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Penelope Eate

Further information

About the author

Penelope Eate completed a Bachelor of Social Sciences Degree from the University of Adelaide in 2004 and a Bachelor of Arts Degree with First Class Honours in Gender Studies from the University of Adelaide in 2005. This paper is an abridged version of that which appeared as a chapter in Eate’s Honours thesis entitled ‘Countess Elizabeth Bathory’s Babies: A comparative Study Between Feminist Theory and Cultural Representations of Female Perpetrated Serial Murder'. A similar version was given at the Australian Women’s Studies Association Conference 21st Century Feminisms, held in Melbourne in 2006. Her research interests include women and crime, the celebrity serial killer, radical feminism, young women’s feminist involvement, film and popular culture. She is currently undertaking Post Grad studies at the University of Adelaide.

Publication details

Volume 16, May 2007

From Complicity to Coercion: The Representation of the Female Sexual Serial Murderer in the Case of Karla Homolka

This paper will examine the case of Karla Homolka, a 25 year old veternarian’s assistant who, on July 6th 1993, was tried and convicted of the deaths of Leslie Mahaffy, a 14 year-old high school student from Burlington, Ontario and Kristen French, a 15 year-old high school student from St. Catharines, Ontario. In a controversial plea bargain agreement Homolka received the relatively lenient sentence of two 12 year sentences which would be served concurrently, in exchange for her testimony against her then ex-husband, Paul Bernardo.1 Read into the facts of Homolka’s sentencing by the judge was her role in the 1991 drugging, sexual assault and death by asphyxiation of her youngest sister, 15 year-old Tammy Lynn Homolka. The couple’s role in the sexual assault of a fourth adolescent victim, who survived and testified at the Bernardo trial under the pseudonym of Jane Doe, did not result in a charge against either accused (McGillivray, 1998).

Throughout her trial, Homolka had maintained she was an unwilling accomplice to her then husband’s crimes and was rendered subservient by his physical and psychological abuse, however explicit videotapes depicting the rape and torture of the teenage victims, broadcast to courtroom spectators in part during the Bernardo trial, portray Homolka as a willing participant, and effectively discredited the defence attorney’s claims of Homolka being coerced into her role as Bernardo’s accomplice.

On July 7th, 2005, Homolka was released from the Joliette Institution for Women in Montreal having completed her mandatory 12 year sentence (Bardsley, 2005). Recent Canadian tabloid reports claim Homolka has since given birth to a son, and is planning to wed the father of her child, who has yet to be named, later this year (Sun Media, 2007).

This paper will begin by offering a brief summary of the court proceedings and the ways in which battered women’s syndrome and shared psychotic disorder (hereafter referred to as folie à deux) are understood within both popular and legal discourse. The second task of this paper will be to explore the attempts made by Homolka to marshal these prominent themes as a strategy to solicit sympathy from jurors. Thirdly, this paper will trace the conflicting narrative explanations for Homolka’s actions - as either a genuine victim of domestic violence or an emotionally detached femme fatale, as they were tested in the Canadian newspaper Macleans, a national publication that provides the most comprehensive coverage of the crimes and subsequent trials. The paper will then examine the implications of these alternative popular readings of women involved in serial sexual murder with male intimates.

Homolka provides a difficult case for feminists. Not only was she involved in serial murder, but she is also a serial sex offender. Denov provides statistics which suggest the rarity of this phenomenon (2001, 303). According to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, in 1999, two percent of adults convicted of a crime of sexual assault were female. Syed and Williams note that, in Canada in July 1995, there were only 19 female federal offenders whose major offence was sexual. These 19 women represent three percent of the female federal offender population (Denov, 2001: 303). In a further affront, all three of Homolka’s victims were teenaged girls. The location of the attacks, the couple’s home, is the only element of this case that does not invert the dominant theories regarding women’s homicidal behaviour.

