Rage, Guns, Drugs and Therapy: the Jean Harris Murder Case

The fact that she aimed the gun at Tarnower and not herself made her case unique
Published on January 14, 2013 by The Contemporary Psychoanalysis Group in Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action

The Jean Harris story was a compelling erotic fantasy: seduction, humiliation, abandonment and retribution.  It captured our attention in 1980, but if you are under 50 you may not know much of the private school headmistress who killed her philandering lover, Herman Tarnower, the “Scarsdale Diet Doctor.”  Jean Harris died on December 23rd at age 89. (Headmistress, Jilted Love, Killer, Then a Force for Good in Jail; New York Times December 28, 2012).

What made her snap?  Was it an accident or murder?  Was she justified? Public debate raged. Harris evoked vastly different thoughts and feelings about women, love, fidelity and aggression. To Diana Trilling, the literary critic, Harris was a modern-day Anna Karenina, to Betty Friedan, the famous feminist, a pathetic masochist.

Jean Harris took the pistol out of her small purse and plugged Tarnower 4 times. Was it an accident, as she claimed?  Did he have it coming, as the female murderers sing in the “Chicago” musical number “The Cell-Block Tango”?

Unlike the “merry mistresses of mayhem” in “Chicago”, Mrs. Harris was a petite, lady-like, Smith-educated, 56-year old woman with no prior criminal record. A woman of wit and intelligence, she testified she went to her lover’s home with a gun, not to kill him, but to ask him to kill her. If he refused, she planned to kill herself. Tarnower, asleep in bed when she arrived, must have reacted inappropriately, because he ended up with 4 bullets in him.

Much of the debate that ensued over this case reflected the feminist challenge to theories about “normal” female development that stigmatized women during that period. Classical Freudian theory, still the prevailing authority in 1980 but since abandoned by contemporary psychoanalysts, postulated that passivity and masochism are part of normal female development.  The fact that a woman as “normal” as Harris aimed the gun at Tarnower rather than at herself made her case unique.

Ann Jones had just finished writing her seminal text on female murders, “Women Who Kill” when the Tarnower murder occurred. Jones found the case to be so note-worthy that she added a new chapter to her book.

Women perpetrate a very small percentage of the killings in this country—figures range from 7 to 15%.  Jones writes that “The so-called classic murder of jealous passion, like every other murder, is far more likely to be committed by a man who murders ‘his’ woman in a fit of possessiveness”. Women, on the other hand, are taught not to become angry about such things as infidelity. Instead, they often become depressed and self-destructive. Women like Harris, according to Jones, are programmed to commit suicide, not homicide.

At the same time, The “Battered Woman Syndrome” was being debated in the courts as a defense in cases where a woman killed her abusing partner.  Lenore Walker described this syndrome in her book “The Battered Woman” (1979). but Jean Harris didn’t fit that mold, since she had never been physically abused by Tarnower.

He had taken up with a younger woman, Lynn Tryforos, and the two were quite public about their affair. Harris testified at the trial that she discovered a birthday greeting from Tryforos to Tarnover in an advertisement on the front page of the New York Times. She commented to Tarnower, “Herman, why don’t you use the Goodyear blimp next time? I think it’s available.”

In a letter Harris sent Tarnower the day of the murder, she revealed her deeply wounded self-image and recounted that “to be jeered at and called ‘old and pathetic’ made me seriously consider borrowing $5000 and telling a doctor to make me young again—anything but make me not feel like discarded trash.”

Humiliation, abandonment, methamphetamine and barbiturates (prescribed by Tarnower), exhaustion and possibly menopausal hormones—were too much for a woman like Harris, who was already unable to express anger. She kept it to herself, until she exploded in rage. And then there was the gun.

Harris was undoubtedly confused, distraught and furious as she got into the car that day to drive to Tarnower’s house. Her sense of reality  shaken, she wasn’t clear whether she intended to kill him, herself or just threaten him. If she hadn’t had a gun, there would have been a scene, maybe even a physical fight, but he would not have died and she would not have gone to prison for half of the rest of her life.

Harris had purchased the gun two years prior for “self-protection.”  That aspect of the case, the fact that she bought a gun in the first place, was ignored in the public debate. A single comment made by Harris’s son, James, who was 27 years old and a marine lieutenant at the time, made reference to the weapon. At the bail hearing he commented to a New York Times photographer, “This is a very sad thing—perhaps your paper should write a good story on gun control ”(Gun Used in Slaying of Doctor is Tie to Suspect, New York Times, March 12, 1980).

Or perhaps the paper should have written a good story about psychotherapy.  Harris had never sought psychotherapy or psychiatric medication, according to her biographer, Shana Alexander (Very Much a Lady, 1983) relying instead on Tarnower’s amphetamine and barbiturate prescriptions.  There is no question that therapy, perhaps with appropriate medication, would have helped her to cope with her distress and likely find a way out of it.

Repressed anger is a problem therapists encounter frequently in practice. I find it particularly prevalent among female patients anxious about expressing anger directly towards a loved one for fear of losing the relationship. If untreated, repressed anger may become self-directed rage and can take the form of eating disorders, physical symptoms, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Treatment focuses on helping the patient first to become aware of angry thoughts and then to start to express them. As the patient becomes more aware of and comfortable with anger, the physical symptoms and depression start to lift.

In Harris’ case, the repressed anger was complicated by her intense dependency on Tarnower. She appears to have been drug addicted and was dependent on him both emotionally and for drugs, calling him her “life-line”.  Although not physically abused by Tarnower, the cycle of humiliation and reconciliation, amplified by drug dependency, may have rendered her helpless to leave. Had she sought psychotherapy, it could have helped disentangle her from this abusive relationship.

In 1980 I was a young woman and Harris symbolized a different way for women to express rage—take it out on the person who humiliated you! But Harris was not a fantasy or a symbol. She was a woman pushed to the edge, deeply remorseful afterward; she killed her lover and companion of 14 years and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Today, I wonder what might have been different if the form of self-protection she had opted for had been psychotherapy rather than a gun.