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Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Goodbye Earl, and Tom, Dick and Harry

Donna Laframboise
National Post

It's catchy, irreverent, and somewhat of an anthem: It's Goodbye Earl, the hit song by the country trio the Dixie Chicks. Performed at the Grammys and Lilith Fair concerts, and included on a CD that has sold 15 million copies, the song has provoked strong reaction -- including being banned from some country radio stations for promoting violence.

Earl is an abusive husband who, after violating a restraining order and injuring his wife seriously enough to land her in intensive care, finds himself up against more than the legal system. When the wife's longtime friend flies in from out of town, the two women cook up a plot to poison Earl's dinner, deceive the police and conceal the body.

The gusto with which the Chicks sing lines such as "And they don't lose any sleep at night 'cause Earl had to die," sends shivers up the spines of people who abhor vigilante justice. The band, however, has urged listeners to lighten up.

"Don't take this too seriously. This is supposed to be fun," says member Emily Robinson. "And, no, we don't condone killing your husband -- ever. This is just the story of three people, and it didn't happen. It's fictional."

Fair enough. But songs resonate with listeners in a variety of ways, and it's worth noting that it took me less than 30 seconds to find commentary on the Internet by someone who declares, "I know that I would do that for my best friend and she the same for me. I mean where would we be in this world without friends who REALLY care?"

Fiction or not, the song calls attention to the fact that female violence, while as deadly as the male version, is often sneakier -- and therefore more likely to be overlooked by the authorities. This is why female murderers often claim a long line of victims before anyone catches on.

In Goodbye Earl, it doesn't cross the minds of the police officers that the hand-holding women might have murdered the more obviously violent Earl. Since some killers get a "high" from this crime and therefore repeat it until they're caught, I wouldn't be buying the "Tennessee ham and strawberry jam," the women later begin selling from a roadside stand.

Furthermore, as Patricia Pearson points out in her under-appreciated book, When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away With Murder, the victims of female killers are frequently society's most vulnerable: the young, the old and the sick -- rather than villains who deserve it.

Around the time England was in an uproar over Jack the Ripper's murder of five prostitutes, Jane Toppan was convicted of poisoning nearly 100 patients in a Connecticut nursing home. Her ambition, said Toppan, was "to have killed more people, more helpless people, than any man or woman has ever killed."

Pearson's book describes a number of women who murdered five or more of their own children while the authorities brushed off each occurrence as an unfortunate accident or sudden infant death syndrome. She writes of a nurse at a children's hospital who deliberately induced heart failure in a series of youngsters before anyone began to suspect her, and of a boarding house matron who murdered eight elderly people before someone clued in.

The book also looks closely at another category of female felons: the ones who involve third parties in their crimes. Plotting with other people, manipulating others into actually doing the dirty deed, or hiring someone to carry it out is more typical of female than male violence.

This pattern can be traced back to elementary school, where boys fight openly and physically with one another, while girls gossip about their enemies and engage in a range of destructive social behaviour far more insidious than a straightforward blow to the jaw.

Since women find it easier than men to portray themselves as victims -- even in situations in which they themselves are disturbed, anti-social aggressors --they're more likely to convince friends, neighbours, relatives and lovers to not only assist them, but to spread their version of events and cover up on their behalf.

A society that believes women only behave badly for good reasons -- a la Goodbye Earl -- is a society in which too many female criminals will remain at large.

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