Cameron and Frazer (1987) identify Myra Hindley as the only counter example to the proposition that sexual killers are men. Hindley does provide, if only in rudimentary form, a model which aids a more detailed exploration of Homolka: her motives, conduct and certainly the ways in which the popular press received the case. Indeed, there exist some striking similarities between Hindley and Homolka. Like Hindley, Homolka did not act alone, but in tandem with her husband. In both cases, the young age of the victims and the nature of the crimes committed against them ignited public outrage. In both cases, abduction, battery and sexual assault preceded the murders. In both cases, records were made of the crimes, either visual or audio. In both cases, battery and psychological abuse was cited as the motive - and defence - for the women involved. Since the publication of Cameron and Frazer’s work, the annals of female perpetrated sexual murder have extended somewhat (leading one journalist to refer to it as a ‘small but corrosive sorority’: Giardini, 2000). However the cultural codes by which we understand such women remain unchallenged.

Speculation still abounds as to whether Bernardo is indeed the killer, particularly since the murders were the only aspect of the crimes not videotaped. Fortunately, my task is not to adjudicate this issue as the guiding objective of this paper is to examine both the scholarly and popular representations of Homolka rather than the ‘reality’ of the crimes. The contemporary media and legal theory serve as sites for critical investigation, offering examples one can fruitfully draw on which demonstrate that Western culture, both linguistically and theoretically, possesses no adequate language with which to comprehend or explain women who kill. Explanations that do exist are facilitated by and dependent upon the gender positions of traditional femininity, which invariably locate the female perpetrator alternatively as either the victim or a provocateur of violence. In almost all cases the explanations for murderous women are ‘inserted’ into these kinds of justifications, sometimes supplemented with explanations based on medical disorders. Neither representation sufficiently articulates the complexities of criminal behaviour, yet both explanations can be located within cultural understandings of women’s capacity for murder.

This paper will argue that Homolka’s crimes were not easily reconciled within either pre-existing cultural explanation, however attempts were made by both Homolka’s legal representative and the accused herself to evoke these cultural explanations: ‘battered women’s syndrome’ and ‘shared psychotic disorder’ (folie à deux) to mitigate her crimes. The media similarly mobilised these cultural explanations to construct Homolka as a conniving femme fatale, who feigned the extent to which she claimed she was rendered subservient by Bernardo’s physical and psychological abuse in an attempt to absolve herself from legal responsibility for the adolescent’s deaths.

Battered Woman Syndrome

In early January 1993, Homolka’s parents expressed concern for Homolka whose appearance suggested she had been assaulted. Homolka’s mother is quoted as saying her daughter’s blackened eyes resembled those of a raccoon (Chidley, Jenish, & Doyle Driedger, 1995b: 35). Homolka’s parents insisted she take refuge in the home of one of her sister Lori’s friends. That same month, Niagara Regional Police charged Bernardo with assault, consequent upon a statement by Homolka claiming that Bernardo 2 had beaten her with a torch. A few weeks later, Metro Toronto Police laid 43 sexual assault charges against Bernardo, most in connection with a series of unsolved attacks dating back to 1987 in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. On February 17th 1993, Niagara Regional Police arrested Bernardo at his home in St. Catharines.

On February 19th, police executed the search warrants for Bernardo and Homolka’s home. Among the evidence seized from the property was a written description of every one of the Scarborough rapes. Mistakenly believing that the police search had uncovered the videotapes depicting the sexual assault of Tammy Homolka, Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, Homolka admitted to her involvement in the killings. Finally, on May 18th, Niagara Regional Police filed two counts of manslaughter against Homolka. A day later, Bernardo was charged with two counts of first degree murder (Jenish, 1995d: 14-15).

By the Crown prosecutor’s account, ‘Homolka was a slave to Bernardo’s whim, so heavily abused by him that she lost all will or self-control’ (Chidley, Jenish, & Doyle Driedger, 1995: 33). Crown prosecutor Houlahan concedes that Bernardo began controlling Homolka’s life shortly after their first meeting when she was 17, he 23. Bernardo allegedly talked Homolka out of attending university. Bernardo also allegedly refused to teach Homolka how to operate the gear stick shift in his car (Chidley, Jenish, & Doyle Driedger, 1995: 34). Homolka testified that Bernardo spat in her face, in her food and on one occasion forced Homolka to ingest his faeces (Jenish, 1995b: 67).

