WATCH: Toronto Sun writer Sam Pazzano discusses the fragile mindset of the woman involved and how she fell under Bernardo’s spell
TORONTO – The thought of convicted sex killer Paul Bernardo corresponding with a 30-year-old university grad who says she wants to be his bride has his victims’ lawyer asking: “How could anyone be in love with this man and want to marry him?”
But it’s a phenomenon common enough to have a name: Hybristophilia, or “Bonnie and Clyde Syndrome.”
Hybristophilia is a disorder more common in women than men. It’s marked by at least six months of symptoms including sexual urges, fantasies, and behaviours involving suffering. There are aggressive hybristophiliacs (who take part in their partner’s crimes) and passive hybristophiliacs (who often write letters to prisoners and sometimes end up marrying them, but have no interest in criminal activity themselves).
Director of criminology at Simon Fraser University Neil Boyd believes there will always be people who are willing to become involved with someone possessing Bernardo’s level of infamy.
"There is a small number of people who will be attracted to his notoriety, and it is their own set of dysfunctions and limitations that propels them in that direction,” said Boyd.
Toronto Sun reporter Sam Pazzano broke the story of the London, Ont. native who told friends she intended to wed Bernardo Thursday, but said the woman hasn’t met with Bernardo in person. He told Global News she stays in her home a lot, doesn’t answer her phone to anyone except family, but initiated contact with Bernardo by sending him a bible last fall. Since then, they’ve sent each other photographs in the mail, he said.
WATCH: The Morning Show’s Liza Fromer talks with Sam Pazzano, the writer who broke the story about Paul Bernardo’s impending nuptials.
Based on conversations with the woman’s family, Pazzano learned she’s had a number of “troubling relationships” and has been abused in the past. A few months ago, she reportedly told friends she had wedding plans and explained Bernardo was “merely a bystander” in the horrific murders he was convicted of committing.
“She’s very fragile—psychologically—and that was why Bernardo was able to prey on her,” Pazzano suggested.
This case seems to fit the profile characteristic of many women who fall in love with killers, according to former journalist Sheila Isenberg, who spent months interviewing three dozen such women. She detailed the interviews with the women, psychiatrists, social workers and prison officials in her book Women Who Love Men Who Kill, which was recently republished as an e-book.
The profile she created based on her interviews included a history of abusive relationships which has left the women with “wounded personalities.”
“Because of that, when they get involved with a man behind bars… they have the upper hand. He can’t hurt them. He’s not going to hit them, he’s not going to psychologically abuse them,” said Isenberg.
“He can try, but he really can’t succeed, because he doesn’t have much power. All of these men have been rendered impotent by being imprisoned. So for the first time in their lives, the women are [subconsciously] in charge.”
Isenberg said the women she spoke with also considered a relationship with a jailed man as a chance for a “good relationship” after a series of bad relationships.
“The man gives her ‘love’ and devotion and attention…. even though it’s affection through a glass wall or at a long distance or across a table in a prison waiting room,” she said. “Now why does he give this to her? Because he’s behind bars; he has nothing else to do.”
Other reasons for becoming involved with a killer include hoping to share in the media spotlight or getting a book/movie deal, trying to nurture the child that the killer once was, or believing they can change a man “as cruel and powerful as a serial killer,” suggested Dr. Katherine Ramsland in a 2012 Psychology Today article.
While Isenberg doesn’t believe it’s “good girls wanting to reform bad boys,” she thinks the Bernardo case could be related to a desire for an elevated status by becoming attached to him.
“Because he’s so notorious and therefore a celebrity in Canada—even though a negative celebrity—he’s still a celebrity…and we worship celebrities,” she said, acknowledging that one reason the Ontario woman may not fit into this category is she hasn’t released her name (yet).
Ramsland wrote of other serial killers who have attracted mates: Oscar Ray Bolin Jr. was convicted more than 10 times for raping and killing three women in Florida in 1986, but mitigation specialist Rosalie Martinez left her husband to marry him, maintaining his innocence.
Ted Bundy attracted coworker Carole Ann Boone, and even after being convicted for three murders, she testified on his behalf in 1980 and used the opportunity to get married in the courtroom, wrote Ramsland.
Ramsland, a psychology professor at DeSales University, said there are also theories suggesting a biological component compels these women.
“Primate research finds that females prefer the larger, louder, more aggressive males who show clear markers of their maleness. In humans, then, certain women might sense in an aggressive male a larger-than-life companion who can deliver more than an ordinary man could. Through him, she subconsciously perceives, she gains status and protection,” she wrote.
But Isenberg believes it all comes down to how delusion is affecting the women’s search for love.
“The other side is that she’s had dysfunctional early relationships and as result, she’s able to deny the fact that he committed the crimes… and her deeply deluded state of mind allows her to think that she and he could have a relationship,” said Isenberg.
“She’s looking for love like we’re all looking for love. Hopefully we look for it in the right places; she’s looking for it in the wrong places.”
© Shaw Media, 2014