When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity

When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity

When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity

When Women Kill: Questions of Agency and Subjectivity


Why are we so reluctant to believe that women can mean to kill? Based on case-studies from the US, UK and Australia, this book looks at the ways in which female killers are constructed in the media, in law and in feminist discourse almost invariably as victims rather than actors in the crimes they commit. Morrissey argues that by denying the possibility of female agency in crimes of torture, rape and murder, feminist theorists are, with the best of intentions, actually denying women the full freedom to be human. Case studies cover among others the battered wife, Pamela Sainsbury, who garrotted her husband as he slept, the serial killer, Aileen Wournos, who killed seven middle-aged men in Florida between 1989 and 1990, Tracey Wiggington, the so-called "lesbian vampire killer", and Karla Homolka who helped her husband kill two teenage girls in St. Catherines Ontario in 1993.


The urgency with which she stabbed him was impressive to behold. She really got stuck in. And with each jab a soft and guarded grunt came from her parted lips. She grunted as she stabbed him, but softly, like a lady. And with each jab he grunted in reply. They grunted back and forth. They sounded like a courting couple, grunting in the shadows of the pier.

The frenzy of it, the lunging, plunging madness of it, really took it out of her. It's physical and tiring work. He just kept standing there. He oozed and spurted like a plum. She hasn't struck the fatal blow, the mortal, lethal, fatal blow that'll put him on the ground. The big man that he was, she had to knife him endlessly.

(Zahavi, 1991:185-6)

Western societies have long retained a horror and fascination with the lethal. For, no matter how repetitively narrated, murders continue to traumatize the national psyche, never assimilated, never entirely understood. The terror they give rise to in the first instance can later give way to an obsessive preoccupation, where tales of these events are moulded through the twin forces of denial and repression. Only through such reworkings is trauma adequately repressed and fear reduced. Yet the very ineffectiveness of denial ironically guarantees the return of the traumatic repressed and ensures that murder remains always beyond incorporation and understanding, continually in need of fresh denials, new repressions.

Murders are particularly traumatic because they invoke the abject. In the first instance, murder is abject in legal discourse and in other discourses that uphold and support the law because it is at one and the same time the most extreme rejection of legal prohibitions and the most potent reason for 'the law's' continued importance. Legal regulations construct murder as a crime even while this act demonstrates the murderer's utter contempt for any such regulations. Murder is also abject because of the nature and outcome of the act itself. By definition, murders involve the production of corpses and these, according to Julia Kristeva, are the most abject of any object. They are 'death infecting life', confusing the boundaries between one's living self and

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