The standard of what degree of brutality a woman must sustain before she can classify her abuse as domestic violence became a central tenet of Homolka’s plea bargain and an area of debate during Bernardo’s trial. Macleans quickly detected this. Writers expressed their suspicions concerning Homolka’s inability to articulate the precise nature of her alleged abuse by reporting trial spectators’ unfavourable comments regarding her claims:

Homolka depicted herself as a battered, unwilling accomplice, responding to dozens of questions by saying “I did it to please Paul,” or “Paul made me do it”. But many (trial) spectators left unpersuaded by her story. “I think she’s an actress”, said Goretti Sozinho, a 30 year-old marketing production co-ordinator. “She says she was abused. But she wasn’t held at gunpoint”. (Jenish, 1995b: 66).

There were indeed inconsistencies with Homolka’s claims of abuse and the abuse that was detected by family members. Homolka’s mother and sister Lori, both of whom testified in court about the relationship between Homolka and Bernardo, said that they had observed an escalating pattern of abuse, culminating in a terrible beating in early January 1993 that ended the relationship. However, in cross examination by Bernardo’s attorney, both mother and daughter conceded that Bernardo’s abuse of Homolka occurred only in the last six months of the relationship, after the murders of Mahaffy and French (Jenish, 1995a: 51).

Macleans, like other publications covering the case, were preoccupied with ‘fitting’ Homolka’s abuse claims within their own unsophisticated understandings of domestic violence. If one accepts for a moment that Homolka was indeed a battered woman (the torch incident alone suggests that Homolka had experienced some form of marital assault at the hands of Bernardo), could the domestic violence she suffered have been a contributing factor in the crimes she would later been convicted of?

In cases where women have killed their abusive spouses, defence counsel have relied on the use of expert testimony to establish that the accused suffered from what has been described as ‘battered woman syndrome’ (Graycar & Morgan, 1990: 408). The ‘battered woman syndrome’, which was named and defined by psychologist Lenore Walker in 1979, argues that ‘some women who have endured long histories of abuse are so transformed through terror and suffering that they perceive and respond to the world very differently from people who do not share their gender and their experience of abuse’ (Dolan, 2003: 251). One component of battered woman syndrome, in Walker’s view, is what she calls ‘learned helplessness’, that is, an ‘acquired sense that one cannot control what happens or intervene effectively in the course of events’ (Dolan, 2003: 251). Critics of the legal relevance of battered woman syndrome question the origins of the theory - Walker derived her idea of learned helplessness from research that was first conducted on dogs - and its consequences (Dolan, 2003: 251). Pearson argues that learned helplessness is insufficient as a homicide defence as the act of killing challenges the very nature of the syndrome (Pearson, 1998: 51). However feminist jurisprudentalists in some instances have been successful in adding to the defence of battered woman syndrome - which in some jurisdictions, reduces murder to manslaughter - an argument for self defence based on a background of violence suffered, culminating in killing the spouse. Prior to the incorporation of this argument into law, a woman could only be acquitted of murder charges on the grounds that she was defending herself if she had responded immediately and proportionately to some act of provocation (Graycar & Morgan, 1990: 407). Traditionally, the retaliation by the accused on the attacker must have been reasonable in the circumstances: fists must be met with fists, blows with blows. Scutt argues that ‘as most women are either physically less well equipped than men to fight or are socialised into passivity and submission, it is sometimes necessary for women to use “excessive force” in acting in self defence’ (Scutt, 1990: 416-417). Recent reforms in some jurisdictions now allow women to respond to their spouse’s violence within any context they see necessary, be it whilst he is violent, inebriated or even asleep. In some cases, it is in circumstances whereby the husband is incapacitated that a woman suffering from learned helplessness could feel confident enough to attack.

However, no legal statutes exist for abused women who kill those other than their abusive spouses. It appears unlikely that Homolka’s actions leading up to and following the murders of her sister, Mahaffy and French (drugging, sexual assault and in Mahaffy’s case, dismemberment), would ever be excused if such a law did exist. As Pearson, who wrote an extensive, albeit populist account of Homolka in her book When She Was Bad (1998) puts it: ‘The documentation of bruises was a fool’s arithmetic. How many punches does it take to rape your sister? Nine? Fifty? One thousand and two?’ (Pearson, 1998: 51).

