Mainstream media and legal discourses responded to innuendoes of Karla Homolka’s possible sadism in a typically hysterical manner. On the one hand, they vilified her, considering her inhumanly evil and more wicked than her male partner;16 on the other hand, they hurriedly scrambled to rewrite her tale as one of loving self-sacrifice, or, in other words, to recast Homolka as a masochist.

The intense vilification that followed the conviction of Karla Homolka make evident the severity of her sins against heteropatriarchal society. The crimes she had committed were shown to far outweigh Bernardo’s rapes, abductions, and murders for they included offences against “good” woman – and wifehood. Karla Homolka was presented as nothing but a facade, beau­tiful but vacuous, appearing to be the epitome of femininity with her neat suits and long hair, yet revealing “traditionally masculine” traits in her clear enjoyment of the rapes she performed on endless sex videotapes (M. Camp­bell, Globe and Mail, 2 September 1995). Indeed, she seemed to deliberately per­vert classically feminine values, like nurturance and care, as she described how she anaesthetized some of her victims with a cloth doused in Halothane and then watched over them like a nurse while her male partner raped them (Bernardo v Queen, 1 May 1995).

Homolka was also persistently condemned for her lack of sisterly quali­ties. First, she had, by her own admission, offered her sister as a Christmas gift to Bernardo so that he could rape her and had then aided him in the rapes and murders of other teenaged girls. On one notorious tape, later titled the “fireside chat” video, made just three weeks after Tammy’s death, Karla, dressed in her dead sister’s clothes and engaging in sex with the girl’s killer on her bed, offered to help Paul find and abduct virgins as young as thirteen so that they could rape them; and she stated that she enjoyed both her own and his rape of Tammy (N. Pron and J. Duncanson, Toronto Star, 2 June 1995; S. Cairns and S. Burnside, Toronto Sun, 2 June 1995).

Unsurprisingly, such revelations led to Bernardo’s defence counsel, John Rosen, describing Karla as a “Venus fly trap” who lured young women for assault and rape (N. Pron, J. Duncanson, and J. Rankin, Toronto Star, 8 July 1995; Bernardo v Queen, 1 May 1995). Rosen’s allegation neatly places the blame for the entrapment of these young women firmly on Homolka’s shoulders rather than on those of Bernardo who, it is implied, would not have raped them had Homolka not provided them so conveniently for that purpose. This attitude is confirmed by a commentator on the trial, Christie Blatchford, who avers that, although both Bernardo and Homolka attacked the girls, “the betrayal.. .was Homolka’s,” and this was made worse by her gender as “what gives both deeds ringing cruelty is the fact that Homolka is a woman” (Toronto Sun, 8 July 1995).

Indeed, understanding Karla as a woman was impossible according to another commentator, psychologist Nancy Lands, who insisted that women found it impossible to “deal with” Karla Homolka because: “Women aren’t supposed to do these things” (in M. Mandel, Toronto Sun, 2 July 1995). Specif­ically, as John Duncanson and Jim Rankin put it, “women just couldn’t get past the fact she could serve up her own sister. to the sexual cravings of a psychopath” (Toronto Star, 3 September 1995). Even more worrying, however, were Homolka’s admissions to police that she knew that if she ever had chil­dren with Paul, the girls would become his sex slaves and that any male foe­tuses would be aborted. Despite this, she still wanted to have his children, writing to a friend shortly after Kristen French’s murder that she would get pregnant as soon as Paul finished the rap album he was writing (S. Cairns and S. Burnside, “The Illusion Is Real,” Toronto Sun, 1 September 1995).

Needless to say, Karla quickly became an enigma for the media; the girl the court artists couldn’t draw (J. Duncanson and J. Rankin, Toronto Star, 3 Sep­tember 1995); the girl the psychiatrists couldn’t pin down to a diagnosis; the girl who blithely crossed every boundary in the pursuit of her pleasure and that of her lover. In the words of one of her psychiatrists, Dr. Angus MacDonald, she was a diagnostic conundrum, as “despite her ability to present herself very well, there is a moral vacuity in her which is difficult, if not impossible, to explain” (cited in J. Duncanson and J. Rankin, Toronto Star, 3 September 1995). Karla was a “true mystery, both physically and psychologically,” who left her secure, happy childhood behind and “went willingly” into Paul’s world of rape, murder, dismemberment, and sadomasochistic sex (ibid.).

