Anita Shreve’s Strange Fits of Passion (1991) is a relatively short book, only 342 pages and in a larger font than I’ve grown accustomed to reading in novels, but it took me forever to finish it. The subject matter is compelling, but painful to read. I put the book down many times, taking a break from the details of Mary Amesbury’s (formerly Maureen English) fear, the beatings she endured, the killing of her abuser, and the effect this series of events had on her, her daughter, and the townspeople in Maine who cared for her.
The story unfolds through the Notes and Transcripts of Helen Scofield, a journalist who covered “The Maureen English Story” in 1971, including the writings of Mary Amesbury, who was convicted of first degree murder for killing her abusive husband, and interviews with townspeople who had known Mary. It concludes with Scofield’s article and with her facing Mary’s daughter almost two decades after the events underlying the story. The novel, structured so that each chapter is an interview of a different person, reveals different perspectives on “the truth,” and Anita Shreve’s skillful writing allows her characters’ distinct voices and personalities to shine through.
Reflecting on Mary’s trial, Helen Scofield thinks, “[The judge had] thrown the book at her. Today… she’d have gotten five years for manslaughter, if that.” Scofield believes that her article and Mary’s conviction and sentencing were products of the time, the early 1970s, and that two decades later, much has changed. Reading this book in 2012, two decades after Scofield’s fictional observation, my impression is that the law has changed in many positive ways, but continues to fall short in others. The end result is continuing injustice for domestic violence victims, particularly those women* who protect themselves and their children by killing their abusers.
By 1920, wife beating was illegal in all states, but it was not until the 1970s, when the women’s rights movement focused on domestic violence as a public concern, that states improved their responses to domestic violence through the criminal and civil justice systems. For example, states started to treat domestic violence as a serious crime, passed legislation providing for civil orders of protection, criminalized spousal rape, and passed custody statutes including an inference against granting custody of children to abusers. There has even been some progress in the law when domestic violence victims kill their abusers, such as the admissibility of expert testimony on battering and the effects of battering (sometimes called “Battered Woman Syndrome,” a controversial label that is associated with many misconceptions).
But have we made enough progress in how our criminal system responds to domestic violence victim-defendants who are charged with murder for killing their abusers? I think the answer is no.
Despite Scofield’s fictional assertion in Strange Fits of Passion that “Today [in the early 1990s]… [Mary]’d have gotten five years for manslaughter, if that,” the law continues to treat victim-defendants harshly. In a 2007 law review article, 18 Hastings Women’s L.J. 31, based on a study of convictions and sentences from 1986 to 1988, Carol Jacobsen et al. concluded:
Despite the very real dangers that many women live with on a daily basis, those who defend themselves against batterers are given no special consideration by the criminal-legal system if they are forced to kill. In fact, there is evidence that such women often face greater punishment than other defendants.
When evaluating a case, the ethical question prosecutors face is not, ‘Can I convict the defendant?’ but ‘Should I convict?” Cases that involve victim-defendants [who have been abused] present prosecutors will many opportunities to seriously consider and evaluate the meaning of ‘achieving justice.’
For some victim-defendants, the law offers a justification for the killing: self-defense, for which a defendant typically “must demonstrate a reasonable belief that the actions were necessary to prevent imminent harm.” But what about “achieving justice” for the victim-defendant who kills her abuser while he is sleeping? She wasn’t under threat of “imminent harm,” but her actions may still be reasonable in light of the abuse she has experienced. To me, it’s not that the “son-of-a-bitch deserved what was coming to him,” but that, within the victim-defendant’s mental framework, it is reasonable for her to have believed that her life was in imminent danger as long as her abuser was alive. Thus, she should not be punished the same as a defendant who murders someone in cold blood without an underlying history of abuse.
I certainly hope no one would have to resort to homicide in order to protect herself. I hope battered women are able to escape the abuse, obtain civil and criminal protection, and find sufficient support in their communities. But the truth is that for some women, underfunded community resources, like shelter, is unavailable; their abusers view civil protection orders as just pieces of paper; their abusers intimidate them from pursuing criminal charges; their abusers know how to “game” the system; and their abusers will eventually kill them, especially if they have stalked or strangled their victims in the past (and strangulation, often inappropriately called “choking,” is shockingly common). If these women kill their abusers, the criminal justice system should not “throw the book at them.” Rather, we should address their needs and find alternative ways of holding them accountable (instead of conviction and incarceration) if current law provides no clear justification, like self-defense, for their actions.
*I recognize that men are also victims of domestic violence; however, women are disproportionately victims of intimate partner violence based on coercive control.
UPDATE: In Domestic Violence Is NOT Romantic (Traditional Publishing Doesn’t Seem To Know That), I discuss the outrageous cover of this novel.