When the journalist Elizabeth Flock was in her early twenties, she took a trip to Rome with friends. They hired a guide for a day, a bearded man a few years older. After showing them the sights, he brought them to a bar, the American kind that panders to young tourists with shots, and then to the Trevi Fountain, where they threw pennies over their shoulders. The next thing Flock knew, she was waking up in bed—the guide’s. He had drugged her drink. Now he was raping her.
What might have happened, Flock wondered later, if she had had a knife? A gun? In the event, she had nothing, and did nothing. She froze, as many people do. When it was over, she didn’t go to the police; she doubted they would help. Her anger grew. Nearly a decade later, she tracked her assailant down online and discovered that he lived, amazingly, in the same city as she did. He ran a furniture store, which she fantasized about burning down. She didn’t do that, either, but now she has written a book about women who did do something. It’s called “The Furies: Women, Vengeance, and Justice” (Harper).
The title is telling. Many ancient cultures represented justice in female form, Flock notes. She mentions the Hindu warrior goddess Durga and the Sumerian goddess Inanna, who is raped by a gardener while sleeping, then sends down plagues to flush him out of hiding. The Furies of ancient Greece and Rome were also divine, a trio of miserable hags with snakes for hair. They appear in Aeschylus’ Oresteia, where they hound Orestes after he murders his mother, and, seventeen hundred years later, in Dante’s Inferno, where they shriek and tear at their breasts. (Flock doesn’t mention the Furies’ origin story, but it is a Freudian field day: according to the poet Hesiod, they sprang from drops of blood shed when Cronus, son of Gaia and Uranus, was incited by his mother to cut off his father’s testicles.)
Flock’s point is that there is a mythic quality to the anger of a wronged woman which crosses cultures, as does the thing that Flock considers to be its source: male domination. The same traits that made the Furies repulsive to men of the past make them awesome to women today, a symbol of female agency in the face of oppression and pain. The Furies, or their descendants, are everywhere. Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron in “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) and by Anya Taylor-Joy in the upcoming “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” is an ass-kicking, gun-toting liberationist with a mechanical arm who rescues an enslaved harem of women from a mean old despot. She drives stick; she is an action hero, not a miserable hag. The same is true of Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth Salander, in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and Uma Thurman’s Bride, in “Kill Bill.” Each of these movies was directed by a man; evidently, the story of a woman getting hers has crossover appeal.
For a while, Flock says, she was drawn to these glorified accounts of female revenge. They galvanized her. It’s helpful, when you have been rendered powerless, to feel that others forced into a similar position have triumphed, not only vanquishing their foes but making them suffer in kind. But Flock is a reporter, interested in real people living real lives, so she found three Furies of her own. They are contemporary women who, as she writes, “took matters into their own hands.”
Flock’s first subject is Brittany Smith, a mother of four from Stevenson, Alabama. In January, 2018, she met Joshua (Todd) Smith (no relation), a roughneck from a nearby town who bred pit bulls, when he sold her one of his dogs. The following night, he convinced Brittany to pick him up from a park, where he was stranded in the snow. Todd was known as a Jekyll-and-Hyde type, Flock writes—sweet when sober, terrifying when high on a cocktail of meth and Xanax. Back at Brittany’s house, Hyde took over. Brittany later testified that Todd violently raped her, strangling her until she passed out. Eventually, she managed to get word to her younger brother Chris, who arrived with a gun. Todd put Chris in a headlock; Brittany took the gun and shot Todd, killing him. After she was arrested and charged with murder, she pleaded not guilty, invoking the state’s Stand Your Ground law.
