Discover more from evil female
Love In The Time Of True Crime Podcasts
Or, my thoughts on maintaining radical abolitionist politics while living in an unendingly violent world
I thought I was going to die outside the public library. It was a shame—I’ve always been fond of the library as a place of community and the Troy Public Library was a particularly gorgeous one. I had called ahead that day asking if I could come take some pictures for an art project. It was a conceptual piece, most of the work was audio recordings on cassettes, and I had planned to appear as a stand-in character for this type of mid-century white femininity: poodle skirt, white ribbon in the hair, blonde haired, blue eyed. I was rather proud of my work and felt the photos came out compelling and Cindy Sherman-esque given that I did all the photography, costuming, and modelling myself. I packed my things: my tote bag, cassette player, phone, wallet, the fancy DSLR camera I borrowed from a friend, and the tripod that allowed me to work by my myself. I headed to my car that was twenty, maybe thirty steps from the front door of the library, smiled at the woman sitting on the stoop a few doors down, my eyes on my beat up old Honda Civic and the promise of a Dunkin’ Donuts drive through run on the way back. A few paces in front of my car was an adult man, a fair bit taller than me. I smiled at him, too. Since moving abroad, I have been made aware that this is a painfully American trait, like drinking drip coffee or tipping at restaurants.
For the sake of sensationalism, I wish I could give a better or more cinemagraphic description of what happened next. I was standing upright, moving towards my car, arms full of props and equipment. And then, I wasn’t. I don’t remember falling or moving, just that I was standing and then my head was on the pavement. And there was a man laying on top of me. He had grabbed my head, smashed it into the asphalt, and continued to hold my wrists down. I began to scream, he put his hand over my mouth. “Why are you doing this to me? What do you want? What did I do? Please don’t hurt me. I’ll give you anything. Please don’t hurt me. I just want to go home.” There were people around, people I had seen while walking out of the library. They didn’t do anything. I am going to be raped in the middle of the street, I thought, and probably stabbed too. I kept screaming. And then he got up. I don’t know how long I was on the pavement. He offered me his hand, which I took, and pulled me off the sidewalk. “I’m so sorry,” he said, making an expression I would never know as I couldn’t make my eyes meet his, “I’m so sorry.”
There was no way to feel in this moment besides confused. I managed out a what? And he said “I thought you had a gun,” to which I could only respond with another What? Why would I have a gun? I was dressed like an extra on Leave it To Beaver, walking out of the public library on a balmy Saturday afternoon. He told me he had just been released from prison, that the experience had “really messed him up” and that he was just getting back on his feet. He said he mistook my camera tripod, a three-foot bundle of black metal rods, for a large gun. He asked me not to call the cops, that he couldn’t go back. He had just gotten to see his family. I told him I wouldn’t call the cops and that I would like to go home. He told me he really needed to restart his life, that he couldn’t go back, he asked again if I wouldn’t call the cops. I said, “No, I won’t call them. I don’t like the cops either. I’m sorry. Is it okay if I go home?” We had this exchange several times over, he was upset, I continued to apologise, I continued to ask for permission to go home. I told him I understood—he was just trying to keep his community safe from what he thought was danger. Eventually, I mustered up whatever resolve I had left to say “I am going to go home now. I am not going to call the cops. I’m sorry for everything that happened.” I walked to my car, stared down by the handful of people who watched everything but never moved to help. I closed the door, drove a quarter mile to a parking lot, and sobbed.
In most ways, I was fine. My elbows were deeply bruised from where they had hit the pavement, I had a pretty severe concussion. My biggest immediate worry was that the fall had broken the camera, loaned to me from a friend, something I couldn’t afford to fix or replace. It was fine. One of the tripod’s metal legs was bent at a 40-degree angle. I went to the hospital at the insistence of a very kind professor in a movingly paternal email stating he would do it himself if I was too stubborn to go. They told me that everything would be fine in time and that I should file a police report. I didn’t.
It’s an awfully crazy story, isn’t it? Walking down the street in the middle of the afternoon, ending up getting your skull bashed into the street and thinking you were about to die, getting helped up by the same person that attacked you and being told that it was a misunderstanding. For what it’s worth, I believe the guy. I have two reasons for doing so: one, that prison is a physically and psychologically violent environment that is designed to be traumatising. He didn’t take any of the expensive things that had splattered onto the street with me and helped me up when he realised his mistake. The second is that it is much easier to believe him. Maybe it was a lie and he was some crazed sex pervert who gets off on seeing people in terror and then confusion, a routine rehearsed and perfected. Probably not. I sleep much easier at night believing that it was a misunderstanding.
About a year before, I was raped in my apartment by someone I knew. I don’t need to disclose the details. I don’t remember it well. I told three people. I cried a lot. It wasn’t the first or only unwanted physical interaction I have had and realistically it probably won’t be the last. In a desire for control I became very cruel to some people I care very deeply about. Someone I trusted told many people they knew about what had happened to me, perhaps in an attempt to get back at me for the callousness I had developed. I would walk through our campus, see people that knew I was raped, and run back to my car to cry, the feeling of something so deeply personal existing inside the consciousness of someone else, someone I did not chose, knowing it was the first thing they thought when they saw me… it was a level of violation that was perpetual and unavoidable.
