Watching Karla, 27 years later
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/05/2016 (2517 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I was in the Grade 8 when Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French were abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Then a resident of the Niagara Region, I vividly remember the collective anxiety the community felt during the summer of 1992. My family sat in our living room to watch the television re-enactment of Kristen French’s abduction from a busy street in St. Catharines in broad daylight, after which I listened with rapt attention as my father warned my sister and me about stranger danger.
This regional tragedy morphed into a national media spectacle when the public learned that a newlywed couple was charged with these crimes.
Few criminal figures in Canadian history have captured the national media attention as much as Homolka. When you search her name in Canadian Newsstand, a database that contains national and leading regional English newspapers from across the country dating back to 1985, it generates more than 9,000 hits. This is significantly more than there are for Robert Pickton, who was convicted of murdering six women in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and is suspected of killing upwards of 60 women. While Pickton’s victims were sex workers, many of whom were indigenous, Bernardo and Homolka’s victims were white, teen girls from middle-class families in small-town Ontario.
And so the media paid attention.
Most of the time, the spotlight shone on the Crown’s star witness, Homolka. Her image sold (and continues to sell) newspapers, and Canadians voraciously read every detail about the case, shocked that such acts of violence could take place where they did and astonished that such a beautiful couple could commit them.
While the crimes took place a quarter of a century ago, Homolka remains a lightning rod for sensational media coverage. When she was released from prison in 2005, after serving every day of her 12-year sentence, the media camped outside the Joliette prison for days and even weeks to try to capture a current photo of her. When she tried to quietly reintegrate into a Montreal suburb, she was followed on the streets and harassed at her place of employment. When she gave birth to her first child, there were reports that some hospital staff refused to treat her. Homolka eventually relocated to Guadeloupe with her new husband and children and faded from the limelight until CTV journalist Paula Todd flew there in 2012 to track her down. And just last month there was a series of news reports featuring paparazzi-style “Homolka sightings” in Châteauguay, Que., accompanied by interviews with parents whose children attend school with Homolka’s three children.
How can we explain the cultural fascination with Homolka? I explore this question in my latest book, The Enigma of a Violent Woman: A Critical Examination of the Case of Karla Homolka (co-authored by Sylvie Frigon). Her ability to transgress gender norms that situate women as nurturing or passive by assisting her husband to sexually assault other young women shocked our collective moral and cultural sensibilities. Moreover, the crimes she committed are extraordinarily rare for criminalized women, who comprise only about five per cent of federally sentenced offenders and are much more likely to be victims of violence than they are to commit it against others. Many people neglect the fact Homolka was also a victim of her husband’s sadistic violence. Acknowledging this does not diminish the tragic violence she committed against her own victims. Instead, it suggests she may no longer be a danger to others; after all, she has been living in the community for 11 years without incident.
While Homolka may be uncomfortably accustomed to being thrust into the frenzied national media spotlight, the same cannot be said for her children. Recent coverage went as far as to show a picture of her home and to identify her address on television. Regardless of how we feel about Homolka’s past transgressions, why do her children have to suffer, as well? When asked, some parents said they would not permit their children to spend time at Homolka’s house or with her children. They questioned the wisdom of welcoming Homolka on school grounds, leading the school to release a statement that students are safe while on campus.
Allowing the stigma that Homolka will eternally carry to affect how we treat her children is a community failure and runs the risk of irrevocably damaging the mother-child relationship. While Homolka remains enigmatic in her dual identity as both victim and victimizer, it is important to consider that after 25 years, being a mother of three is now her most significant identity. Permitting Homolka to reintegrate and fade from our gaze will not only help protect her relationship with her children, it will prevent re-traumatizing the community with each media story that recounts the lurid details of this case.
Jennifer M. Kilty is an associate professor of criminology at the University of Ottawa. She will be presenting some of her findings in her book at the Placing Justice conference, May 9-11, at the University of Winnipeg. The conference is open to the public.