Despite his predations, Paul Bernardo, on the other hand, was generally considered a regular guy. His defence counsel, for example, told reporters that

his client was “just like the rest of us,” adding that “he may have his problems, but who doesn’t?” (cited in S. Cairns and S. Burnside, “The Sooner, the Bet­ter for Crown,” Toronto Sun, і September 1995). Even the redoubtable Christie Blatchford agreed, opining in her column, entitled, incidentally, “Icy Bernardo Chills Soul,” that he “is one of us, a perfectly logical product of the modern age.. .self absorbed.. .needy.. .demanding of immediate gratification” (Toronto Sun, 16 August 1995). His indictment for twenty-eight rapes, performed dur­ing the early years of his relationship with Homolka, and his acknowledged sexual sadism in the rapes and murders of Tammy Homolka, Leslie Mahaffy, and Kristen French, were not sufficient to dislodge his claim to humanity. As journalist Judy Steed wrote, Paul “is not a freak from outerspace…[but] a product of this culture, conditioned in the shadowy underworld of porn. whose behaviour escalated from using it to doing it” (Toronto Star, 2 Septem­ber 1995). Bernardo was merely a classic hedonist, with his pleasure being his only “raison d’etre and…guiding principle” (C. Blatchford, Toronto Sun, 19 August 1995). He, unlike Homolka, was not impossible to understand, for “his sociopathic behaviour practically leapt out like a check list from the pages of psychiatric manuals” (J. Duncanson and J. Rankin, Toronto Star, 3 Septem­ber 1995).

Bernardo’s wife battering was also somehow acceptable because, although he had clearly battered Karla just before she left him, there was some doubt as to whether he was really a regular wife beater. Karla’s family, for example, failed to notice any of her injuries until the final few months of their rela­tionship; family doctors supported this allegation. The couple were, for the most part, considered by friends and family to have been loving and happy together until mid-1992. Paul was viewed as rather dominant and controlling of his wife in public, but she didn’t appear to take offence at this. Even Karla herself admitted that Paul’s control of her, at least in the beginning of their rela­tionship, didn’t worry her as the things he asked of her were not terribly impor­tant to her and he reciprocated in kind (Bernardo v Queen, 1 May 1995). Indeed, Karla, in the words of Toronto Star journalists, appeared “made to order for Bernardo. everything he wanted in a woman: good looking, great body. someone he could control, dominate, and use as a sexual playtoy— and later enlist as a partner in his crimes” (J. Rankin, J. Duncanson, and N. Pron, Toronto Star, 2 September 1995).

Bernardo, then, was not entirely responsible for his acts as a sexual sadist; he was, rather, part of a team. Like Ian Brady (of Moors Murders fame) before him, Paul Bernardo needed Karla Homolka to take the final step from rape to murder (M. Campbell, 2 September 1995; K. Makin, “Risk of Bernardo’s Killing

Homolka Rated ‘High,’” Globe and Mail, 2 September 1995). Theirs was a “spi­ralling involvement” that really took off after the accidental death of Tammy (Pearson, cited in M. Campbell, Globe and Mail, 2 September 1995), ultimately creating “an awe-inspiring terror-and-rape machine, their blond good looks and toothy charm a ghastly contrast to the utter lack of mercy which, together and separately, they displayed to their captives” (C. Blatchford, Toronto Sun, 23 August 1995). Even Paul’s eventual beating of Karla was explained using the team mentality: he bashed her, so journalists speculated, because she was panicked by the thought of arrest and he lost patience with her, considering her more of a liability than an ally (J. Rankin, J. Duncanson, and N. Pron, Toronto Star, 2 September 1995).

At the conclusion of his trial, Bernardo was presented not as evil but as sick; not as abnormal but as so usual that psychiatrists apparently had no trouble labelling him with the understated diagnosis of an antisocial person­ality disorder (J. Rankin, J. Duncanson, and N. Pron, Toronto Star, 2 Septem­ber 1995), even though they considered his sexual sadism to be so extreme that he had membership in a group “populated by only 30 of 1000 killers ana­lyzed by the fbi” (K. Makin, “Risk of Bernardo’s Killing Homolka Rated ‘High,’” Globe and Mail, 2 September 1995). So common were Bernardo’s peccadilloes that they invoked a number of regular descriptive terms, such as paraphilia, sexual sadism, voyeurism, hebephilia, urophilia, coprophilia and narcissism (J. Rankin, J. Duncanson, and N. Pron, Toronto Star, 2 September 1995). Bernardo, it seems, was a perfect candidate for psychiatric investigation: a psychiatrist’s dream.

