Book Review — When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away with Murder by Patricia Pearson

*Originally published under the title When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence. I am reviewing an advanced reader copy of the edition released January 5th, 2021.

**Thank you NetGalley and Vintage Books Canada for the advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/10 (3/5 on Goodreads)

Genre: Non-fiction, True Crime, Journalism

Blurb from the publisher:

From award-winning author and journalist Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad questions our understanding of violent women.Why do some women murder their children? Why do others team up with men in ghoulish killing sprees? What motivates the female serial killer?

When She Was Bad explores the enigmatic heart of female darkness, drawing into focus such fascinating characters as Dorothea Puente, who murdered several elderly tenants in her boarding house in Sacramento; Mary Beth Tinning, who killed eight of her children in upstate New York; Karla Homolka, who joined forces with Paul Bernardo to abduct, rape and murder school girls in southern Ontario; and Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again Christian who was executed in Texas for having killed two people with a pickax.
In this provocative book, Patricia Pearson explores women’s innate capacity for aggression, an idea we remain deeply uncomfortable with.

Review:

As a True Crime consumer, this book certainly appealed to me as it took a deeper look into women in crime. In particular, the author explores the cultural impacts of misogyny on how we view female killers. Many great points are made including, but not limited to: how the FBI defined serial killers and studied only white men to develop these traits and characteristics, society’s desire to rationalize and shift the blame of female serial killers to their male partners, failing to classify people who kill with poison as serial killers, giving tender and/or funny names to female serial killers, and the list goes on and on. This book certainly gave me a lot to reflect on and allowed me to compare how many things have changed in 2021, but many things have still remained the same. However, this book was riddled with contradictions and the author’s personal views come in strongly in a way that I think deflects from a nuanced look at her points being made.

Highlights:

  • Well-researched and many specific cases are examined
  • There were many things that aggravated me while reading this book (these can be viewed in the Dimmers section below), but as a whole, when viewing this through a 90s lens of when this book first came out– Patricia Pearson was a pioneer and I think she has influenced or at least nailed many of the more nuanced views we have on serial killers and female murderers.

Dimmers

  • There seems to be constant contradictions in the points Pearson are trying to make. In all honesty, the nuance that she would give some cases and not others came across as if Pearson had a personal grudge or was allowing her personal beliefs to influence her claims. For example, she blames the Second Wave Feminist movement for women getting lighter sentences by using the “battered woman syndrome” or “postpartum psychosis” as an excuse. For some cases, she would concede that women are battered and this does influence how those women behaves, in others “battered woman syndrome” is a made up excuse to allow women to avoid punishment, and in further cases, it’s not fair that we don’t look into men being abused. So which one is it? Of course, the answer is that all these things can exist at once– people can be both a victim and a criminal. Maybe that’s what Pearson was going for, but it doesn’t come across that way. Instead, it just sounds like she made up her mind on some particular cases and the bad feminist movement allowed these women to receive lighter sentences.
  • It’s actually pretty interesting that the things Pearson criticized the public for doing in regards to women such as focusing on their appearance or “playing the victim” isn’t actually a phenomenon reserved only for women. Appearance has always played a role for serial killers and it’s heavily discusses especially in the past few years. Just look at the past and recent popularity of Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, including the women idolizing them. But it was that one TV drama in which a beautiful woman played Aileen Wuornos that really annoyed Pearson. Never mind the fact, that Wuornos was executed and is labeled a serial killer– exactly what Pearson wants in equal treatment of men and women serial killers. “Playing the victim”, by this book’s standards, is actually taking a look into the accused’s history to help us as a society understand this person in it’s entirely, “to see what makes a killer” if you will, and unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for serial killers to have been abused as children (for both men and women). Person seems to hate any form of sympathizing with a killer (look, I get it), but it felt particularly one-sided for Pearson to bemoan this about women.
  • There is little talk of race in this book. One area where it is discussed is in how young Black girls have permission, for lack of a better term, to display traits that are more commonly seen in men, because of their environment and need to protect themselves and their family. This should have been teased out more, because if the point that men are aggressors and women are not, but Black women grow up being more aggressive then why don’t we see more Black woman serial killers? Perhaps, there is something to the research done at Quantico? Instead, this section just comes across as racist. Furthermore, there is little discussion of incarceration of black women in the prison section.
  • I understand that the majority of this book was written in the 90s and based on research from the 80s and 90s, but I would have thought with this edition there would have been a reflection on how as a society we know talk about serial killers in the new forward. Instead, we got a paragraph on Covid-19 with a parallel to the book that fell flat.

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