It's no coincidence that Adam Lanza's first victim was his mother. Women represent the final barrier to mass murder
On Friday, November 30, after driving himself from Connecticut to Wyoming, Christopher Krumm used a bow and arrow to kill his professor father at the front of a classroom filled with community college students, and then stabbed himself to death. But before he did that, he stabbed his father’s 42 year-old girlfriend at home two miles away.
On Friday, December 14, Adam Lanza went on a shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed twenty children and six adults. But before he did that, he shot and killed his mother at home.
On Christmas Eve, William Spengler lured first responders to his neighborhood by setting a fire and then shooting four firemen, killing two of them, then committing suicide. Before he did that, he likely caused the death of his sister, whose remains were later found in the ashes. Way before that, in 1980, he killed his grandmother with a hammer.
On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman rolled a trunk of weapons up to the observation deck of the UT Tower in Austin and began shooting, killing thirteen and wounding thirty-one. But before he did that, he stabbed his wife, asleep in their bed at home. And before he did that, he attacked, bludgeoned, and stabbed his mother in her apartment.
Female bodies are often discovered at “secondary crime scenes,” so labeled because they contribute evidence and insight into the scene of the primary investigation, where the maximum public performance of horror has occurred. Secondary may seem to connote collateral or less important damage, but from a narrative and perhaps a psychological point of view, these scenes can be viewed as primary, not only in chronological but social significance.
On a practical level, these female victims represent potential barriers to commission of the crime—people who could talk down the perpetrator, contact authorities, or otherwise interfere. In the mind of the killer, these women also may have posed a symbolic barrier to a conscious or subconscious self-image as the perpetually wronged party, a man with No Other Options, the prodigal avenger called to teach the world a drastic lesson.
Unfortunately, whether racking up points for piles of bodies in a videogame or assassinating terrorists with drones, to kill in the West is to win. And in order to win, on some level, regardless of biological sex, a person must purge barriers to winning by suppressing characteristics perceived as culturally feminine: softness and gentleness, submission and openness, sympathy, mercy, or hesitation.
You know: Shoot first and ask questions later. Make my day. Don’t be a pussy.
The private killing of particular women who could stand in the way of multiple public murders embodies an extreme and ultimately violent suppression of any force, internal or external, that might temper or “domesticate” the code of take-no-prisoners cowboy manliness.
I’m talking not about biology here, but gender expectations. It’s not a new cause for concern. Bob Herbert has addressed the subject in the New York Times several times, one essay linking the massacre of women in a Philadelphia health club with two eerily similar, back-to-back sexual assaults and shootings of girls at schools in Bailey CO and Paradise PA. In The Bully Society, Jessie Klein has used the phrase “flamboyant masculinity” to interpret school bullying rituals as well as school shootings. In Dude, You’re a Fag, researcher C.J. Pascoe traces how gender conformity can be internalized to a destructive degree after years of hazing and humiliation. Michael Kimmel has spent his whole career writing about how society rewards attitudes and behaviors in men that may be ultimately self-destructive, most recently in Guyland, his study of hundreds of young men between ages 16 to 26.
We rarely talk about the gender aspect of violent crime, and experts often point to exceptional cases of female killers (Brenda Ann Spencer, Andrea Yates, Jennifer San Marco). I’d point to Shakespeare, where in Act Five Lady Macbeth expresses fear that her husband is “too full of the milk of human kindness” to murder King Duncan, and she calls upon the spirits “to unsex [her] here/and fill [her] from the crown to the toe top-full/of direst cruelty….Stop up the access and passages to remorse/that no compunctious visitings of nature/shake [her] fell purpose.”
Our vicious lady isn’t praying for a medical procedure, but a psychological gender transformation: divine permission and internal conviction to win (in this case, to urge her husband towards murder)—minus the restraint that might be attributed as “natural” to her sex. In short, she’s praying to be more manly.
We sure seem to assume that women who kill must have “unsexed themselves” into something unnatural, just as Shakespeare’s character desires. It offers one way to explain our extra social indignation and surprise when women commit violent acts.
How long until we face the other part of the equation, where we permit and frankly encourage aggression–even violence–as “part of the deal” for young men, in order to prove that they aren’t girls? How many learn to suppress traits or behaviors perceived as feminine in order to fit the code?
Like a phantom limb, a ghostly stain, these questions will linger whether we face them or not.
It’s sad and ironic that if the bodies of wife, mother, girlfriend, mother, sister, and grandmother had been the sole discoveries at primary crime scenes, there would likely be much less national attention to the murders, which would blur into our statistics on domestic violence. It’s not all that shocking that Las Vegas, one remaining symbol of the Wild West, led the nation in murders of women again last year–for the third year in a row.
“All men are potential murderers,” says Anthony Hopkins as Psycho director Alfred Hitchock, glaring at the back of his wife’s neck. “And for good reason.”
The mass murderer might as well take it a step further: “Supersex me,” he seems to say, with his extra long blade, his high-powered bow and arrow, his Bushmaster rifle ejaculating bullets, a fatal blaze of hideous glory.
Bringing gender into the conversation need not exclude other obviously relevant topics, including mental illness and our American love affair with firearms. It might even shed light on why it’s so easy for gun lobbyists and manufacturers to portray any changes in current gun laws as an assault on manhood itself.
The current silence feels unsustainable. But before we start talking, we’ll have to think harder about what we want “manhood” to mean, and make it a primary concern.
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