Eventually, mainstream legal and media discourses were even able to recu­perate Karla Homolka’s troublesome narrative of sadism and cruelty through unconscious recourse to psychoanalysis. Following the stock story of Freud’s interpretation of the female beating fantasy, these discourses “simply” rewrote both dramas as tragedies of masochism.

Karla Homolka’s narrative of victimization and coercion was developed by none other than the prosecution counsel, Ray Houlahan, at her ex-husband’s trial. He was helped in this endeavour by Karla herself, who, upon entering prison, became an avid reader of texts on the battered woman syndrome. Indeed, she even recommended Lenore Walker’s book The Battered Woman to several of her friends and associates who were due to take the stand dur­ing the Bernardo trial (S. Cairns and S. Burnside, Toronto Sun, 2 August 1995; J. Duncanson and N. Pron, Toronto Star, 2 August 1995; K. Makin, “Bernardo Trial Told of Effects of Abuse.” Globe and Mail, 12 August 1995). She also man­aged to convince no fewer than three court appointed psychiatrists that she had been regularly and severely beaten, although they were unable to agree on whether she had developed BWS (Bernardo v Queen, і May 1995; K. Makin, “Bernardo Trial Told of Effects of Abuse,” Globe and Mail, 12 August 1995; “Crown Closes Its Case against Bernardo,” Globe and Mail, 15 August 1995). Even if she had, however, almost everyone from the prosecutor to the psychi­atrists concurred that this couldn’t excuse her participation in the rape and murder of three young women (Bernardo v Queen, 1 May 1995; K. Makin, “Risk of Bernardo’s Killing Homolka Rated ‘High,’” Globe and Mail, 2 Septem­ber 1995; S. Cairns and S. Burnside,“The Mystery of Karla Homolka,” Toronto Sun, 1 September 1995; C. Blatchford, Toronto Star, 1 September 1995).

Ray Houlahan’s portrayal of Karla Homolka was always going to stretch the public’s concept of battering relationships. Her catalogue of the abuse she suffered and the control her partner exercised over her—which began with him choosing her friends and her hair colours and ended with daily beatings and him forcing her to eat his faeces—was extreme but not impossible to imag­ine. Certainly no one denied she had been beaten very savagely just before she left Paul Bernardo. However, Karla’s complete inability to take responsi­bility for any of her actions during the entire five-year period of her relation­ship with Paul Bernardo was the sticking point for many watching the proceed­ings. For Karla denied her agency for every act she undertook, ranging from the innocuous, like her decision to send her partner hundreds of sexy cards and letters throughout this time, to the sinister, such as her theft from her workplace of the drugs necessary for the rapes and her determination not to free Kristen French or to help Leslie Mahaffy when she had the chance. As Rosie DiManno observed: “‘He told me to’…was her mantra, her robotic response to query after query lobbed by Crown attorney Ray Houlahan” (Toronto Star, 20 June 1995).

Although heavily criticized in the media, this masochistic, nonagentic portrayal of Karla Homolka was eventually allowed to stand as the final word on her case. Accompanied by photos of her beaten face, the Toronto Sun, for instance, claimed in its last piece on the trial that Karla was under “the evil power of a sexual sadist” who had gradually conditioned her to total depend­ence on him, to the point where she so needed “the affection and connection” that she would “do anything to maintain it” (S. Cairns and S. Burnside, 3 Sep­tember 1995). The Globe and Mail also summed up the case as that of a “com­bination of two complementary sexually deviant individuals with a more clearly dominant male and a compliant, masochistic female” (K. Makin, “Risk of Bernardo’s Killing Homolka Rated ‘High,’” Globe and Mail, 2 September 1995). Karla’s potentially troubling agency, accidentally evidenced in her vir­tuoso verbal jousting with Bernardo’s defence counsel, John Rosen, was sub­sumed under a flurry of articles stating that she was a passive, chameleon per­sonality whose “future behaviour depends far more on whom she happens to meet than on anything within herself” (K. Makin, “Risk of Bernardo’s Killing Homolka Rated ‘High,’” Globe and Mail, 2 September 1995; J. Duncanson and J. Rankin, Toronto Star, 3 September 1995). She is presented here as a truly blank canvas, a tabula rasa waiting only to be written into being by her next lover. With a character analysis like this, it was hardly surprising that one of the letters to the editor commented wryly, “God help us if she falls in love again” (C. Carruthers, Toronto Star, 2 September 1995).

