Most of us would be horrified if our medical history or an argument we had with a partner in 2016 became front page news. But with the deaths of Nicola Bulley and Emma Pattison, both aged 45, this is what has happened.
Making the personal so public has not improved anything, it will not bring these women back. But it will feed the greedy sense of entitlement towards information about women’s bodies and lives.
The Nicola Bulley case caused every armchair detective in the country to share half-baked theories on social media. Everything from life insurance fraud to Masonic involvement, to the unhinged hypothesis that Nicola Bulley never existed and it was part of the government’s agenda to get us all microchipped through vaccines popped up online like ghoulish boils.
The demands for the specifics came thick and fast, along with the assumptions. Was she mentally ill? If so, what was her diagnosis? What was going on in her relationship?
Against this backdrop of insatiable hunger for information in the era of the 24-hour news cycle – even when there was nothing new to report – the Lancashire police were under increasing pressure to release more details, anything to feed the beast, no matter how irrelevant it might be to the case or how distressing it might be to her family and friends.
For years to come, the police press conferences will be debated in media studies classes, especially the day when it was announced that Nicola was a “vulnerable missing person”. It is easy to see why the police might have hoped this information would quell the speculation. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. The demands for the specifics came thick and fast, along with the assumptions. Was she mentally ill? If so, what was her diagnosis? What was going on in her relationship? Maybe she was epileptic and had a fit by the River Wyre? Perhaps a diabetic coma would explain everything? And so on and so forth…
It was then announced that Nicola was struggling with the menopause and had issues with alcohol. Opinion veered between “Why weren’t we told this sooner?” to “Why was this information released at all?”
Self-promoting Peter Faulding, the man who claimed he’d find her body if it was in the river and then failed to do so, said he would have searched for her differently if he knew this information – but he can’t seem to explain how his search would be any different. He, like countless others, feels an outrageous sense of entitlement about Nicola Bulley’s private information.
As a childless 46-year-old, I still get asked why I don’t have any kids. If I want to tell you, I’ll volunteer the information
For women, this level of intrusion is standard. We don’t even get any peace from it in death. As a childless 46-year-old, I still get asked why I don’t have any kids. If I want to tell you, I’ll volunteer the information. If I go missing, I hope my reproductive status doesn’t make headlines. God knows how the concern trolls and amateur Poirots of the internet will react.
If Nicola Bulley’s issues with the menopause and alcohol had come out earlier, it is not hard to imagine online sympathy drying up. It is easy to dismiss a woman’s suffering if she falls short of the angelic image of the perfect victim.
Equally, the horrendous case of Emma Pattison, the Epsom College head teacher murdered with her daughter by her husband who then killed himself, brought out demands for more information. It was not on the same scale as the Nicola Bulley case, but even as it became apparent that it was a murder-suicide, there were demands to quiz the school’s caretaker and the usual “there has to be more to this than meets the eye” comments.
Once it was revealed that the police got involved after the couple had an argument in 2016, victim-blaming became inevitable.
The only person to blame for the murders is the husband, not Emma for daring to succeed
The Daily Mail ran a story with this long-winded and appalling headline: “Did living in the shadow of his high achieving wife lead to unthinkable tragedy? Details emerge of the tensions behind the picture perfect lives of the Epsom College head and her husband who ‘killed her and their daughter before turning the gun on himself’.”
The only person to blame for the murders is the husband, not Emma for daring to succeed. She was at the pinnacle of her career, yet baying mobs are only satisfied when they can find a way to justify heinous crimes. A seven-year-old marital argument or the murderer’s pathetic struggles with moving from Caterham to Epsom – a distance of 15 miles – to follow his wife are not acceptable reasons to kill your family. Nothing constructive has been gained by putting this information in the public domain.
It is hard to see Nicola Bulley’s death leading to better understanding of the menopause or alcoholism, just as it’s hard to see Emma Pattison’s murder doing a damn thing to improve the lives of women who suffer at the hands of their partners, regardless of their age or socio-economic status. Instead, we are left with the private lives and medical histories of two women ripped open for all to see. They are unable to defend themselves. They are unable to define their own legacies.
The personal has become public, as is so often the case for women. It doesn’t stop as we get older. We are expected to put up with it. But when our private lives and our bodies become fair game, it is seldom the catalyst for positive change. We deserve better than to be reduced to headlines and soundbites. We deserve better than to have our lives raked over by online ghouls. We deserve better full stop.
In a career that has spanned Australia, the Middle East and the UK, Georgia has written about all sorts of things, including sex, cars, food, oil and gas, insurance, fashion, travel, workplace safety, health, religious affairs, glass and glazing… When she’s not writing words for fun and profit, she can usually be found with a glass of something French and red in her hand.
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