Certainly, during the Ripper hunt, the message was very clear: there was a group of women that it was OK to want to kill. It was perfectly reasonable to want to kill this particular group of women. I don’t know if you remember, but during the Ipswich murders, the press began by referring to him [Steve Wright] as a “prostitute killer” and the women as “just prostitutes”, until feminists raised their heads and their hands and said, “Um, hang on a minute. Do you remember all those conversations we had about the Ripper?” And, they very quickly changed the tone of their arguments. But they did need reminding. And I think that’s quite shocking.
Becoming Unbecoming combines history, graphic memoir and socio-political commentary to tell the story of the author’s teenage years in Yorkshire in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were the years when a serial killer known as the “Yorkshire Ripper” was active: before being caught by the police, the man in question murdered 13 women. One of the most shocking things about the case is that an early testimony from an escaped victim could easily have led to his arrest, and thus saved the lives of several women. However, this testimony was dismissed because it didn’t fit the narrative the police had already decided must be true: the killer was only after sex workers; therefore, “innocent” women must be safe and the attack had to be unrelated.
Using the ripper’s story as a point of departure, Una describes her own experiences of sexual assault; of growing up and trying to work through her sexuality amidst trauma and a culture of rampant victim-blaming; and of being silenced and feeling constantly ashamed. She also contextualises the case of the Yorkshire Ripper, and her own experiences, within the wider framework of rape culture: these things happen because we live in a culture that accepts and normalises violence against women in myriad ways, both subtle and overt. It conceives of women as either unblemished perfect victims or as tarnished and therefore disposable, and it conceives of killers like the Yorkshire Ripper as divorced from the culture they exist in, rather than simply as men who bring rampant misogyny to its ultimate consequences.
Becoming Unbecoming is written with sensitivity, compassion, and insight. Una’s greatest strength is in joining the dots between the personal and the political: she makes links between systemic issues and individual experiences in a way that is both touchingly human and crucial to a political understanding of violence against women. I was particularly moved by the panel where Una explains how much lonelier and more hurtful her teenage years were because the feminist boom of the 70s didn’t reach her. “Becoming a woman”, she says, “is hard work made harder without a little f word.” Although my understanding of the kind of trauma Una describes is imperfect at best, the sentiment rang familiar all the same. So many of my teenage experiences would have been infinitely easier to navigate if only I had known that they were part of a pattern that stretches throughout history.
The main issue for me, I think, is that it [abuse] has to be ordinary-fied, if that’s a word. As long as it seems like a hypothetical thing — a mystical, exciting, horror film thing, no one will ever get to grips with what causes the misogyny that leads to male violence that’s caused by a kind of dehumanisation of women as people. It has to be seen as the ordinary, everyday thing that it is and it has to be seen as something that doesn’t just affect a few people that you read about in the paper, but millions and millions of women: the woman that’s sat next to you on the bus, your sister, your mother — all those people. There are millions of us all walking round, keeping it to ourselves.
“Oh... why do you have to bring gender into it?”
In the panel above, Una visually represents the disparity between male and female perpetrators of this kind of violence and addresses the fact that gender is part of the equation. Needless to say, doing so is not about dismissing the experiences of men and women who suffered at the hands of female perpetrators, but about once again pointing out that there’s a deep-rooted cultural issue that enables violence to reach these proportions: hegemonic masculinity simultaneously encourages and normalises violent responses on the part of men.
If I had to pick a single favourite panel, though, it would probably be the one where Una addresses the potential pitfalls of creating a dichotomy between “victims” and “survivors”. This is an idea I’m always grateful to see expressed: to have your life altered by a traumatic event is not a sign of weakness. It’s unrealistic, unfair, hurtful and potentially re-traumatising to demand that people “move past” awful experiences instead of having to live with them day after day. As Una puts it, “The notion of the strong survivor should be treated with caution. (…) And what of those who don’t survive? Is it that they don’t try hard enough?”
Becoming Unbecoming ends on a very moving note: the final thirteen pages of the book depict the thirteen women murdered by the Yorkshire Ripper and imagine what they would be doing if they were alive. In a culture that tends to glamorise killers while erasing their victims, it’s a powerful thing to see these women humanised.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from the book:
The culture within which all of this was possible relied on silence… relied on shame. It’s not easy to step out from beneath the cloud of mortification that erroneously follows us around, but more and more we do so. The truth is awful. But we must all learn to live with it if we are to leave the 1970s, and all the rest of history, behind for good.
So, what’s the truth? Maybe it’s something like this: ordinary men are capable of extraordinary violence. Women and girls are neither virgins nor whores. None of it is funny.