By Heather Mallick
Here are the perfectly ordinary words that the Russell Williams trial will make you never wish to hear again in the same sentence: panties, open window, screen door, bras, file folder, penis, draped, display, photos, drawer, hamper, young, mirror, Tweety Bird and daughters.
Of course the two main words are “Russell” and “Williams.” I put my face up close to the Plexiglass booth as he was led away at the end of a profoundly horrible day and looked at him with mystification and disgust. He looks normal, as these things go.
Actually, he looks like a man never encumbered with the burden of personality, a bit of a sad case, a stumblebum. His civilian suit is cheap, wrinkled on the arms and devoid of shaping, his long dash of a lipless mouth a bit worrying, a guy stuck in the corner of the room at parties. Weird how smackingly crisp he looked in his uniform.
Yet he is evil incarnate.
It makes it worse to have heard the terrible recitation of his acts in a room filled with kind people—the victims’ families, police and the court staff—as if we had all suddenly realized that civilization is something we have to cling to. The existence of a man like Williams had made us unnervingly polite, as though we might shatter if there were any bad behaviour.
No, I don’t know why he did what he did, and I have the awful feeling that we’ll never know. It just may be that the result of his guilty plea is that we won’t discover what seed was planted that gave root to this level of perversion and cruelty. The court won’t dig deeply enough.
It’s not sufficient to say that he liked doing what he did, the best and most customary explanation for psychopathology and fountain-like cruelty.
What this day revealed is the awful specificity of the human sexual impulse.
You may be attracted to someone. You may like their eyes, their sense of humour, their face and hair. But you’re normal. Believe me, you are normal. You may be odd, and as a human person you’re entitled to be, but compared to Williams, you are pristine.
Here are the specific things that Williams needed for his mise en scene, the things he photographed when he broke into the homes of his neighbours in Ottawa and Tweed.
He set the stage with shots of interiors, specifically, the bedrooms of young girls, and grown women if there was no one else available. He would first photograph their beds, and then their opened underwear drawers and closets.
He liked the colours pink and red. He liked wearing and draping. He liked risk and surveillance, and male gynecological poses. He loved photos of his victims’ ID, like passports, driver’s licences and transit passes.
If he did not have these things, it wasn’t erotic.
He liked looking at himself in the mirror, but he never smiled to show pleasure, maintaining a rigid military decorum even while looking the perfect prat, a great big man in the pink sun dress of a little girl. Seriously. You should see the photos he took of himself in his own kitchen, like a huge dog in a frock. A leaf print. Strapless.
Here’s proof of how gentle and good most people are. Nobody laughed out loud. It would have humiliated Williams beyond belief. But it would have hurt the families and so no one did it.
There was a sense of unreality in the courtroom because acts of genuine confrontation and violence were only beginning to be described by the end of the day. You could hear the soft tapping of reporters’ laptops, allowed to report digitally, which is rare.
Everyone’s face was blank. But the sheer disbelief was palpable.
The courtroom was odd: Half the room, headed by the judge, was almost entirely male. The left-hand side of the spectators’ area was almost entirely female, comprising the victims’ families. And the media were about half and half.
But the case was entirely about a male fascination with the underwear that women wear next to their genitals. The male prosecutors didn’t really know how to describe the garments, the lace, the detailing, the strenuous efforts by manufacturers to avoid a visible panty line, or even what appeared to be the classic Days of the Week underpants you get as a joke gift at Christmas.
But we all know Tweety Bird, and yes, there was a closeup of Col. Russell Williams wearing a little girl’s cartoon panties, and not just beneath his military uniform either.
The entire case is based on Williams’ need for souvenirs of something that first struck him sexually in his early years. It’s a human need, but he took it to extremes that would embarrass an OCD sufferer. His displays would make a sales associate in the lingerie section of a department store win Employee of the Week award. So tidy, so symmetrical.
When I was a young teenager, we used to walk through Woolworths, punching in the breasts of the rows of bras set out on display tables. It was a way of coping with our own embarrassment about our bodies. I had the distinct feeling Williams would have erupted with rage had anyone, like a wife for instance, interfered with his tableaus.
And he did explode. The escalation of aggression we are seeing on Day One makes us realize that sex is not just a joy. It can be a springboard into terror.