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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  • I started maintaining the Counting Dead Women Canada list this year and the reports surrounding the murder of Ms. Charbonneau were definitely the worst of the entire year with respect to valorizing her killer and erasing her lived reality.

    Thank-you for this post. The media needs to do a better job at reporting all instances of femicide and I hope reporters and editors take note of your call to action.

    • oneclickboedicea

      The media is a prime promoter of violence against women as second class humans, many media outlets also publish porn which is graphic promotion of sexist violence. How long before we start demanding accountability for media promoted violence and our governments to take a stronger line on gender terrorist activity.

      • Anon

        It seems like violence against women is the only hate crime our governments don’t take seriously.

        • The federal government in the USA does not view rape as a hate crime. People have actually called the FBI and asked them. I just do not even.

  • Yisheng Qingwa


  • Zuzanna Smith

    I’m so sorry Precious, I’m so so sorry.

  • “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.”

    Kind of. One of the problems that respectable news reporting has is that usually can’t be definitive until a matter is settled in court. So it writes a lot about what seems to have happened or what was allegedly said to have occurred in initial reporting, and only after verdicts is it more plainly definitive. I do agree that this doesn’t excuse much but it’s a factor.

    • Lucia Lola

      Fair enough to point out, however, the focus can be put more on the victim (being stabbed repeatedly prior to the being thrown off a balcony as the evidence already provided makes clear who was the victim) but is ignored in place of what “grabs” the attention of the soughtafterreader. That pregnant women are statistically more likely to be murdered by their partner would make it fine to mention in the introductory article of the incident, but it wasn’t. That it wasn’t shows there is a lack of journalistic prowess or rather, editorial, in the reporting of Precious’ murder at the hands of her male partner. It certainly deserved as much mention of the mental and emotional state of the person who murdered Precious.

      What you mentioned is true and a factor, yes, but one easily rectified if the news organisation in question truly wanted to report a crime, rather than keep its readership in mind and their views on domestic violence and/or soldier’s PTSD issues.

  • Claudia Manion

    I so much agree Rachel.

  • nikkivi

    I hate to be pedantic, but your new corrected sentence still uses the passive voice. Let’s bring the agent right into it: ‘before Gibbin allegedly threw or pushed her to her death.’

    • ptittle

      Exactly. I still can’t believe I’ve gotten to this age without realizing that “A woman was raped…” is so same-thing. At the very least, it should be “A man raped a woman…” (if they don’t want to name the woman, and don’t know the man’s name yet).

  • Misanthropia

    Men who usually do this shit deserve no mercy and no empathy. So fucking what that you have a mental illness? Doesn’t give you the right to sexually or physically or emotionally abuse someone and kill them. Men will use any excuse they can find to legitimise and justify their acts or deny the true nature of what they did. And if he doesn’t do it, his friends and family will do it for him. I admire those women who put their abusers to death because this is the only fit fate for them. It is the necessary thing to do. We are too soft on men. We are too forgiving. We are ready to give them the benefit of doubt in cases where it is clear they should not be given it. The problem is men. Men tearing families apart and being parasites in women’s lives.

    • “Just because you’re mentally ill doesn’t mean you have the right to be violent” is kind of a useless argument because the person who needs to hear it doesn’t understand it or doesn’t care. And that’s because they’re mentally ill and what seems reasonable to them does not seem reasonable to any mentally healthy person. So yeah, any woman caught in this kind of situation who has a prayer of fighting back should just shove aside the guilt and end the guy. No one will ever attempt to treat or cure him, they’ll either imprison him (and not for long enough) or they’ll ignore his problems and tell him to “man up”.

      Rabid dogs can’t help the way they are either but you still put them down because there is no fixing it. (We’ve now managed to cure a very few cases of human rabies, but no one’s going to spend the dough it takes to put a dog into a coma until it clears the virus, which even then the dog might not survive the experience, as most humans so treated haven’t.) You CAN simultaneously understand that a perpetrator’s situation is not the perp’s fault but still take steps to protect their partner, their family, their friends, etc. And we need to start, enough with society’s boys will be boys BS already.

      Notes about mental illness because someone might jump on me later:

      1. There are many, many ways to be mentally ill. Most are pretty much harmless to other people who aren’t the sufferer. But some can be deadly under the wrong circumstances. Just like with physical illness there’s the common cold and then there’s Ebola. Mental-health advocates have trouble understanding this for some reason. We’ve all heard the news stories about undiagnosed or under-treated schizophrenics having a break with reality and then killing someone. It does happen, no point in denying it.

      2. The DSM-IV is a political document, no more, no less. Just because a mental condition isn’t listed in that book doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If your mental state prevents you from living and interacting with others in a healthy manner then you’re ill and you need help. It doesn’t always mean going on drugs or being hospitalized, but *something* needs to be done.

      I submit that cultural male dominance paired with woman-hating is a mental illness. It may or may not be treatable. Some guys come to their senses at some point but it’s a constant battle, like trying to recover from alcoholism. There isn’t any objective reason to hate women so there’s no reason it would be hardwired in the psyche from birth. Which means it’s taught. And that teaching warps people’s minds, and men’s in particular.