Vol. 22 No. 1, 2001



This paper discusses a play called Famous by Carol Bolt, which was produced in Toronto at the Tarragon Theatre in 1997. The play is based on the real-life crimes committed by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, and addresses the issue of violent and deviant behaviour in women. The play activates a social discomfort with the very idea of violent women and certainly with representations of "real-life" violence, which prevented Famous from receiving the critical attention it deserved.

Cet article examine Famous, une pièce écrite par Carol Bolt, représentée au théâtre Tarragon à Toronto en 1997. La pièce, basée sur les crimes réels commis par Paul Bernardo et Karla Homolka, aborde la question du comportement violent et déviant chez les femmes. Face au malaise social que la pièce déclanche avec l'idée même de femmes violentes et certainement aux représentations "réelles" de violence, Famous n'a pas suscité l'attention des critiques qu'elle mérite.

One of the special functions of theatre is that a playwright can tap into the preoccupations of her society and respond in a timely manner, allowing an audience to reflect upon and come to a greater understanding of their own concerns by viewing a creative discussion about them in a public forum. In this paper, I want to discuss a play called Famous by Carol Bolt, which was produced in Toronto at the Tarragon Theatre in 1997. The play is based around the real-life crimes committed by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. It starts with a number of provocative issues, especially the prevalent use of video in everyday life, its potential to make almost everyone both "star" and "voyeur," and the role of the media in shaping public opinion and private behaviour. These are certainly topical issues, and the role of the media is often discussed in the wake of violent crime. But the play also addresses the difficult issue of violent and deviant behaviour in women, which, I will argue, activates a social discomfort with the very idea of violent women and certainly with representations of "real-life" violence. I would suggest that this subject matter in general, coupled with the public's understandable aversion to dwelling upon the Bernardo/Homolka murders in particular, prevented Famous from receiving the critical attention it deserved.1

I can think of few English-Canadian plays by women that deal with female violence. In Still Stands the House, Hester sends her brother and sister-in-law to their death in a snowstorm, but she is protecting her family home. In This is For You, Anna, Marianne Bachmeier murders the man who murdered her child, but this is the righteous revenge of a bereaved mother. In Charming and Rose: True Love, Princess Rose kills her abusive prince when he threatens her pregnancy, but she is acting in self-defense; and there are plenty of aggressive, criminal women in George F. Walker's plays, but they are for the most part comic.2 As we shall see, the artist takes on a unique risk when dealing with women whose desires are wholly unsanctioned, and this is greatly heightened when she references a factual case because she ventures across another line, a line between "journalistic" truth and "imaginative" art.

When it appeared in 1997, Famous was part of a small wave of works by women that dealt with female violence and, in particular, that addressed Karla Homolka. But it was, however, the only work for the theatre. There were at least four non-fiction books by Canadian women on topics related to female misbehaviour.3 Of these non-fiction works, I will be drawing upon Patricia Pearson's book, When She was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence4, and I will also discuss a novel entitled Paul's Case: The Kingston Letters by poet and cultural critic Lynn Crosbie. Along with Famous, these three works by Canadian women, all produced in 1997 and each using very different modes of discourse, draw similar conclusions about the two topics at hand: the allure of celebrity and the cultural confusion surrounding violent women. However, because the mode of discourse in Famous is theatrical, I think it creates the greatest degree of discomfort around issues of representation and audience complicity.

