A cover of the book "Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers" with the author Jude Ellison in front.

All the Rage

When Marriage Is War

In this excerpt from their new book ‘Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers,” our columnist explains how American women's obsession with the Laci Peterson murder wasn't about tabloid TV addiction, but a darker truth many of them lived themselves.

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

From the beginning, Laci Peterson’s death was cinematic. She disappeared on Christmas Eve 2002. She was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant. Her husband claimed she had gone out to walk the dog—an actual golden retriever, if you can believe it—and never came back. The first sign of her death looked like a shot from a Lifetime movie; the neighbors saw the dog at the Peterson’s front door, leash dragging behind it, unharmed but alone.

Laci was beautiful, outgoing, popular, a devoted wife and homemaker; one of the key pieces of evidence in her murder trial rested on the precise air date of a Martha Stewart segment about meringue. (Scott Peterson insisted that, on the morning Laci supposedly died, she was watching Martha Stewart make meringue on television. The prosecution argued that Stewart had not mentioned meringue on that day’s episode, and that Scott was making up a fake TV segment to cover for the fact that he’d killed her. The defense eventually dug up tapes of the episode in question, making this possibly the first case in history where people watched aspirational cooking shows in order to solve a murder.

Her husband, Scott, was handsome and charismatic—in fact, he looked almost exactly like a blander, frattier version of mid-2000s golden boy Ben Affleck. Both were white and middle class, making their pain an easy pitch to the media; Laci would soon be one of the nation’s most famous cases of “missing white woman syndrome,” in which one white woman’s disappearance is covered as a national story while the kidnappings, assaults, and deaths of women of color go comparatively unreported. The pathos of their situation—Laci’s pregnancy had been hard-won; the Petersons were just about to go in for fertility treatments when she found out that she was pregnant—combined with the star quality of its leads to make it a blockbuster.

“You’ve got a beautiful young woman! She’s pregnant! She’s missing the day before Christmas! And it really captured the attention of America,” says defense attorney and legal analyst Michael Cardoza in one of the many, many, many true-crime documentaries about the case. “People begin to watch, and wonder: What’s going to happen?”

In April 2003, the body of Laci’s fetus washed onto the shore of San Francisco Bay. It had a deep cut, and plastic knotted around its neck. Laci washed up a day later. She had been decapitated. Her arms were gone from the elbow down; one leg was severed at the ankle, and the other at the knee. (Experts later said this was probably a sign that weights had been tied to her wrists and ankles; she hadn’t been dismembered, but parts of her had rotted off.) Most of her organs—and presumably, her fetus—had washed out into the Bay.

By that time, the identity of her killer was a foregone conclusion. A few weeks after Laci’s disappearance, a woman named Amber Frey had come forward to the police, saying that her boyfriend, Scott—who had told her he was never married—was the same man as Scott Peterson, the man with the famously missing wife, whom she’d seen on the news. Frey also said that a few weeks before Christmas, Scott had changed his story about being married.

“I’d asked if he had ever been married, and he said no. I’d asked if he had any kids, and he said no,” Frey recalls. “But now he’s telling me he lied, and that he had been. And this would be his first holidays without her.”

Frey let the police tap her phone. In one conversation—soon leaked to the press—Peterson airily tells Frey that he’s sorry he can’t see her, but he’s in Paris, enjoying the New Year’s celebration at the Eiffel Tower.

He was calling from the candlelight vigil for Laci.

“We do Laci Peterson every fifteen minutes and see the numbers go up,” Bill O’Reilly told Vanity Fair in 2003. “It’s a story that resonates with women particularly.”

Frey’s revelations poured gasoline on what was already a very sizable fire. By the spring of 2004, images of Scott and Laci blared out from every supermarket checkout aisle and newsstand in the nation. The sheer audacity of Scott’s public existence—a man who had killed his wife walking around in the open, doing an exceptionally bad impression of a grieving husband—made him hard to look away from.

One local radio station put Scott’s face on a billboard, next to a phone number, so that listeners could call in and describe the depth and vehemence of their hatred. Scott tried to win the people back by leaning into his newfound fame, giving high-profile interviews to national outlets and pulling in his family to do the same. This turned out to be one of the worst decisions Scott ever made, and this was a man whose decision-making skills had already led him to infidelity, faked Eiffel Tower parties, and murder. At one point, Scott’s father told Barbara Walters that his son was “no different than 95 percent of men in this country,” because it was “a reality of life [that] men have affairs.”

“When their wives are eight-and-a-half-months pregnant?” Walters asked.

“Probably more so!” Mr. Peterson said, cheerily. His own wife was sitting directly next to him at the time.

Scott did no better when left to his own devices. At one point, he booked an exclusive Diane Sawyer interview on Good Morning America, where he inexplicably chose to insist that not only had he told Laci about his affair with Amber, Laci had given him her blessing.

“Do you really expect people to believe,” Sawyer said, speaking very slowly, and placing lethal emphasis on every other word, “that an eight-and-a-half-months pregnant woman learns her husband is having an affair, and is saintly and casual about it? Accommodating? Makes peace with it?”

“Well, ah, yeah, ah … you don’t know,” he stuttered.

He looked visibly angry to be questioned.

I don’t want to be unduly facetious here. Not only was Laci dead, and horribly so, Scott was soon to be found guilty and sentenced to death himself. If you believe that capital punishment is murder—and it’s hard to think of what else to call it—then Scott, too, will one day be a murder victim.

