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.