Before I begin discussing the texts, I will provide a very brief synopsis of the Bernardo and Homolka case that provides the source material. In 1983, in Scarborough, Ontario, a series of nineteen sexual assaults began. "The Scarborough Rapist" was not identified as Paul Bernardo until ten years later. In 1990, Paul Bernardo became engaged to Karla Homolka. On Christmas eve of that year, Bernardo and Homolka drugged and raped Karla's sixteen-year-old sister Tammy, who choked to death. In 1991, Bernardo and Homolka abducted and murdered fourteen-year-old Leslie Mahaffy in June at their home in St. Catharines, Ontario, two weeks before their wedding. In August of that year, they drugged and raped Jane Doe, a teenage friend of Homolka's. In April of 1992, Bernardo and Homolka abducted and murdered fifteen-year-old Kristen French. In August of that year, Homolka's family took her away after a savage beating by Bernardo. In 1993, a connection was made with the Scarborough rapes and Bernardo was arrested on February 18, charged with abduction, forcible confinement, aggravated sexual assault, one count of indignity to a human body, and the murder of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. The police searched the St. Catharine's home, but did not find the videotaped evidence. From May 14 to 21, negotiations were conducted with Homolka: her testimony against Bernardo in exchange for a manslaughter sentence of twelve years. Homolka's defense was that she was suffering from Battered Woman Syndrome and was as much a victim as the murdered girls. The details of her testimony and plea-bargaining were not known until Bernardo's trial two years later because a publication ban was imposed by Mr. Justice Francis Kovacs in order to ensure Bernardo a fair trial. Meanwhile, on May 6, Bernardo's lawyer Ken Murray had recovered six videos from the house that documented Bernardo and Homolka's relationship and their crimes. He kept them until September 12, 1994, and then gave the videos to Bernardo's new lawyer, John Rosen, who used them at his trial. On September 1, 1995, Bernardo was convicted and given a life sentence.5 The Crown now acknowledges that had the contents of the videos been known at the time, there would have been no plea bargain and Karla Homolka would also be serving life.

In some ways, Carol Bolt was uniquely suited to write about this kind of material because she had experience in dealing with and fictionalizing documentary subjects.6 In an interview in 1982, Bolt said, "A documentary implies that the value of the piece rests in its faithfulness to history and its factual base. I would like to think that the value of my plays lies in their theatricality and their entertainment values. I think they're ‘true,' but history is really only their starting point" (268). Bolt also wrote extensively for radio and television, and she was no doubt intimately familiar with the power of the electronic media.7

Famous is a two-act, two-character play and was produced by Carpe Diem Theatre at Tarragon's Extraspace in November and December of 1997. The director, Pam Eddenden, and one of the two actors, Linda Prystawska, are the Co-Artistic Directors of Carpe Diem. Prystawska played the role of Kit and Yanna McIntosh played Sheila. The play is set in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1997.

Famous is designed around the use of the video camera and its dual meaning in this particular case. Sheila is an African-American videographer who works for a TV program called The Candida Grey Show, known for serious profiles of artists, but also for exploitative episodes like "Mothers Whose Sons are Gay Bar Strippers." Sheila and a colleague are in St. Catharines covering the trial of Bobby (a fictionalized version of Bernardo). Sheila's assignment is to interview Bobby's wife Sandy and her best friend Kit. The three women, of course, must spend a lot of time together (this premise is based on factual circumstances; from the time Bernardo was charged in February 1993 until her plea-bargain in May, Homolka was free and the public was not aware that she was a suspect in the crimes). As the play opens, Sandy has gone to court, where she will unexpectedly plead guilty. So, Sheila and Kit are left alone at Sandy and Bobby's house. Kit spends her time by the pool drinking heavily and playing up to the photographers in the bushes surrounding the house who try to take her picture. Kit has an ambivalent relationship with Sheila: she has come to like and trust her, but she is also aware that Sheila considers her a "bimbette" and is really only interested in getting her to sign a release form. Early in the play Kit says, "Me and Sandy. We like you. But you, you think we're trashy. You think all we think about is sunblock. Sheila: I'm not your friend, Kit. I'm your videographer" (10). But friendship is vitally important to Kit. She boasts that "Geraldo says I am going to be famous for friendship" (23).8 In the first act, Kit has a lengthy monologue in which she describes her friendship with Sandy and two pivotal incidents from high school that illustrate the strange nature of their bond. In the first incident, Kit reveals to Sandy that her father had sexually abused her when she was younger, and later found out that Sandy had told the school counsellor the details of this abuse, but pretended that they happened to her:

Kit: Then Sandy tells me what she told Ms H. She told Ms H. my life . . . And she cries. She says she's
sorry. She says she had to tell my story. She says she couldn't tell her story. She said "If you knew
what my dad did to me, you'd understand why I can't talk about it." That's what
she said. That's what she told me. And I believed her. (40)

The second incident was a teenage experiment where the two girls lived as each other for a week, acting like the other and responding to the other girl's name, writing in each others' diaries, and even swapping boyfriends. Finally, Sandy badly upsets Kit's boyfriend and he runs off. Kit follows him and comforts him: "And I kissed him until he kissed me back, and it was wonderful. His tongue in my mouth. I was floating. I wanted him. And that wouldn't have happened, except for Sandy" (44). These incidents reveal two things: Sandy's willingness to lie and to take potentially dangerous situations to an extreme, but also Kit's willingness to put a positive spin on these behaviours, to credit Sandy with acceptable motives.

