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What Made Lizzie Borden Kill?
On the hundredth anniversary of the unsolved double murder of Andrew and Abby Borden, is it time to ask: What was going on in that family?
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
All these signs of a family at risk were visible in the Borden family when Emma and Lizzie were growing up. Two years prior to Lizzie’s birth, her mother bore and buried another daughter, “baby Alice.” The first Mrs. Borden died two years after Lizzie was born. In the interim she suffered from a condition described on her death certificate as “uterine congestion,” one of the unspecific female complaints that plagued Victorian wives. Its victims often took to their beds for long periods of time. This, coupled with the death of one child and the birth of another, might have made Mrs. Borden sexually unresponsive to her husband. Although there was a subculture of prostitution in Fall River, Mr. Borden, an intensely private and rigid man, might have been reluctant to turn to it. As provider and patriarch he may also have expected his needs to be met in his own home.
Emma might easily have been urged to take up her mother’s role in a process therapists call “parentification.” She was just thirteen when her mother died, and for the last two years of Mrs. Borden’s life, Emma had cared for Lizzie. In the absence of other women in the home, Emma would have assumed responsibility for household tasks. Mr. Borden refused offers of help from other family members, including his sister. He chose to keep his household his own private domain, establishing a kind of family isolation well documented in the case histories of incest survivors.
As the result of a sense of entitlement and the absence of an appropriate sexual partner, Mr. Borden might have abused first Emma, then Lizzie. Research on serial abuse is sketchy, but it may occur in as many as 50 percent of all cases. The shift from one sibling to another often takes place as the older child begins to resist the abuse. In the Borden household the transfer might have taken place when Emma was about fifteen and Lizzie was about four. This would have coincided with the arrival of the second Mrs. Borden.
Shadows of the first marriage haunted the second. Most followers of the case agree that the Borden girls did not respond well to the arrival of a stepmother. There is no indication that Abby treated them badly, but from the first Emma refused to call her Mother. Lizzie never established a close relationship with her either, although she was young enough for Mrs. Borden to have assumed a mother’s role.
Abby Borden might well have been expected to bear children herself; neither her age nor Mr. Borden’s precluded a second family. The absence of children raises the possibility that Andrew Borden’s second marriage was an asexual one.
Seven years into the marriage the family moved to the house on Second Street, a building that has been the source of much controversy about the Bordens as a family. Although it was a marked improvement over their old house, it still lacked many of the amenities that others of Mr. Borden’s position would have demanded. If the move was made, as some have argued, to enhance the Borden girls’ chances for matrimony, it was unsuccessful. Lizzie and Emma were average-looking girls with a more than average inheritance due them, but neither was ever engaged nor married.
If, however, the house was purchased to allay Abby’s suspicions, the choice was a sound one. The building was a long, narrow, two-family dwelling. When the Bordens moved in, they made only minor changes, leaving the structure essentially divided. Mr. and Mrs. Borden’s upstairs bedrooms, for instance, were not accessible to Lizzie’s and Emma’s bedrooms except by coming downstairs and going up another flight of stairs. The doors connecting several upstairs rooms were kept locked and blocked with furniture. The house effectively separated Mr. Borden from his daughters. As time went on, the family divisions grew even deeper, and by the time of the murders, the Bordens did not regularly eat together at a common table.
Apparently, little affection passed between any of the family members with one exception: by all accounts Lizzie and her father had once been very close. Mr. Borden always wore a gold ring she gave him when she graduated from high school. He was wearing it when he died. This affection between a teen-age Lizzie and her father would not be inconsistent with a past history of sexual abuse. Whatever passed between her and her father was her only experience of parental love. She did not know her mother or love her stepmother. She had been her father’s “special girl.” Confused feelings would be expected, too, if Lizzie had successfully repressed her memories of abuse, as many incest victims do today. A powerful chronicle of another special girl who repressed abuse is Sylvia Eraser’s My Father’s House , published in 1988. Fraser, a Canadian journalist and novelist, created an imaginary “twin,” another self who experienced her incestuous relationship with her father and the guilt that accompanied it. The presence of the twin enabled Fraser to live a normal teen-ager’s life loving her father.