Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo met in 1987, when he was 23 and she was seventeen. They married in 1991, six
months after they raped and killed Karla's sister, Tammy, and two weeks after
abducting, raping and killing 14-year old Leslie Mahaffy. The following year,
in April of 1992, 15-year old Kristen French was the next young lady unlucky
enough to cross paths with the Bernardos, and her fate would be the same as
that of Tammy Homolka, and Ms. Mahaffy.
Karla procured the sleeping
medication, Halcion, and the anesthetic, Halothane, from the vet clinic
where she worked, in order to “give” her youngest sister to her then-fiancé as a “Christmas present”. Not surprisingly, Tammy Homolka died as a result of this demented act. Still, in June of
1991, Karla lured a young friend of hers (known in court as Jane Doe) to the
home she shared with Bernardo, and used the same combination of drugs on Jane
Doe that had killed her sister just a scant six months before.
Bernardo and Homolka
videotaped themselves sexually assaulting Jane Doe, Ms. Mahaffy and Ms. French, and Karla’s
sister, Tammy. In December of 1992, Bernardo gave his wife a beating that put her in the hospital. Photographs taken in the emergency room show Karla bruised and raccoon-eyed. She fled the matrimonial home—without the tapes.
A three-month long evidence search of Paul and Karla’s home would fail to produce those tapes, and nothing tied Bernardo to
the murders except Homolka’s word. Karla claimed to be an abused wife,
forced to comply with the perverted wishes of her husband. In exchange for
testifying against her partner-in-crime, Karla received a twelve-year prison
sentence, for manslaughter.
Eight months before Paul Bernardo’s trial began,
however, the prosecution came into possession of the tapes, and no longer
needed Homolka’s testimony to convict Bernardo. They also came into
possession of a paper written by the FBI; “Compliant Victims of the Sexual
Sadist” was a study of seven violent, sexual predators, and their wives/accomplices.
Unlike the free moral agents their partners were, generally, the paper
described these women’s criminal behavior as aberrant, a consequence of their
partner’s brutal treatment. Or put more simply, they were beaten into being
The tapes clearly showed
the extent of Karla’s participation in the crimes. Having seen them, the Crown
still refused to revoke Homolka’s plea bargain deal. After she was given
immunity for the attack on Jane Doe, the arrangement between Karla Homolka and
the government in Ontario was widely denounced as “the deal with the devil”.
blue-eyed, Paul and Karla were beautiful, and they were monsters. In the press,
they were called "the Ken and Barbie of murder and mayhem". After a
ponderous amount of research, I decided to write a book about the Ken and
Barbie Killers, and people often ask me, why this case?
As with any high-profile legal matter, conspiracy theories abound, and the
lure of conspiracy theories is that since one can never be certain, one could
always be correct. I spoke with a man recently, a member of the media attendant at the trial,
and he wondered “who Karla got to, who needed to keep her free and protect her,
and what she touched that gave her such power”. I felt somehow privy to the answers
that he seeks. Not the legal, or political ones he may expect—that is merely
surface, protecting us from a truth many women are reluctant to admit. And
judging from the case of Paul and Karla, men who are aware of it find it more
unnerving than women do.
"Learned helplessness" is a
psychological term sometimes used to describe a facet of battered women’s
syndrome; it typifies a woman so beaten down, physically and/or
psychologically, she learns her survival is ensured by pathological passivity
and compliance. A few women have found this more advantageous in reverse:
these are the women who intuitively see a quieter but more insidious power to
be gained from feigning helplessness
and compliance. They’ve learned it keeps some men forever in their debt, and
forever wondering when the time will come for debt collection. Some women are beaten
into constant foresight. Some women are only capable of foresight.
Like men who only choose trophy-wives, certain women choose their mates the
way some tattoo shoppers choose bad ass tattoos. Once the investment’s
made, these women eagerly attend to tattoo care and maintenance. And since a
faded bad ass tattoo is an unflattering reflection, there’s always tattoo
removal. Or if it starts to fade too soon, the woman who would sport a really
bad ass tattoo wouldn't hesitate to ask for her money back.
Certainly Paul and Karla were tattoos for each other, and even this couple from
hell had unwritten laws and unspoken rules: I give you this, you give me that,
as all couples do. But women who wear relationships like bad ass tattoos won't live in
the permanent ducking position of the battered wife. They have grander vistas
in mind than learned helplessness allows. Certain bad ass designs are chosen
for highly specific reasons, but the overriding concern is to determine which
one is least likely to fade out in the end. This of course requires experience
and strength, and while she may have lacked experience, Karla Homolka could
always play to her strengths because she had never been without them.
So who did Karla get to? Men. Who needed to keep her free and protect her? Men.
Which person did she touch to obtain her power? Some man, somewhere.
