When I was approached by my agent, Claire Gerus, to write a book about women who commit violent crimes, I spent a long time considering her proposal. I had concerns. Sure I had been working as a clinical and forensic psychologist for over three decades and had lots of experience with women who murder, maim, and molest. But most people think of men, not women, when they think of violent criminals.
Even though a couple of my previous books, Males at Risks: The Other Side of Child Sexual Abuse (1989, with co-authors Bolton and MacEachron) and The Heterosexual Male: Lust in His Loins, Sin in His Soul? (1997), explored issues of interpersonal violence from a male’s perspective, the controversial finding that males can be victims of child sexual abuse and other violence perpetrated by females was also examined.
Over the years I received both praise and condemnation for suggesting that girls and women sexually abuse children, especially boys, at a rate much higher than “official” reporting statistics documented. The voices of condemnation were the loudest and most persistent.
Even now, with the media full of stories about attractive female teachers molesting grade-school boys, I am dismayed by the number of voices who try to minimize the rape of male children by female teachers by calling it something else—an affair. Even some of my male friends and colleagues joined the chorus of gender-biased sexual expectations with a refrain straight from the male socialization hymnbook: “Oh Lord! Where in the hell were these women when I was in grade school?”
If I decided to write a book about mothers, sisters, and daughters who assault, commit murder, and sexually abuse children, I knew I would be sticking my neck out again, even further this time, by exposing the darkest of the dark side of femininity. I knew I again would be faced with proponents of the pervasive cultural stereotype that women are victims, not perpetrators, of interpersonal violence. The voices of dissent would be back. In force. And, as my thirty years of experience as a clinical and forensic psychologist taught me, some women can be very dangerous.
One of my colleagues, a victim of a female stalker, suggested I should pack “heat” like she does, if I decided to write the book and make public appearances. “Don’t leave home without it,” she quipped. “And wear your body armor,” she added.
As a forensic psychologist, I have evaluated hundreds of violent criminals and testified in court numerous times. The most frequent cases involve questions about the defendant’s competency to stand trial and/or issues of insanity. Competency generally refers to an accused’s ability to understand legal proceedings and to assist legal counsel in his or her own defense. While most people think insanity is a mental-health term, it is a legal term in the courtroom and, in most states, is defined by an individual’s ability to know the difference between right and wrong at the time he or she committed the crime.
For example, a murderous mother could suffer from a serious mental illness, but if she knew what she was doing when she killed her children was wrong, she is not insane according to the law.
Because the interface between law and psychology in insanity defense cases is often like a bad marriage, forensic mental health experts often squabble about their differing opinions.
It is also common for forensic mental-health experts to evaluate defendants in order to assess their risk for committing additional violent crimes and the defendant’s chances of responding favorably to psychotherapeutic intervention.
As a clinical and forensic psychologist I have been able to draw from both areas of expertise to address these very important questions.
In spite of society’s tendency to view most female and male criminal behavior differently, I attempt to handle all forensic cases with the same level of objectivity and dedication as any criminal case, regardless of gender. I ask the referral source the same questions about the purpose of the evaluation, review countless documents related to the case, conduct incisive interviews with the defendant, and consult to the referral source about my evaluation findings and opinion about the case. I also interview others related to the case, if appropriate; administer psychological tests, if helpful; write a report, if requested; and testify in court, if summoned.
Some forensic cases require a fairly quick evaluation and a brief interaction with the court. Many require countless hours of work and lengthy adversarial encounters. Case files can fill a warehouse. Interviewing defendants and others associated with a case can go on for hours. Court testimony can stretch into days. Even though forensic work can be grueling, I always look forward to the next interesting and challenging cases.
As a clinical psychologist, I specialized in treating victims and perpetrators of interpersonal violence, especially child sexual abuse. My clinical work helps me understand both sides of the tragedy of trauma. Seeing the terrible damage done by childhood abuse, I am not surprised when I find a history of trauma in my forensic cases. And, yes, more women are victims than men.
As I continued to consider my agent’s book proposal, I thought about presenting cases of girls and women who murdered and/or committed sexual crimes with an eye toward understanding and prevention. I opened my forensic files of dangerous women to see what I could find. Their stories were compelling. I decided to write the book. We settled on a title: Dangerous Women: Why Mothers, Daughters, and Sisters Become Stalkers, Molesters, and Murderers. It has been released to the public. Should I strap on a new set of body armor? . . .
Larry A. Morris, Ph.D. is a clinical and forensic psychologist who has been in private practice for more than thirty years. He is the author of four books including The Male Heterosexual, plus book chapters in A New Psychology of Men and Adult Survivors of Sexual Abuse. Dr. Morris lives in Tucson, Arizona.