge investment in reducing Firestone’s claims to the products of her alleged madness.

That women are trapped by biological essentialism and the myth of maternal instinct, that childhood is a state of humiliating indignity and the nuclear family a sadistic paradigm of ownership and control, are dangerous ideas that Firestone propagated. One would have to be mad to make such claims, the convenient line goes. For the natural and deterministic import of female biological reproductive capacity is an idea upheld (though with radically different ideological agendas) by both right-wing, God-bothering patriarchs, keen to preserve traditional gender roles in which women are nurturers and by certain types of feminist, particularly those in the Mary Daly mold, characterized by a belief in an innate, life-giving gyn-ergy unique to “biological” “women”.

Accusations of child-hating and internalized misogyny plagued Firestone’s reception in life. Yet Firestone was in so many ways more of a champion of those young persons lumped together under the class “child” than the most ardent proponents of the sentimental discourse of infantile innocence. “Childhood is hell [and] the result is the insecure and therefore aggressive/ defensive, often obnoxious little person we call a child”, Firestone wrote in Dialectic. She railed against the abject status children are allocated in our culture. She railed too against the infantilizing, de-humanizing  misogyny of the fact that the “women and children are always mentioned in the same breath”. These groups are linked, she claimed, by nothing more than “shared oppression”, by the imperative to be “cute”, passive, harmless, and lovable at the expense of personal dignity and human sovereignty. Only in a post-patriarchal utopia, in which childhood and the nuclear family would be mere shadows of memories of a long-ago nightmare, could people of all ages and sexes apprehend the meaning of freedom.

In her novel Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler writes of her female protagonist — a mother — that: “The mere fact that her children were children, condemned for years to feel powerless and bewildered and confined, filled her with such pity that to add any further hardship to their lives seemed unthinkable.” Although Tyler’s middle-brow novel is far from espousing a radical feminist position, I immediately thought of Shulamith when I read that sentence. It is a truth, seldom expressed, but oh so powerful. I am not, and will never be, a parent, but I can remember my childhood and my own feelings of humiliation at having the patronizing label “child” and all that it conveys ascribed to me.  I can remember my indignation at my lack of personal bodily autonomy based solely on my age, a temporary, contingent condition about which I could do nothing. I can remember my resentment, too, at the presumption on the part of any (however well-meaning) adult that they had the right to condescend to me, to pat me on the head, to pinch my cheek, to talk about me in the third person, as if I was not there, to violate my boundaries in a myriad of small ways, to curtail my will. (And my individual childhood was far from traumatic in the greater scheme of things, and in comparison with so many others’. Rather, as Firestone wants us to understand, modern Western childhood as such, as a universal experience,is traumatic.) Yet these routinely degrading aspects of childhood are so rarely acknowledged, while the clichéd stereotype of a lost age of nostalgic bliss is taken for granted.  Firestone called for a world in which childhood was not a “hell” and the hierarchical nuclear family no longer the dominant form of social organization. To explain away such an unthinkable agenda on her part, many are more than willing to have recourse to her mental illness.

And yet, there is another discourse at play in discussions of Firestone’s work and her mental health — a stereotype too — that I realize I am skirting around. It is lurking in the background of what I am writing, and I am determined to push it to the surface, to make it explicit, and to refuse to indulge it. I want to defuse its potency by deconstructing the nature of the glamour it possesses. It is the ever-so seductive idea that only the mad person, the Shakespearean fool, the Romantic lunatic-touched-by-genius, the idiot savant, can articulate what the rest of us cannot — can see clearly (an ableist metaphor if ever there was one). Madness was lauded by Foucault in his earlier writings as the privileged voice of culturally disavowed truth. The label of “exceptionality” is routinely ascribed to those individuals who speak or act against the social order, and it seems like a magical thing — to be exceptional, different, above the common herd. Yet its effect  is often to downplay the fact that these exceptional individuals are members of a class and that the discontents they are able to articulate will also be experienced just as powerfully by those without a voice. It is deployed, in short, to de-politicize words and acts issuing from the margins, even by those admiring the mad genius.** For these reasons, I urge us to be cautious of attributing the brilliance of Firestone’s insights to her Romantic brand of  genius-madness, just as I would criticize those who use claims of her madness to invalidate her work. This said, I do think that any subject positioned outside of the norm (by dint of gendered, sexual, economic class-based, racial, psychological or neurological difference and disadvantage) is more likely to be able to apprehend critically the biases and instances of oppression that pass as neutral and that are largely invisible to those located at the unmarked centre. But I am determinedly reluctant to idealize madness, to transform Firestone’s (and any other person’s) suffering into a “gift”. I am more sympathetic to the idea issuing from anti-psychiatry that what we call madness is an adequate, if incredibly painful at the individual level, response to a cultural system characterized by inequalities and forms of violence that are symbolic, psychological, and physical. Jiddu Krishnamurti puts it best, perhaps, in opining that “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”.

There are some social realities so painful and disturbing that they are commonly, and by silent mutual agreement,  silenced and disavowed. Daring to acknowledge them; daring even to speak out about the disavowal of them; daring, finally, to draw embarrassing attention to the determined collective cultural mental work put into maintaining the silence around them, call forth recrimination. Such truth-tellers are labelled troublemakers, dissenters, eccentrics, radicals and — as I have been discussing — are all too often characterized as insane.  Shulamith Firestone’s posthumous reputation risks being one of either dismissal as a deluded sick woman or hagiography as a mad genius, depending on the political sensibilities of the commentator. I want instead to see her work remembered, re-read, engaged with anew, and deployed as a devastatingly accurate social critique. We must not let either willful or well-meaning misrepresentation of Firestone’s work thrive after her death. An excellent recent collection of essays on The Dialectic of Sex, edited by Mandy Merck and Stella Sandford, which I reviewed in glowing terms for MAMSIE, constitutes a serious attempt to re-evaluate Firestone’s work and to highlight its relevance for the twenty-first century. I hope that the sad event of Firestone’s demise might prove the spur for more critical work of this kind. We simply cannot afford to ignore her message, to interpret it as a symptom of a past era of feminist idealism and extremism, or to employ with regard to it the convenient trope that it is merely the imaginative and extravagant product of insanity.

This post is for Shulamith Firestone, with love, and in the hope that she may rest in peace.

* Several other, more balanced and valuable obituaries of Firestone have since appeared. See especially those by Emily Chertoff for The Atlantic and Julie Bindel for The Guardian, which can be found, respectively, here and here. (I quite often disagree with Bindel’s politics, but her obituary of Firestone strikes me as a model of how to write about the loss of a valued feminist worker and writer without engaging some of the troubling discourses I have critiqued in this post and that Lincoln Anderson’s obit in The Villager liberally deployed.)

** A critique of the notion of the exceptional individual is one of the broad arguments pursued in my forthcoming book about the cultural function of murderers: The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (Chicago University Press, February 2013).