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Reviewed by:
  • Neither Angels Nor Demons: Women, Crime and Victimization, and: I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies From the Women of York Prison
  • Phil Christman (bio)
Neither Angels Nor Demons: Women, Crime and Victimization by Kathleen Ferraro. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2006, 327 pp., $26.00 paper.
I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies From the Women Of York Prison by Wally Lambthe Women of York Correctional Institution. New York, NY: Harper, 2007, 258 pp., $25.95 hardcover, $14.95 paper.

For its users, the vocabulary of the criminal justice system offers one advantage over any alternative: it is so simple. It tells us exactly who the good and bad people are, precisely where to put our compassion. Both of these books—one a work of sociology, the other an anthology of literature by imprisoned women—challenge such binary simplicity, offering a plethora of detail, context, and observation to add thickness and depth to our culture’s rather meager collective mental picture of the lives of incarcerated women.

By examining cases of “battered women [who] become criminal offenders” (2), Kathleen Ferraro, in her important and enlightening new study, Neither Angels Nor Demons: Women, Crime and Victimization, demonstrates the limits of such oversimplified categories. Though the heart of the book is Ferraro’s unpacking of these women’s stories, she also examines the terms that have become conventional in discussions of violence against women. Here she must contest one achievement by feminist activists in order to advance another, because, of course, it was the efforts of feminists that led to the development of a vocabulary for such violence in the first place.

Following Foucault, Ferraro argues that these terms carry their own cost: “[t]he ways in which these categories are defined not only prescribe behaviors, they help to constitute what people take for granted as true and real” (10). She find the terms “battering,” “batterer,” and “battered woman” to be especially problematic because they “emphasiz[e] the physical aspects of violence” and ignore the overall pattern of controlling behavior in which overt violence is just one strategy (15). The concept of the “battered woman” has actually made life more difficult for some abused women. “According to popular conceptions, battered women have low self-esteem, are passive and weak, and perhaps have ‘learned helplessness,’” she writes, with the result that “[w]omen who do not conform to these expectations of a ‘real’ battered woman have a difficult time convincing people that they have been battered and that their partners’ [End Page 247] abuse terrified them and caused them to be complicit in criminal acts” (14). Ferraro also questions the pervasive notion of the “cycle of violence,” arguing that “all aspects of [abusive] relationships,” including the socalled “honeymoon phase” of affection and nonviolence, are still aimed at control and are thus implicitly violent (26).

The second chapter demonstrates the heartbreaking consequences that our inadequate language can have when women encounter the criminal processing system. As Ferraro points out, “Living in a situation that defies conventional categories and boundaries creates obstacles to communication with official actors in the criminal processing system” (46). Such “official actors” fail, for example, to credit women’s often well-founded fear that “nothing can protect them or keep abusers away,” which prevents them from calling the police or obtaining protection orders. Criminal processing agents also lose patience with women who return to their abusers. But women submit to such “ongoing relationships” for many reasons: because they own the house, because they fear their children will be taken away, because they fear leaving their children behind to face further abuse. Abusers often murder their partners as retaliation for obtaining an order of protection, a fact rarely acknowledged by representatives of the same justice system that issued the worthless order. For some abused women, too, the criminal justice system is rightly perceived as an enemy; calling the cops on an abusive partner amounts to giving away their own whereabouts.

Undocumented women represent a fairly obvious case, but consider also the woman who fears that Child Protective Services (CPS) will punish both parents for abuse perpetrated by one. Such women may decide that their children are better off with at least...


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pp. 247-251
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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