The learned helplessness defence has been so seriously corrupted by popular interpretations that it was accepted by some trial spectators that the sexual assault and murder of three teenaged girls was Homolka’s way of responding to Bernardo’s violence. Such a notion highlights the discrepancies between defences that are accepted by the public and those that are recognised by law. However, it could be argued that the gravity of Homolka’s crimes were such that Canadians had no easy way of reconciling what had transpired in the Homolka/Bernardo home in St. Catharines. A cultural code was required and it was provided in the form of the battered woman syndrome. McGillivray argues that ‘transforming Homolka from murderess to battered woman centres domesticity and enhances her womanliness’ (McGillivray: 1998).

Folie à Deux

Trial spectator Nicole Commack is quoted in Macleans as saying: ‘I just can’t believe that she could have done this. I don’t know how she could get so wrapped up in him that she could abandon all her morals’ (Jenish, 1995d: 16). The inclusion of sentiments such as these in Macleans serves to not-so-subtly convey the popular perception of Homolka as the naïve and malleable woman led astray by her love for a madman. Discourses regarding tandem killers have often engaged with the theory of the folie à deux, or ‘shared psychotic disorder’. Criminologists, psychiatrists and members of the press who employ the theory rarely give its actual scientific definition. Radden explains the folie à deux thus:

In a traditional folie à deux, one person induces a second, with whom they are close, to adopt their attitudes, outlook and psychotic delusions. Despite the social and occupational dysfunction to which it gives rise, both members of the pair act and feel as one without seeming distress over or acknowledgment of their strange unity. (Radden, 1996: 81).

This explanation therefore regards the ‘psychotic delusions’ as a ‘unity’ (hence the word shared). However many popular interpretations imply that the more impressionable of the two is a blank canvas upon which the other paints their delusions. Authors who have chronicled the Myra Hindley and Ian Brady case for example have used the word ‘indoctrinate’ (Wilson, 1985: 79) to illustrate the alleged megalomaniacal influence of Brady on Hindley. With other famous tandem killers, such as Nathan F. Leopold and Richard Loeb, authors make a point of noting who of the two was the more ruthless. Popular interpretation of the shared psychotic disorder is made dependent on dichotomies of passive and active, subject and object and positions women in the subordinate role, despite the fact that the gender of each party in the scientific definition is not stated. Such a reading effectively robs the woman of her agency and deems women generally as highly suggestible. Yet, for some observers, it is a convenient defence for women such as Hindley and Homolka. Journalist Christie Blatchford expressed her irritation with the implication of such a reading of the folie à deux with the statement: ‘Homolka didn’t need a man to turn her bad. None of us does’ (Blatchford, 1999).

Cameron and Frazer subject the theory of the folie à deux to vigorous evaluation in their reading of the Moors Murders case. They suggest that the rhetoric regarding the folie à deux, which they refer to as the ‘Pygmalion Theory’, limits further enquiry on the case. So satisfied with its implications for female sex offenders are true crime reporters that they have failed to even speculate ‘if Hindley was actually attracted not only to Brady, but to the ideas he expounded’ (Cameron & Frazer, 1987: 146). The application of such a theory in much media texts illustrates that even when it is argued that the serial sexual killer’s actions transcend moral, ethical and lawful boundaries, the analysis nonetheless reproduces existing (gender) power structures.

There are some elements of the Homolka/Bernardo case that suggest their interpersonal dynamics contradict the dominant masculinity/passive femininity ideology assumed in the popular reading of the folie à deux. Bernardo had committed a series of rapes, 19 in all, before his marriage to Homolka, and had allegedly been abusive towards former girlfriends during moments of sexual intimacy (McGillivray: 1998) yet he only began to murder after he married Homolka. Either rape no longer satisfied Bernardo or perhaps his association with Homolka provided an environment in which murder now seemed inviting. Evidence exists which suggests this might have been the case. An FBI Behavioural Sciences agent who analysed the first eight Scarborough rape reports predicted that ‘the “sadistic component” [of the rapes] and the rate of offending would escalate due to “a life style change”’(McGullivray: 1998). This life style change, according to the report, took the form of Bernardo’s involvement with and subsequent marriage to Homolka.