At the end of act I, Kit mentions a collection of videotapes in the basement and the scene in act II shifts to the basement rec room. The theme of friendship continues, as Kit tries to bond with and confess to Sheila by encouraging her to play a drinking game called "I Never" (one person makes a statement like "I never had sex on camera," and if she is lying she has to take a drink. If the other player has done that thing, they must also take a drink) (54). As she becomes inebriated, Sheila confesses that she sees her job as manipulative, getting people like Kit to trust her and tell their stories on TV; she knows that her video interview with Kit will be profitable and good for her career, so in a way she too will be "famous for friendship" (60).

But ultimately it is Kit who has the real confession to make, as she reveals that she, Sandy, and Bobby made pornographic videos of each other, and of Sandy's sister Skippy and her teenage friends:

Kit: . . . They were just having fun. They enjoyed it. They came back, didn't they? They came back for more . . . But all that other stuff, it didn't happen. I know what happened. I can show you what happened. There's little girls in baby-doll pajamas, maybe just a little high. Maybe pulling down their baby doll pajamas. There is nothing there you haven't seen Madonna do. It's like prime-time television. It's like day-time television. Well, almost. Sheila: How, almost? Kit: You want to see, don't you? And it's here, somewhere. Why would they throw it out? It looks like a Calvin Klein ad. (66)

Bolt is drawing on the real-life importance of the video camera in Bernardo and Homolka's lives. As Patricia Pearson writes, "By 1990, Bernardo had launched a kind of home invasion, documenting all [Homolka] family frolics with his ever-present camera" (183). But Bolt is also commenting on the mainstream normalcy, both of this documenting obsession and of the undifferentiated sexualization of women like Madonna and teenage Calvin Klein models.

Finally, Kit shows Sheila a video that she claims documents Skippy's murder: "I keep thinking. I know what's on this tape. But I have to be careful what I remember . . . That's what my therapist says. Because I'm suggestible . . . She thinks I have ‘False Memory Syndrome'" (68). Bolt is gesturing here towards Homolka's use of the Battered Woman Syndrome in her defense, a cynical use of popular theories of psychology to explain one's moral confusion. Kit returns here to the idea of taking Sandy's place. She drugs Sheila with veterinary tranquilizers (as Sandy did Skippy, as Homolka did her sister Tammy) and explains, "I was trying to be Sandy, that's all. So we could try to understand" (70). Kit believes she has "done everything Sandy's done" (73). But the difference between them is that Kit feels guilty. Kits says, "And anyway, she's sorry. Sandy's sorry. She's full of remorse. Really, Sheila. She would be, wouldn't she?" Sheila responds, "You would be, wouldn't you? Kit nods" (73). Kit becomes more and more agitated and starts waving a gun around. Sheila, too, feels guilty, suspecting that it is her presence and the presence of her video camera that are sending Kit over the edge. Sheila asks, "But would you have that gun, Kit? If I didn't have this camera?" (74). And Kit picks up on the theme, drawing a parallel between the escalating perversity of her behaviour with Sandy and Bobby and the escalating sensationalism of the kind of TV show for which Sheila works:

Kit: You know what you want when you try something? Something lawless? Something wild? You want more. That's weird, right? More. It's because you get used to it. Because it isn't lawless if you're doing it. Because everything you do, you make excuses for. I mean, you know that, don't you? You do this show, this great show, like "Mothers Whose Sons are Gay Bar Strippers" . . . I loved that show, that show was fun, but when it's over, what do you do next? Sheila? Then what do you do? (74)

The play ends in darkness and confusion, with a strong suggestion that Kit has committed suicide.

