On Thursday 12 November, the former neonatal nurse Lucy Letby was charged with killing eight babies and attempting to kill another ten at the Countess of Chester hospital in Cheshire between 2015 and 2016. Letby’s case is distressing, but it is not unique.
One study suggests that almost a third of female serial killers are nurses. These women seem to be driven, at least at first, by a warped belief that they are helping their victims by saving them from suffering. Skilled at covert methods of poisoning, many successfully evade detection for months or years, killing dozens or even hundreds of their patients, meaning this kind of serial killing accounts for a disproportionate number of victims. Although men can act as so-called angels of mercy – Harold Shipman, a GP, being one example – the preponderance of women in this category is remarkable, given how little violent crime women usually commit.
[see also: Peter Sutcliffe’s long shadow across the north]
Beverley Allitt is the most notorious British example of a female “angel of mercy”, having murdered four children and injured a further nine at a hospital in Lincolnshire in 1991. Allitt has since been the subject of a book, a BBC dramatisation, and half a dozen true-crime documentary episodes. If Letby is found guilty, we should expect the same treatment of her, particularly given her delicate prettiness – the same kind of prettiness that so beguiled the press when the American Amanda Knox was wrongfully convicted of the murder in Italy of the British student Meredith Kercher in 2007.
Female murderers attract a very particular kind of attention. A Google search for Rose West brings up almost five times as many results as a search for Fred West, and Myra Hindley’s blonde bouffant mugshot has maintained an iconic position in British popular culture, so much so that one Sunday newspaper included Hindley in a list of the hundred most influential modern women.
The fictional murderess is far more common than her real-life counterpart, perhaps partly to keep the reader on her toes (it can’t always be the young man aged 15 to 25 with a criminal record as long as your arm), but also because we are so horribly fascinated by women who kill.
Female murderers are difficult to approach from a feminist perspective, and often provoke two very different instincts. The first is to ignore them, directing attention instead to the 95 per cent of homicide perpetrators who are male.
The second is to adopt a perverse narrative of egalitarianism, along the lines of, “Anything men can do, we can do better!” Or, as Deborah Cameron paraphrased it in her analysis of the coverage of the trial of Rose West: “If we accept that women can be airline pilots, we should also accept that they can be rapists.”
This line of thinking relies on an unfalsifiable idea that female violence is chronically under-acknowledged because of a misplaced sense of chivalry within the criminal justice system. It has been adopted occasionally by feminists who are chary of gender essentialism and want to emphasise the similarities between men and women, but more often it has been clung to by men’s rights activists who are convinced that society is stacked against them.
We need a more honest way of approaching female killers – neither neglecting their existence, nor eliding the differences between male and female offending. Because the more attention you pay to female criminality, the more it becomes clear how very distinctive it is. Women commit terrible acts, and when they do, it is almost always in a way that, perversely, reveals a great deal about the extremes of femininity.
Occasionally, there are female killers who do deserve our sympathy. The woman (wrongly) dubbed “America’s first female serial killer”, Aileen Wuornos – depicted by Charlize Theron in the 2003 film Monster and the subject of a new book by Phyllis Chesler – fits the profile of the victimised woman who is pushed to the limit and eventually lashes out at her tormenters. Sexually abused since childhood, Wuornos began selling sex as an adolescent and, between 1989 and 1990, she shot and killed seven punters in Florida, all of whom, she insisted in court, had either raped or attempted to rape her. Despite her claims of self-defence, Wuornos was executed in 2002.
Wuornos is only one kind of female killer. Others are far harder to defend – not only the crazed “angels of mercy”, but also the women who act as accomplices to their intimate partners, as female killers do far more often than their male counterparts.
There is a moral murkiness to such cases that Lucy Kirkwood explores in her play The Welkin, which dramatises the interrogation of a Myra Hindley-like character of the 18th century who is involved in the murder of a child. Did she do it because she was coerced by her murderous lover, or did she act of her own free will? We can’t be sure, just as we can’t be sure when it comes to Hindley herself. Some of the characters in the play condemn her utterly, while others try to find some hope for redemption. She offers no answers, responding to every question about why her lover did as he did with the same explanation: “Because he loved me.”
Some depictions of female killers cast them as rebels to their sex, destructively imitating a masculine ideal. Others see them solely as victims of circumstance. Both analyses miss the mark, neglecting the fact that there is a hyper-feminine way of being a killer: by acting as an especially dutiful wife, or an especially nurturing carer, only in a terrible, corrupted way. Female violence needs to be understood as its own form of wrongdoing, not simply as a rarer, milder form of male violence. When women go bad, they go bad in their own way.
This article appears in the 18 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation