(Allegations of) Progress v. Bernardine Stapleton’s Offensive to Some: Why the Case of Catherine Snow is somehow still as relevant now as it was 200 years ago.
CW: descriptions of domestic abuse, violent crime, and systemic racial oppression.
I love horror and true crime.
I basically exist on serial killer documentaries and horror movies. I grew up on Unsolved Mysteries, The Twilight Zone and Are You Afraid of the Dark. I got my first book about the Zodiac killer when I was 11 and I now listen to true-crime podcasts to fall asleep.
All this is to say that I don’t get unsettled easily.
So, when I walked out of the latest production of Offensive to Some last October with what felt like rocks in my stomach, I knew I had just seen something especially disturbing and just as important.
When legendary local playwright, Bernardine Ann Teraz Stapleton, penned Offensive to Some in 1995, she likely didn’t realize how relevant the piece would still be over 25 years later.
Or perhaps some part of her hoped it wouldn’t be.
Set in the near-present, Offensive to Some is a one-woman play that explores domestic violence, trauma, and intention, told through the character Woman, who is serving time for the murder of her abusive husband. Through Woman, we see the inner and outer turmoil which led her to commit such unthinkable actions, and the perverse strength necessary to commit them. Offensive to Some is raw, dark, wickedly funny, and visceral as all hell – which is no surprise to anyone familiar with Stapleton’s work.
I swear that this isn’t just a love letter to Bernardine.
Stapleton was inspired by the true-to-life tale of Catherine Mandeville Snow, a Newfoundland woman found guilty in 1834 for the murder of her own abusive husband, whose body was never found. Snow was dubiously tried with little evidence, and sentenced to hang, becoming the last woman ever to be executed in Newfoundland.
Stapleton was writing over 150 years after Snow’s hanging, and we are quickly approaching the 200th anniversary of the event. Women have made undeniable strides toward social equality, equitable treatment, and access to opportunity in that time. This may leave one to wonder why Snow’s history continues to inspire artists to this day, and why Offensive to Some still feel so uncomfortably relevant in 2021.
Well, for one thing, the phenomenon of domestic abuse survivors killing their abusers hasn’t gone away. In fact, the week I started writing this piece, a verdict came down in the case of Sandra Ameralik.
If you’re not aware of the case, Ameralik, an Inuk woman and domestic abuse survivor in Goja Haven, Nunavut, was tried on murder and manslaughter charges after killing her abusive husband in 2017.
Pregnant at the time and fearing for the safety of their six children, Ameralik had stabbed her abuser once with a kitchen knife, aiming for his arm, but accidentally stabbing him in the chest.
She was acquitted of all charges on the grounds of Battered Persons Syndrome – a legal defense related to long-term abuse and trauma response.
But what do Snow and Ameralik’s cases really have in common? On a surface level, aside from the charges being laid, their situations seem unrelated to one another.
Ameralik admitted to killing her husband, Snow did not. Snow had a younger lover who may have had something to do with the disappearance, Ameralik did not. Ameralik was acquitted of all charges, Snow was found guilty of murder. They seem like pretty different cases, don’t they?
It turns out that, while the details of their legal situations were different, the circumstances leading up to those situations were eerily similar.
For instance, both women were in long-term, live-in relationships with their abusive partners, with whom they both had several children - Snow had seven, Ameralik had six.
Both were pregnant at the time of the incident – Ameralik was at 29 weeks, Snow was around 24 weeks along.
Both lived in rural areas with no access to a safehouse or shelter – Goja Haven has a population of just over 1000 people, Salmon Cove, even today, has a population around 600 - neither community had any services in place for survivors of domestic abuse to avail of.
Both had tried to leave, fight back against, expose, or report their abuser multiple times, with no lasting or meaningful results.
Locals and authorities knew about Snow’s abuse, which is why she was so quickly suspected of murder when her husband disappeared. Ameralik had called the police no less than seven times to report her abuser and had tried to take him to court multiple times. However, with no childcare options available, and threats from the abuser she was still forced to cohabitate with, she was unable to attend court dates to testify, and her abuser walked free.
Both were members of marginalized ethnic groups which suffered systemic discrimination at the time of the fatal incident.
It’s clear to most Canadians that Indigenous people are subject to ongoing systemic racism, both overt and covert.
