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«Suicide and murder are considered two facets of the same coin: they originate in anger. Whereas suicide is the result of turning one's anger against ...»

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CHANGE: Suicide and Murder as Transitional Stages

toward Autonomy in Women's Protest Writings


Suicide and murder are considered two facets of the same coin: they originate in

anger. Whereas suicide is the result of turning one's anger against oneself, murder is

acting it out against others. Reviewing women's protest writings before and after the

feminist revolution in the 1970s, the argument is made that the suicidal heroine in women's protest writings is diagnostic of an oppressed state of mind. On the other hand, a female heroine who turns against her oppressor instead of ruining herself will be taken to manifest a more autonomic awareness. Women's self-destruction on the one hand, and protest and rebellion on the other, reflect two stages in women's evolving emancipation.

The change from a suicidal to a murderous narrative seems to have been made possible by feminist awareness. Special attention is paid to the literature written in Israel. Though the data reviewed here are fictional, the real-life female offender is considered as well.

"Sometimes I also want to kill myself... I had nightmares in which I was killing him with a knife." [A rape victim [17] about her rapist, the businessman David Levian; Ma'ariv, an Israeli daily, 23 April 1992.] "I would murder my rapists if the sentence for murder were as light as the sentence for rape." [A rape victim whose rapists were acquitted; Hadashot, an Israeli daily, 6 November 1992.] "I have to say it. I killed them all because they got violent with me and I decided to defend myself." [Aileen Carol Wuornos, a prostitute accused of killing at least 5 men; On the Issues, Summer 1992.] "Is Wuornos guilty of not having killed herself-the way 'good' sexual abuse victims and prostitutes are supposed to do?" (Phyllis Chesler, On the Isslles, Summer 1992.) "Isn't there anything a woman can do but kill herself?"... "She can always kill others." (Ann Jones, Women who Kill, 1980.)


Suicide and murder are two facets of the same coin: They originate in anger (Berkowitz, 1994).Whereas suicide is the result of turning one's anger Please address all correspondence to: Dr. Rachel Giora, Department of Poetics and Comparative Literature, Tel-Aviv University, Ramat-Aviv, Tel-Aviv 69978, Israel.

• 12(1) • 1997: 73-92.

Israel Social Science Research 74 Raehel Giora against oneself (e.g.,Abraham, 1927;Freud, 1917;Menninger, 19381),murder is acting it out against others. Women often turn their anger on themselves, since female anger is prohibited: women are discouraged to feel anger and are punished for expressing it (e.g., Lerner, 1977).As a result they learn to fear their feelings of rebellion and protest. The psychological consequences of such oppression are often self-destructive (e.g., Miller, 1976;Lerner, 1977, 1985;Bernardez, 1978).

On the other hand, I suggest that women struggling to liberate themselves from the dictates of an oppressive society tend to fend for themselves.

It is therefore expected that, instead of destroying themselves, they will become openly angry at those responsible for their abuse. The emancipated female is thus expected to act against her oppressor rather than destroy herself.

To test this hypothesis, I reviewed women's protest writings before and after the feminist revolution in the 1970s. Women's writings that expose and criticize the injustices done to women only because they are women are considered in this review as women's protest writings. I will argue that a suicidal heroine in such protest writings is diagnostic of an oppressed state of mind. On the other hand, a female heroine who kills her oppressor instead of killing herself will be taken to manifest a more autonomic awareness. Thus, self-destruction and protest and rebellion are viewed here as functions of the degree of women's emancipation in their society.2 The works reviewed here include literary and cinematic texts written by women. I expected the fiction written before the feminist revolution (during the 1970s) to have more suicidal heroines than female killers, and that written after the feminist revolution to exhibit more female characters who solve their problem of abuse by defending themselves.


Though the data reviewed here are fictional, it is useful to consider the real-life female offender. The number of female killers has been increasing, but this increase is only absolute: when compared with the number of male murderers, the gap has changed only slightly. However, when viewed from within, it is obvious that something has changed among women.

There have been a number of attempts in criminological research to establish a connection between the growing impact of the feminist movement and the increase in the rates of female murderers. To be able to assess these attempts, it is important to first note whom women kill. Women usually kill their abusive intimates, especially male partners, with whom they have experienced a long history of violence (e.g., Chimbos, 1978;

Totman, 1978; Silver and Kates, 1979; Daniel and Harris, 1982). Though both women and men tend to kill male family members, their violence is distinguishable. Whereas men are the aggressors who turn the confrontation into a physical attack, women's violence is almost always a resource for self-protection Gurik and Winn, 1990).

Feminist Awareness and Narrative Change 75 There is no consensus among criminologists about the causal connection between female crime and emancipation: one group denies any positive relation between the two (e.g., Crites, 1976; Datesmand and Scarpitti, 1980;

deCrow, 1974; Feinman, 1979; Klein and Kress, 1976; Morris and Gelsthrope, 1981; Box, 1983; Jurik and Winn, 1990); another group argues the opposite

e.g., Adler, 1975; Simon, 1975, 1976):

As women become more liberated from the hearth and home and become more involved in full-time jobs, they are more likely to engage in the types of crime for which their occupations provide them with the greatest opportunities... as a function both of expanded consciousness, as well as occupational opportunities, women's participation role and involvement in crime are expected to change and increase... such acts typically arise out of frustration..

When women can no longer contain their frustrations and their anger, they express themselves by doing away with the cause of their condition, most often a man, sometimes a child (Simon, 1975:2).

The question we should be asking is not why women are committing male crimes, but what has taken them so long to start and why is the time now propitious (Adler, 1975: 11).

