When She Was Bad...: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence

When She Was Bad...: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence

by Patricia Pearson

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While national crime rates have recently fallen, crimes committed by women have risen 200 percent, yet we continue to transform female violence into victimhood by citing PMS, battered wife syndrome, and postpartum depression as sources of women?s actions.

When She Was Bad convincingly overturns these perceptions by telling the stories of such women as

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While national crime rates have recently fallen, crimes committed by women have risen 200 percent, yet we continue to transform female violence into victimhood by citing PMS, battered wife syndrome, and postpartum depression as sources of women?s actions.

When She Was Bad convincingly overturns these perceptions by telling the stories of such women as Karla Faye Tucker, who was recently executed for having killed two people with a pickax; Dorothea Puente, who murdered several elderly tenants in her boarding house; and Aileen Wuornos, a Florida woman who shot seven men. Patricia Pearson marshals a vast amount of research and statistical support from criminologists, anthropologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists, and includes many revealing interviews with dozens of men and women in the criminal justice system who have firsthand experience with violent women. When She Was Bad is a fearless and superbly written call to reframe our ideas about female violence and, by extension, female power.

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Editorial Reviews

BUST Magazine
In this ground-breaking book, Pearson examines a subject that is often deliberately ignored, particulary by the feminist front: the issue of women's violence and aggression....Pearson demands that we hold ourselves accountable for our actions; she makes us ee women as fully equal to male murderers and rapists; as cold-blooded as anyone who would perform multiple murders for profit....[She] helps to open the doors and allows us the space to examine a side of ourselves no one wants to acknowledge, but that, if left unobserved will, like a cancer, continue to spread.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Female violence is a rich and textured tableau," at least as idiosyncratic and complex as the male violence that dominates the news media, contends veteran crime reporter Pearson. For years, what Alan Dershowitz dubbed "the abuse exuse" has been, according to Pearson, the gold standard of sentencing violent female criminals, allowing abuse suffered to be seen as a mitigating or even exonerating factor. Pearson argues in this passionate if occasionally jargony polemic that by assuming that women have an excuse to kill, women are denied their agency, their "will to power." She backs up her contention with a torrent of statistics about the rising rate of violent crime by women, the high rate of violence among female inmates, the unexpected proportion of domestic abuse incidents in which a woman is the aggressor (in some studies, approaching 50%) and, most alarmingly, the consistent quashing of these statistics by social scientists whose work is driven, Pearson charges, more by a political agenda than by the facts at hand. It is this facet of Pearson's book that will likely attract the most attention, and the inevitable accusations of gender treason. But Pearson's work resists this sort of reductive reading. Her discussion of cases where women who have killed their children are as engaging and sympathetic as they are clinical. While the book will hold special fascination for the criminologically inclined, it will also magnetize those who question the boundaries of gender and class. Author tour. (Oct.)
Kirkus Reviews
A compelling, frightening look at women, not as victims of violence, but as perpetrators of it.

Alarmed by the number of violent women who later claim their behavior was accidental or caused by abuse, Pearson, a crime journalist who has written for Harper's and other magazines, decided to study current notions of female aggression and uncovered some stunning statistics. Family-violence scholars have discovered that severe abuse is committed as frequently by women as by men, and terrible abuse occurs even among lesbian couples. Pearson is particularly disgusted with the FBI tenet that "there are no female serial killers" and explores several studies which suggest that when multiple cases of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) occur in one family, it is in fact frequently infanticide perpetrated by the mother. (For a detailed study of this subject, see Richard Firstman and Jamie Talan, The Death of Innocents, p. 1178.) Pearson cites the tragic cases of nurse and caregivers like Jane Toppan and Dorothea Puente, who routinely poisoned their charges. Pearson, an avowed feminist, takes issue with feminist thinkers who rush to defend murderers like Betty Broderick, Jean Harris, and Aileen Wuornos by using the blanket defense of battered-women's syndrome. The syndrome, Pearson holds, is a canard, and she points out that female killers typically say the killing was an attempt at suicide gone awry or, in the case of Wuornos, that she'd been mortally afraid with seven different strangers and was compelled to kill and rob them all. Pearson has the most contempt for Canadian killer Karla Holmolka Bernardo, who with her husband, Paul, tortured and murdered three young women, including her own sister. Karla testified that she had been beaten and forced by Paul to participate; Pearson provides some grisly forensic evidence that indicates Karla killed the girls.

Gripping, controversial material that sheds light on violence and society, and how women can get away with murder.