In the article ‘The Two Faces of Karla Homolka’ (Jenish, 1995a: 24), Macleans published edited transcripts of a videotape that was screened at Bernardo’s 1995 murder trial which shows Homolka and Bernardo in bed discussing their assault on Tammy Homolka and another unidentified adolescent victim. Homolka appears not only to be pandering to Bernardo’s desires but suggesting further assaults they can carry out:

Homolka: I’m saying I think you should take their virginity. They’re our children and I think you should make them ours even more.

Bernardo: Will you help me get the virgins?

Homolka: I’ll go in the car with you if you want. Or I’ll stay here and I’ll clean up afterwards, like I did on Sunday. I’ll do anything I can ‘cause I want you to be happy. (Jenish, 1995a: 53).

Pearson claims this curious use of the word ‘children’ in such an unsavoury context was Homolka’s way of assigning their victims an ‘unthreatening status’ (Pearson, 1998: 192). According to Pearson, ‘it is an effort at both ownership and objectification’(Pearson, 1998: 192). Although Macleans have made no reference to this theme of rape as a means to ‘own’ adolescent girls, it might be interpreted as the only way for Homolka’s dreams of motherhood, which she is reported to have harboured (Davis, 2002: 358), to be realised. However, this interpretation too conveniently locates Homolka’s motives, still undetermined, within the realm of ‘maternal instincts’.

Pearson claims that ‘theirs was a pas a deux [sic] between grandiose egos, with the narcissist [Homolka] artfully projecting her fantasies of “success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love” on the flat, reflective surface of the psychopathic [Bernardo] soul’ (Pearson, 1998: 189). In 2001, psychologist and journalist Dr. Tana Dineen sparked angry responses when she suggested in an article that ‘a lot of us [women] env[y] the remarkable erotic power that [Homolka] exudes’ (Dineen, Ottawa Citizen, January 3rd). Conspicuously absent from Dineen’s reading of Homolka, whom she likened to the fictional blonde protagonist in the 1998 comedy There’s Something About Mary, was Homolka’s alleged abuse by Bernardo. No mention is made of Homolka’s abuse claims being either slightly embellished or entirely spurious. To Dineen, the battered woman was simply not a feature of Homolka’s personality:

Karla is not a susceptible waif; she does not wear the drab mantle of a submissive victim…. Not a pawn but rather a queen, she exerts her cool control, appearing to dominate not only Paul but potentially all men. (Dineen, 2001)

This alternative depiction, of Homolka as the corruptor tempting Bernardo into evil, is neither unique to this case (the ‘Lady Macbeth’ theory was utilised by writers during the Hindley/Brady trial (Cameron & Frazer, 1987: 146-147)) nor adequate. No woman (or man) can ever be summed up as either inherently good or bad, and although one could argue that Pearson and Dineen were attempting to reverse Homolka’s media image from pliant subject to active agent, they only exchanged one sexist stereotype for another. Many media accounts of Homolka relied upon her alleged ability to ‘deceive’, or, as Dineen suggests, ‘seduce’ the public (or at least court spectators) with her very femininity, an extension of her obvious capacity for violence. Such a claim was central to Macleans depiction of Homolka as an enigmatic and detached murderess. Doane’s writings on the fictional femme fatale is particularly apt for illustrating the mystery, intrigue, presumed threat and possibility of women possessed of such formidable powers of psychological (indeed physiological) manipulation:

For her most striking characteristic, perhaps, is the fact that she never really is what she seems to be. She harbours a threat which is not entirely legible, predictable, or manageable. In thus transforming the threat of the woman into a secret, something which must be aggressively revealed, unmasked, discovered, the figure is fully compatible with the epistemological drive of narrative, the hermeneutic structuration of the classical text. Sexuality becomes the site of questions about what can and cannot be known. (Doane, 1991: 1, my emphasis) COMMENT TO CLIENT: NO EMPHASIS IN ORIGINAL

The ‘Dual Face’ of Karla Homolka

The notion of the serial killer as a visibly normal yet secretly maniacal individual has been mobilised in many academic and popular representations. Clinical psychologist Hervey Cleckley was instrumental in constructing the psychopath in this manner with his 1941 book The Mask of Sanity, which argued, as the title implies, that the psychopath’s true nature is obscured by a ‘mask’ which gives the individual the appearance of normality (Lykken, 1996: 30-31).

