Karla Homolka, the she-wolf of St. Catherines, Ontario, is about to complete a 12 year sentence for being Paul Bernardo’s too-willing accomplice in the sexual exploitation and killings of three young women during the early 1990s. Since she’s served her full sentence—something virtually unheard of in contemporary Canadian judicial practice, by the way—she’s presumably going to be free to walk into the sunset relatively unsupervised. That, and the fact that virtually everyone in Ontario seems to think she didn’t serve enough time, has the professional shouters at full volume, and hundreds of thousands of normally comatose people thinking like prosecutors time-warped from Nazi Germany.
We can put aside the issue of whether she served enough time as unanswerable. Probably she hasn’t, but it is worth noting that 12 years in jail is more than a de facto life sentence under Canadian law, and that the Crown did make the deal that resulted in that sentence in order to get her to testify against Paul Bernardo. What’s really at issue, for those of us attempting to remain sane, is whether or not she’s now a danger to society, or likely to reoffend.
My answer to both questions is the same: no. Not compared to most sex offenders, and not in common sense terms. Over the ten years I spent teaching cultural literacy in federal maximum security prisons I ran across hundreds—maybe thousands—of inmates more likely to reoffend than Karla Homolka. A few of them were psychopaths with openly murderous circuitry that scared the crap out of me and most of their fellow-inmates. Compared to them, Homolka is no risk at all. Even if she can be classified as a psychopath, her ability to cope—or dissemble—while in prison is proof that she ain’t the keg-o-dynamite kind, notwithstanding the hooded eyes in the photograph of her the newspapers invariably dust off whenever they want to scare the folks out in Reactionland.
I’ve heard Homolka described as a can of gasoline ready to be ignited by anyone with an erotic match. That’s catchy for selling newspapers, but it bleeds off into hyperbole at the edges. On one side, it suggests that if Homolka had stumbled onto a nice beer-swilling donut-munching GM plant worker instead of Paul Bernardo, she’d now be a 230 pound behemoth with three kids, and having sex in the missionary position once a month. Ah, no. Her circuitry is a just a little darker and more complicated. It took a rarer companion chemical to ignite her, one from the upper registrations of the Periodic Table. Paul Bernado was the socio-erotic equivalent of plutonium.
On the other side, though, there’s a grain of truth to the notion that she’s constructed of the same common elements that produce gasoline, but it doesn’t lead where the hyperbolists want to take us. Instead, it brings up the real and embarrassing truths all this demonizing hysteria is hiding from us. The reasons why Homolka fires people up as she does hasn’t got anything to do with her being a conscienceless monster ready to explode into sexual violence at the slightest provocation. It’s because she is so close to normality that she calls into question normality itself.
What characterized her personality—and the erotic pathology she and Bernardo synergized—was not a perverted monstrousness but an extreme cultural conventionality coupled with an absence of imagination. The Toronto Star’s recent lavish rehashing of the whole sordid saga reminded me of that, and of a series of details that no one made much of during the trial that put Bernardo away for the rest of his life, and got Homolka her 12 years.
Homolka was one of those kids who grew up in the cognitive cocoon of television. Her icons were Disney and Warner Brothers cartoon characters, she drew happy-faces on her correspondence, and dotted her “i”s with tiny hearts. She’s a perfect product of pre-Cartoon Network television’s—and her parents’—failure to enculturate children to understand that actions have consequences and that human character isn’t something constructed from drugstore purchases and greeting card slogans. In place of values, she operated by capitalist slogans and mushy kitten/puppy clichés.
Paul Bernardo was strikingly similar. His culture hero was Gordon Gecko, the ruthless entrepreneur from the movie Wall Street. You can quibble over what that means all you like, and it really doesn’t matter if you’re coming at it as a Fraser Institute radical or a victim-whining lefty: when you build a social modeling system that glorifies aggressive exploitation of people and commodities and counsels people to “enter-and-take”, sooner or later you’re going to produce a Paul Bernardo and not the enterprising carpet store managers you want.
Bernardo clearly saw himself as an unleashed erotic Gordon Gecko. It’s harder to figure out what was going on in Homolka’s head, but I think she thought she was in an “anything goes” cartoon that was going to loop back to the beginning with everything intact.
Not to make light of the crimes she and Bernardo did commit, but it is worthwhile to remind ourselves that their monstrousness comes from the same post-civility enculturation mechanisms that set off those jackasses who shot up a Toronto bus in the Jane-Finch Corridor a few months ago after doing too much crack and playing Grand Theft Auto for too many hours on their Playstation PSPs: overstimulation, lack of interior structural restraints. It was that same combination of cultural emptiness and a shared lack of imagination that provoked the kidnappings and murders. No one told Bernardo and Homolka they couldn’t do what they wanted, and much of the culture, interpreted literally, was telling them to go ahead.
Once they got those innocent kids in their clutches they didn’t have the cognitive equipment that would have stopped the escalation further into the literality that all human sexuality holds in potential: perversion, constraint, rape, death. Thousands of erotic interactions just this side of the ground zero of their crimes take place every day. Most never get past the stage of simply imagining group sex, or rape/control fantasies. Some are played out ironically with willing cohabitants, and a small few end with near-victims scurrying off into the night bewildered or shocked or bemused by the weirdness.
To repeat: Homolka’s culpability was the product of literal-mindedness, lack of imagination and crappy enculturation, not evil. Bernardo had the same shortcomings, but with his long prehistory of predation and sexual violence, he was something else again.
One of the interesting details in the Star’s tub-thumping pre-release jamboree marks another aspect of Homolka’s character that separates her from most inmates: She likely knows where she’s going and what she’s going to do. She made herself fluent in French while in prison, and it seems logical that she’ll head for Quebec, where the mass media isn’t going to pursue her with the same frenzied self-righteousness and the general population doesn’t really know what she did.
If allowed to, she’ll disappear into the Francophone woodwork, working in a dry cleaning plant or cleaning cages in a veterinary clinic until she meets a construction foreman (male or female) with a few kinks but sufficient moral fibre and imagination to keep things legal. If we’re even a little bit lucky, her pathology will simply dissolve into the miasma of the Cartoon Network (“It’s Unreal!”), she’ll lose the good looks that so infuriated the mass media’s female columnists and the moral pursuit will fizzle out. Eventually, the rest of us will forget the one thing about her we should remember: how much like us she really was.
June 9th, 2005 1272 words