Sylvia Plath may have been alive decades before true crime took over our screens and social media feeds, but she understood humanity’s tendency to turn suffering into spectacle. In her poem “Lady Lazarus” she sardonically mocks how “The peanut-crunching crowd/Shoves in to see/Them unwrap me hand and foot —/The big strip tease”. The poem is a damning indictment of our most morbid curiosities, and the voyeurism of a “million filaments” who come to gawp at this “smiling woman” eerily echoes the current obsession with the disappearance of Nicola Bulley.
Since Bulley, 45, went missing on 27 January in St Michael’s on Wyre, Lancashire, her case has become a circus for those who believe a criminal investigation is a crowdsourcing exercise. The police and the public have been inundated with misinformation from conspiracy theorists, clairvoyants, self-titled psychics and paranormal experts, body language readers, armchair detectives and TikTok sleuths. These grief junkies rely on rampant speculation for content generation, all in the name of “civic duty” and clicks. This peanut-crunching crowd have become such a problem that the police have issued dispersal orders at the scene of her disappearance and arrested and fined Dan Duffy, an influencer whose YouTube channel has over 250,000 followers, on a public order offence. Duffy had posted videos of himself “searching” the area for Bulley.
Yet rather than continuing to ask for privacy, the police have fuelled these home-made hypotheses by disclosing deeply sensitive information about Bulley’s so-called “vulnerabilities”: namely, her struggles with the menopause and alcohol. It is unclear how broadcasting her mental health issues and hormone status to the world will assist the police in their investigation. Although the family has released a statement saying they were aware the police were about to share these details and suggesting that doing so was intended to deter people from selling speculative stories about her, the specifics of the disclosure seem gratuitous: why not just say that she was struggling with her mental health?
Would a man’s reproductive health have been shared in the same way? I can’t imagine police releasing a statement about a missing man who had erectile dysfunction and low testosterone and had been spending every evening down the pub, but perhaps there simply isn’t the same impulse to find something “wrong” with a male victim.
The implication that menopausal means unstable also smacks of victim-blaming, and fits into a pattern in which the police and the public try to pathologise female victims and pin responsibility on them. Just this week news reports said that police believed the head teacher Emma Pattison’s husband, who murdered her and their daughter then killed himself, may have been “jealous” of her success and felt he was “living in her shadow”. Sarah Everard was blamed by a police commissioner for not being “streetwise” enough and submitting to a false arrest by a police officer who then raped and murdered her. By constantly reiterating that Ashling Murphy was “just” going for a run or Sabina Nessa was “just” going for a walk when they were killed, we reveal just how ingrained victim-blaming is, as if it needs to be proved that victims weren’t doing anything wrong.
Why don’t the peanut-crunching crowd pore so closely over the details of men who are killed by men? Would we hear so much about the stresses at work and home that led to a stabbing in the park? Or what about a man killing his boyfriend because he was “pushed to breaking point”?
Bulley may not have been murdered, but the messaging is clear: context continues to be used to discredit women. Many have wondered whether the police disclosed this information as part of damage limitation, a way to quieten speculation and shore up public support. However, the damage they have done in terms of eroding women’s trust in the police is far greater.
[See also: Have the Conservatives done enough for women?]