Monday, October 6, 2008

When "Everything is Permissible": The Notion of Blaming The Victim

by Julia Buckley
On November 15, 1988, a woman named Karen Wood put her twin baby daughters behind their safety gate and ventured into the back yard of her new Maine house which was, for her husband and herself, a dream home. Wood walked to the edge of the yard and into an area which led into the forested region beyond it (her house was in a relatively new subdivision). Moments later Karen Wood lay dying on the leaf-strewn ground. A hunter had mistaken Wood for a deer and shot her full in the chest with a high-powered rifle.

Beyond the tragedy of this occurrence is the surprising and equally tragic aftermath--that many people in Wood's new home town blamed her for her own death. She was, many long-time residents said, in the wrong for not wearing orange during hunting season. (Yankee Magazine wrote an article about the case in 1989; you can read it here). Wood, the victim, could obviously not defend herself or her actions, and many people, most of them fellow hunters, rallied around Donald Rogerson, the hunter who shot Wood without bothering to verify whether or not she was, in fact, a deer. Wood was also blamed for wearing white mittens.

The man who shot her was not ever prosecuted for her death, but one might argue it is because Wood had the misfortune of being a woman. In the previous hunting season, the three fatalities had all been men, and the victims were not blamed for their misfortunes. Two of the shootings resulted in convictions and jail terms. According to an article by Mari Boor Tonn, Valerie A. Endress, and John N. Diamond, Wood can be seen in almost mythical terms.

“[There is] a universal propensity to blame women for acts of violence visited upon them, especially when women unwisely venture into dangerous areas or male “turf” without legitimating accompaniment. Ironically, Wood’s gender, which made the death of a young mother so intensely tragic and threatening, is also that which made it simpler for many people to explain. As woman, Wood embodied the complex incongruous relationship of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ universally assigned to females. In Wood, the virgin-whore dichotomy took the form of mother-temptress” (Tonn, Endress and Diamond in Burkchardt 241).

So, according to many, Karen Wood should never have ventured to Maine at all, much less out of her own yard. She should have known her place.

I thought of this story recently because my English students are reading Crime and Punishment, in which a young man commits murder to prove an exalted and rather ridiculous theory. (This isn't a spoiler--it says as much on the back cover). But later in the book the man, Raskolnikov, is having some difficulties justifying his crime--the killing of an old woman, a moneylender. He insists that "I killed not a human being, but a principle!" and later, "Oh, I will never, never forgive that old witch." In his guilt, he blames the murder victim, Alena, for the fact that he killed her. If Alena had not been a manipulating person, a grasping usurer, then he would not have done what he did.

But this leads to one of Dostoevsky's themes. He once wrote, "Without God, everything is permissible." He suggested that without a moral framework, humanity would choose anarchy and could justify any base action.

The notion of blaming the victim, prevalent in life as well as literature, seems to be one of the things that becomes permissible when people refuse to look into their consciences for the truth.

Yankee Magazine
Burgchardt, Carl R. Readings in Rhetorical Criticism. Strata Publishing, State College, Pennsylvania (contains Tonn, Endress and Diamond article).


Paul Lamb said...

I don't for a minute accept Dostoyevsky's assertion that a god or gods is necessary in order for a society to have a moral framework.

Julia Buckley said...

And that is why I interpret "God" loosely to mean "morality." Not everyone has to be Christian, like Dostoevsky, to buy into the idea that much can be justified without morality.

Lonnie Cruse said...

I remember this news account about the victim's death quite well. I might be mistaken but seems like the hunter blamed her first for wearing the white mittens, etc. Grrr.

I have no problem with deer hunting. A lot of residents here use that meat to eat on for most of the year and as the economy worsens, they'll need it even more. And our area has a good safety record.

I DO have a problem with careless hunters who don't make sure of what they are shooting at. Like this guy.

Darlene Ryan said...

I remember the case as well. I'm only a couple of hours from the Maine border.

Julia, I'm curious about your students' thoughts on Crime & Punishment. How do they feel about the idea of blaming the victim?

Julia Buckley said...

The students seem quite savvy about the whole book. They seem to understand not only the complexity of the murderer's psychological motives, but also the basic premise that any person must take responsibility for his/her actions (this was also the theme of Oedipus Rex, which they read in September). So they don't buy into the idea of his blaming the victim at all, and some of them have likened it to the blaming of rape victims for their assaults.

Lonnie, I've never been a hunter or really known any, since I'm such a city dweller, but I agree that there is responsible hunting and otherwise. This man seems to have broken any number of standard hunting rules, the first of which is not to shoot until you have sighted an animal.

Sandra Parshall said...

That sort of hunting accident has happened in the Virginia/Maryland area too -- it's probably happened almost everywhere. The victims are usually women -- homeowners who were going about their business in their own yards. And somehow the victims end up being blamed for their own deaths. Hunting should be banned around residences. It simply isn't safe.

Julia Buckley said...

I wonder why they are USUALLY blamed for their deaths, Sandra? I thought the Karen Wood case was rather an exception. And if it happens so often, why not stricter regulations? Or taking away the licenses of the offenders?