“A Child Is Being Beaten (I Am Looking On)”: The Beating Fantasy, Spectatorship, and Female Sadism
This chapter draws upon psychoanalytic theory to attempt to discover reasons for the particular treatment, or lack thereof, the Homolka case received from mainstream and feminist legal and media discourses. Psychoanalysis seems most apposite to the study of this case as several of the narrations of the behaviour of Karla Homolka echo Freud’s articulation of female masochism—the beating fantasy. This fantasy provides a stock story upon which mainstream discourses base their denials of Homolka’s agency. However, Homolka’s unconscious reiteration of the beating fantasy in her own narrative of her behaviour also made evident that which is most threatening, and unwittingly unearthed the suppressed, in this fantasy. For this reason, it offers much to help explain feminist discourses’ silence regarding Homolka.
Freud’s essay “A Child Is Being Beaten,” written in 1919, remains perhaps the most important individual work on female masochism.9 In it Freud composes three-act dramas to explain the genesis of two varieties of masochism, labelled female and male, respectively.10 The beating fantasy, which is of most concern in this chapter, is the female fantasy that Freud developed during his work with four female patients. The three phases of this fantasy run as follows:
Phase 1: “My father is beating the child (whom I hate).”
Phase 2: “I am being beaten by my father.”
Phase 3: “A child is being beaten. (I am probably looking on).” (Freud 1978,
While the beating fantasy can be interpreted as an exercise in masochism, it can also be viewed as an articulation of women’s culturally suppressed sadism. Its usage as confirmation of women’s “natural” passivity and masochism is, therefore, debatable and indicative of the unstable foundation of these crucial characteristics of traditional stereotypes of femininity.12
The case of Karla Homolka is interesting to view through the lens of the beating fantasy as her own narrative of her behaviour corresponds very closely to Freud’s three-act drama: Homolka claims to have watched her partner rape and murder young women. However, Homolka also actively participated in the “beating,” raping the young girls herself. In this way, then, she embodies the terrifying potential hidden in the beating fantasy: that women will enact their sadistic desires on the body of someone less powerful than themselves.
Karla Homolka, with her partner Paul Bernardo, was convicted of the abduction, rape, and murder of two teenaged girls, and of the drugging and rape of her younger sister, in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1993. The couple first drugged Karla’s sister, Tammy, with an anaesthetic and sleeping pills, and then raped her while she slept on 23 December 1990. Tammy accidentally died due to the overdose of drugs. During the next six months the pair continued to drug and sexually assault young girls. On 15 June 1991 Paul kidnapped fourteen – year-old Leslie Mahaffy. He and Karla sexually assaulted the teenager until Paul strangled her during the morning of 16 June 1991. Leslie’s body was then dismembered, encased in concrete, and dumped into a lake, where it was found two weeks later. On 16 April 1992, Karla and Paul kidnapped fifteen-year – old Kristen French and kept her as a “sex slave” in their house until 19 April 1992, when Paul strangled her. Kristen’s body was dumped in bushland and was not discovered until 30 April 1992. Most of the sexual assaults on all girls was videotaped.
Karla eventually left Paul on 5 January 1993, after a particularly savage beating at his hands. She negotiated an agreement with the police in exchange for her testimony, as at this time the videotapes of the assaults were missing. At her trial Karla pled guilty to all charges and, on 6 July 1993, was sentenced to two concurrent maximum sentences of twelve years for the manslaughter of Leslie and Kristen. She divorced Paul on 25 February 1994. The videotapes were finally handed to police by one of Bernardo’s lawyers in February 1995. Paul’s trial commenced on 1 May 1995. He was convicted of both murders and rapes and, on 1 September 1995, was given a life sentence with no parole for twenty-five years. He subsequently filed an unsuccessful appeal on 8 September 1995. Karla Homolka was released from prison on 4 July 2005.