Next comes Angoori Dahariya, born in 1963 to a poor family of Dalit farmers—members of the “untouchable” caste—in northern India. Angoori married a kind man and became a meek housewife and mother, eventually finding work delivering polio vaccines. The couple managed to make a down payment on a small plot of land in the town of Tirwa, where they built a two-room hut; they enrolled their children in good schools. In 1999, the upper-caste owner of the land, which Angoori had been buying in installments, told her that he wanted her family out, and summoned a band of men to forcibly evict them. The humiliation proved radicalizing. During the altercation, Angoori brandished a bamboo cane, called a lathi, and this gave her an idea. She went on to muster a gang of women to punish men for their abuses, training her followers to wield lathis in local disputes.
Finally, there is Cicek Mustafa Zibo, the third of seven girls born to a Kurdish family in northern Syria. In 2013, when she was seventeen, she joined the Y.P.J., the Women’s Protection Units, an all-female militia that had been created as a counterpart of the male-led People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.), with the goal of defending a Kurdish homeland in the region. Cicek was soon posted to Kobani, a Kurdish-majority city that had come under assault from ISIS militants, where she made a name for herself as a fearless warrior, facing down the enemy without flinching.
It is hard to overstate how different these people are from one another. They live in different parts of the world. They speak different languages. They are of different ages, backgrounds, circumstances, beliefs. If they met on the street— But that would never happen, and that is one reason that Flock has written “The Furies.” This sensitively reported book has an ambition similar to that of a Gloria Steinem talking circle. Without drawing explicit connections between these women—each is presented on her own, a separate panel in the triptych—Flock is putting them in conversation with one another. That is a feminist project, and Flock wants us to see her subjects through a feminist lens. One thing that Brittany, Angoori, and Cicek have in common, she writes, is that each is “living within damaging cultures of honor,” and she reads their various acts of violence as means of resistance.
Brittany Smith, for example. Flock suggests that if it had been her brother Chris who had shot Todd Smith, he would have been treated more leniently, because of the “good ol’ boys club” ethos of the rural South. In fact, Brittany, in a panic, did initially claim that Chris was the shooter. (This later caused problems for her in court.) At first, her brother went along with the lie. “Chris had always heard the same refrain growing up, from his mom, his sister, and other women in Stevenson—that women were treated as second-class citizens in Jackson County, especially by the police,” Flock writes. “Chris, on the other hand, could say he was merely standing his ground to protect his sister, as any reasonable man would do.” Flock notes that between 2006, when Alabama passed its Stand Your Ground law, and 2010, when it temporarily stopped sending relevant data to the F.B.I., the state did not report any woman winning a justifiable-homicide ruling. In 2019, one did: Jewel Battle, from Huntsville, who had stabbed her male roommate after he choked her during a fight. But that was an exception. The same year, another Alabama woman, Linda Doyle, shot and killed her husband, who her lawyer said had sexually abused her for years. Doyle was found to have stab wounds on her abdomen and inside her vagina; prosecutors argued that she had inflicted these on herself. She was sentenced to ninety-nine years.
Brittany comes out somewhere in between Battle and Doyle. When Flock first wrote about her—for this magazine, in 2020—she had not yet had her Stand Your Ground hearing. When she does, things don’t go well. Brittany’s memory is questioned, and so is her truthfulness. A physical examination after her assault showed that her body was covered in bruises and abrasions, but no semen was found at the crime scene, so the prosecution casts doubt on the rape. Flock lets you know what she thinks about the people whose job it is to poke holes in Brittany’s credibility. (One of them, an investigator brought in as a witness for the prosecution, is described as having “a weasel-like face.”) Brittany is unsuccessful in the hearing; the judge, a woman, writes a nineteen-page ruling explaining that she had failed to prove that she acted in self-defense. Eventually, rather than go to trial, Brittany pleads guilty to murder. She receives a twenty-year sentence, but is released after seven months, plus time served.