There's an old joke that goes:
Did you find what you were looking for?
Yeah, and it was in the last place I looked.
The answers about Karla are in the first place we look. Then we use words like
"enigma" because what we’ve found seems unthinkable. The men who
gave Karla her power, who protected her and gave her immunity, weren't evil
men. Power-hungry and greedy, perhaps, but not evil. The “deal with the devil” came
about by a combination of opportunity and opportunism. It wasn’t a “conspiracy”,
in the usual sense of the word. It wasn’t even “collusion”. It was more like a
collision. A collision of needs.
The uniquely Canadian
influences on the Bernardo/Homolka affair probably escape the notice of most
American true-crime buffs; the feminist movement got its foothold in Canada and
the U.S. at roughly the same time, but Canada is far more progressive than the
United States of America—and less predisposed to pissing contests. Just having
a good pissing contest colors much of our government’s decision-making process,
as avoiding one colors much of Canada’s. Both countries have made strides with
regard to women’s rights issues. But after factoring in the different forms of
government we are, more money is spent on domestic violence programs in Canada
than in the U.S, which, given the particulars of the Bernardo/Homolka tale, is
a grand little piece of irony.
The logical conclusion of any movement is always the polar opposite of its source. Human
nature being what it is, Charles Manson's "family" and its Helter
Skelter philosophy was the logical conclusion of the 60’s counterculture
movement. The 70's ushered in the women's liberation movement, and, thankfully,
the notion that women are as capable as men began to gain some ground. But the
"equal pay for equal work" mantra is still an idea in its infancy,
and Karla Homolka is, unfortunately, the logical conclusion of radical
movement brought us Manson, as the feminist movement brought us Homolka. Both
of them exploiters of ideals. For all the hype and hysteria
surrounding both Bernardo and Manson as evil spell-binders of women, it’s
Manson whose female devotees took the longest to leave his side. Karla was only
fleeing her king, of course, and to his followers, Charlie was Jesus Christ.
But not for a moment do I believe that Ms. Homolka sees herself on a continuum
with Susan Atkins or Squeaky Fromme.
On December 6, 1989, an
enraged gunman roamed the corridors of Montreal’s
Ecole Polytechnique; after separating the women from the men, 25-year old Marc
Lepine screamed “I hate feminists!”, then opened fire on a classroom of female
engineering students. Lepine killed 14 women before turning the gun on himself.
The Montreal Massacre
became a galvanizing moment in which mourning turned into outrage about all
violence against women.
In 1993, the New
Democrats were a feminist-controlled party, and they were the ruling party when
Karla was arrested. Journalist Christie Blatchford writes, “It is interesting
to remember that Homolka’s kissy-face deal came under an Ontario attorney
general, Marion Boyd, of whom it is probably fair to say she was on a
self-appointed mission to educate the world about battered women.”
It's also fair to say that toward the end of the Bernardo-Homolka union, Paul Bernardo began to
"disassemble", and so did every other man connected to this case, upon
realizing the bad ass tattoo wasn't simply false advertising and must be
reconciled with its petite blond owner. If this seems harsh or overly
simplistic, ask anyone who's seen Paul and Karla's video library why her motive
and involvement are still hotly debated topics; ask someone involved in the
investigation why Homolka’s plea bargain deal didn't shatter like cheap glass
once it was obvious she violated its terms; ask any man why Bernardo's role in this nightmare is taken for granted; ask yourself if you don't hear
Victorian death-throes in the wedding of the words "compliant"
Men like Paul Bernardo are made more dangerous by our need to purify women like
This idea we're modern thinkers is the delusional comfort of every age, but
given too great a threat, we're constructed to revert to the fight-or-flight
instinct. In true modern-thinking fashion, I'm certain no man involved with the
Bernardo-Homolka case would deny a woman advancement; that we're doctors,
engineers, and judges, is rightly viewed as laudable. That we can also be found
in the male-dominated world of homicidal sexual psychopathy and that we’re
capable of the same moral decline is so threatening a notion some people prefer
handing us an apron and scooting us back into the kitchen. The simple truth
that never seems to come full circle is that whoever does the cooking also
chooses the recipe.
Certainly there are
women who are lost in cycles of abuse and are never quite sure why. But that is
not our Karla. Compliant victim, enigma, a diagnostic mystery; label her as you
will. I do not need to know the thing before me, poised and ready to strike, is
called a “viper”, to understand the degree of harm it will likely cause.
I chose to write about this case because we’re
lacking a satisfactory answer as to what to do with its legacy; I chose it
because Karla is living somewhere now with children of her own.
For men and women alike,
that is a bitter pill to swallow. But better to take our poison
in small doses over time, and have a chance at immunity, like Karla.