It is believed that through careful observation, psychopaths learn to appear to be loving, principled and kind but in reality lack emotion, compassion and remorse (Pearson, 1998: 99). The word psychopath has been so widely varied in its application, it now amounts to little more than polemical name calling. A genuine psychopath is not so much criminally insane, or mentally defective: in fact they may be otherwise quite rational and show no loss of contact with reality (Davidson & Neale, 1998: 343). However they are hollow, shallow, relentless in their pursuit of personal satisfaction and have little or no regard for others’ feelings or safety. Words such as actors, frauds, charlatans, chameleons, and mimics are often used to describe the psychopath. To disguise any disagreeable aspects of themselves, psychopaths will adapt their behaviour accordingly. Simpson explains, ‘one face is pleasant or at least non-threatening in order to conduct public negotiations. Another is evil, with which to terrify helpless victims’ (Simpson, 2003: 109).

This ‘dual face’ concept assisted Macleans in their construction of Homolka as a deceptive femme fatale who, by assuming an ostensibly respectable exterior, is able to conceal the alleged deadly, criminal underside that lurks beneath. By relying on a popular image, perpetuated in literature (for instance Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)) and reinforced by criminologists, Macleans present Homolka as the subject of her actions, rather than the agent, imbued with skills of deception that no ‘normal’ person would hope (or want) to possess.

To make serial killers seem truly subhuman, they are often transformed into animals by the various media texts. Just as the lycanthrope (werewolf) is a standard motif of the male serial killer, female serial killers have been likened to similarly dangerous animals, for instance the big cat or spider. What is interesting about these animals is their ability to convey telling characteristics that denote stereotypical ideas about their respective gender and modus operandi. The wolf (man) is brash, loud, unsubtle, whilst the cat/spider (woman) is sleek, cunning, stealthy. The wolf (man) slaughters then devours his prey over time whilst the cat/spider (woman) is more likely to poison its kill after a quick attack. Homolka, when appearing in court, is often referred to as motionless, emotionless, stoic and inactive yet exotic enough to compel the spectator: ‘[Homolka] remained as motionless as a mannequin, as silent as a Sphinx’ (Jenish, 1995d: 14).

This quotation reflects the way in which reporters exaggerated the supposed artifice of her (external) appearance, giving Homolka the attributes of an ‘inanimate object’, like those of a mannequin or the similarly physically realistic, emotionally vacuous doll. Descriptors used aim almost exclusively at dissolving Homolka’s reality and replacing her with a visually pleasing yet disingenuous replica. Her hair, ‘rich blond’ (Jenish, 1995d: 14) and ‘the colour of Florida sand’ (Pearson, 1998: 195), and her skin, which alternates between being ‘almost sueded, like a pelt’ (Blatchford, 1999) and ‘heavily caked [with] foundation’ (Bardsley, 2005), is never truly her own.

When describing her as she appeared in court to testify against Bernardo in 1995, Pearson utilises this image of Homolka as the inanimate object:

her face was as blank as a doll’s. She seemed eerily plastic, her hair shiny, her smooth skin artificially tanned, as if everything that had made her human had been air-brushed away. (Pearson, 1998: 47)

Homolka’s curious practice of appearing but not feeling seems to be a topic of concern for authors. It has been reported in various sources that Homolka failed to shed a single tear whilst recounting her crimes in court (one wonders if author’s concern for Homolka’s inability to cry lies not with her failure to affirm her humanity but with her incapacity to assert her femaleness). However it is not clear as to what would have been gained from such a display, since Homolka’s guilt, regardless of the presence or absence of remorse, was already assured by her having entered into the plea bargain.

In documenting the Homolka/Bernardo case, much has been made of the couple’s (particularly Homolka’s) apparent physical beauty. It could be argued that such an interest in Homolka’s appearance is symptomatic of the ways in which a woman’s body is immediately commodified in the public space, no matter what the reason that makes her so ‘newsworthy’. However the Macleans articles seem to offer a sort of moral appraisal based on Homolka’s physical appearance, as many articles juxtapose a comment regarding her looks to one regarding the gravity of the crimes:

The revelations - startling, sensational and occasionally sickening - flowed from the slender, blond witness with an icy detachment. (Jenish, 1995b: 65).

