Patricia Pearson is a writer who seems to have a plethora of interests. A great deal of information concerning her can be found at her website which is called Pearson’s Post. She has won numerous awards and is a regular contributor to The USA Today, and Canada’s National Post. Her work has also appeared in Spy, Chatelaine, the New York Times, the Times of London, New York Observer, Redbook, the Guardian, Nerve, Shift, and Saturday Night. Mrs. Pearson has written several books such as Believe Me, When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence, and Life on a French Poster. At present, she lives with her family in Toronto, Canada.
BC: First off, let me reference something which made me laugh. You include on your website a biographical reference to the fact that Camille Paglia once called you a rather unflattering term. Can you tell us how that exchange came down? Also, what do you think of Paglia personally?
PP. I’m loathe to make an amusing long story short, but essentially Ms Paglia was promoting a book in 1994 called, I believe, Vamps and Tramps, in which she argued that feminists had gratuitously rejected glamour. So, assigned by a magazine, I set off to interview her in a deliberately glamourous outfit, replete with a black velvet hat. As it turned out, Paglia was in an extremely foul mood when I arrived at her hotel, and there was something about my appearance -- possibly its insolence, from her perspective -- that made her dislike me instantly. Her hostility was startling, and restless. She bolted the room we were meant to do the interview in and rushed down the hall, muttering something about air conditioning. We wound up in the lobby, where I had to look wildly around for an electrical outlet for my recorder. At once, she berated me for daring to have no batteries, and by the time I’d plugged the bloody tape recorder in, behind a floral couch beside the smoke shop or something, I was so infuriated by her incessant heaping upon me of abusive insults that I could barely articulate my first question without a huge, monstrous, glacial FU stare included in my ostensibly casual query. The whole thing played out as body language.
“So, what made you decide to write these essays?” You insane skunk off her Haldol?
“Well, I really feel that feminism has pulled away from bla de bla...”
“You pretentious tart in your dumb black velvet hat.”
The chemistry between us was intolerable, but I couldn’t end the meeting because I was on assignment, so she ended it by storming off, calling me “ a stupid b*tch” on her way across the Four Season’s creamy lobby carpet. Whereupon, a lady in a CARMEN MIRANDA HAT, which is to say a hat sporting fruit, who had been sitting across from us in the lobby, introduced herself as a family court judge (I am not making this up) and said that she “couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with Camille Paglia.”
“Do you know what just happened?” she asked me, amused.
“No,” I wailed, still feeling like I’d just been b*tch-slapped.
The secret issue that had set us asunder, said the fruit-headed judge, was the fact that I had been chewing gum. “Are you aware that you were chewing gum? As a judge, I can tell you that body language is absolutely paramount in these kinds of conflicts, and chewing gum signals defiance.” Hilarious. I happened to have been quitting smoking at the time, and used gum like a critical limb, and had forgotten about it entirely. What do I think of Paglia as a social thinker? I can’t get past the fact that she’s an abusive maniac who can’t tolerate insolence, no matter how inadvertent.
BC: I apologize that it took me quite awhile to get around to reading When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence; however, I am pleased to report that it was well worth the wait. What made you decide to write it? What was the reaction of publishers when you were trying to shop it around?
PP: I spent the early part of my journalism career reporting on violent crime, and noticed that virtually all of the literature – in psychology, criminology and sociology -- used male violence as the sole point of reference. Female violence was either ignored, or wildly oversimplified and then side-lined, as if it were immaterial. Being a woman who likes to think of herself as both emotionally and morally complex, I found this unacceptable, and decided to fill in the picture myself. Publishers were very responsive.
BC: While reading it, I could tell you were someone who considered herself a feminist, but you successfully put truth before politics in these pages. Why do you think other advocates so often fail to do this? In many cases, like with the old bogus Super Bowl domestic violence link and that women are incapable of lying when the subject is rape, it has always seemed to be dogma first, truth never.
PP: Well, it depends upon the meaning of feminist. I have never been a political activist, or a dogmatist. Therefore I have nothing emotionally or politically invested in defending a particular view. Instead, I have a perspective on the equality of potential between men and women that I simply grew up with, in a household of three fiercely intelligent older sisters that governs my approach to various subjects as a writer. Men are not smarter, braver or more ‘rational.’ To me, that seems obvious. So, is that “feminist”? At what point is a wisdom well-enough received that it no longer requires an ism? It’s worth pointing out, in answering your question, that the United States actually remains more patriarchal, according to demographers, than both Canada and Europe. As a Canadian woman, it has been less difficult for me to take equality for granted, and I think that the special offense taken by old-guard American feminists to any suggestion that men are human, rather than gendered, in their aggression, is uniquely American.
BC: What was the response of your peers to When She Was Bad? Did any call you a traitor? Were you subjected to acts of retribution?
