How to Bury Your Abusive Husband and the Laws That Shielded Him

This article by BRIJANA PROOKER originally appeared in Yes! Magazine.

“Casale doesn’t make light of violence; instead, she uses humor as an advocacy tool to illuminate a grim truth: Too often, the legal system punishes domestic violence survivors rather than abusers.”

Domestic violence isn’t funny. But Alexia Casale’s debut novel finds humor in survivors taking matters into their own hands. 

Domestic violence isn’t funny; a burial club that disposes of abusive dead husbands is, which is the reason I chuckled while reading The Best Way to Bury Your Husband. Alexia Casale’s debut novel is set in the early days of pandemic lockdown, when domestic violence cases skyrocketed. It follows Sally, who accidentally kills her husband with her granny’s cast-iron skillet in self-defense—and realizes she is more upset about her ruined heirloom than her dead husband. After meeting three other abused women in her British town whose husbands are decomposing in their homes, she decides to form an unusual support group: the Lockdown Ladies’ Burial Club, publicly known as a “gardening” club.

As the survivor of domestic abuse perpetrated by my sociopathic father, if you had asked me before reading the novel if it was OK to imbue humor into the discourse surrounding domestic abuse, I would have said, “Hell no.” But Casale doesn’t make light of violence; instead, she uses humor as an advocacy tool to illuminate a grim truth: Too often, the legal system punishes domestic violence survivors rather than abusers. To stay safe and out of prison, women frequently have to (green thumb or not) take matters into their own hands.

If that’s too dark a thought, Casale gets it. “People don’t want to hear about the grim reality of male violence against women and girls,” she writes in her author’s note. “This novel is an attempt to use humor to cut through people’s reluctance to engage.” If readers giggle along as Sally covers her husband’s body in cat litter to dry it out, sprinkling on some rice for good measure—“just like our wedding day!”—then they’re not looking away from domestic abuse. And that’s the whole point.

The Lockdown Ladies’ Burial Club never had the pandemic luxury of baking sourdough or tie-dyeing tees. If their common bond was a love of Agatha Christie mysteries—rather than surviving abuse—they might have met in a virtual book club, cementing their friendship over wine-induced theories on how to get away with murder. Instead, they’re tasked with something much more difficult: figuring out how to avoid prison.

Women who claim self-defense against their abusers are twice as likely to be convicted than men who shoot strangers under stand your ground laws. The law is more willing to side with a man who fires a gun at a nonviolent burglar than a woman who fights back against a husband who’s abused her for (as in Sally’s case) 20 years. That means Sally’s likely at fault, legally, when her husband, Jim, “punishes” her for making his tea too light—by pouring boiling water over her hand—and she reaches for her granny’s skillet to defend herself.

“There is a practical side of self-defense that can be empowering,” says Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, a feminist advocacy organization. “But the concept is often grounded in a misogynistic idea that women who are harmed are deserving of that harm and are solely responsible for their own safety regardless of the circumstances.”

In Sally’s case, the “circumstances” seem pretty clear-cut: Jim attacked her, and she defended herself, accidentally killing him in the process. But “self-defense law was not created with women or victims of abuse in mind,” says Elizabeth Flock, author of The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice. Flock, an Emmy Award–winning journalist whose book examines what happens when women use violence to protect themselves, says the “castle doctrine” was “created by and for property-owning white men to protect their so-called ‘castles.’”

If that sounds disgustingly patriarchal, racist, and outdated, that’s because it is. The law allows deadly force to protect your home but “doesn’t account for women who defend themselves and their bodies against abusers who reside in their home and often have wielded violence for years,” Flock says. The result? “Women claiming self-defense often get convicted of murder or manslaughter, or take plea deals and end up spending years in prison.”

More years, in fact, than men who kill their female partners. Abusive men who kill women face two to six years in prison, while women who kill men—overwhelmingly in self-defense—are sentenced to an average of 15 years. Unsurprisingly, prisons are filled with domestic violence survivors who fought back.

After Sally fights back, instead of calling the police, she eats some cake. Jim’s rotting on her kitchen floor, no longer capable of telling her she’s too fat or undeserving of treats. So she pours herself a glass of wine, grabs a bag of chips, and takes a bubble bath. The sense of relief and possibility Sally feels in Jim’s absence is overwhelming, so she makes a “be happy” list to extend her serotonin boost (bake! rescue a cat! get a job!). Then her “get rid of Jim” list takes precedence, because if she waited this long to call the police, would anyone really believe she acted in self-defense?

“In a court of law, a woman can put her hand on a bible and swear to tell the whole truth, but if her word isn’t valued, the whole truth may not be heard,” domestic violence court advocate Tonya GJ Prince says. Prince can still remember the haunting screams that pierced the courtroom 20 years ago when a survivor she was assisting played a recording of her violent attack. 

She was seeking a restraining order, but knew that without proof of violence, her request was likely to be denied. Her abuser was—as is often the case—seen publicly as a “nice guy.”

“When the recording ended, no one in the courtroom moved,” Prince recalls. “It was one of those moments where you had to remind yourself to breathe.”

The judge granted the woman’s request for a restraining order, but not without chastising her “dramatic and over-the-top” screams. If that sounds familiar—and sickening—you may remember that Amber Heard’s extensive documentation ofJohnny Depp’s abuse was seen not as proof of his violence but of hermanipulation.

The inherent gender bias in our legal system is why an NYPD detective told my mom in the ’90s that the law couldn’t protect us from my father and that our only options were for my mom to either kill him or go into hiding with my sister and me. (She chose the latter, and if this sounds like a Lifetime Movie, it did in fact become one.)

New York didn’t have any stalking laws at the time, so my father—and the hit man he hired—was free to hunt and terrorize us. Unless it became a murder case, there was nothing the cops could do. 

Before we escaped our home in Canada and fled to New York, my father attacked my mom outside his office in Michigan and threw her into oncoming traffic. He spent a single night in jail, and the felony assault case against him was dismissed in less than 30 minutes. Despite my horror-fueled objections, I was forced by court order to visit him. If my mom refused to hand me over, she would be held in contempt and possibly jailed.

Too often, the law protects abusive men and further endangers abused women, and the media aids and abets this abuse. Recently, The New York Times ignited outrage when it wrote—then seemingly scrubbed from the internet—that O.J. Simpson’s “world was ruined” after being charged with killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson. Yet problematic language remains in the paper’s current versionof Simpson’s obituary, which briefly mentions that he viciously beat Brown Simpson—whom prosecutors said he abused for 17 years—yet calls him “congenial” and his marriage “stormy.” The way the press has minimized domestic violence while glorifying the abuser is eerily reminiscent of the defense strategy that failed Brown Simpson—and continues to fail domestic violence survivors 30 years later.

In the U.S. legal system, only dead women—who can’t speak up or defend themselves—are considered perfect victims. My mom, thankfully, was not a perfect victim. Neither were Amber Heard or any of the members of fictional Lockdown Ladies’ Burial Club. These women didn’t only fight back; they survived.

^^^

Image by Andrea Piacquadio.

BRIJANA PROOKER is a Los Angeles–based freelance journalist covering health, gender and culture. Her bylines include The Washington Post, Elle, Shondaland, Good Housekeeping, and PopSugar. Her two peanut butter–colored rescue girls (a pit bull named Ivy and an orange kitty named Doosis) are her everything.

Yes!

Inspiration in Your Inbox

Sign up to receive email updates from YES!

Stay in the Know

Sign up for our newsletter.

Email List Subscribe Form