 The play's publicity was accompanied by the line, "How far would you go to get your fifteen minutes?" John Coulbourn in The Toronto Sun begins his review by lamenting the very idea that Paul Bernardo might be considered "famous," as opposed to "infamous" or "notorious." Unfortunately, though, this overlooks the fact that the question refers to Kit and Sheila's complicity and desire for fame, not to Bernardo. Coulbourn writes that the play is "thought-provoking" and that Kit is "a rich character, and Prystawska, under the direction of Pam Eddenden, [who] makes the most of it, turning in a nuanced performance that renders the character amusing, tragic, and utterly horrifying, by turn." But Coulbourn concludes his review with the following:

To be quite candid, I learned all I ever wanted to know about Mr. and Mrs. Bernardo and the world's obsession with evil a long time ago—and I suspect I'm not alone in that. While Bolt's stageplay ultimately arrives at some interesting conclusions, they aren't worth the two hours-plus slime-soak that it takes to reach them. (n.pag.)

He says the play asks us to take "a disgusting dive." The subject matter renders "Famous not worth [the] price," as Colbourn's review is entitled. The implication is clearly that some subject matter is inappropriate for the theatre and that Bolt should not have attempted to write this play in the first place, which surely is a dubious position for a theatre reviewer to uphold. It seems that by condemning the play, the reviewer is actually taking the opportunity to publicly voice his condemnation of Bernardo and Homolka.

When dealing with real historical events, particularly horrible ones, there tends to be a distinct privileging of documentary, realist genres, such as testimony and memoir over imaginative, artistic works. As Ernst van Alphen has argued, the concern is for the response of the audience to such works, which must be "culturally prescribed or narratively programmed" so as to forbid any momentary identifications with the perpetrators (2). It is permissible for journalists to record all the details because they are believed to be producing an unmediated account; they are getting at the truth. But the artist imagines narrative and, according to van Alphen, this is considered not only less effective, but even objectionable: "Literature or art, after all, may yield aesthetic pleasure. And pleasure is supposed to be a barbarous response when confronted with . . . [what] is itself barbarous" (17). This anxiety is especially relevant to Famous, which offers a representation of female sexuality embodied in the physical presence of the attractive young actor. At the start of the play, Kit is dressed in a "string bikini" and "begins to strut and pose for the photographers" (2). One reviewer addressed his pleasure explicitly by describing Linda Prystawska's performance as "vividly alternating between cunning vixen and naive child," and mentioning that the play contains "a scene of lesbian titillation" (Raeburn 21).9 It is possible that, as audience members, we can be made profoundly uncomfortable by becoming voyeurs to this character's fictional testimony and witnessing her uncontrolled behaviour. By using many details from the real-life case, Bolt achieves what van Alphen calls a "reality effect": "The text as a whole does not claim that what it represents was real; rather it creates a sense that what it represents was real" (21). We may sense that we are too closely approaching the real-life model, that we bestow legitimacy by listening, that we are unwillingly implicated by experiencing pleasure in the actor's beauty and her performance.

Bolt has tried to address these problems by creating a layer of distance, first by giving us not "Sandy," but Sandy's friend Kit. And even more explicitly, Bolt offers us the character of Sheila, who may logically serve as the audience's conduit into the action. Sheila is an educated, African-American journalist. By class, race, and nationality, she is distinctly "other than" the criminals, and by profession she is legitimately allowed to look at "the facts."10 On the other hand, Sheila works for a semi-sleazy television show, one which exploits, manipulates, and sensationalizes its material (hardly better than what an artist, such as Bolt, might be accused of doing by some critics)11. Sheila is initially idealistic and wants to get the "real story" (she frequently asks, "Is that true, Kit?"), but she is corrupted and disillusioned by media-savvy Kit, who wants to shape her narrative to make it more interesting, to suit the viewers' tastes, by producing Kit's Video Diary. When Sheila finally admits that she wants to watch Sandy's Secret Sex Videos for the good of the show, she recognizes a level of ruthlessness in herself: "I think you've taught me something. About me. About my work. About how much I wanted this story . . . How it's a game" (56). She even implores Kit not to trust her (60). Thus, as the audience member's point of identification, Sheila remains ambivalent because she does not do a satisfactory job of getting us close enough to the "objective truth." John Coulbourn writes that the actor, Yanna McIntosh, is "trapped in an ill-defined and cliché-ridden character that the playwright has created more as a beast of burden than an equal participant in the play. McIntosh is game, but ultimately folds under the burden." (n.pag.). Catherine Driscoll, who criticizes the play as "exploitative," calls McIntosh's performance "timorous." Driscoll's language reveals her desire for a moral champion by evoking the stereotype of the hard-nosed journalistic truth-seeker: "McIntosh's approach gives us none of the burning ambition that would have driven her to St. Catharines in pursuit of the story." (n.pag.). And Alan Raeburn's model is even more explicit in his review: "a garrulous American TV journalist of the ‘Hard Copy' mold . . . a camcorder-carrying, avid seeker of truth" (21). Bolt introduces Sheila as an easily recognizable character type, but then confounds expectations and the desire for a moral champion by making Sheila ambivalent and implicated; thus she explicitly defies the false dichotomy between journalism and art.

