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Marelle Sturrock’s Murderer Is Described As ‘Kind’ & ‘Gentle’ – We Must Stop Eulogising Violent Men In this Way

TW: This article contains references to violence against women.

Soft, gentle and kind’ is how a man who used a claw hammer to bludgeon to death his pregnant fiancé, Marelle Sturrock, was summarised by his friends this week. These adjectives don’t sit well alongside such a brutal murder, but this is not the first time that violent men have been memorialised in this contradictory way. In 2015, a man who murdered his estranged wife with an axe and then took his own life was remembered as a “kind, honest, hard-working man.” A man who was recently convicted of killing his research scientist wife, Brenda Page, back in 1978, maintained that he had been “kind and considerate”. A man given a whole-life order for the double-murder of his wife Diane Stewart and fiancée Helen Bailey was celebrated by friends as “caring and gentle” and “very much in love”.

This language is often accompanied by portrayals of men snapping “following months of tension”, or “unleashing” their “pent-up anger” after being “wound up” and placed under “stress”. Male violence is merely following the laws of physics, such terminology suggests, and women are often held responsible for triggering it. When a man in Chicago sexually assaulted and murdered his niece, a judge blamed her for having “lit the fuse”.

The relatively tiny number of female murderers are not always afforded the same generosity, even when there is a mitigating history of abuse and coercive control. One female murderer was dismissed as “not a good person”, another was “callous and cruel” and numerous such women have been condemned as “monsters”.

All these adjectives that are used to redeem the reputations of murderous men – niceness, kindness, gentleness and softness – are qualities that our society usually expects of girls and women. Women are sold t-shirts instructing us that, “In a World Where [We] Can Be Anything”, we must “Be Kind”. Men continually tell women to be nice and smile more, even when we’re walking through parks on our own, deep in thought, or when we’re half-way through hard, sweaty training runs. Daughters are raised to be “good girls”, and the opposite – “mean girls” – is an insult, not an aspiration: one mother blogs about “how to raise the nice kid in a world of mean girls.”

In my new book, In Her Nature, I explore how commands to be “nice and kind” are used to deny women’s own needs and perceptions of reality. In the 1990s, the psychologist Carol Gilligan and educationalist Lyn Mikel Brown interviewed girls as they went through early teenagehood. They found that, as the girls aged, they became more and more subservient to “the tyranny of nice and kind”. The girls became quieter, less boisterous, more likely to stay silent and acquiesce in the face of conflict, and more amenable to denying their own experiences and agreeing with others’ versions of events. Developmental psychologists describe how children of abusive or narcissistic parents learn from a young age to create “nice and kind” false selves to please their care-givers, while they keep their hurt and angry true selves suppressed. Gilligan and Brown witnessed girls doing a similar thing in friendships and family relationships as they went through adolescence – and then realised that they’d seen the same behaviour further down the line, in adult women with abusive, gaslighting partners. Girls and women undergo “a kind of psychological foot-binding,” Brown and Gilligan conclude, in which we quash our own needs, desires and perceptions of reality “for the sake of becoming a good woman and having relationships.”

So there is strong cultural pressure on women to be “nice and kind”, and we give up a lot to be thought worthy of those epithets. Often we’re criticised for getting it wrong. Women can be “too nice for their own good”, writes one psychologist, who claims this makes us “an easier target” for abuse and prevents us from “leaving relationships that are unhealthy and abusive.” Sometimes we’re apparently not nice enough. Jenna Thomas tried not to be “unkind” to her ex-boyfriend after they split, and continued taking his calls and meeting when he asked; but he still strangled her to death after she began a new relationship. Whether we’re judged to have got it right or wrong, women’s interactions with niceness and kindness always enforce our subservience.

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