PP: When She Was Bad was published at the apex of radical feminist orthodoxy in the West, so it was most certainly treated like a hot potato, and I’ve heard of the book being thrown across a bookstore in rage by someone who simply saw the title. I was positioned, very reflexively and emotionally, as an “anti-feminist,” which I just found absurd. Interestingly, the Irish were the most open-minded and curious about what I was saying. For whatever reason, they seemed less threatened by the idea that women could be aggressive, and actually bothered to read the book before they interviewed me. Over the years, the book has spread by word-of-mouth, and is now taught widely at universities, even by police officers conducting homicide workshops. The fact that I had something complex and useful to say -- and wasn’t being “anti-feminist” -- eventually sunk in. But it took time.
BC: “Chivalry justice” is a very intriguing concept which you explore. For readers who may be unfamiliar, what exactly does it embody?
PP: The concept of chivalry, which most people understand, has to do with the old European understanding of men behaving protectively toward women. Since women are more delicate and refined, possess less strength and resilience, are more easily offended by moral squalor, the task is up to gentleman to shield their ladies from the world’s horrors and challenges. In judicial terms, this translated into a tendency to be lenient to female offenders, because the male judge wished to forgive them, and not subject them to the further challenge of prison or Bedlam. Their very delicacy and uncertainty required men of good standing to protect them from themselves, and from the hardship of punishment.
BC: In our times, in a world featuring affirmative action and equitable paternity, what possible reason can there be for men to continuing to act in a chivalrous manner?
PP: None. What we need to address now is the need to be gracious, as human beings, to one another, and this has become an unexpected difficulty. We are apparently no longer capable of acknowledging that other humans within our immediate environment exist, much less need us to stretch coats over puddles, because we’re too busy talking on our cell phones.
BC: Would you agree that reflexively pretending women can do no wrong or that they’re the victims in every situation effectively results in their dehumanization? Or that, at the very least, it places them upon a plane below that of men? It continually perplexes me that so many politicos fail to make this connection.
PP: There’s no question that women are still struggling to emerge from the characterization of the feminine that began in the Victorian era, when radical changes brought about by industrialization engendered an enhanced distinction between the sexes. It’s important to remember that history hasn’t always regarded women as inherently more tender, domestic and moral than men. As I wrote in my book, history is filled with powerful female rulers and soldiers and villains and goddesses. It is only a very recent phenomenon, to view women as childlike, both morally and emotionally, and to assume that they have no agency.
BC: The finest example in your book was the case of Guinevere Garcia, a felon on death row in Illinois, who asked to have her execution carried out. A furor erupted as she became a cause celebre for feminists and Amnesty International—despite the fact that she claimed full responsibility and refused to identify herself as a battered woman. When told that Bianca Jagger had gone to the review board to petition for her clemency, she replied: “This must be her cause for the week.” Well put! At any rate, don’t you effectively degrade someone when you say that they can’t be relied upon to make decisions for themselves?
PP: Of course you do. The same fate befell another of the convicted killers I talked about in the book, the young Texan Karla Faye Tucker. She converted to Christianity on death row, and actually became remarkably articulate about her need to take responsibility for her crime, and yet she was ‘overruled,’ so to speak. Tucker was executed several months after my book came out, and I thought that was actually a terrible shame: not because she didn’t take responsibility, for she did, but because she had become an important voice. As a Canadian, I oppose the death penalty, and Tucker is an example as to why. Here was a woman who turned out to have great passion and eloquence on the subject of her fellow female criminals assuming moral culpability for their crimes. But she was silenced, because that is the retributive justice that Americans favor. It’s too bad.
BC: Well, now it’s almost a decade since you first wrote When She Was Bad, have things changed at all in terms of equality of justice?
PP: I can’t tell you whether there has been a shift in sentencing trends, because I’ve moved on to other subjects of interest to me as a writer, but I can certainly say there has been a shift in our general acceptance of female aggression. This has largely been driven by the behavior of young women, who have by now normalized the idea that they are capable of gang violence, as well as organized aggression in boxing and other contact sports, and in pop culture.
BC: Do you want to tell us about your latest project? You have completed a great many books from which to choose.
PP: At the moment, I’m working on a book about anxiety that looks at the subject cross-culturally and historically -- as I did with female aggression -- in order to gain some traction on what this phenomenon really is. We regularly assume that we live in an Age of Anxiety. But what does that actually mean? Are we really more anxious than people who lived through the Black Plague in Europe, at a time when most families lived on the edge of starvation during any given year? This will be published by Bloomsbury in New York and London at some point in 2008.
BC: Thank you very much, Mrs. Pearson.
Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago and the author of Escape from Gangsta Island. He is currently at work on a book concerning women. He can be contacted at email@example.com.