Femicide is predictable and preventable but we need to name the problem

Precious Charbonneau
Precious Charbonneau

“They both went over the railing,” CTV reported on December 20th, describing the deaths of Robert Giblin, 43, and Precious Charbonneau, 33, days before Christmas.

No they didn’t.

Giblin first stabbed his pregnant partner seven times. Then he threw her 21 flights to the ground, ensuring her death. After that, like many men who cannot — will not — live without her, Giblin committed suicide.

Other news reports said she “was stabbed several times before being thrown off the balcony,” that she fell or “plunged” from the balcony, that “stab wounds were found on her body,” tagging the story as “highrise deaths.”

Giblin was the agent of Charbonneau’s death, as well as his own. News media fail us all when they use the passive tense and erase the human agent to tell us about such terrible events: nothing here to see folks — no one to blame, no body to kick. Let’s all move on, as quickly as possible.

The news media have given us the easy story — a soldier with PTSD (or maybe not, according to his military friends) who has inexplicably slaughtered his new bride with whom he was deeply in love, sharing “love messages” on Facebook and posting photos of their “cuddling.” With input from his family and friends and military experts speculating about how PTSD might have affected him, we are told repeatedly that he was a lovely, gentle man whose death has left all who loved him shocked and deeply bereft. He may indeed have had those qualities, and the family’s loss is surely tremendous.

Yet the analysis in news media is focused almost exclusively on how we fail our soldiers, with promises of new resources forthcoming for their support. Nothing about how we fail our women. Especially our racialized women. And nothing about this woman — who was she? Where did she work? How did she come to be married to this man? Where is her family, her people? No photos of them at the wedding. Not even a mention of them. No follow up on the comments made by neighbours in interviews who spoke about his frequent screaming at the building’s female superintendent and yelling at Charbonneau. No exploration of witness statements that described her as quiet and very shy.

No digging by news media into the research that tells us his partner’s pregnancy is frequently the trigger for a man to begin assaulting his partner. Nor the data about the escalation of male violence in the holiday season. No questions either: was she leaving him? Was there a real or imagined rival? We know that the vast majority of intimate femicides are committed by men motivated by sexual jealousy or the prospect of separation. What role did her race play in the power dynamics of this relationship? Their age difference is recognized as a risk factor for intimate femicide. So, too, is coercive control — did he engage in this behavior? Social isolation is also a significant warning sign: Was she as isolated as the threadbare reporting would suggest?

But most importantly, not a single report describes Giblin’s acts as domestic violence. Only one story interviewed an advocate for battered women, and even then did not provide this most critical analytic frame for Giblin’s crime. And this was clearly and classically a “domestic violence” homicide — intimate femicide to be specific. Murder followed by suicide is almost exclusively committed by men against their female partners, as is “overkill”, where multiple homicidal acts are committed against the victim.

Perpetrators of domestic violence count on their victims’ silence, and they count on the silence of the rest of us. News media have a critical role to play in ensuring that the victims of intimate femicide do not disappear from view — as has Charbonneau in most media accounts. News media must also accurately convey these terrible events, not allowing us to avert our eyes and block our ears, and must alert us to the risk factors that predict lethal violence.

Intimate femicide is predictable and, therefore, preventable. But only if we all refuse to let silence reign.

ELIZABETH SHEEHY, LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. (Honoris causa), FRSC, is Vice Dean Research and Shirley Greenberg Chair for Women and the Legal Profession at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. Her research record includes her most recent books: the edited collection Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice and Women’s Activism (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2012) (Available on Open Access) and Defending Battered Women on Trial: Lessons from the Transcripts (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).

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