One might question the relevance of such assessments and the messages Macleans are trying to impart to their readers. Although superficial attractiveness has proved advantageous to those who possess it, male chivalry, however illogical and irrational, has rarely, if ever, extended to forgiving multiple sexual murder. Again, this statement has the added property of conveying the image of Homolka as attractive yet deadly.

In ‘Unspeakable Crimes’ , Macleans describes Homolka as she leaves the courthouse after sentencing:

Wearing a navy blue suit, a white blouse and a multicoloured floral barette in her rich blond hair, Homolka - in handcuffs - entered a police van for the trip to the Prison for Women in Kingston, Ontario. (Jenish, 1995d: 14)

Again, the reader is presented with an irreconcilable duality: the sharply dressed beautiful blond adorned in the most instantly recognisable implement of law enforcement, handcuffs.

In ‘The Homolka Enigma’ (Chidley, Jenish, Doyle Driedger), the image of Homolka as a deceptive, shape-shifting femme fatale is mobilised to great effect. Since police had no prior knowledge of Homolka leading up to her arrest, Macleans are inventive with the personal qualities they chose to imbue with criminal intent. Just as her physical image had dominated reports at her trial, Homolka’s fashion sense, so often deployed as a marker of respectability in women, dominates the earlier parts of the article. Discussion regarding something as innocuous as clothing portrays Homolka alternatively as either ridiculous - ‘Bernardo struck up a conversation with the then 17 year-old Homolka, who was wearing an outfit that featured boxer shorts over men’s long underwear’ (Chidley, Jenish & Doyle Driedger) - or as highly suggestible: ‘[After Bernardo and Homolka started dating regularly] Homolka began to dress more fashionably [presumably in an attempt to appeal to Bernardo’s tastes in clothes], and she let her blond hair grown back to its natural colour’ (Chidley, Jenish, & Doyle Driedger).

The entire article strives to frame Homolka as the ‘good girl gone wrong’, or, as authors Joe Chidley, D’archy Jenish and Sharon Doyle Driedger put it, ‘a typical suburban upbringing turned nightmare’ (33). In fact much of the article takes the narrative form of a gradual yet inexplicable moral decline. Bernardo was unmistakably evil from an early age (Chidley, 20-24), yet Homolka’s childish pursuits, amateur theatrics at school and a concern for the rights of animals (Chidley, Jenish, & Doyle Driedger, 33), was further indication, according to Maclean’s, of her capacity to deceive and not, as it might be thought, an element of the learned helplessness she was said to have been suffering from.

Such overlexicalisation is a standard feature of true crime reporting, often done in order to provide the reader with a vivid ‘picture’ of the subject. Print media has to overcompensate for the lack of visual cues, and for this purpose will often revert to seemingly insipid details of the subject’s physical appearance, hobbies and personal habits. When images are available, they usually takes the form of an exclusive, “never before seen” photograph of the accused in a more relaxed mood or incongruous setting. Favourites of televisual news programmes include family portraits and wedding photos. Homolka and Bernardo seated in the back of their opulent horse drawn carriage grinning ecstatically on their wedding day had added resonance when it was revealed that the photograph was taken on the same day that Mahaffy’s dismembered body was found. These types of photographs allow the spectator to become an armchair phrenologist, deciphering from the photograph alone if there is any visible indication that this seemingly normal individual/couple would turn out to be a killer. The photograph should be a reflection, but instead generates a ‘reality’ all of its own. When pondering a photograph depicting Homolka while released on bail, Maclean’s asks: ‘what emotions prevail behind that blank stare? Is there shame? Fear? Hatred? Anything?’ (Chidley, Jenish, & Doyle Driedge 32).