Similar outrage greeted the publication of Lynn Crosbie's novel Paul's Case.12 Published by the small Insomniac Press and subtitled The Kingston Letters, Crosbie's book is loosely structured as a series of fifty-two letters sent by an unnamed woman to Paul Bernardo in prison. As with Bolt's play, the premise begins with and comments on factual material; according to The Globe and Mail, "Paul Bernardo is reported to receive five or six letters each day, many from women offering comfort and support, saying they believe he is innocent" (Nolen A8). Crosbie explains in her preface that "[t]his is a critical enterprise, an exploration of the crimes of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka as a work of historical fiction. Works of imaginative investigation, these ‘letters' are not intended as truth claims. They are, however, designed to explore and invent a series of conjectures, to tell the truth . . . slant" (viii).

As a novel, Paul's Case occupies the outer reaches of experimental writing, incorporating everything from cartoons to pornography to poetry. It is also a highly literate and allusive work, which includes 71 notes and 110 bibliographical entries, the breadth of which demonstrates Crosbie's wide-ranging evocation of the largest possible context and her disregard for the valorization of document over art. For example, she draws on all of the previous journalism on the case, but also refers to many popular song lyrics.

In an interview with Books in Canada, Crosbie defended herself against charges of sensationalism:

I degrade Bernardo and Homolka so completely in the book that neither of them emerge in any way unscathed. They're very much reduced, I think, rather than made mythic . . . And if I have to respond to the claim of sensationalism, then so do the authors of the three existing books about Bernardo, as do all the journalists who made quite a livelihood writing about him (Tihanyi n. pag.).

Interestingly, in Crosbie's case, it was primarily journalists who responded negatively. Toronto Sun columnist Christie Blatchford, who appears in the book in letter #14, The Journalist and the Murderer, at one point threatened legal action13. Rosie DiManno, a columnist for The Toronto Star, threatened "to rake her [finger]nails across Crosbie's face should she ever run into her" (Tihanyi n. pag.). Columnist Michael Coren "chastised her for days on the radio" and gave out the number and address of her publisher on the air, saying that people should go to his house and express their opinion of the book (Cole n. pag.). Her profile in Toronto Life Magazine claimed that the book "stirred up so much controversy that she was practically chased out of town with a pitchfork" (Pearson n. pag.).

As with the critical reception for Famous, the anger is directed primarily at the very existence of the artistic work itself, not necessarily to its content.14 Susan Cole in NOW Magazine, asked, "Who gets to decide who gets to write about what? Does Crosbie have the right to exploit someone's pain for her own creative gain? Do the victims' families have a right to expect artists to take a hands-off approach to anything connected with the case?" (n.pag.). Once again, Crosbie pointed out that journalists are given more leeway: "People reacted to Paul's Case because I had imagined certain things. I really scrupulously tried to see the girls as living people whom I cared about. I tried not to reiterate the sex crimes and the torture—which is exactly what the journalism of the time was doing" (Cole n.pag.). This is the point which unites Famous and Paul's Case; they are creative works which comment on the role of the media and the public fascination with violent crime, and so implicate us all in something no one wants to feel a part of. Unlike journalists, Bolt and Crosbie do not have the safety of claiming they are working within a documentary genre, doing a necessary job—they have chosen to imagine, to try to comprehend, in the larger context of art. Both writers create completely fictional, female characters who are peripheral to the story, yet deeply implicated by it because they keep watching the position of the writers themselves. As we have seen, Famous, as a stage play, is meant to be experienced publicly, in a group setting, and relies on both live female bodies and videotape to evoke the peculiarly visual and spectatorial aspect of the crimes. Paul's Case is a novel, read privately and alone. Although it does include a discussion of cinema (The Grand Illusion) and, interestingly, one letter written in the form of a play (En Attendant Linc), Famous deals more explicitly with the fact that the crimes were always meant to be, and still are, watchable.

