by Lorenzo Bernasconi

The heinous case of Alessia Pifferi

The Italian press spills rivers of ink on the case of Alessia Pifferi, the 36-year-old woman who left her 18-month-old daughter alone for nearly a week, causing her death from starvation.

The case, it must be said, has in it all the elements apt to arouse the public's interest (and horror): a very small child's death, the archetype of the innocent; a subtle vein of eroticism (the mother abandoning the child to be with her new partner) always a source of easy gossip; the social and cultural poverty of that suburb that unsettles but at the same time intrigues the bourgeois; and, of course, the breaking of one of the last taboos by a woman who sacrifices her little daughter's life on the altar of her own pleasure.

Among the many more or less reliable accounts and different attempts to understand the causes of such an extreme act, however, one constant seems to emerge, represented by more or less substantiated thoughts about Pifferi's alleged mental health problems. The point on which - basically - all commentators seem to agree is that the perpetrator of such an act must necessarily be insane, or momentarily out of her mind, or suffering from dissociative disorders: in any case, she cannot be a lucid and calculating killer.

The devil is also woman

This view descends in good part from a prejudice that, although of fairly recent origin, is now strongly entrenched in so-called Western countries; a prejudice according to which cruelty, viciousness and conflictuality are inherently masculine peculiarities and constitute the founding core of what in feminist circles is called toxic masculinity. From such a postulate then descends the corollary that, conversely, anything that turns out to be less masculine (think of much of the picturesque lgbt world) will also automatically be kinder and, to a good extent, more peaceful and pacifist.

Events such as the one involving Pifferi - a novel Medea - nevertheless undermine such a narrative, and are therefore downgraded to exceptions, anomalies that stem from deep-seated and untreated psychic disorders. The perpetrator, in such cases, would not have committed a heinous act despite being a woman, but would have acted in a state of incapacity that implies a kind of regression to a beastly, pre-human condition, and therefore she was somehow no longer, at the moment the crime was committed, "one of us": neither "of us women," nor "of us human beings."

But is the issue really that simple? As Amadori reports in his The devil is also woman, of the 378 cases of infanticide that occurred in Italy between 1970 and 2008, 90 percent were by the mother herself. Figures, it must be said, that are rather low when compared with the statistics on women killed by a partner or ex-partner (the proportion is about 15 women killed by a partner or lover for every single case of infanticide); and, nevertheless, too high not to undermine at least a little that narrative according to which the feminine is the absolute principle of order and harmony, as opposed to the masculine understood as the origin of evil and conflict.

Why are violent criminals mostly men?

Referring back to the above-mentioned essay for an interesting overview of the characteristics and specifics of female crime, I would instead like to focus on a single question: why is it that the pool of violent offenders - and, by extension, the prison population - is overwhelmingly made up of men?

In my opinion, a partial answer may come to us from evolutionary psychology. Homo sapiens, as far as is known, has been present on earth for at least two hundred thousand years, during which time it has mostly lived, with partial exceptions limited to the last four or five thousand years, in a hostile environment governed by the same natural laws that still dominate the lives of wild animals. It will come as no surprise, then, if the natural selection induced by such an environment has led our species, over many generations, to develop inherited characteristics (physical and psychological) that were functional for survival in that specific context, but perhaps useless or even harmful in modern society.

True: natural selection is still at work and, over time, will presumably tend to "reward" characters that are functional to the new and changed environment in which we find ourselves living; however, civilization is a relatively recent fact, while man has lived in a "wild" state for thousands of centuries. We cannot fool ourselves into thinking that a few hundred or thousands of years of civilized life could have completely erased the traces of such a long evolutionary process.

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The fighting man, the caring woman

In prehistoric times, as far as we know, our species' males fought among themselves to ensure that they could mate and pass on their genes, while the task of caring for the children fell mostly to the females, similar to what still happens among mammals today. With this in mind, it is evident how selective pressure led males to enhance, from generation to generation, character traits such as combativeness, aggressiveness and propensity to risk, since the more aggressive male - and more likely to fight, even at the cost of sustaining serious injuries - had a better chance of mating and passing on his genetic heritage to his offspring.

Conversely, the females developed different character traits over time, such as dedication to their offspring, prudence, aversion to risk and physical confrontation: traits that were reproductively rewarding for them, both because the female did not need to compete with her peers in order to mate and because, should the mother be injured or killed for whatever reason, the offspring were unlikely to survive.

Violence is not the same as wickedness

Therefore, I do not find it incorrect to say that the male sex has a greater inherent propensity for physical violence; however, I think it is quite wrong to claim that this propensity stems from an allegedly greater male "nastiness," or from a lesser ability of men to empathize with their peers. More correctly, the relative ease with which the male seeks (or accepts) physical confrontation should be ascribed to that greater propensity for risk that results, for example, in an average driving style that is more reckless than that of women, or a financial management that is more oriented toward investments with non-guaranteed capital.

The female mind, on the other hand, even if she decides to devote herself to crime, seems to prefer activities that are less risky in terms of physical safety, such as fraud and scams. If she then opts for a violent crime, she usually tends to minimize the risks by choosing weak victims, such as children and the elderly, or by involving a man in the material execution of the crime: think of Erika De Nardo, who exterminated her family with the complicity of her boyfriend Omar, or Martina Levato who, in order to disfigure her exes with acid, enlisted the help of a violent lunatic like Alex Boettcher.

Evil has no gender

With this, of course, I do not intend to pass judgment on the tragic story of little Diana, but only to denounce how baseless is the assumption (rarely made explicit, but implicitly present in the arguments of many commentators) that, in our species, only the male is capable of premeditating and lucidly enacting such a heinous crime.

If we look carefully and without ideological blinders at the history of humanity, it appears quite clearly how the ability to do good and evil (two concepts, moreover, that are not easy to define) is not a peculiar characteristic of man or woman, but of the human being as such; the true equality of the genders (which, let the friends of the lgbt community come to terms with that, biologically are only two) also passes by a full recognition of the feminine universe in its totality, with its immense creative potential but also with its shadows and its ability to perform, at times, evil in a lucid and ruthless way.

Those who tend to minimize this second aspect, either in order to defend some sort of supposed moral and intellectual superiority of women (as some radical feminist circles do) or, on the contrary, in order to repropose the now outdated depiction of the submissive woman, eternal child and angel of the hearth, do a good service neither to the male gender nor to the female gender. And, above all, it does not help to build the real equality that cannot be based on the myth of an abstract and posturing equality, but rather needs mutual recognition based on loyalty, empathy, and intellectual honesty.

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Research Fellow at the Machiavelli Center for Political and Strategic Studies, formerly worked as a consultant at European Parliament, Presidency of the Council of Ministers, Chamber of Deputies and Ministry of Economic Development. M.A. in Philosophy at the Catholic University of Milan.