Picture the scene. A group of publishers are sat around the brainstorming table. A new book on Jack the Ripper is due for publication. They’ve already decided the title is going to be ‘Jack the Ripper: A True Love Story’. Now they need a snappy tagline.
‘Got it!’ says one of them. ‘You know how Jack the Ripper like, actually literally cut open women and removed their organs?’
‘Yes’ comes the reply.
‘How about: She had taken his heart and now he’s stealing hers. Because he like, ripped out women’s organs. Their wombs as may be, but hearts are organs too.’
‘Yes!’ comes the reply.
I mean, I don’t know if that’s how the meeting went. I’m speculating. Because I am trying to work out the thought process that not only decided to portray some of the most brutal murders perpetuated against women as a ‘love story’, but the further decision to use a strapline implying that seducing a man is the same as actually removing her organs in a gross act of sadistic male violence.
I’m writing this blog in response to my friend informing me of the forthcoming publication of the book Jack the Ripper: A true love story. Last year the book was serialised in the Telegraph and develops the thesis that Jack the Ripper was a journalist called Francis Craig who, after being left by a woman named Elizabeth, went on the killing spree that resulted in her death and the murders of the other women.
In the Telegraph, the author writes:
‘The tragic saga of Jack the Ripper is actually a love story.
It is the tale of a lonely, dysfunctional man’s obsession for a beautiful, lively young woman.
When the object of his desire deserted him it was more than he could take.
He sought her out, beseeched her to come back to him, to give it another try, but Elizabeth had never been in it for anything other than a laugh.
For his part the prospect of losing the only other human being for whom he had felt real emotion was unbearable.
It festered within him and eventually came out like an abscess being lanced in the 12-week orgy of killing that finally drove him to destroy the only thing he loved.’
The book isn’t out yet and I’m not in the habit of criticising something I’ve not read so I am going to focus my criticism on the article itself, and what it reveals about our continued attitudes towards fatal male violence against women – and our collective gruesome fascination with this case in particular.
It is incredibly irresponsible to link the murder of women with a man’s ‘love’ for his victim.
Men don’t kill women out of love. They kill because they are violent misogynists. They kill out of a grotesque entitlement to women’s bodies and lives. Entitlement, violence – these are not romantic tropes. The idea that violent men kill from love or passion is a tactic to try and minimise a violent man’s responsibility – it’s a way to try and excuse the violence by saying it was motivated by the victim’s actions, not out of control and cruelty.
There is nothing romantic about male violence against women and girls. There is no love story that ends with a man killing a woman. Male violence against women is an act of misogyny, an act of control, and an act of terrorism that spreads fear and upholds gender inequality.
We have a real issue in our culture about romanticising violent patterns of men’s behaviour, and the continued iconic status given to Jack the Ripper is just one part of that. I discussed this last year here and in the Guardian regarding the opening of the Ripper museum in East London. Whether it’s Heathcliff’s attempted killing of Isabella’s dog, penchant for locking women in cupboards or boxing his daughter-in-law’s ears*, or men standing outside women’s homes with ghetto-blasters, we continually reframe violent men’s and stalker-like behaviour as an act of passionate romance. And in doing this, we erase the experience of the victim. The story tells women that we should just suck it up. That we should accept male entitlement as expressions of passion or desire – when in fact these are acts of violence and control.
Women have a right to leave. We have a right to say no. Our right to refusal, of bodily autonomy, should not be punished by violent men. Our right to say no should not be used as an excuse to blame us for male violence.
In the above Telegraph extract from Jack the Ripper: a true love story, there’s a suggestion that if only Elizabeth had not left Francis then he would not ‘have been driven’ to kill. Not only does the author refer to her as being an ‘object of desire’ – dehumanising her and treating her as a possession that a man has a right to claim – he also suggests that Elizabeth’s rejection of Francis is a cruel act. We’re invited to sympathise with a ‘loner’ rather than express our horror at gross male entitlement leading to unspeakable violence. We’re asked to think of this as a tragic love story gone wrong, not a conscious decision to go out and destroy women’s lives. We’re asked to think about his destroyed life – not theirs. This is no difference to press reporting on, for example, Oscar Pistorius.
In short, we’re asked to believe that through Elizabeth’s rejection of Francis, she bears some of the blame for his violent actions. That by refusing to be his object, by asserting her right to say no, she is at least in part responsible for the murders committed. That by leaving, our sympathy should rest with him.
What makes me so furious about this extract, and so much of the way we talk about fatal male violence, is the implication that if she hadn’t left, then he wouldn’t have killed her and the other women. That in leaving him, she drove him to murder – when in fact every violent man who kills a woman has made that conscious, deliberate decision. No woman is responsible for male violence, fatal or otherwise. The only person responsible is the man himself.
Why does this matter? It matters because the brutal killings of women by men are still frighteningly common. We live in a society where already this year 58 women have been killed by men. Women are still blamed for not leaving violent men, and then they are once again blamed for causing the violence when they do. This isn’t confined to the past. Jack the Ripper wasn’t the last man to kill women. And so the way we talk about his murders matters, because the same tropes, excuses, and minimising is used today. And it matters because in turning one of the most misogynistic killers in history into a cult hero of fascination, we ignore and erase his victims, and glamorise the horror of fatal male violence.
It might be a century ago and it might be speculative, but when you read an article saying that a man was driven to kill women because he was dumped, it matters. It matters because we are still trying to minimise male violence and find ways to blame the victim. It matters because we did this 100 years ago and we are doing it today.
Jack the Ripper was a sadistic, sexual murderer. He killed women in a vile and brutal manner – in a way that very specifically focused on their sexual organs. He shouldn’t be a cult figure with a museum dedicated to him. He shouldn’t have enjoyed centenary ‘celebrations’ for his murders. And he shouldn’t be excused as a heartbroken, desolate loner who killed out of dejected love.
Men don’t kill out of love. Men who kill women are misogynistic murderers. We have to stop excusing them. We have to stop blaming their victims. There’s nothing romantic about male violence. There’s nothing romantic about dead women.
*having just re read Wuthering Heights, I do sometimes wonder if people’s perceptions of the novel would be different if the film adaptations actually focused on the second half of the book, when Heathcliff commits some of his more horrible violence. I mean, I’m a sucker for that novel and its passionate declarations but my god, the scene where he beats Cathy the Younger is horrifying.