Media don’t get the message. Memo #2, comin’ on down…


Oh, for fuck’s sake. When the media latch on to a bad concept, they REALLY latch on and don’t let go. Two days ago I blogged about how the Russell Williams case had been mischaracterized as a “fetish” crime. Did anyone get the memo?

The Star‘s Heather Mallick sure didn’t. She went all melodramatic, and then right back to the ol’ hinky-kinky:

Up to that point, Williams had been a pathetic panty thief and haunter of little girls. Panties don’t talk back. They’re mere containers for the living female that inhabits them. Williams later told police that underwear had been his fetish since his 20s, which shows the extraordinary power of a minor brain pattern. He was hopeless with girls. The evidence of his rapes shows that he didn’t know how to talk to a victim, and there was even a strange, awkward politeness.

Oh sure. Just another socially awkward panty raider, who raped because he needed to get laid but didn’t know how to talk to girls. Weirdo, weirdo. Case dismissed.

That seems to be a pattern at the Star, because another article, one purporting to get inside his criminal profile, also misses the mark:

Col. David Russell Williams — who this past week indicated through his lawyer that he intends to plead guilty on Oct. 18 to two murders, two sex assaults and a string of fetish break-ins — is a serial killer like none they have ever seen.

“This guy is quite unusual,” says psychologist Vernon Quinsey, who spent 16 years assessing criminals at the Oak Ridge maximum security psychiatric hospital in Penetanguishene.

“We’re learning from this case,” adds an informed source, who requested anonymity.

“We haven’t seen guys like this in the past and we don’t expect to see a lot of them in the future.”

Williams had a successful career and a long, apparently loving marriage, and didn’t embark on a life of crime until he began a series of fetish home burglaries in September 2007, at the age of 44.

“It’s very unusual for a guy who’s got his act together like that … to all of a sudden start committing crimes at a late age,” says Quinsey, professor emeritus of psychology, biology and psychiatry at Queen’s University.

“The guys you typically see start earlier,” he adds.

“Almost nobody starts a life of crime when they’re in their 40s.”

Equally unusual was his escalation from panty fetish to sex assault to murder. Most serial killers assault and kill in tandem, right from the start.

Actually, that’s not true either. Serial killers do in fact escalate their actions over a period of years or even decades, refining their technique and growing more violent as they gain confidence in their crime skills.

This guy most certainly didn’t “start a life of crime in his 40s”. Like all serial killers, his criminal behavioral pattern goes back a lot further than his indictable offences do. And it progresses from slightly odd but seemingly harmless acts to things much more sinister. If the media and the criminologists looked closer, I guarantee you that they would see a Russell Williams who most certainly did NOT have his act together. A CBC Fifth Estate report, which is the best thing I’ve seen on the Williams case so far, hints that his ability to break and enter may have been established as early as his late teens, when he began attending the University of Toronto. There, he got into the habit of playing an eerie “practical joke” on his dorm-mates: He would break into their locked rooms, hide in their closets for hours, and then when the unsuspecting dormie was doing his homework (or whatever), Williams would emerge from the closet and frighten him. A useful skill, no doubt, when you’re a stalker of single, unsuspecting women–or underage girls. (It reminded me, as well, of Vincent Bugliosi’s book, Helter Skelter, in which Charles Manson directed his “Family” to “creepy-crawl” the houses of people he wanted them to burgle and kill.)

Alas, they don’t say much about the bad breakup Williams went through either, around age 20. It would be interesting if anyone could locate that former girlfriend and find out why she dumped him; I’ll bet he was a very troubling boyfriend, abusive and controlling, and she left because she couldn’t take his so-called “fetishes” anymore. She might well not be the only previous girlfriend he terrified and alienated! I hope those women, wherever they are, come forward and shed a bit more light on him. They might well be doing the public a service.

If the domestic media got this wrong, the foreign media couldn’t be trusted to deliver a less sensationalized version. And sure enough, in the UK, the Telegraph went the Star one further and called Williams a “cross-dresser”. That is also dead wrong, of course. Remember what I said about the difference between fetishism and predatory behavior? This guy didn’t just want to wear female clothing, he wanted to control the rightful owners of these personal items, to terrify and terrorize them. A cross-dresser usually likes and admires women; a predator hates them and wants to feed off their fear of him. But the Torygraph couldn’t be bothered with that. Much more sensational and saleable to show pictures of Williams posing, unsmiling and hirsute, in a girl’s pink flowered tankini swimsuit!

I’m not the only blogger taking issue with this stupid habit of the media of chasing after the bright shiny objects (or the flowered pink ones with the string-bikini bottoms). If the media want to score a real scoop, they have to learn where to train their lenses, and it’s not on the thing that looks the most shocking. They need to learn to focus on the things–many things–that are easy to overlook at first, but point to larger patterns.

Not everyone at the Star is getting the story wrong. Antonia Zerbisias has been shining a light of feminist inquiry on the little details her colleagues missed. She notes that it was a female police chief whose cops didn’t sleep on the strange evidence that was piling up. She rightly asks the question: Does it take a woman to know that the seemingly trivial–the theft of a woman’s underwear–is no joke?

I think it does. A woman feels violated when her most intimate clothing is stolen. She feels more naked than she would when simply surprised by a friend while getting out of a shower. Someone strange and uninvited has wormed his way right up close to her, and she can’t even see him. Do you have any idea how terrifying that is? Can you, if you’re not female? Can you, if you’re a policeman who would rather bust a car thief or a stereo stealer? Stolen underwear looks pretty penny-ante to a male. It looks like…well, like a joke.

Like the “joke” Russell Williams played in his college days at U of T, breaking into other students’ rooms and hiding in their closets for hours, waiting until his unsuspecting victim was well occupied before scaring the bejeebers out of him.

Or like the “joke” that the media would pre
fer to make out of all this, forgetting the deadly–and terrifying–implications their little tricks have for women and girls.

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3 Responses to Media don’t get the message. Memo #2, comin’ on down…

  1. uzza says:

    Mmmm, train their lenses on the thing that looks the most shocking, that would be the murder of two women, wouldn’t it?
    Good post though.

  2. One would think it was, but no…they’re obsessed with the stolen undies and the “cross-dressing” photos. The raped and murdered women seem almost incidental compared to the ooky “fetish” angle. The accent should be on his predatory behaviors and the meaning of the thefts, not on the accoutrements he stole. Saying he was a panty fetishist is not only inaccurate, it is a piss-poor way to explain serial rape and murder. It’s as if the media had become panty-sniffers themselves.

  3. Sharon Rose says:

    Thanks for noting the female police chief, who had the power and perception to follow up on the connections in this bizarre string of evidence.
    I’m always torn about the personal stresses that plague women who participate in male dominated professions. I wonder if it’s ever worth it for them to struggle with those challenges. In this case, the value of this chief’s work is more than obvious in every future attack she has prevented and life saved.
    And you’re right. The coverage of this case has been appalling. But it’s also very good at reminding women of how marginal our perspective is in a male dominated world. Deadly marginal.
    Thanks again.

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