As a site of information, Macleans satisfies all the conventions of true crime reporting. Pedantic with minute details, slightly sensationalised in recounting criminal acts and the occasional editorialising from writers are techniques that, established during the time of the broadside (Ornebring, & Jonsson: 283-295) and the ‘penny dreadful’, obscure any critical investigation of the motives for murder. Naming the unknown (‘what emotions prevail behind that blank stare?’), undue emphasis on appearances, the infantilising of female offenders, the assumption that all evil done by women must have been ultimately in the service of a man are giving a kind of legitimacy when reinforced in the media.

Unlike that of the endlessly reproduced 1965 mug shot of Myra Hindley, there exists no singular image of Karla Homolka which we can collectively interrogate for a meaning. There is however a series of images, both visual and allegorical, that exceed her actions. Regardless of which account of Homolka is most satisfying to the viewer, neither representation, not the docile, battered woman, nor the scheming seductress, properly explains the homicides Homolka would partake in.

After her appearance at the Bernardo trial, public opinion of Homolka as a battered wife (as far as it can be measured by the tabloids) shifted significantly. The portrayal of Homolka as a femme fatale, within whom something which is unknown, unseen, is seething beneath a veneer of middle class WASPish beauty where nothing is obvious about her - except her potential for evil - signal to the doubt concerning Homolka’s abuse claims. Although her claims of domestic violence were met with some suspicion, the presence of existing ‘psy’ labels, which, although still insufficient as a reasonable defence, did aid in the re-making of Homolka as a victim of Bernardo’s influence. Her status as a battered wife is therefore an element of the masquerade.

What these representations suggest is that society has yet to move beyond the assumptions of patriarchy, which insists that women are either weak, passive and subject to the influence of men or cunning and manipulative. Engagement with these prescriptive discursive practices further elides the possibility of realising gender equality, which has implications for all women, and not just the criminal.


1. Despite pleading not guilty on nine counts, including two each of first-degree murder, kidnapping, unlawful confinement, aggravated sexual assault and one count of offering an indignity to a dead human body (Jenish, 1995c: 14), Bernardo was found guilty on two counts of first-degree murder in 1995. This conviction carried the mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for at least 25 years (Hewitt, 1995: 245).

2. Bernardo was at the time of his arraignment in the process of changing his surname to Teale, after the fictional serial killer Martin Thiel from the film ‘Criminal Law’ (1989). Upon her release, Homolka would also rename herself Thiel.


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Chidley, J., Jenish, D., & Doyle Driedger, S., (1995) The Homolka enigma: finally Karla Homolka will have her say, Macleans, June 26th, 108, 26, 32-7

Davidson, G. C., & Neale, J. M., (1998) Personality Disorders, Ch. 13 in G. C. Davidson & J. M. Neale, (eds.) Abnormal Psychology (seventh edition), New York: John Wiley & Sons, p. 343.

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Hewitt, B., (1995) Record of horror, People Weekly, September 18th, 44, 12, 235-39

Jenish, D., (1995a) The two faces of Karla Homolka, Macleans, June 12th, 108, 24, 235-39.

Jenish, D., (1995b) ‘Paul made me do it’, Macleans, July 1st, 108, 27, 65-7

Jenish, D., (1995c) Horror stories, Macleans, May 29th, 108, 22, 14-20

Jenish, D., (1995d) Unspeakable crimes, Macleans, July 19th, 106, 29, 14-19

Jenish, D., (1995e) In his own defence: Paul Bernardo admits he raped, but insists he did not kill, Macleans, August 28th, 108, 35, 39-40

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McGillivray, A., ‘A moral vacuity in her which is difficult if not impossible to explain’: law, psychiatry and the remaking of Karla Homolka. Accessed via: www.umanitoba.ca/faculties/law/Course/McGillivray/Karla-Homolka.html  Date of Retrieval: 26th August, 2005.

Ornebring, H & A. M. Jonsson, (2004) Tabloid media and the public sphere: a historical perspective on tabloid journalism, Journalism Studies, 5, 3: 283-295.

Pearson, P (1998) When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away With Murder, London: Penguin.

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Sun Media, ‘Karla Has Baby Boy’ Accessed via: https://cnews.canoe.ca/CNEWS/Canada/2007/02/08/3558711-sun.html  Date of Retrieval: 16th February, 2007.

Wilson, P. R., (1985) Murder of the Innocents: Child Killers and their Victims, Sydney: Rigby.

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