It is enraging to read about the legal gantlet that Brittany endures because she tried to protect herself from sadistic abuse. But an interesting thing happens as Flock continues to follow her. At first, Brittany seems heroic, not so much for shooting her assailant as for facing down a court system set against her. As her ordeal drags on, though, Brittany runs into problems. Like many of her neighbors in Jackson County, she had once been addicted to meth—she lost custody of her kids, and was trying to regain it when she met Todd—and eventually she relapses. Also, she meets a new man, Michael, who seems nice but, she says, can turn aggressive when drunk. One day, in his trailer, he pours a beer over Brittany’s head. When he is gone, she lights his mattresses on fire, and is jailed for arson. “Brittany had never been a perfect victim for trial,” Flock writes, citing the work of Nils Christie, the Norwegian criminologist who came up with the idea of the “ideal victim”—someone who, as Flock puts it, is “weak, doing something respectable, in a place they couldn’t be blamed for being, and hurt by a big and bad, unknown offender.” She turns out not to be an ideal avenger of injustice, either. Some of her supporters feel let down when she accepts the plea deal; her mother is heartbroken. The warrior was a mere woman, after all.
That tension, the real versus the ideal, crops up again and again in Flock’s project. “Neither saints, nor whores, only women,” her book’s epigraph reads, but her attachment to the mythic is hard to shake. Cicek, the Kurdish fighter, is the character who comes closest to embodying the figure of a Fury. Look at her go, blowing the heads off ISIS militants with her Kalashnikov! You see why Flock wanted to include her. Here was a woman who feared that she would be married off in her teens and instead got to act as a liberator of her people, doing battle with a murderous, misogynist foe. But the thing that makes her such a good soldier in the field—her single-mindedness—also makes her a bit boring on the page. Flock gets pulpy when she describes Cicek imagining “Turkish mercenaries invading her village, boots stomping into her parents’ home, and her sisters violated by faceless men in uniform.” Even Cicek admits that her “kills” begin to blur together in her mind. There is a deep compassion in Flock’s account, but here and there you see her wrestle with her journalistic skepticism, wondering whether her subject is quite who she wishes to be.
The trickiest, and most intriguing, character in this regard is Angoori Dahariya. Her trajectory is even more astonishing than Cicek’s. No recruiting militia passed through her village; her transformation from obedient housewife to swaggering gang leader was accomplished by sheer force of will. Angoori did have a model, though: Phoolan Devi, India’s so-called Bandit Queen. Devi, born the same year as Angoori, and in the same state, Uttar Pradesh, was a low-caste woman who was married off as a child. She escaped from her husband and was kidnapped by a group of bandits, then became a bandit herself, earning a reputation as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. She was also known for exacting vigilante justice on men who had harmed women. In one notorious incident, her gang was accused of massacring some twenty men in a village where she said she had been raped. Exploits like these made her a national legend. She died the death of a legend, too. After spending eleven years in prison, she was cleared of all charges, elected to parliament, and then assassinated in 2001.
Experts have ranked India among the world’s most dangerous countries for women; it’s no wonder that people might prefer a larger-than-life protectress to indifferent or corrupt authorities. The same is true in other places where gendered violence tends to go unpunished. In the early twenty-tens, after two bus drivers in Mexico were shot dead at point-blank range, a woman calling herself Diana, Huntress of Bus Drivers claimed responsibility, declaring that she had avenged the rapes of female passengers. This is the sort of grand persona that Angoori aspires to. At first, Flock writes, “her goal was simple: to prevent injustices like the one she’d faced.” When a junior engineer at Tirwa’s electricity department is believed to be defrauding locals, Angoori directs her gang to cane him and then to humiliate him by dressing him in women’s clothes; he is reassigned to another district, and the town’s bills go down. As she tastes power, though, her motives and methods become less pure. Angoori coerces one fearful mother into reporting her daughter’s rape by kidnapping the woman and promising a pension that Angoori is in no position to provide; she sets a police station on fire. She gets involved with politics, and people start to mutter that she is corrupt. “Her self-mythologizing was part of her success,” Flock writes. When she meets with Angoori, she is struck by the way Angoori’s followers laugh and cry when she does, amplifying the performance. “Angoori is like God, mother, and father,” one of them says.