It seems like womanhood is nothing more than a descriptor for a relationship to a certain type of violence. It is a cyclical imposition of madness: to be exposed to lecherous gazes and unwanted touches and then to be told that you must carry on unaffected. In turn, these feelings are taught to be repressed, an additional form of violence, then further amplified by labelling women as crazy or hysteric when it becomes too much to keep inside oneself. I thought that in order to be loved I must first withstand or self-inflict some necessary level of pain, live with a perpetual open wound.
The 1974 Canadian film Black Christmas is often credited as the progenitor of the slasher-film horror subgenre. It centres around a sorority house around Christmas and a string of grizzly murders, seemingly perpetrated by the same person who has been making strange and unsettling calls to the house landline. Famously, “the call is coming from inside the house”—the anonymous killer has been living amongst these women without their knowledge. I wouldn’t jump to call Black Christmas a feminist film, but the terror of the movie is deeply entangled with the perpetual terror of being a young woman. A man who appears to be trustworthy could be a killer in disguise. The home is not a space that is guaranteed to be safe. The cops, shown to be largely incompetent at solving crimes, see the girls as irrational. The film ends with the police falsely identifying a deceased man as the killer, leaving the protagonist alone in her home. The phone rings, her fate unknown.
True crime podcasts stoke similar anxieties about moving throughout the world as a woman. The hosts of these podcast detail how girls are snatched, caught, kidnapped anywhere and everywhere and then raped, murdered, and dispatched, the structure of these podcasts turning each real, human victim into an interchangeable part, a standardised episode like Scooby Doo’s Monster of the Week sponsored by some start-up presenting as a therapy app and functioning as a data harvesting scheme.
The real life news, the sensationalisation of violence against women in fiction and non-fiction, the real life experiences held by anyone perceived by society as a woman… these things all present a grim reality of womanhood. One of violence, of rape and murder, of perpetual psychological torment, in public and private, across centuries of history. I am not in the business of defining womanhood, I do not think that there are any specific biological or social requirements. And nor do I mean to say that one cannot feel connected to womanhood without personally experiencing direct physical violence. I do not like to issue universalities and all statements have their exceptions, but in my experience this proximity with gendered violence is perhaps the only—if not defining—characteristic of womanhood. It is an experience that permeates across class, race, sexuality, dis/ability, yet is also amplified by every facet of identity that transgresses some sort of institutional norm. It would be a gross misrepresentation to categorize this as a fixed state of victimhood or to valorise violence as some sort of necessary evil to the sanctity of female maternalism, rather it is a reality of material existence that is exacerbated by institutional forces and perpetuated by the choices of individuals.
These institutions, these sources of violence are not fixed states of nature. They can be challenged, dismantled, and abolished through thorough and persistent radical work.
What is crime? A crime, in its contemporary and popular sense, is an action that violates the written laws of a state or governmental body. The state then has the ability to punish the individual or group that violated that law. In 1651, Thomas Hobbes defined the state as the monopoly on violence. I do not believe in the sanctity of the state. All prisoners are political prisoners as the process of legislation is an inherently political one. This is certainly not to say that there is no overlap between things that are illegal and things that are wrong, but rather that the act of “committing a crime” is simply a government designation rather than a moral transgression. Often times, those given the least representation in the legislative process—anyone who is not white and wealthy, in short—are subject to the strictest confines of the law, one in which they had little say in creating but is used against them the most often. To be deemed a criminal is a violent process, socially and financially distancing, and to be placed into a violent institution like a prison or psychiatric facility furthers the physical, emotional, and social distress placed upon the individual labelled criminal. The effects of incarceration create unstable individuals and unstable communities whose needs are often times not only ignored by the state but actively exploited. In the United States, many urban, Black communities are placed under direct occupation by policing forces whose over-surveillance is justified by the violence that policing begins.
One week after I moved to Southeast London, 28-year-old Sabina Nessa disappeared during what was supposed to be a five-minute walk to her local pub around 8:30pm. The next day, her body was found in a public park, two miles away from my house. A local man that Nessa did not know was arrested and confessed to the killing. Six months earlier, Sarah Everard was murdered in London by an on-duty police officer. Between their deaths, seventy-seven women in England were murdered by men.
What does it mean to practice radical, abolitionist politics in the face of perpetual violence? In theory, I could have called the cops on the man that attacked me. It likely would not have ended well for him—I was in one of the most dangerous cities in New York, a young white woman studying at the nearby liberal arts college, attacked by someone who had only recently been incarcerated. I was dressed to present an exact image of victimhood and virtue that white supremacists love to list as the motivation for their actions; despite the reason for my costuming being to subvert that very idea, the imagery of the attack was the same.