To which she answers:

In the same way that women are demanding equal opportunity in fields of legitimate endeavor, a similar number of determined women are forcing their way into the world of major crimes (ibid.: 13).3 Criminologists who try to defy the contention that the rise in women's homicide offense is related to the liberation movement rely on the differences between women and men in patterns of violence and the use of physical aggression. They show that women's style and method of killing do not resemble men's, despite their changing social roles Gurik and Winn, 1990).4 To test the liberation hypothesis, they (erroneously, I believe), only compare women with men. But this is not the right direction. What is at stake is a comparison between women's past response to their abuse and their present resistance. The change brought about by the liberation movement is not in the aggressive methods as such, but in women's growing awareness that they should save their lives even at the cost of manslaughter. An emancipating spirit enables women to retaliate, to respond to aggression by using aggression, rather than to accept the traditional role of the victim.5 While killing is viewed here as a powerful act, suicide is considered an act of the powerless.6 Experience in the United States shows that the highest suicide rate is found among the lowest social classes. For instance, among young adults (25-35) of both sexes, suicide is twice as frequent among African Americans-the poorer and more powerless class-than it is among Caucasian Americans (Hendin, 1969).7 Similarly, female suicide outnumbers male suicide when suicide attempts and completions are taken together (Kushner, 1985). Moreover, the weaker women are more suicidal: when married unemployed women were compared with married employed women, the highest 76 Rachel Giora suicide rates were found among the former; i.e.,.among those more submerged in the family and more dependent (Johnson, 1979).

In a study of women's role in modern society and its relation to stress (Gove and Tudor, 1973),it was found that women were suffering higher rates of mental illness than men. Apart from suicidal behavior and mental disorders, female powerlessness enhances other forms of self-destruction, such as alcoholism and drug addiction (AI-Issa, 1980; Brown and Harris, 1978;

Chesler, 1972;Smith, 1974).In sum, while the socially weak and oppressed fail to act out their anger and become self-destructive, the more powerful tend to direct it against their abuser.

A recent study of women's homicidal behavior challenges the liberation hypothesis, however. Ogle, Maier-Katin and Bernard (1995) argue that, rather than being liberated, female offenders tend to be traditional in their life styles and their beliefs about the role of women, and that they not only kill abusive partners, but also children and other adults. Ogle and colleagues (1995) suggest an alternative explanation which accounts for women's homicidal behavior in terms of anger long being internalized by an over-controlled personality. Women, they argue, tend to incorporate negative affect (Agnew, 1992)and, being over-controlled (Megargee, 1966, 1973), their accumulated aggression erupts unexpectedly, particularly in situations of long-term abusive relations and in pre- or postpartum environments.

Their theory of anger does not conflict with the liberation hypothesis, however, which does not discredit such aggressive causes; rather, it assumes that there is method in this "madness." The target against which the anger is directed is not accidental. Women mostly kill their abusers. Women who kill their abusers are directing their anger against the source of their abuse.

The liberation hypothesis predicts that the number of such killers will grow as feminist awareness becomes internalized. In contrast, according to the version of the liberation hypothesis proposed here, women who kill their children would be considered less liberated, since, in killing their children, they are hurting themselves-an act which resembles suicidal, rather than homicidal, behavior. It is predicted that their numbers will recede.

FROM SUICIDE TO KILLING-The Evolution of a Feminist Awareness in Women's Protest Writings Even though it is difficult to establish a firm connection between emancipation and the increase in the number of women killers, I wish to show the validity of this claim through a study of fictional characters. For this study, I assumed that women's writings that victimize the heroine exhibit an oppressed consciousness. I therefore expected women's writings that precede the feminist revolution to have more suicidal than killing heroines.

Complementarily, the choice of a heroine who kills or violates the oppresFeminist Awareness and Narrative Change 77 sor rather than herself was assumed to be the choice of the more emancipated person and was therefore expected to be more common in women's writings that follow the feminist revolution.

Suicide and killing mark two stages of emancipation in the protest writings of women; they symbolize the way women deal with anger in the process of their liberation. The category of suicide-the resort of the weak-pertains to a set of self-destructive acts, such as illness, depression, madness, killing of one's offspring, or killing oneself. The category of killing-enacted by the more powerful-pertains to a set of damages inflicted on the abuser, culminating in murder. The various writings to be reviewed here are taken to reflect the sense of emancipation of the authors and the degree of emancipation of women in the society of their time.

The association of crime and autonomy is made explicit in de Beauvoir's writings. Yanay (1990) shows that the act of crime in de Beauvoir's writing is a means of achieving independence. In her autobiographical work The Prime of Life (1990), de Beauvoir writes: "By releasing Francoise [the •.

heroine of "She Came to Stay"] through the agency of crime from the dependent position in which her love for Pierre kept her, I gained my own personal autonomy" (p. 271). de Beauvoir achieved a sense of liberation (from her dependence on Sartre and from her anger at him) through a literary murder. Though de Beauvoir recognized the relation of crime to autonomy, she failed-or rather, did not dare-to direct her anger at the cause of her oppression: Her heroine killed the man's lover, rather than the man himself. As we shall see later, feminist writers of a much later period manage to wage their war against the real oppressor.


A look at feminist literature that precedes the feminist revolution reveals that, indeed, it hardly exhibits any women killers. Consider rare examples such as "A Jury of Her Peers" (Susan Glaspell, 1918), in which the killing of the abusive husband is not enacted, but inferred; or "Her Sweet

Jerome" (Alice Walker, 1967: 24-29), in which the killing is metaphorical:

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