Both Famous and Paul's Case also address the contentious issue of female sexuality and violence, specifically in reference to Karla Homolka and the initial inability of the criminal justice system to see her as an equal participant in the crimes. Famous addresses the issue through the fictional character of Kit, who operates in a world where extreme forms of sexuality are normalized, and through an oblique portrait of "Sandy" as a skilled liar and an amoral manipulator. In reference to Paul's Case, Crosbie has said, "I think I raise some provocative critical points about, for example, female sexuality in the case of Karla Homolka, flaws in the whole treatment of the case by the law" (Tihanyi n.pag.). At another point in the interview, Crosbie discusses hearing about a "crazy woman who had dyed her hair blonde to look like Homolka and was madly in love with Bernardo":

I'm intrigued by why women fall in love with these kinds of men. I don't understand it. And instead of listening to all the usual arguments like the ones on talk TV—that somehow these women are just delusional and have nurturing complexes, I thought: no, there's something even more sinister at play than that . . . maybe if you think this guy loves you, if you're safe with him, then somehow you have a level of superiority to his victims. I think there's a lot of ego involved with that, a lot of ego identification with the monster. As feminists we don't want to believe women are evil. We tend to not want to believe it even if it contradicts everything we've ever known about women. That's a point of feminist interrogation for me. (Tihanyi n. pag.)

By 1997, when the play and the book appeared, legal and public opinion had swung against Homolka. But at the time of her trial and before the introduction of the videotaped evidence, she was portrayed and pitied as a helpless victim, completely controlled by Bernardo. In contrast, in his 1996 book about the case, Invisible Darkness, journalist Stephen Williams developed a view of Homolka not as a terrorized victim, but as "a full and willing accomplice, nobody's battered wife, perhaps even the mastermind, at the very least a motivating force and a managing partner in all of the heinous crimes" (qtd. in Fulford 67).15 Bernardo's subsequent appeal and the trial of his former defense counsel Ken Murray have been based on the contention that the videotapes implicate Homolka in the killings and prove that she lied about her involvement.16 Even the Crown prosecutors, who once used Homolka's testimony to convict Bernardo, have turned against her. As Globe and Mail reporter Kirk Makin writes, "In a sprawling drama that has contained more sequels and spinoffs than a Hollywood classic, it was a jarring—if predictable—development. Having used Ms. Homolka to convict Mr. Bernardo, the Crown could abandon the distasteful exercise of helping her masquerade as a victim" (Makin A7).

In Paul's Case, Crosbie took up the theory that it was Homolka who did the killing, and in letter #39, A Hell of a Woman, includes the following horrifying monologue:

I felt pretty bad the first time. Even though I wanted Tammy dead, I didn't exactly. She kissed my boyfriend; she was always in the way—I didn't do it on purpose, Paul! Yes I do know how to administer Halothane, my hand slipped, ok? You just head off for some food, that's right honey. I've got the mallet, Christian's tied up. What could happen? Christian, Kristen, whatever! Oh sweetheart, I'm crying because she tried to get away and strangled, it was awful. It was awful when she tried to get away and I had to smash her face in. Now there's blood all over my hope chest, just more cleaning for me. Someone tried to prove all this with forensics, but nobody cared. I look so soft and white. It's Paul who has the face of a killer, Ray said so. In court and he said it really loud (133).17

Both Bolt's and Crosbie's works contain acknowledgements that Homolka was beaten, but explicitly reject this as a defense for her actions (and Pearson cites evidence that Bernardo only began the beating after the murders had occurred, at the very end of their marriage) (196). In letter #41, The Battered Wife, Crosbie suggests that Homolka calculatingly used this defense as a way to get back at Bernardo: "You hurt her and that was wrong. The statistics are staggering. She knows this. Don't ever hit a woman" (135).