Without a submissive woman, a sadistic man would never act, but together the two may become a “lethal pair.” This conclusion goes some way towards revealing the complexity of such relationships rather than merely reasserting the simple frame through which they are generally seen. Michelle Masse (1992, 44) argues, for instance, that sadomasochistic partnerships inhabit a “mutual and deeply problematic” relationship through which “both sadist and masochist define self and other.” In her terms, these relationships blur the boundaries of activity and passivity, of agent and victim (43-44) as both are vital to the con­tinued existence of the other and function together in mutual desire.

Yet, partnerships like those of Homolka and Bernardo need not be read as sadomasochistic dualities at all; rather, they might be understood as the union of two sadists, driving each other on, searching for the same unfulfill – able desire. For, as Marie Bonaparte (1995,447) states, the sadist too demands the impossible:

Born of the lover’s eternal but unattainable desire to unite with his beloved, this ambivalence craves the destruction of the subject in order that the vain, and thus painful, striving may end. Yet, though the great criminal sadist will at times partially devour his victim, true union with her is still withheld, as to all lovers. Then, only a destruction of that ephemeral plaything of his passion will estab­lish a more enduring love which, for a time, assuages the sadist’s torturing, unappeasable desires.

To act in concert so effectively, as this couple did, insists upon mutual need. For, other than following slavishly the wishes of the beloved, what are the pleasures for masochists in aiding their partners to destroy young girls that they, themselves, have also raped and violated? Could not the pleasure be more sadistic in origin, based on both partners’ desire to dominate, to violate, and, finally, to possess utterly?

Moreover, Karla Homolka’s narrativization as a masochist omitted an important element of her story. Any suggestion of her enjoyment of the crimes was buried in most media reports and trial proceedings under an avalanche of protestations regarding her devotion to Paul and her extreme emotional dependence upon him. None of these representations considered that women who team up with male sexual sadists might have issues of their own to work out via sadistic behaviour. An fbi profile of such killers, for instance, observed that their female partners all “fell” for them with remarkable swiftness. Yet, as Patricia Pearson (1998,185) comments, this interesting fact is not considered further by the researchers, although it could easily indicate that the women may have been interested in such men because they had similar desires. Nor is their eventual violence towards children and young girls seen as the product of anything but coercion. The idea, as Pearson remarks, that “women can be strategically aggressive toward children, or that their violence isn’t always per­sonal, private, or impulsive, that sometimes it is…a means…of furthering an ambition…a vehicle to her own empowerment” (102) is never given the cre­dence it deserves. Instead of viewing Homolka’s attitude as a response to the “corrupting power of love” (179), we could just as easily view her as a preda­tor who wanted to keep Paul Bernardo and who was happy to oblige him in any way he wished as long as she stayed firmly at the centre of his sexual uni­verse (192).17 This would not be devotion, but strategy; not coercion, but empowerment.

The mainstream depictions’ rigorous suppression of Homolka’s cruelty to and hatred for other women functions primarily, then, to negate female vio­lence and female desire while reinforcing the autonomy of male desire and the prosaic nature of male violence. For portrayals of Homolka casting her as having killed “for love,” to please her male partner, explicitly insist upon her lack of responsibility for her crimes. Like many of the women in Hilary Allen’s (1987, 83) study of female offenders, Homolka is depicted as never having engaged in an intentional act in her life. The only desire she is presented as pos­sessing is that of attending to the needs of men, any more active desire fulfill­ing her own wants being disallowed her.18 The mass media audience was, thus, prevented and protected from having to countenance the possibility, indeed the reality, of female violence and female sadism.