The untold origins of ‘the unhinged woman’

Vera Kurian, the author of Never Saw Me Coming, examines the trope of ‘crazy ex-girlfriends,’ the culture that creates them and pushing back. 

Vera Kurian
Never Saw Me Coming standing upright on a wooden shelf against a yellow background.

As a great woman once uttered at brunch after four champagne cocktails, behind every unhinged woman is a heterosexual man who invited her to spend the holidays with his entire family and then broke up with her the next week, saying, bewildered, ‘I didn’t think it was that serious.’ In my twenties, if a man I was dating related that he had a ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’, I was always sympathetic, wanting to hear the details of her erratic behavior, because this would stand in stark contrast to my own calm, rational demeanour. Now that I am older and wealthier and have had more champagne, I fully understand that references to a ‘crazy’ ex-girlfriend are a massive red flag. The assumption is that she arrived crazy fresh out of the box, when it’s entirely possible she was driven crazy by erratic, careless behaviours, lies or ill-treatment.

I am not saying that there are no ‘crazy’ women, but that we should take a moment and reflect on who is calling any particular woman unhinged. How does any woman manage to stay hinged in a world where she is frequently dismissed, underestimated, and attacked?

How does any woman manage to stay hinged in a world where she is frequently dismissed, underestimated, and attacked?

There is no better cautionary tale of the costs of tangling with an unhinged woman than Fatal Attraction. In it, Michael Douglas is a happily married family man who makes one small, innocent error – while his wife and kids are away, he spends an entire weekend boinking Glenn Close, only to become dismayed when she forms a crazed attachment to him. Close goes on a rampage, terrorising his family, famously boiling their pet bunny, solidifying her into a cultural icon of ‘crazy woman who will destroy your family because she is crazy.’ It’s a moral tale about how one chance encounter with a woman can ruin the life of a happy family, but not a cautionary tale about why you shouldn’t cheat on your wife to begin with.

The main character in my novel Never Saw Me Coming is an incoming first-year college student. She balances her love of boys and partying with her desire to get straight As and get into medical school. From the outside, almost no one notices she’s different. But Chloe is a diagnosed psychopath. Somewhat indifferent to the diagnosis, she views her reality and way of dealing with things as superior to others’ (not surprising, if you consider that psychopaths tend to be narcissistic). Chloe doesn’t feel fear or empathy and beneath her charming demeanor is a sometimes uncontrollable impulsiveness.

While Chloe is at her university ostensibly to take part in a clinical panel study of seven psychopaths, she is really there to hunt down and kill a childhood friend of hers, Will, who attends the same university. Six years ago, he wronged her, and for six years she has been meticulously planning her revenge. She thinks, ‘Will is like every man who has ever kicked a dog. When they kick a dog, they forget that the dog cries and puts its tail between its legs only because of thousands of years of domestication and training. They forget, every time they kick, that every now and then you’re going to come upon a dog with teeth.’ 

At its heart, my book is about female rage

While I would describe this book as fun, and many describe it as darkly funny, at its heart it is about female rage. Women are so frequently put into positions of impotence that, as the reviews of this book come in, reader after reader reports how darkly compelled they are by Chloe’s cold execution of her plans to put Will to death. Chloe has that annoying quality where she thinks she is ‘not like the other girls’ – but actually, she isn’t. When considering where to do the deed, she rules out a local park because it’s autumn – she wants to set Will on fire and the dried leaves could lead to an unwanted conflagration.

I wanted to write a character like Chloe because I was reading a lot of thrillers where the main female characters felt radically unlike me. They were almost always married women, either fabulously wealthy and living in New York, or with children living in the suburbs. They would find out that their husband lied about where he went on a business trip, mewlishly ask him where he had been, receive a vague non-answer, and the chapter would end. But if it were me or any of my friends, we would have asked 87 follow-up questions and conducted a full investigation the following day if unsatisfied, rather than waiting for the next non-answer clue to drop. In other words, I was tired of books about dogs getting kicked. 

I was tired of books about dogs getting kicked.

There is often a sequence in superhero stories where someone attempts to bully the person with powers – this is the direct fantasy of any average person who has been humiliated by someone else. What if, for example, I was a champion MMA fighter, and some person tried to mug me? Muggers work under the assumption that they are always going to be stronger than their victims, but they run the risk of sometimes being wrong.

In many ways, Chloe flips the script on who is the villain and who is the victim, who is the predator and who is the prey. People are drawn to her, and the other psychopaths in the book, because some of the characteristics they share lead them to have an entirely different internal logic, and one that can be surprisingly compelling. 

Psychologists specialising in the study of psychopaths sometimes describe them as people who have developed the ability to perfectly mimic normalcy – a ‘mask of sanity’, something they can put on for the sake of getting by, or, in many cases, getting ahead. As someone who grew up watching horror movies religiously, Halloween is my favorite time of the year. There is something about wearing a costume, specifically a mask, that can be strangely freeing because no one knows who you are beneath it. 

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