In her review of Patricia Pearson's 1997 book When She Was Bad, Crosbie acknowledged the appearance of multiple books on women's misconduct and declared it "timely and apt." Crosbie praised Pearson's contention that women are "protected by carefully cultivated gender mythologies" and "ideological and cultural smoke-screens," and her condemnation of "the judicial system's cosseting of pseudo-victim Karla Homolka." (n.pag.). Their anger is directed at what they see as a kind of warped chivalry and sexism, an unwillingness, due to the cultural stereotype of the "woman as victim," to consider a woman as capable of as much evil as a man. As Lynda Hart has pointed out in her writing on female murderers, their crime disrupts the very category of the feminine: "The fact of their gender is of paramount importance here; women do not kill, by patriarchal definition" (136). Pearson is careful to point out that she is in no way disputing the existence of Battered Woman Syndrome or denying that women ever kill in self-defense. She writes:

The point is that criminologists contemplate no other factors. Whereas they once described violent women as lesbian man-eaters and perverts, we have simply sailed to the other extreme, from whore to madonna. The old fabric of misogyny blends seamlessly with new threads of feminist essentialism to preserve the myth that women are more susceptible than men to being helpless, crazy, and biddable. The effect, in the case of Karla Homolka, was startlingly clear in the courtroom. Encouraged to attribute every move, every want, every look on her fiercely intelligent face to the machinations of Paul Bernardo, Homolka renounced her claim to be an adult. She infantilized herself, relinquishing spirit, will, passion, pride, resourcefulness and rage. (56)

In other words, a largely male justice system did not want to see a pretty, middle-class white woman as anything but passive. It may seem a peculiar feminist cause, but Pearson argues passionately that, if we as feminists want to dispel the myths of gendered behaviour, then we must also give up the assumptions that are flattering and convenient—that women are never violent, that women are maternal and compassionate, that women's sexuality is not aggressive, and so on: "Women are the ones in a position to argue for our own individuality and tumult, to promote ourselves as unique, some worthy of punishment, others forgiveness, to propose a deeper story about someone like Karla Homolka and why she did what she did" (62).

Given the unbearable nature of the subject matter at the heart of Famous and Paul's Case, it is not surprising that they met with the cold and even hostile reception that they did. As creative artists rather than journalists, Bolt and Crosbie worked between notions of truth and art to find ways of approaching disturbing representations of women. But given the complex and controversial issues these brave works tackle, it would be unfortunate if they were not added to the public forum.


