Battered Wife Syndrome

You’ve created a deliciously unpredictable female character. She murders her abusive husband, then she’s caught. She pulls out the “Battered Wife Syndrome” defense, hoping it’ll save her from death row. Will it work? Sean Mactire covers this in his book Malicious Intent: A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists, and Other Criminal Think


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The FBI estimates that one out of ten women suffer abuse at the hands of a male they live with, and that a woman is beaten every eighteen seconds in the US.  Mactire says, “Domestic violence accounts for almost 50 percent of all homicides and 20 percent of all police officers killed in the line of duty.” Women who suffer this kind of abuse, then turn it back on their abuser, are usually caught and face trial. Often, they are not allowed to use the “Battered Wife Syndrome” (BWS) defense, which is “a valid form of insanity plea that in essence says that [they] killed in ‘self-defense’ and therefore should be acquitted… conviction is rare–about 10 percent of all cases. The rest are either acquitted or convicted of lesser charges and placed on probation.”

This is an emotionally hot topic, one that can easily be offensive and emotionally charged. You can use that to your advantage in your fiction, whether your female antagonist was fighting back against actual abuse or made the whole thing up as a convenient excuse to get rid of hubby. Do your research, though. BWS is only admissible in twelve states, and even they differ in the laws. 

Battered Wife Syndrome has three stages:

1. Tension in relationship builds and small incidents of verbal and physical insults occur
2. Escalation to more intense violence occurs, resulting int eh woman suffering serious injury
3. The cycle of violence is reinforced by loving remorse that the abuser manipulates the victim with

As the stages repeat, the intensity of the violence escalates. “She submits,” Mactire says, “hoping to avoid further violence, but is gradually traumatized into passivity. The violence continues until the woman is either dead or dumped by the abuser, the abuser is jailed, the woman runs away, or the woman kills the abuser.”

I must admit that this whole subject bothers me on a variety of levels, but I think the hardest part for me to understand is Why Didn’t She Run? I’m unable to place myself in her shoes and understand why this woman stays in the relationship. I had an abusive boyfriend once, back in my “invincible” teen years, and when that boy showed his true colors, I took off (and called the police, and told my friends, and generally made that boy’s life miserable). So when I read about a woman who’s in an abusive relationship, and she sticks around until it gets so bad she’s forced to kill him to save her own life, I’m no longer sympathizing with her. I’m thinking she’s stupid for sticking around for so long (and I thoroughly apologize if I’ve just offended someone–this is just the way I see things). 

If you’ve created a scenario where your female killer did NOT kill as self-defense, but merely used the BWS as a legal defense, you’ve got a hard road to travel. It’s got to be believable, and of course, readers want to see justice prevail. 


One thought on “Battered Wife Syndrome

  1. By the way, Sonja, your thoughts on the matter make a great inclusion. Give the fictional battered woman a couple of friends who genuinely cannot understand why she stays with the abusive man. Have them continuously striving to get her to leave him. Show her sensed helplessness and frustration with these friends at trying to coax her out of a situation she knows, she KNOWS, there’s no way out of. This will increase her sense of isolation (I forgot that part – it’s huge; battered women have a sense of isolation from the rest of the world, that they are alone in their struggles – this is another part of what keeps them trapped) and may even cause her to cut contact with the friends (this would come very close to the snapping point).

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