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Product Details

Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.82(d)

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This story of violence begins with a war. It was America's war, the razzle-dazzle one in the Persian Gulf, where the desert was a proving ground for a new generation of heroes. Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf came out of that war, and General Colin Powell, and CON, and high-tech missiles. And the soldiers who died on the sand, who were injured, taken prisoner, whose names we never caught -- for them, yellow ribbons bedecked the nation's trees. They were the heroes to whom one little girl, ten-year-old Tina Killie, of Wrightstown, Wisconsin, carefully penned a letter, at the instruction of her teacher, to support the troops of Operation Desert Storm. Tina addressed her envelope to "any soldier," and her teacher mailed it to the United States Army.

Months went by, the war wound down, and Tina Killie was dreaming up what to wear for Halloween when all of a sudden she received a reply. All the talk in her school and on television about the courageous men of war had distilled into a living human being, a hero with a heartbeat, with the desert in his boots and the sun in his eyes, crouched over a canteen table writing personally, to her. "Don't be misled by my handwriting," the letter began. "I am a guy -- I just have fairly decent penmanship because I once took up calligraphy as an art." The soldier seemed to know that he had to explain away, at once, the stereotypes of manhood and apologize for being nothing more or less than a person. "I shall [begin] what I hope will be a continued pen pal between us," he wrote in his lovely script, "by giving a quick description of myself. I have been in the army ever since graduation [from high school in Las Vegas]. I am 6'1" and 165 pounds. I love to run...I used to run track in high school."

Army Specialist Anthony Riggs, one rank shy of sergeant, nicknamed "Slowpoke" by his buddies because he was gentle and hard to rile, had gone into the army because he couldn't afford to go to college. He was stationed with the Forty-third Air Defense Artillery, D Battery, a unit that operated Patriot missiles in Saudi Arabia. Over the next four months, as America's precision war gave way to a jagged peace, Riggs sent Tina more than a dozen letters. He included tokens of his adventure abroad, like a Pepsi bottle with Arabic script, and she sent him reminders of comfort, like carefully packaged boxes of chocolate chip cookies. "I hope you don't mind me calling you Angel," he wrote in one of his last notes. "It's because you're so nice to me and yet we've never met. It's nice to know there are people like you still growing up in America."

Riggs's surprise at her kindness was curious. It measured, perhaps, the distance American soldiers had traveled since World War II, when Yankees were so famous for their optimism. Now it was the end of the century, and Riggs was an African American who lived in the bleak heart of downtown Detroit, where optimism had been subsumed by a stalwart determination to simply survive. "I have no intentions of becoming one of this war's casualties," he wrote to his mother in Las Vegas. "With the Lord's grace and his guidance, I'll walk American soil once again."

On March 16, 1991, Specialist Riggs strode jubilantly across the airport tarmac in Fort Bliss, Texas, and gave his twenty-two-year-old wife, Toni Cato Riggs, a tentative "D'ya still love me?" hug. Toni had driven across the country to welcome him home with her three-year-old daughter, Ambere. For that, and for being home, he was immensely relieved. After spending several months equal parts scared and bored senseless, he'd made it to safe ground. He craved what was heartening: some french fries, a little romance, and when he got back to Detroit, a move out of there, to a small house being offered by the army on a base in Warren, Michigan.

While Riggs was away, Toni had returned to the childhood home where her grandmother, Joan Cato, had raised her -- a small wooden house on once-genteel Conley Avenue in Detroit. The yellow ribbon she had tied to the porch slumped in the cold March rain as the couple slogged back and forth between the house and Riggs's Nissan Sentra, filling it up with their belongings, on their first day back in the city. By two in the morning, the car was crammed with old furniture, Ambere's toys, Toni's school books, Anthony's army stuff, just one more haul to do, then a weary stretch of the shoulders and a fitful sleep. Anthony was still outside when Joan Cato noticed that the porch light had gone out. Toni went to the doorway to switch it back on. She stopped in mid-stride, jerked into stillness by gunfire. In Detroit, this was dismal and predictable terror, not shocking so much as depressing. When it stopped, Joan and Toni peered through the screen. They saw the Nissan pulling away. Oh, Lord, this was violence coming right on home. Anthony was on the ground. He was hit. Just like the war. That impersonal. Within moments, he was dead.