What is less widely known is that anti-Irish sentiments (or Hibernophobia) were a real threat to immigrants in the 1800s. Tied to anti-Catholic sentiments, the Irish were treated in ways most often associate with historic BIPOC discrimination, including racial profiling, negative stereotypes, denial of basic resources, and deadly violence, until well into the 1900s.
When reading the accounts of both Snow and Ameralik (links below), it becomes clear that somehow, despite being separated by almost 200 years of alleged progress, the circumstances that allowed abuse to escalate to the point it did was essentially the same for these two women – there were simply no support systems in place that would allow them to escape or end the abuse safely.
Does it make anyone else feel gross that the state of support for rural and Indigenous victims of domestic abuse in Canada in 2021 is roughly equivalent to what it was for women in 1834 colonial Newfoundland?
Their abusers, despite living nearly two centuries apart, were both allowed to continue inflicting pain on their partners with little to no legal or social consequence for years, forcing their victims into unwinnable self defense situations – kill or be killed. And when those scenes inevitably played out, the victims who struck back were forced to be accountable for their actions in a way that their abusers would never be subject to.
Okay, I get that all of this is a little hard to process, and none of it is pleasant. So, let me leave you with something lighter that, I think, gets to the heart of what I’ve been trying to say.
There’s a weirdly dark episode of The Simpsons called “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge.” In it, the Simpsons allow a young woman to move in with them while she gets back on her feet. Marge begins to suspect that the woman is trying to kill her and steal her family. When Marge discovers her brakes have been cut, she goes to the police for help, with the following results:
Marge: Look, I know I don’t have any proof, but this woman *is* trying to kill me.
Wiggum: Fine, let me tell you what I tell everybody who comes in here: the law is
powerless to help you.
Marge: Do I have to be dead before you’ll help me?
Wiggum: Well, not dead – dying. (…) How about this: just show me the knife. In your back.
Not too deep, but it should be able to stand by itself.
Marge leaves, understandably frustrated.
After surviving multiple attempts on her life, Marge attacks the woman responsible and is arrested herself, resulting is this exchange.
Marge: I thought you said the law was powerless?
Wiggum: Powerless to help you, not to punish you.
So… there it is, in a nutshell.
Is it really any wonder that the story of Catherine Snow feels as relevant today as it was all those years ago?
Or why Offensive to Some continues to be staged and received with the same urgency at it was when it premiered? Why new works inspired by the life of Catherine Snow are still being created?
It’s because the story hasn’t really changed.
But the way we chose to tell the story has.
All we know about Catherine Snow is based on the claims that others have made about her words and actions. We know little of how Catherine really lived and saw her own life as it played out.
That’s why I knew that those rocks in my stomach back in October were important. Even necessary.
I believe that Stapleton helped to reforge the narrative by letting Woman tell her story in her own words – a privilege that Catherine was never afforded.
And, while Woman is *technically* not real in the strictest sense, her words are the closest thing we have to the words of women who never got to tell their own story; those who were forced by flawed justice and social systems to stay and suffer at the hands of their abusers - those who never made it out alive.
And the sad truth is that all we can do is keep telling and re-telling these stories – a little louder each time, for the people in the back - until those who have the actual power to shift the dynamics of the system are disturbed enough to recognize the rocks in their stomach, and finally change the narrative.
Bernardine Stapleton's play OFFENSIVE TO SOME premieres March 3, 2021 via broadcast on BroadwayWorld and is also available On Demand March 4-10. Learn more here.
R. v. Ameralik - Judge's Final Comments
CBC News - Ameralik Acquitted
Persistence Theatre - Offensive to Some
Heritage NL - Women and the Court House
Archival Moments - A Re-examination of the Case of Catherine Snow
Leahdawn Helena (she/they) is a member of Qalipu First Nations, is Two-Spirit Lnu, and is the Indigenous Sociocultural Consultant at PerSIStence Theatre. She has a BFA (Theatre) and a BA (Sociocultural Studies) from MUN, Grenfell Campus. Born in Stephenville and raised in Corner Brook, she has been involved with theatre and film since her teens. She currently lives in St John’s with her husband, Chris, their cat, Montgomery, and their dog, Chevrolet Chase. Her favourite book, film, and colour are The Colour Purple.