But the violence of my attack did not begin and end with the man that attacked me. He said it himself, that being incarcerated was psychologically violent, that his momentary psychosis was born out of this state-sanctioned torture. If he had a family, they would once again lose a father. An unstable home life, one without a key income-earner, could be the source of deep trauma for children. These things could amplify the cycles of violence that had already begun, that began long before this man was born. And yet. I don’t know anything about this man. He could have been making it all up. Or he could have gone to prison for white collar finance crime. It doesn’t matter.
The state and the media tell us there is a murderer behind every corner, a rapist in every shadow, we must carry pepper spray and weaponise change.org petitions to put bad people behind bars. This rhetoric is hard to ignore given that it comes from a fundamental truth. Existing as a woman is living in a perpetual state of fear characterised largely by your own experience and the experience of people you know. The advice is largely the same: don’t go places alone at night, keep your location on your phone always shared with someone, don’t talk to strangers, carry pepper spray.
The most difficult part of practicing abolitionism is internal. I hope that my audience will not be intentionally dense or obtuse because my message is not that fear of violence is irrational or that being vigilant makes you a puppet of the state. Nor am I saying that all misogyny is a product of capitalism and you can’t put blame on individuals for their actions because they are a part of a corrupt structure. But my point is this: the perpetual fear that women live under will not change unless the structures of evil, inequity, and pain that encourage violent misogyny do too. Punishment is not the same as justice. Surveillance is not the same as accountability. Western imperial capitalism thrives on individualism. The spectacle of imprisonment is also an interaction between the public and the state—we see the subjected “criminal”, shamed, demeaned, ridiculed. We recognise ourself in the “criminal”, it is a label that could be prescribed to almost anyone, and we enjoy the temporary relief that this suffering is not our own. We want to trust the state because today, it has not given us the punishment it designed specifically for us, and for that we are grateful.
It must be said that popular discourses around “women’s safety” often turn to fundamentally reactionary solutions. It is a rhetoric employed on the international stage, justifying the continued occupation of Afghanistan or to demonise Palestine, it is the rallying cry for increased police presence outside of nightclubs, it is the wealthy white college-aged woman who loves fraternities but won’t go into Black neighbourhoods over claims of safety. Many empathetic people seeking to reduce pain and suffering join in on these racist or imperial missions because their actual material implications are intentionally obfuscated and the emotional weight of calling upon some sort of universal female liberation seems impossible to oppose. But prioritising the needs of white, wealthy women is not only an obfuscation of liberation, but an active act of oppression of women of colour and poor women. Police and military presence doesn’t just target actively malicious misogynists, but instead subjects all marginalised people. Depriving women in already vulnerable positions of their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, and friends is already a deeply anti-woman position. And it should go without saying, though out of caution must be said anyway, that the unilateral, blanket reduction of men as perpetrators and women as victims is the same bioessentialist dehumanisation that has been used against all marginalised people under the machinery of imperial capitalism.
What does it mean to live an abolitionist lifestyle? It means understanding the role that patience, love, and compassion play as political tools. Shame and humiliation are not meant to bring justice to victims. They do not reverse any damage; they do not acknowledge the pain or help someone forward. They centre perpetrators and more importantly centre the violation of the law instead of the violation of the victim or of the community. Historical materialism and radical love politics are not opposite or contrary politics: they should both ask “Who needs what?”. Sometimes that is providing education and housing to at-risk youth. Other times it is asking survivors what resources they need to heal or to address communities how to counter rhetoric of hatred within their members. Sometimes it is to be listened to, to be treated with kindness, to be met with understanding.
What has helped me in the face of violence? Time, mostly. Talking with other people who have been in the same place. Laughing. Swimming in the river. Embracing vulnerability and seeing kindness in the people around me. I hate hippie bullshit and I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, or that if I could go back in time I wouldn’t change the past for some sort of abstract self growth that can only come from immense pain. But I also know that I can continue to be angry at the world and fill myself with hardness and spite, live in misery and paranoia as a toxically protective shell. Or I can acknowledge that all people have a right to feel belonging, community, and home. That transgressive behaviour often comes from a place of some sort of need not being met. Punishment does not encourage change, it encourages suffering.
In many ways, my experiences should make me more vigilant. After all, I know how scary and terrible and violent the world can be. But I also know that I cannot take the anger and fear born from my experience and project it onto the world. To be certain: I am cautious, I am weary. Walking alone after dark isn’t easy. But I also know that projecting the fear of this anonymous other won’t protect me. I was attacked in broad daylight, in the middle of the street. In all honesty, the scariest part of the whole experience was knowing that the people around me did not help. There are women who will be met with violence by strangers in alleyways. There are men who seem to be motivated by nothing other than a desire to perpetuate harm. The seeming randomness of violence and hatred cannot always be overcome with a restorative justice and community gardens. But the desire to react to violence with the same gluttony for pain as the systems that perpetuate it is a disservice: to victims, to our future selves, for the worlds we want to build. Instead we must envision a community dominated not by states that exist to dispense violence, but by ourselves and our dedication to move forward.