1. I would like to thank Glenna Westwood and Michael MacLean for research assistance.
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2. Still Stands the House (1938) by Gwen Pharis Ringwood; This is for You, Anna (1983) by The Anna Project; Charming and Rose: True Love (1993) by Kelly Jo Burke; for example, Shirley and Amanda in Criminal Genius. One might also discuss Sharon Pollock's Blood Relations (1980). Since this paper was written, another play dealing specifically with the Bernardo/Homolka case has been produced: Paula and Karl, written and directed by Hillar Liitoja. It was presented by DNA Theatre as part of the Six Stages Festival in Toronto, February 2001.
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3. The others in the same time period were Kate Fillion's Lip Service: The Truth About Women's Darker Side in Love, Sex, and Friendship, published by HarperCollins in 1996; Bad Attitude/s on Trial: Pornography, Feminism and the Butler Decision by Brenda Cossman, Shannon Bell, Lise Gotell and Becki L. Ross, published by University of Toronto Press in 1997; and Sibylle Artz's Sex, Power and The Violent School Girl, published by Trifolium Press in 1998.
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4. Pearson's book won the 1997 Arthur Ellis Award for Best True Crime. It was re-published, with a new epilogue, in 1998 by Vintage Canada as When She Was Bad: How and Why Women Get Away With Murder. All quotes and page references in this paper are from the first, 1997 edition.
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5. Bernardo was sentenced by Associate Chief Justice Patrick Le Sage. He has since been declared a Dangerous Offender. In March of 2000, Bernardo unsuccessfully appealed his conviction, claiming that Karla Homolka was the real killer.
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6. Carol Bolt (1941-2000) began her career in the collective creation movement with Buffalo Jump (1972), a play which deals with the Depression-era March on Ottawa. She also wrote about Emma Goldman in 1974s Red Emma and developed it into an opera in 1995. In 1989, she won a Chalmer's award for Ice Time, which deals with the real-life case of a young Canadian girl's struggle to play on a boys' hockey team.
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7. Bolt worked on her play over the course of several years. While Famous was in progress, she published an excerpt in Taking the Stage: Selections from Plays by Canadian Women (1994) and did a reading at the book's launch. The excerpt is a monologue entitled "Waiting for Sandy."
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8. "Geraldo" refers to Geraldo Rivera, the real-life host of an American television talk show. This is another example of Bolt mixing fictional and real-life references, especially references to popular culture.
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9. Toward the end of the play, Kit pours vodka over Sheila's head and then removes her wet sweater (69).
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10. Sheila displays distaste for Kit and Sandy's lifestyle, which Kit attributes to their racial and class differences; she refers to herself as "white trash" (50). From Sheila's perspective, class seems to be a bigger issue than race. Sheila criticizes their friends for being insular and uninformed (22) and finds Kit immature and irresponsible: "Is this a black thing? No, Kit, it's an adult thing" (49).
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11. While the reviews of Famous were not all negative, they do all point to trouble with the material. Geoff Chapman, for example, gives the acting and directing high praise and calls the play a "provocative vehicle," but even he, in an indirect manner, criticizes the way the subject matter is approached: "The writing tends to race from the specific to the general and back again at an alarming rate, so that the heavy subtext that underlies this ambitious theme doesn't rise to the surface" (n.pag.). Kate Taylor, while praising some aspects of the writing, says that the play is "... overshadowed by the real events on which it is based, forcing you to recall the case without offering any great theatrical payoff" (n.pag.).
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12. Crosbie has a PhD in English literature and has published four volumes of poetry and two anthologies of feminist essays. She is currently a columnist for Toronto Life Fashion.
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13. Crosbie responds in the Tihanyi interview, "I think her criticism and observations are fair game for me as a critic to discuss as text."
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14. In his review for Quill and Quire, Hal Niedzviecki argues that the book "investigates the transformation of a despised serial killer into a pop-culture icon . . . [and] portrays a society fascinated by his crimes, implying that the media coverage of Paul Bernardo's trial turned it into a kind of sick celebration of his deeds" (n.pag). Niedzviecki writes, "the mystique of pop is such that no matter how ephemeral it seems, its reincarnation is inevitable: no prison can confine pop's icons, no mere book can capture its cultural carnage" (n.pag.). Susan Cole called the book a "cry of despair over the fascination people still feel for the couple" (n.pag).
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15. Other journalists agreed. Kirk Makin of The Globe and Mail, who won a National Newspaper Award for his coverage of the trial, writes, "Ms. Homolka's behaviour in prison—avidly attending courses that teach her she was merely a helpless victim in need of self-esteem—tells us all we need know about her insights . . . She is hard-wired to shirk responsibility for her actions, and she will do so to her dying day" (Makin A8).
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16. Murray's lawyer Austin Cooper stated, "She is shown with a halothane bottle, pouring it on a cloth and administering it to her sister and Jane Doe—and doing it gleefully" (Makin, 6 May 2000, A7).
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17. "Ray" refers to Ray Houlahan, a Crown attorney based in St. Catharines. According to Lynn Crosbie, Houlahan "agreed to write to Corrections Canada and the National Parole Board, detailing Homolka's cooperation with the Crown" (Crosbie, 1997a).
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Bolt, Carol. Famous. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1997.

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—. "Waiting for Sandy." Taking the Stage: Selections from Plays by Canadian Women. Ed. Cynthia Zimmerman. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1994. 80-87.

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Chapman, Geoff. "Carol Bolt's new play destined to be Famous." Toronto Star 27 Nov. 1997: E2.

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Coulbourn, John. "Famous Not Worth Price." Toronto Sun 27 Nov. 1997. (www.athleticscanada.com/TheatreReviewsF/famous.html)

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—. "Lawyer Lashes Out at Colleague in Bernardo Case." The Globe and Mail 6 May 2000: A7.

—. "Whatever the Verdict, Murray Paid a Price." The Globe and Mail 13 May 2000: A7.

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"Program: Carpe Diem Theatre presents a new play by Carol Bolt." Famous. Tarragon Extra Space. Previews November 21-23. Runs November 25 to December 14, 1997.

Raeburn, Alan. "Review of Famous." Theatre News 4.1 (Winter 1998): 20-21.

Steinberg, Matt. "Bolt, Upright With Famous." Theatre News 4.1 (Winter 1998): 20.

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Taylor, Kate. "Famous Holds Mirror Up To Narcissism and Draws Blank." The Globe and Mail 27 Nov. 1997: C3.

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van Alphen, Ernst. Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature, and Theory. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997.