It didn't take long for the dispiriting irony of this veteran's urban murder to be grasped by every politician and columnist in the nation. Within twenty-four hours, Detroit City Council's president Maryann Mahaffey had pegged it "the great American tragedy." In Washington, at the Senate subcommittee hearing on the Brady Bill, mandating a seven-day waiting period for handguns, Specialist Riggs arose repeatedly as the day's bitterest case in point. Never mind Saddam Hussein. American men were dying at one another's hands, in their own home-grown "combat zones." The statistics spoke plainly. "During every 100 hours on our streets, we lose three times more young men than were killed in 100 hours of ground war in the Persian Gulf," Health and Human Services secretary Louis Sullivan had testified. "Where are the yellow ribbons of hope and remembrance?" he wanted to know. A spokesman for Detroit's mayor Coleman Young gave a statement. "A new war needs to be fought on the home front," he said, "...so this gallant young man would not have died in vain."

Seven hundred citizens filed into Detroit's Little Rock Baptist Church to honor the life of Anthony Riggs. Congresspersons Barbara Rose-Collins and John Conyers flew in from Washington to attend. The Reverend Jesse Jackson's voice resounded from the pulpit, memorializing a man he did not know, who had been "any soldier" and was a different sort of hero now. "What is the redeeming value in this tragic loss of life?" Jackson asked. "Somehow Anthony has brought us together. By his blood a nation could be saved. Not Kuwait, but America. He illuminates and illustrates, by living and dying, the crisis and challenge of a generation of young African-American men There's a need to cry out: 'Stop the violence.'"

Detroit's greatest soul singer, Aretha Franklin, her voice as eloquent as the preacher's, led the congregation in a hymn, and Jackson escorted Toni to the coffin to pray. A bugler played taps while an American flag was lifted from the casket, ceremoniously folded, and handed to the solemn young widow. Toni wasn't as articulate as the pundits and scribes who'd swept her husband up into their symbolic world, but she managed to echo their point: "I can't believe I've waited all this time for him to come back and he does, and then I lose him again," she lamented.

The community rallied swiftly and emphatically around Riggs's family. Tina Killie sent Anthony's mother, Lessie, a sweatshirt that said, "Somebody in Wrightstown loves you." A local Honda/Jeep Eagle dealership offered Toni a car. The NAACP posted a ten-thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the killer's arrest. On March 23 homicide detectives found Anthony's stolen car parked on a residential street about a mile from where he died. Strangely, the family's packed belongings were still inside. It wasn't a robbery. So what was it? Something gang-related? Riggs gunned down as a message? Mistaken for somebody else? Detectives also found a .38-caliber pistol in a Dumpster near the car, matching the out by interviewing her cousins and girlfriends that Toni was a restless, disconsolate woman who didn't love Anthony and didn't want to be an army wife in the suburbs. Anthony himself had described Toni's unhappiness in a letter to his mother from the war. "Toni has wrecked my car again," he wrote Lessie; "I don't know what's on her mind.... Mom, I would put my head through the neck of a hot sauce bottle to please her."

A reader sifting through the details from the papers, now offered up as unimportant true crime fluff, might begin to glimpse the discord in Toni and Anthony's marriage, how one man was being hurt, one woman stifled, and both were trying to assemble new lives from what shreds of opportunity the inner city provides. Anthony took the legitimate route and joined the army. Toni went the illicit route and arranged a shooting, like the ones she saw around her every day.

But the fact that Riggs was embroiled in familial rancor and fell victim to it held no meaning for the citizenry of Detroit. "What I did, I did for a soldier," the Reverend James Holley of Little Rock Baptist Church said, referring to his arrangement of the funeral. "What bothers me is that those of us who live here felt one hundred percent the way the media did, that this was the kind of...violence we've grown used to." Reverend Holley did not mean the violence in his community in which women are principal players, as mothers and lovers and sisters and daughters. He wasn't referring to child abuse, infanticide, spousal assault, or school yard and girl gang aggression. He did not take, for his reference point, the eighty thousand women arrested for violent crime in America the year that Riggs died or the thousands of others whose violence was invisible and went unremarked upon. He meant masculine violence, permissible or illicit, heroic or profane, but publicly engaged in and displayed. "It makes me think I need to take a long look at myself," he concluded, of his initial assumption about Riggs's fate. "Have we come to the point that we just automatically perceive ourselves this way?"

What a society perceives about violence has less to do with a fixed reality than the lenses we are given through which to see. Before the twentieth century, the man who beat his mule or his child was not a violent man. Nor was the woman who lashed her dog or, in some eras, abandoned her newborn to die of exposure. Rape is violent, but only in the last twenty years have we perceived that a husband might be his wife's rapist. The violence that words inflict is newly perceived, and so is the violence of "harassment" and "hazing." Our perception of violence is selective, and changeable. What the citizens of Detroit had "grown used to," as Reverend Holley put it, was one dimension of destructive human behavior. Boys were gunning down boys, to be sure. But girls and women were contributing their share to the cycle of rage, and injury, and pain.

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