Opinion

Renée Graham

The Golden State Killer: When we blame women for the crimes of men

When a fractured romance is touted as a reason for murder, it skews the idea of who the actual victim is.
Lesley Becker/Globe Staff/Adobe Stock

Now that Joseph James DeAngelo is in custody, authorities sifting for a motive behind his crimes are floating this noxious explanation:

“Golden State Killer possibly motivated by breakup with fiancée, investigator says,” read a headline on NBCNews.com. DeAngelo is believed to have murdered 12 people and raped more than 50 women in California in the 1970s and 1980s.

Not to be outdone, the UK’s sordid Daily Mail referred to DeAngelo’s ex-girlfriend as “the woman who broke [his] heart and may have spurred him on his decade-long murder and rape spree.”

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Oh, so his reported reign of sadistic terror is his former fiancée’s fault? Got it.

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So often, that’s the inferred narrative. Behind every violent man, there’s often a woman being blamed for his misdeeds.

In this case, law enforcement officials were zeroing in on a woman-centered motive long before they had a suspect. During a 1978 sexual assault tied to the Golden State Killer, a victim said her assailant kept repeating, “I hate you. I hate you, Bonnie.”

“That name told me he had some significant female in his life named Bonnie, and he had some anger against what Bonnie — or what he perceived Bonnie — had done to him,” Paul Holes, a retired investigator with the Contra Costa County district attorney’s office, told ABC News. He had previously worked on the case.

That same news report mentioned that DeAngelo, a former police officer, threatened to kill the chief who fired him. Yet no headline has claimed that his dismissal might have sent him into a murderous rage. In the same vein, they aren’t showing the former police chief’s photo or name — unlike Bonnie, whose name and face have been widely displayed, as if she’s an accomplice.

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(One woman police aren’t mentioning as much is writer Michelle McNamara. Her deeply researched 2018 bestseller, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” revived attention on the long-unsolved case. It was McNamara, who died in 2016, who first coined the Golden State Killer name.)

When a fractured romance is touted as a reason for murder, it skews the idea of who the actual victim is. There’s an unspoken presumption that a man who embarks on a rape and murder binge would have been just fine if not for that woman who loved him, then left him. It never takes into consideration that his seething hatred may have given that woman no alternative but to end the relationship.

This is a familiar refrain in domestic violence cases. If a woman stays with an abuser, she’s criticized for not leaving; if she leaves, she’s accused of setting him off. No matter what she does, or how she suffers, she’s somehow at fault. That’s the climate that allowed an Associated Press story in March to refer to a 17-year-old Maryland boy as “a lovesick teen” after he murdered his 16-year-old former girlfriend. Love has nothing to do with it; this is about a toxic culture where a woman’s life is no match for a man’s bruised feelings.

Perhaps this is why we’ve heard so little about the victims of last week’s Toronto attack, where a man driving a rented van intentionally mowed down pedestrians, killing 10 and injuring 14 people. Most of the dead were women, but police there have refused to say whether they were targeted. The suspected driver identified as an “incel,” an involuntary celibate, men whose frustrations with intimate relationships have curdled into violent misogyny. Most of this plays out online, but there have been crimes driven by the archaic belief that men should be entitled to any woman of their choosing. Anything less subverts the natural order as they perceive it, and should be challenged however an incel sees fit.

It recalls for me a long-ago moment in a Key West bar. Male patrons singing “Margaritaville,” Jimmy Buffett’s boozy ode to the downtrodden, heartily leaned into the lyric, “Some people claim that there’s a woman to blame.” Yet it was Buffett’s melancholy final line that stayed with me:

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“But I know it’s my own damn fault.”

Women who use their agency to decide who they want to date or marry are not complicit in male violence. DeAngelo’s alleged actions are his own. Bonnie is not a motive. She’s another victim.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.