Date of Award

Winter 1983

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


The purpose of the present study is to better understand why some people kill others. Using the autobiographical accounts of convicted female homicide offenders, this work defines the life experiences behind their violence. Seventy-six women, representing several age and racial groups, were separately interviewed at the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women. The life stories these women tell and the ways they recount them offer a unique view of the social worlds where murder and manslaughter occur.

The study's theoretical orientation is built from the literature on life stress. There is strong evidence that an excess of stress can adversely affect behavior. The ways in which people manage everyday tensions may be as important to behavior as the amount of tension we experience. This is why the study relies so heavily upon the autobiographies of women who kill. In their reconstructed pasts, there are clues to developing tendencies that would lead them to their homicidal acts.

The findings point to injurious sources of stress in childhood, through adolescence and adulthood. Stressful life events, particularly those involving loss of and attack by others, recur in the lives of the study women. The stress extracts its toll from the physical and mental well-being of the women. It also leaves them feeling somewhat apart from and embittered with the people in their everyday lives. The isolation and resentment born of social loss and aggression may figure prominently in lethally violent behavior.

Understanding how these women came to kill others should help to minimize criminal violence. By planning and developing a less stressful society and by helping each other with the inevitable trials of life, we may lessen the risk that more will grow as alone, angry, and as dangerous as the women of this study.