The Murderer Within

By Morrissey, Belinda | New Formations, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Murderer Within


Morrissey, Belinda, New Formations


Lisa Downing, The Subject, of Murder, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2013, 241pp

To be honest, the title of Lisa Downing's latest book: The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality and the Modern Killer, didn't immediately inspire me. Here we go again, I thought, with yet another study on the extraordinary otherness of those who kill. This book might provide a different taxonomy, or it might consider why murderers are seen to be exceptional, or it might explain from where the idea of the exceptionality of the killer has developed in the modern West. However, I feared it would be less likely to debunk the whole 'exceptionality thesis' once and for all, which is the only perspective on murder and murderers that I'm still interested in after studying the phenomenon for the past 15 years. How very wrong I turned out to be.

Lisa Downing provides a much needed corrective to a great deal of thinking about murder and the murderous in this fascinating, thoughtfully written survey of the various understandings of murderers from the birth of modernity to the present day. The book does not function to merely catalogue cases and attach them to concepts of the 'murderer' in vogue at the time they occurred. Instead, she catalogues the prime theories of the murderer, locates them within their milieu, and then shows, using a few well-chosen case studies, how these ideas continue to infect and inflect our contemporary theories of who murderers are and how and why they function. In a sense, she's developed a concept of the 'murderer-function' in modern society in much the same way that Michel Foucault developed the 'author-function' in his archaeology of the context of authorship in 'What is an Author?'.

Developing her study chronologically, Downing starts her explication of the 'murderer-function' with a comprehensive sweep of the historic theories of the murderer. These include the murderer-as-artist, the murderer as superman, and the murderer as beast. So far, we are on familiar ground, following the concept of the murderer in Romantic and Decadent guise as a male subject desirous of ultimate omnipotence over life and death; to the Nietzschean version of the man so special that ordinary morality could never be considered to apply to him; and finally reaching the nadir of the inborn degenerate pervert who kills because he cannot control his lust. Please note my deliberate use of the male pronoun throughout: murderers in history are typically gendered male.

The most important thing none of these 'exceptional' examples do, according to Downing, is to suggest that murder could ever be in any way normal, and certainly not that murderers could also be ordinary human beings capable of change. For, to make this argument is to challenge the concept of heteronormative culture which resolutely insists, not only that murderers are different to the rest of 'us', but that to become one is to remove oneself from 'society' and the 'civilized' altogether.

The other thing the 'exceptional' murderer thesis states is that women and children are both incomprehensible, and thus completely inhuman, when they kill. There is no language to 'speak' the female killer or the child who kills. We lack discourse to surround these killers with ready-made philosophies, motives and subjectivities when they forcibly put on the mantle of murderer. As Downing shows, old subject positions of 'murderer' don't fit these very different killers and this is why we struggle so exhaustively to either exonerate or eliminate them within communal fantasies of meaning-making.

Using a traditional Foucauldian discourse analysis methodology, Downing proceeds to analyse her seven case studies, which cover murderers of all kinds and from all walks of life. These include: artist-murderer Pierre-Francois Lacenaire; poisoner Marie Lafarge; lust murderers Jack the Ripper and followers; partner murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady; gay serial killer Dennis Nilsen; lesbian, prostitute serial killer Aileen Wuornos; and children who kill, including the murderers of James Bulger, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson; Mary Bell; and the Columbine school shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. …

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