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Stand by your man: complicity & collusion in The Follower

In research on abductions for my first book, The Never List, I noticed a disturbing pattern of supportive wives standing by their men and helping them carry out their horrendous acts. For The Follower, I wanted to explore this phenomenon to get at its psychological core. From Michelle Martine, the wife of Belgian serial killer Marc Dutroux, to Wanda Barzee, the wife of Elizabeth Smart’s abductor, to Nancy Garrido, the wife of the man who held Jaycee Lee Dugard captive for eighteen years, it often seemed that these men couldn’t carry out their abominations without their wives. But why would these women do it? Were they merely abused victims themselves, or were they just as guilty as their husbands?

To find out, I read the true stories of these women found in newspaper accounts, the memoirs of their victims, and, even more telling, their own court testimony. I was stunned by how they were willing to accept the most outrageous situations and buy into the elaborate, twisted fantasies of their husbands. Particularly disturbing was the fact that victims were often left alone with the wives, who dutifully followed their husbands’ orders, becoming both jailer and caretaker for the abducted girls.

To understand the nature of this complicity, I studied the psychological literature on the wives of serial killers, pedophiles, and abductors, as well as that of domestic violence victims who refuse to testify against their abusers. In situations with third party victims, the wives experience enormous anxiety even as they try to use denial and rationalization to ignore their own suspicions. Those women also try to isolate themselves socially, as if they fear that they won’t be able to keep their horrible secrets to themselves if they make friends. Similar strategies come into play when the violence is directed at the wives themselves. When domestic violence victims refuse to testify against their husbands, they often show what experts describe as “counterintuitive victim behavior,” demonstrating a perverse and profound loyalty to their abusers as a result of the shame and feelings of responsibility they feel. Thus, complicity becomes a coping mechanism. A very dangerous one.

In The Follower, Cora is one of these women. Her troubled past has made her vulnerable to the charismatic, but failed cult leader, James. She falls for him and the magical world of lies he spins for her, even as he rains violence down upon her. When he leads her down an ever-darker path culminating in the abduction of a college student, Cora must double down on her denial and embrace the crime as part of their spiritual mission or risk losing everything she has. Under the surface though, something else is brewing. In the course of confronting her true feelings and her own damaging past, Cora is pushed to the edge of her darkest impulses. Where anything can happen.

Koethi Zan

Koethi Zan was born and raised in rural Alabama. She attended Yale Law School and currently lives in an old farmhouse in upstate New York. Her first novel The Never List was a bestseller and a Richard and Judy Book Club pick.

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