That said, if you were to look through history for the precise moment that Scott sentenced himself to death, that “well, ah, yeah” to Sawyer is probably it. Scott failed to recognize something that O’Reilly—of all people—could spot from a mile away: his fate rested on winning the sympathies of women. The audience that followed the Petersons’ case, tuned into the exclusive interviews and made all those magazines fly off the shelves was (like all true-crime audiences) mostly female. Scott’s blatant lie to Sawyer, or his father’s blithe assurance that most men cheated on their wives and it was nothing to worry about, betrayed not just callousness or dishonesty, but a failure to recognize that women’s opinions could even matter. That ignorance sealed his fate.

Yet Scott was not the only one who failed to take those women seriously. To this day, if the media furor around Laci and Scott Peterson is remembered at all, it’s as an apolitical “distraction”; the case played out over the height of the Iraq War, which, along with the anti-abortion angle (the case resulted in legislation, Laci and Conner’s law, which classified fetuses as “unborn children” for the purposes of prosecuting murder) made it a go-to for Fox News and right-wing demagogues like O’Reilly. This is the space that Laci, and victims like her, occupy in the culture: silly stories for silly women, a prurient, frivolous break from the real news.

But to many of the women watching the case unfold, Laci was the real news. Their fascination with the case had serious, even political implications. Scott really was like most of the men in this country, or at least, like many of the men those women had known. They paid attention to him not because his violence was abnormal or sensational, but because—in all his bland, hair-gelled brutality—he revealed how violent “normal” was.

Western culture typically posits marriage as a blissful event—the reward at the end of Shakespearean comedies and Disney movies and every deserving woman’s life. But there has always been a darker story we tell about marriage: Bluebeard warning his virginal bride away from his bloody chamber, where the corpses of wives past lie in wait.

Scott Peterson was one of the many Bluebeards of basic cable—all those made-for-TV movies with names like Bed of Lies and Lies of the Heart and Cries Unheard: The Donna Yaklich Story, in which Jaclyn Smith or Susan Dey is seduced, then menaced by a sinister husband played by Chris Cooper or Brad Johnson or (I always assume) Judd Nelson. The Laci Peterson iteration was unsubtly titled The Perfect Husband: The Laci Peterson Story, and Scott was played by TV Superman Dean Cain.

It’s easy to dismiss this genre as mere melodrama: cheap titillation for midwestern wine moms, vicarious suffering for women with no real problems and no real pain. Yet, if Laci can teach us anything, it’s that even well-behaved, well-off suburban women can have much bigger and more painful problems than you might expect.

For much of history, violence was not something unfortunate that happened within marriage—violence was marriage. It was a brutal institution, the primary mechanism by which men subdued individual women and put their unruly, monstrous sexuality under control. You couldn’t ask men not to beat their wives. It would be like building a jail with no bars or locks. How else were you going to keep women from getting loose?

This sounds dark, but history bears it out. Spousal rape was not outlawed in all 50 states until the 1990s. Even after domestic violence technically became illegal, courts often declined to try cases. “There has been for many years a gradual evolution of the law going on, for the amelioration of the married woman’s condition, until it is now, undoubtedly, the law of England and of all the American states, that the husband has no right to strike his wife,” the Supreme Court of Maine acknowledged in 1877. Yet the court ruled it was “better to draw the curtain [and] shut out the public gaze” from such matters. Yet another court ruled that domestic violence should not be prosecuted because families “would be disturbed by dragging into court for judicial investigation … matters of no serious moment, which if permitted to slumber in the home closet would be silently forgiven or forgotten.” Beating your wife was not just too trivial to be worth prosecuting; it was too common. Start hearing domestic violence cases, and the justice system would be flooded with beaten women.

It probably would be, if women thought they had any chance of getting justice in the courts. To this day, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) says that one in four women is the victim of “severe” violence from a partner. The NCADV defines “severe” violence as different than slapping or shoving; by their metrics, 25 percent of the female population has experienced “beating, burning, strangling,” or in other words, what you and I might call attempted murder. Fifty-five percent of all female homicide victims are killed by a current or former partner. Even mass shootings, the most “random” and seemingly impersonal form of American violence, start here; as per the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, the vast majority of mass shootings begin as domestic violence incidents, with male shooters whose wives and children are their first casualties.

Women who obsess over stories about killer husbands aren’t indulging in tabloid sensationalism or thinking in complicated psychosexual metaphors. They are, literally, worried that their husbands are going to kill them—and those fears are not irrational.

“Our trust in men is as unearned as it is unreciprocated—yet it’s expected,” writes feminist Chelsea G. Summers. “And this is where true crime’s real value lies: Unlike love songs, unlike rom-coms, and unlike romance novels, true crime has no interest in telling us to trust men. Unlike politicians or bosses, it doesn’t seek to gaslight women.”

Bluebeard stories provide one of the few venues women have to talk about the pervasive nature of marital violence. Like the slashers, they convert private trauma into public spectacle, giving women a language for their pain.

Look again to all those women obsessing over Laci Peterson while we waged war on Iraq, the trivial housewives with their trivial concerns: Between 2001 and 2012, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan killed 6,488 U.S. soldiers. In that same span of time, over 10,470 American women were murdered by their partners. Women who followed Laci’s case weren’t ignoring the war abroad, they were paying attention to the war at home. That war is long and bloody, and there is no chance of a ceasefire any time soon. If we had no way to talk about it, we might die of the silence alone.

From Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, by Sady Doyle. Excerpt provided courtesy of Melville House.

Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!